the gentlewoman

Natasha

Natasha
Khan

The singer Natasha Khan can’t help downplaying her achievements as Bat for Lashes, her theatrical stage persona. When she picked up the Ivor Novello Award for best contemporary song in 2010, she told an audience of industry worthies she’d composed her bestseller “Daniel” in her pyjamas in bed. But now, with the launch of her Mercury Prize-nominated album The Bride and her record deal completed, the 36-year-old is swapping the recording studio for the artist’s studio to sketch out the central character for her next extravaganza. Her name might even be Natasha Khan.

Text by Sheryl Garratt
Portraits by Paul Wetherell

Natasha Khan tends to work in short, intense bursts, starting each day with meditation, yoga and then a long walk to get ideas flowing. She sticks out her bare feet for my inspection. “I’ve got really funny tan lines from my sandals because I walk so much. Walking gets me thinking and processing stuff.”

We’re sitting on the big velvet sofa in the cosy living room of her apartment near east London’s grandest green space, Victoria Park. The room is dominated by huge windows, her piano, her books and – during my visit – a bed sheet hung up to dry over the door. (The fact that she didn’t feel the need to tidy this away before I arrived endears her to me immediately.) She is funny, inspiring and bubbling with ideas. She laughs a lot, mostly at herself.

Natasha is talking about her tendency to express a story in whatever way inspires her at that moment: film, photography, painting, drawing, writing or, of course, music, the medium in which she is best known, under the name Bat for Lashes. Though she records and performs live with a variety of musicians, the band name is deceptive – the music is, and always has been, all about Natasha, her songs and her swooping soprano vocals. She is a genre-defying artist whose singular sound Pitchfork has described as reminiscent of “1980s luminaries like Kate Bush and the Cure, gleaming with autoharp, Abbey Road-recorded strings, and a continuing exploration of electronics”, and “spacious, boldly orchestrated and emotionally rich.” Her work has had an impact far beyond the sales figures, with Mercury Prize nominations for her first two albums, Fur and Gold and Two Suns, Brit Award nominations in 2010 and 2013, and an Ivor Novello Award in 2010 for her mystical bestselling single, “Daniel” – and an intensely loyal fan base.

It’s a few weeks after the release of The Bride, her fourth album, an atmospheric, disquieting sequence of songs that often sounds like the soundtrack to a lost David Lynch masterpiece made sometime between Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Three weeks later, it will go on to be shortlisted for best album in this year’s Mercury Prize, one of the UK’s most prestigious music awards, previously won by artists such as Antony and the Johnsons, the xx and PJ Harvey.

Natasha recorded the central part of The Bride over a six-week session during November and December 2015 in Woodstock, in upstate New York, a place with a musical heritage that stretches way beyond the famous festival. “Jimi Hendrix’s house is there, and we saw Van Morrison’s house. David Bowie was still alive at the time I recorded the album and was up the road, dying probably, in his house on the mountain.”

She chose the location because of this history, but also because of the landscape. “It’s perfect, with Twin Peaks windy roads and pine forests, fog and the blue Catskill mountains, and old wooden houses with porches and swing chairs.” Simone Felice, of nu-folk outfit the Felice Brothers, helped her find an isolated house in the woods; then he took out the furniture and installed a mixing desk, a vibraphone, a piano and a drum kit.

“We had a big roaring fire with all the beautiful wood we collected that smelled like pine resin, and there were deer in the woodland around the house,” Natasha says. “And people just came up the mountain and performed. We created this sacred-feeling space, and we were living and eating and breathing it. We’d have dinner together, and we’d make music and talk, and then we’d do yoga in the morning. It was a bit of an idyllic existence.”

There was also tequila in the evenings – specifically, George Clooney’s Casamigos brand, which, Natasha says with a smile, is actually the best-tasting tequila she’s ever had. “It’s so smooth and delicious, and you get this really lovely feeling. It’s quite pure and organic, so we’d have some of that, put on James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and dance around singing. It’s good to let off steam because doing an album, you’re definitely in it for the long haul,” she says.

If this sounds indulgent, unserious, Simone Felice says it was quite the opposite, and that co-producing alongside Natasha was a revelation. “For me it was just a joy to be there together, up in the woods. All the elements, from waking up as the sun came up to yoga to meditation, a walk along the creek, to the evening, drinking a little tequila and listening to Peter Gabriel – it all led up to this two or three hours of recording.

“Natasha burns really brightly and strongly. A lot of artists want to work, say, from noon to nine in the evening, but with her it was more about all of the rituals that would lead up to these really powerful, special moments of incandescent brightness and creativity. That’s something that’s unique to Natasha, in my experience.” Natasha describes it as a gradual layering process. “So over a year you might have four or five different recording sessions, and it builds up,” she says. “That feels manageable to me. Trying to do it all in six weeks would overwhelm me.”

The Bride tells the story of a woman left at the altar after her beloved dies in a car crash on the way to the wedding. Leaving the church alone in the honeymoon car, she embarks on a journey through grief, anger and despair before emerging into a fragile but hopeful place where she has come to know and love herself more and is open to the possibility of loving again.

In part, the idea for the album came out of a conversation she’d been having with the photographer Neil Krug, whom she’d met on a photo shoot in LA’s Laurel Canyon in the spring of 2013. They kept in touch via Viber, sending each other imagery they loved. “He was sending pictures of women in habits, like nuns, and Islamic women in veils. Then he sent me this one particular image of a woman in a veil, and the story of The Bride started to conjure itself in my mind.” Whenever she happened to be in LA, they would meet and drive out to remote places to do test shots for The Bride, Natasha playing with ideas for her character.

Natasha always inhabits the central persona of an album completely, examining the character from every angle. She sets about each project with a period of research, followed by playful investigation and experimentation. Before writing Two Suns, in 2009, she spent time wandering round Brooklyn dressed in a blond wig as a more conventionally glamorous alter ego named Pearl. For The Haunted Man in 2012, she researched her family history and discovered how her English grandfather had returned from the Second World War emotionally stunted.

In the run up to The Bride’s launch, she wrote and directed a short film about a bride’s wedding-day jitters, I Do, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April as part of the portfolio film Madly. She’s also writing a novella about the bride’s journey, which she’s hoping to turn into a screenplay for a full-length film. To launch the album, she staged theatrical shows in churches, asking audiences to come dressed for a wedding and walking up the aisle in a scarlet dress and black veil to perform.

Bats have highly developed sonar capabilities, emitting from their mouths or noses a continuous series of supersonic sounds (30–60 squeaks per second) ranging from 20 hertz to 100 kilohertz in frequency. Humans can hear from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. The orange cable-knit jumper Natasha wears here is by DIOR. The rings are her own.

Natasha was born in Wembley, north-west London, in 1979. Her father, Rahmat Khan, moved to London from Pashtun, northern Pakistan, in the early 1970s. He was a professional squash player before becoming one of the sport’s most successful coaches – most notably with his cousin Jahangir Khan, considered the greatest player ever. Natasha’s parents separated when she was 11 (she once said this was what inspired her to start writing songs to express her feelings). Her mother, Josie, now lives in Belgium, her father in San Francisco. She visits her mother often; her father, not so much. “We’re in touch, but I haven’t actually seen him physically for quite a long time. I think it’s the nature of our relationship.”

Natasha grew up in the leafy commuter town of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. She describes herself as a dreamy, creative child, obsessed with looking at nature through microscopes and magnifying glasses, and growing crystal gardens. “My mum would buy me these tiny pencils, and I’d write letters the size of my fingernail to fairies, then I’d roll them up and put them in the tubes of flowers.”

At school she wanted to become a painter, and after taking some time out to travel to Mexico, San Francisco and New York, she did a degree in music and visual art at the University of Brighton, graduating in 2003. “It was quite punk and experimental,” she says. “And because I started a bit later, I didn’t go home early, or get pissed and not bother to get up. I soaked it up like a sponge.” The faculty of arts often combined disciplines, with students from different courses mixing art with theatre and dance, so Natasha would move from doing breathing exercises with a dance teacher to learning about production techniques and synthesiser circuitry, playing with old German animation cameras, or putting on the avant-garde performances in Brighton clubs that led eventually – after a stint as a nursery school teacher – to her finding a manager, and then a record deal, which led to the release of her critically acclaimed first album, Fur and Gold, in 2006.

Art school left her with an eclectic, multidisciplinary attitude she’s kept ever since. When you’re signed to a major label, she says, the album cycle can feel like being trapped on a hamster wheel. The artist is given blocks of time in which to write a new album with a requisite number of radio-friendly singles, record it, promote it, then tour it, with maybe a short break until it’s time to start the whole process again.

“It’s not intuitive at all,” Natasha says. “Being a musician is such a transient and extreme way of living, and I’ve often felt a bit buffeted around by the mainstream recording industry’s idea of the parameters creativity should fit within. I need to approach things from different angles and not get swept up in that one-size-fits-all promotional campaign.” Inevitably, this has led to clashes with her label, Parlophone. She talked openly about this after her third album, The Haunted Man: during its production, the label kept sending her back to write stronger singles before finally allowing her to realise her vision of a complete conceptual musical journey examining men, the feelings they suppress, and the effect on the women who try to love and support them. The Bride is more radical in form again, more like the soundtrack to an unmade film than a conventional pop album, and Natasha admits that even she is unsure how to describe it.

But her deal with Parlophone is over. “It ended last week. It was a four-album deal. I’ve completed it,” Natasha says cheerfully. Right now she says she doesn’t know what will come next – or where music will fit in. There is a beautiful track on the new album called “Widow’s Peak” that she says could point to a new direction musically. “It’s a spoken-word piece in the vein of Patti Smith and Nick Cave. I look at their lives and there’s a big resonance: it’s about developing your craft, and music to me is so much more than writing songs and making 11-track albums.”

She’s given herself until the end of the year to not think about music, she says. Having come out of a “big machine”, she feels she needs to let things settle down. “Then I’ll have a much better idea of how I want to do it in the future – and if I want to.” Her previous survival strategy has been to take a couple of years out between albums, taking courses in everything from dance to short-story writing, life drawing to illustration. “I went to this Scottish island called Càrna a few years ago to do a botanical and animal drawing course, on the island with no electricity.” She doesn’t lead a particularly extravagant lifestyle and says she has enough money to manage “for a little while” without too much worry.

“I’ve taken this crazy journey through four or five albums. Now I’m craving to be part of something less terrifying. Because I’ve been warrior woman for ages.”

Natasha has been looking at the lives and work of painters, such as Hilma af Klint, one of the first abstract artists, and the abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, and she has been experimenting with oil paints in a studio she shared until recently with a neighbour in east London. This autumn, she will take a course in Japanese colour woodblock printing in the city before doing a residency in a shared artists’ studio in Margate, on the east Kent coast. She reaches for a book propped up on top of the piano to show me the work of the American woodblock-print artist William S Rice as an indication of the area she now wants to explore.

“I really feel like making large-scale pieces of art, combining painting and printing,” she says. “I would like for it to culminate in a show – just something small, but it’s good to have something to work towards.” She talks about creating a flexible, collaborative space – part recording studio, part art studio – along the lines of Charles and Ray Eames’s studio or Andy Warhol’s Factory. “I feel there’s a need for community at the moment.” After her solo adventures in music, she says, she wants to be around other artists.

Whatever medium she happens to be working in, collaboration has always been key. She has made tracks with Beck, most recently “Under the Indigo Moon”, the soundtrack to her first short as a director: a promotional film for a capsule collection she designed with the London fashion label YMC in 2014. She also contributed to Damon Albarn’s 2014 solo album, Everyday Robots, and in 2015 made a whole album, Sexwitch, with the band Toy and the producer Dan Carey. It all happens with a kind of synchronicity, she says. Take her new project with Neil Krug, for instance. In the past few years they had each started taking double-exposure Polaroids of the flowers and landscapes of southern California. The project has culminated in a book, The Dreams, which they soon plan to publish. “It’s a strange document of our relationship over two years – a surrealist, mystical document of nature, and me and nature,” Natasha says.

Krug, in a phone call a few days later, says their affinity is down to like-minded geekery. “If you get on with someone creatively, you just want to collaborate,” he told me. “Natasha is so decisive about what she wants to do. There’s always a clear vision, and you’re chasing that vision, trying to get it down on paper or film or whatever the medium is.”

When I say to Natasha it’s unusual to just wander down a creative path to see what happens without any real prospect of getting paid for the work, she’s bemused. “Art is not a commodity,” she says. “I take it as like a spiritual practice, really, and I feel a responsibility to explore and do it right. I’ve taken this crazy journey through four or five albums, which has felt like a solitary passage at the prow of a ship, pioneering my way through. Now I’m craving to be part of something a bit less terrifying and just a little bit more manageable, softer. Because I’ve just been warrior woman for ages.”

Natasha was photographed at Premises Studios in east London on 22 July 2016. Here and on page 218, she wears a red frilled wool top by GUCCI with a vintage T-shirt underneath, and black wool trousers by MARGARET HOWELL. All jewellery is Natasha’s own.
Styling: Laura Vartiainen. Make-up: Niamh Quinn at LGA Management. Photographic assistance: Sam Wilson. Styling assistance: Youngjin Kim.

Towards the end of our time together, Natasha shows me her compact, lush garden, where she likes to sit and read, and the snug, book-filled study overlooking it, where she wrote most of the songs for The Bride. A jumble of artist’s pads and family photographs sits on a little table, and she shows me some of her powerful pencil drawings of female nudes and her rather beautiful painting of a landscape in California’s Yosemite National Park, almost Japanese in style.
 We talk about what place love, and possibly children, have in her life. She’s in a relationship at the moment. “It’s a sort of work in progress,” she says. “As is everything. It’s never the men that are the problem. It’s my wild spirit, I think, that’s just slowly taming itself and being a bit more up for relationships. My issue is that I always think there’s something better!”

Natasha has often talked about her desire for children, but she now has more mixed feelings, she says. “I’ll be 37 in October, so I’ve definitely had my broody, hormonal madness. But I’m just going with the flow at the moment. I’m just letting my life tell me what it wants. And if it doesn’t happen, that will be all right as well.”

This is a more assured Natasha Khan. She was in her early 20s when she started Bat for Lashes, and still finding her way as an artist. “It was a name that I could hide under, an umbrella, something that would be my musical persona. And I liked the mystery of it, that you couldn’t say it was one person necessarily. I didn’t feel brave enough initially to say that it was me. I wasn’t ready. But now when I’m painting and making films, it’s Natasha Khan.” She smiles. “I feel slightly anxious because I’m sort of free-floating now, not really connected to anything or anyone, and I’ve got all this choice. But if you’re patient, things do come. That’s what I feel right now. That I’m responsible for myself.”