Page last updated at 08:07 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 09:07 UK

The pop mystique of Bat For Lashes

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Bat For Lashes - Daniel

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

It wouldn't come as a big surprise if Bat For Lashes' Natasha Khan lived in an enchanted forest.

The Mercury-nominated songstress dresses like a shamanic priestess and sings of "crystal towers" and "planets dancing"; while her stage sets, littered with sparkling gold trees, have been labelled "sylvan bling".

And the unlikely inspiration for all of this? None other than TV presenter and naturalist David Attenborough.

Bat For Lashes
Khan studied art and music at Brighton University

"I absolutely love David Attenborough! I think he is like a prophet of our times," enthuses the 29-year-old Brightonian.

"It's almost a religious, spiritual experience watching his programmes, because we're so disconnected from nature.

"How dumb are we that we live in concrete? I find it amazing."

It's an old message - "they pave paradise and put up a parking lot" - but Khan has a slightly different take.

On her new album, Two Suns, the delicate melodies are pitched into a bare knuckle fight against what she calls "big, pounding, Joan of Arc, tribal warrior woman drums".

It's a "call to arms," Khan explains. "Almost like pushing nature's forces into people's ears to make them feel that kind of visceral, physical element of being alive.

"It's like, 'Come on! Feel something in your body!'"

The tactic certainly worked last summer, when Khan supported Radiohead on their European tour.

The group's normally sedate audience rose to their feet en masse as Khan's colourful coterie of musicians pounded maracas onto huge bass drums.

However, as Khan admits now, the gig was something of a gamble.

"I'm really a fan of playing in the dark and creating an atmosphere," she explains. "So going out when it's still light and it's not your audience and it's cold... it was a big challenge.

"But I think the majority of the shows were really enjoyable - and Thom Yorke having said he was a fan really worked in our favour, because people listened and paid attention."

Pop fright

It helps that Khan's ambitions chime perfectly with those of Radiohead - both strive to create music that is at once innovative and commercially accessible.

Although it turns out that Khan is not the best judge of her own material.

I loved Kurt Cobain and I thought I was going to marry him
Natasha Khan

Daniel, the album's lead single, is a spooky, Stevie Nicks-inspired love song filtered through the dusty circuits of a vintage synth.

It is a million miles away from the froth served up by Katy Perry or Lady GaGa - but Khan was "frightened it sounded so mainstream that people would think it was a sell-out".

"I thought," she confesses, "that I was writing the sort of song that, as a teenage girl, I would have sung into my hairbrush in the mirror.

"But people around me are saying it's amazing that it's being played on the radio because it' so dark.

"Since when did darkness become something that isn't acceptable? It's part of our everyday experience. Sadness is a part of life."

Bat For Lashes
Two Suns is Bat For Lashes' first major-label album

Radio isn't the only part of the media that's irritating Khan today, though, having just flicked through a copy of Q magazine to find a feature on Kurt Cobain's suicide.

"I'm a massive Nirvana fan. I loved Kurt Cobain and I thought I was going to marry him," she says. "But he died when I was 12 and it's still in every single issue of NME and Mojo."

Khan would rather see more coverage of "absolute geniuses" like Prince and Kate Bush - or even the 80s artists she's been listening to recently, The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil.

"There's this whole kind of middle-aged man fascination with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and it's like, 'come on, that was 50 years ago'".

"There are so many more artists in the archive who we could celebrate."

Alter-ego

The same music monthlies have "been very slow to catch on" to Bat For Lashes, she says, but "when they have done features, they've been really nice".

She bristles, however, when journalists suggest Two Suns is a "concept album" with Khan playing a blonde alter-ego called Pearl.

The character is "one tiny little element" of the record, she says; a femme fatale inspired by drag queens in New York and photographs by Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman.

Bat For Lashes
The singer was a nursery school teacher before launching her music career

"When I'm making a record, I have a sketchbook where you can see the development of the work, and the visuals and the lyrics, as I'm going along.

"I took Holga pictures of me looking extremely feminine in quite a garish, drag queen way, and I stuck them in my book to see how they informed the songs.

"I ask, 'what does Pearl do in this situation?' She takes loads of sleeping pills and goes out and gets drunk and gets sucked up and is quite disillusioned and gets quite spaced out."

If this makes Khan sound pretentious, don't be fooled.

As befits a former nursery school teacher, she's cheerily down-to-earth, with an infectious girly laugh and wide-eyed enthusiasm.

And those wide eyes have been the downfall of at least one reporter in the past, producing the memorable headline: "Natasha Khan Talks New Album While I Try To Work Up The Courage To Propose To Her."

"Oh my God!" she giggles, when I show her the article. "I am completely unware of that kind of stuff!

"Bless him. He was probably extremely nervous and I just thought he needed the loo!"

Two Suns is out now on Parlophone.



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