Natasha Khan has spent a decade crafting a musical persona that defies easy categorisation. But in her private life, questions of identity and commitment have persisted. Now she's learned what what it takes to feel whole.
As Bat for Lashes, Natasha Khan has spent a decade crafting a musical persona that defies easy categorisation. But in her personal life, much of that time has been spent grappling with questions of identity and commitment. Making fourth album The Bride – an imaginary road-trip of self-discovery – taught her what it takes to feel whole.
Stepping into Natasha Khan’s East London home feels transformative. Outside, the morning sky is filled with low-hanging clouds, the heat oppressive in its humidity. Inside, save for the sound of Joni Mitchell’s Clouds wafting from a turntable in the study, a calming stillness permeates the air.
As Khan – the one-woman dream-pop vehicle better known as Bat for Lashes – does her make-up in the bathroom upstairs, I potter about and take in the details. There’s a frankincense and myrrh air-freshener; a lilac-coloured succulent; a hefty Dictionary of Symbols; a tall but slightly wonky lamp.
Stuck to Khan’s fridge is an old cardboard sleeve for the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas alongside magnets that spell out the words, ‘Friends feel good’. Something lying atop her DVD player catches my eye: Sex and the City, series six, disc three.
But it’s the films stacked on the shelf beneath her television – Wild at Heart, Eraserhead, Lost Highway and The Holy Mountain – that feel most pertinent to Khan’s latest work, The Bride. Her fourth LP is a cinematic love letter to the power of the open road, brimming with night-drive soundscapes.
Given that both the album and a short film she’s directed are about a husband-less bride, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Khan has some anxieties about commitment.
But as is evident from a career strewn with collaborations – including Beck, Jon Hopkins and Damon Albarn as well as her Sexwitch project with Dan Carey of Toy – Khan isn’t entirely a lone wolf.
Still, solitude seems to be a thread running through her story. Khan’s father, Rehmat Khan – a former international squash player and now coach from Pakistan – left the family when she was 11.
Her adolescent years produced bouts of rebellion at school, where she felt like the weird kid who didn’t quite fit in.
At one point Khan was suspended for throwing a chair and swearing at a teacher. When she returned, her small group of friends were told to steer clear of her influence.
In person, Khan is warm and sisterly with a generous laugh, leaning in close to listen – the kind of person you might spill your troubles to without realising.
Over the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that independence – both in her life and art – is something she’s worked hard to cultivate over the 10 years since Bat for Lashes’ first album, Fur and Gold.
But now Khan is ready to relinquish that. She’s learning to acknowledge her desire for interdependence – and that it can bring as much inner peace as the solitude she’s always known.
The connotations of ‘bride’ are commitment, marriage, partnership. But of course the whole narrative of the album is that she’s by herself…
I thought the narrative construct was a nice way of exploring our sometimes really unrealistic or idealistic expectations of relationships. The thing about The Bride is that by the end she’s much closer than she ever was to that commitment.
I think there’s something about finding your own independent source of happiness within yourself before you can commit to being in an equal partnership with someone… I think it’s interesting that through her independence she finds a much more genuine form of love.
It’s interesting that you’ve created this character now. It speaks to a lot of anxieties that other women in their thirties might have about settling down.
I don’t think I’m frightened of commitment. It was more that I spent so much time being married to my work, and I just felt like it got to a point where I’m sort of annoyed that I’m not in the same place as a lot of my friends who haven’t been doing what I’ve been doing: touring all their lives and stuff. They’ve been at home.
I think some of that is a bit of, like, exploring why I haven’t gotten there yet. But maybe I’m closer than I think. It’s just that I needed to do my own little hero’s journey of committing to myself and realising that I can do all those things if I want to.
I’ve put to rest any ghosts of relationships past and come back around to a sense of who I am as an individual. I think you can feel like a bit of a victim if it’s not working out. Now I’m aware that it’s my choice to commit and to try that way of feeling.
But [before] I was too busy making stuff and prioritising my life and my job. It’s time to choose being well-rounded and balanced – to prioritise balance over extremism.
Do you feel protective over your independence?
I haven’t really had a problem in relationships with that because I’ve had boyfriends who are very creative as well, or they like their own independence. I’m not worried about devoting myself to a relationship.
I think it’s more whether I could actually manage to not do my own thing as much. It’s not that I want independence; it’s more that I can’t help but be independent.
What were you like as a kid?
My teachers used to say I was going to be Prime Minister because I was so bossy. I’ve always known my own mind; I always had lots of questions. I would tell all my friends what to do and organise them and we’d do performances. I think I always went out on my own and did my own thing.
When I was about eight or nine, I decided I was going to make my own skirt out of my mum’s pillowcase. I was really pleased with it and called for my best friend Lorraine. She was like, ‘Oh my God, why are you wearing a pillowcase?’ So obviously that mindset [suggests] I don’t really adhere to convention but I didn’t realise it at the time.
When I think about it now, I think it’s just being a creative child but I suppose maybe not all kids are like that.
You used to teach kids before becoming a musician, so you must’ve seen it there.
I think that can get beaten out of you as a kid: exploration and naivety and idealism.
What’s the most trouble you ever got into?
I was very troubled as a teenager. I always went out on my own and did my own thing. I used to go out clubbing all night and not come back until the early hours of the morning when I was like 14.
I was always running truant and bunking off school. I’d pretend to go to the station, then come back to my house and play the violin all day.
It sounds like you’ve always enjoyed spending time by yourself. Do you consider yourself an introvert?
I really love socialising and I love collaboration and I love company, but if I don’t get time to myself to rejuvenate… They say being introverted or extroverted is what feeds you and I definitely get my energy away [from people]. I’m a fan of meditation and I walk at least 45 minutes a day.
I live alone… I like quiet moments, punctuated with a lot of fun and nice friends. I don’t get that lonely anymore. When I was less evolved as a person, I’d feel sad if I was at home on my own too much. But now I just feel quite comfortable in my own skin. It’s not anxiety inducing.
In your study, there are lots of drawings of women in nature. What inspired you to draw those figures?
I just did it, I didn’t think about it. I’m attracted to drawing nudes. Being in LA, I’d also done a lot of drawings of aloe vera and big spiky plants and cactuses. Some of them have hands in them.
When I looked at them afterwards, I thought maybe they were drawings about anxiety, or like nightmares or feelings of isolation or being haunted by insecurities or worries – you know, mental anguish.
What is the thing that you worry about the most?
I worry that I’m going to leave it too late to have kids.
Is that something that’s important to you?
I never thought I’d be that woman. I never thought I’d feel that way, but it does just hit you. You think, ‘Oh yeah, I’d like to have kids by that point and I’m sure I will’ or whatever. But if you haven’t, then it’s visceral. It’s like a physical pain of yearning to nurture something. It’s quite shocking.
But in a lot of ways your music is your children.
Yeah, so I’ve had four kids! I’ve substituted that feeling in quite a positive way, but that’s partly what I mean about balance: making sure you remember that you have human needs that can’t be fulfilled by art.
It’s sort of like remembering not to be a Peter Pan-type character and coming around to that acknowledgement in time to do everything you want to do. That’s my worry: not acknowledging the human Natasha as opposed to the artist Natasha.
How have you maintained your independence as an artist signed to a major record label?
I have struggled with it more in the past, just because I think they always want a single; they always want you to have mainstream/commercial success. With this album, in the end they just gave me the money to go ahead and go off by myself. I went to Woodstock and picked the best of the bunch of my musicians to come and stay with me.
It almost sounds like you created your own artist’s residency.
Exactly, and I love that. All the principles of my house just travelled over to this beautiful wooden-porched, old-school cabin house on the top of a mountain in the Catskills! It was beautiful… I would listen to Beck’s album Morning Phase. I listened to James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac – all of that sun-soaked woody goodness, because it suited the place.
It was a nice kind of palate cleanser for my mind. I felt really independent and excited, just driving around on my own on the wrong side of the road. I noticed from being there how I’d slowed down and how I felt supported by the ecosystem around me. I felt smaller than these giant pine trees. I felt like I’d been put in my place.
We talked about the importance of balance earlier. Do you think there’s any kind of secret to it?
I think it takes a long time to work out what your priorities are and what makes you happy. Overworking can be a substitute for love, and you fall in love with your work.
I heard that really successful musicians who are obsessed with their art often have disrupted attachments to their parents – like the bonding attachment phase wasn’t completed well, so you go off into your own little world and you create an attachment with something you can control.
And you do that all the time because you get that same feeling you would when you’re with a parent.
Do you think that’s true of you and your life?
Mmm, definitely. I used music as a cathartic thing and as an escape… Not an escape, but somewhere to really find myself, and nurture myself, and love myself because maybe I didn’t feel that sometimes.
I think there’s a maturation needed as an artist to kind of come out of that co-dependent relationship with your art, and possibly with human relationships too. And when you come out of that co-dependency, it’s because your self-worth has risen – and your sense of who you are.
You don’t need that parental thing anymore. You can kind of parent yourself to the point where you feel comfortable being you, where you don’t need to quell your anxiety or to escape from the world.
When have you felt particularly co-dependent with your work?
Probably more at the beginning, with the first and second album especially. But it wasn’t co-dependency because I was really enjoying it and I was really young and it was fine.
Then I think around the third album, I realised it was time for me to give as much attention and love and care to my personal life and who I am as a woman… because I wasn’t a girl anymore. Art will always be my safe place to go, but I think it’s about trusting the world outside of your art to be safe as well.
You once described The Bride as ‘a hero’s journey of knowing that you have to love yourself before you love someone else’. How have you been able to embody that idea in your life?
I don’t think I’m completely there but I’m much closer than I ever have been. I think just being aware of it is a good step. I think it’s about filling your life with things that make you happy and the things that you miss when you’re not in a relationship, like cuddles and someone to talk to and affection and things like that.
We are communal creatures and I think it would be inhuman to be like, ‘I should be completely happy just totally on my own!’ – because I don’t think that’s true either.
I think it’s just about being self-nurturing enough to know that if you’re sad and you want a boyfriend, sitting at home and not doing anything or not eating properly and just getting drunk and feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to do you any good.
So maybe it’s about having a bath or making dinner with your girlfriends; doing work that you find really rewarding; really pushing your creativity and enjoying your life and setting goals for yourself.
I think that’s all useful, healthy stuff and makes you happier, so you can feel in a place to give something to somebody else. Conceptually, it all makes a lot of sense to all of us. But in practice, it takes a lifetime.
This article appears in Huck 56 – The Independence Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.
Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.