Bat For Lashes
Photo by Logan White
Exploring Bat For Lashes' Cinema Of The Mind
Natasha Khan likes to shake things up from time to time. That's why, in 2017, she made the move from London to the sunnier environs of Los Angeles. But loving the City of Angels from afar and living there proved to be two different things, and the singer/composer became swept up by both its beautiful elements (sunny skies, desert landscapes, the Mexican culture of her new 'hood) and its darker side (homelessness and politics). After a month in SoCal, she began to savor the distinct differences between the West Coast and Europe even as she grappled with L.A.'s dichotomies.
Khan was also feeling romantic: she had fallen in love, acquired a dog, and felt liberated after ending her four-album tenure with Parlophone/EMI, a contract that she sounds happy to have left. “I was just living this lovely life having been free,” she recalls. “I just felt like this whole new cycle began. I wanted the [new] album to have that liberated love theme in it as well.”
When she initially moved West, Khan had not planned to continue with music as her alter ego Bat For Lashes, instead focusing on possible screenwriting and film scoring projects. (She has directed short films before.) She met with various production companies, and one of her ideas centered on the female vampire tale Lost Girls about a teen girl named Nikki Pink who falls in love and is on the run from a vampire girl gang. This dramatic story, inspired by her love for '80s teen fantasy movies like E.T. and The Goonies, launched a musical journey with producer/writer Charles Scott IV after they originally recorded the album's opening track, “Kids In The Dark,” for the Stephen King series Castle Rock on Hulu. The duo ended up collaborating for a year and a half on her fifth and latest album, Lost Girls (AWAL Recordings), which has a deliciously retro sonic flavor.
"I've always used Junos and Prophets and all those old '80 synths,” says Khan. "I was trying to make this '80s but in that cinematic, atmospheric way, and combine it with the more gothic Bat For Lashes sound." The combination clicks. Lost Girls lovingly invokes the '80s in many ways, including the lush synth and thick drum sounds throughout, the sultry saxophone and Cure-like guitar on the instrumental "Vampires," even the backwards vocals on "Peach Sky."
"To me, the backwards vocals sound like the Japanese hologram from the new Blade Runner," offers Khan. "Other people have said it's like David Lynch and the Red Room [in Twin Peaks] with the dwarf talking backwards. Everyone's got their own interpretation. But I think sonically I've been a bit braver and a bit less worried about using things that are well-known references. I always shied away from that. But then I thought about rock bands or just any kind of bands that have used a guitar a billion times or a phase pedal a billion times. I love saxophone solos. And why not? I just wanted to have a bit more fun and not care so much because all those references hold places in my cell memory. When I hear them, they give me goosebumps or make me feel nostalgic."
Her album title may sound like a reference to the iconic '80s teen vampire movie Lost Boys, and Khan admits that her wordplay was a bit tongue-in-cheek. Her story has different themes, but she does not mind if people make the link between the two titles.
In her tale, the female Lost Girls group are “vampiric, mystical beings" who are "not as mean as the Lost Boys," she stresses. "They're a bit more positive. In the story, the main heroine reconnects with them and realizes that they all hold certain aspects of her psyche. They're all the shadow side to the light side, they are parts of herself. When they take her away to the desert, she gets inducted back into the cult of herself. It's a bit more of an esoteric story line than just bloodsucking and sex. I like to dress it up in the more sexy, neon colored, peachy sunset '80s vibe because I think that look is so romantic and all encompassing. But then the message I'm trying to get at is actually deeper and quite psychological."
The previous Bat For Lashes album The Bride—about a newly widowed bride who learns self-acceptance and self-love in the wake of tragedy—was definitely a darker ride. Lost Girls has a more positive vibe even as it paints some eerie pictures and grapples with relationship issues, such as on the song "So Good," which exemplifies a vampire metaphor that also applies to young love and searching for what one wants out of a relationship. "I think that song especially is about the power dynamic," notes Khan. "And that kind of idea of who's got the control, who's got the power in the relationship, and being hunted and being the hunter. That theme does link through. I think that song is the most simplified, pop version of that feeling."
"Feel For You" is lighter on lyrics and heavier on musical euphoria, and with its percolating percussion summons a vibe akin to Quincy Jones, Chic and Chaka Khan. "As a family, we'd play that music in the kitchen and dance around after dinner," she recalls of her teen years. "I wanted [this song] to sound like the Lost Girls theme, so in the movie version in my brain, when they ride their bikes down the mountain and are introduced, this is playing in the background. It is so fun. Like when you see the Goonies all get on their bikes and drive down the road. I just wanted to capture that sense of innocence and the cool girls. I'm not trying to say anything deep, it's just more visceral and physical."
Speaking of going back to the '80s, Khan appreciates the L.A. group Drab Majesty (who remind her of The Cure) and also the modern synthwave movement, which revisits that decade's synthpop and electro with modern touches. "I love FM-84," she says. “I've actually put three or four songs on this playlist that we made recently. And Com Truise, even though he's cleaner and slicker. Do you know Boy Harsher? I think you should hear a song called 'LA'. It's really sexy and fun, especially if you drive around at night.” (Interestingly enough, her producer's solid soundtrack to the movie Sleight feels synthwave-inspired.)
Some Middle Eastern sounding synth strings emerge on the new album as well. Khan's father, who is Pakistani, played her a lot of Middle Eastern music with harmonium and drones when she was growing up. These synth sounds were inspired by the "weird, beautiful version of pop [music]" from Iran and by the recent Iranian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. "I think they shot in parts of it in downtown L.A., which is very interesting because when I went to Pakistan a lot of parts looked similar," says Khan. "It reminded me a lot of being in parts of Karachi, which is very weird."
Although she would love to consider a multimedia component on her upcoming tour to tie into the Lost Girls film in her mind—she is refining the ever-evolving script for what she hopes will turn into a real movie as she still wants to dive into filmmaking—Khan's concerts likely will be "stripped down to me with my band mate Laura where we'll play synth and there will be a lot of vocals, done in a very intimate way." The costs of touring and making videos today is such that artists must work with limited means, but Khan relishes that challenge.
"I really like the idea of trying to make a very interesting show that's really minimal," she says. "I actually feel so much more in control and more creative. It really relates back to my art school education that was very DIY with homemade stuff." She does not mind having a smaller budget for tours and videos (she's directing her own lately). "I think it buys you freedom and less pressure from the people that hold the purse strings. I'm excited about the new technology and how fast and how easy it is. I think it's really good for creative people. You can get your hands on whatever you want and change the boundaries of what it used to be."
At a time when pop culture has often taken dark turns, Khan seeks to help people rise above that, to help them where they feel powerful, liberated, connected. "What gives you a sense of joy?" she muses. "Because that's really important too."
The singer also has a belief that it is very important to contribute to the country one is living in. So after moving to L.A., she did two things. "I taught meditation to prisoners that had come out of prison and were being rehabilitated into the workplace," explains Khan. "We did meditation twice a week which was incredible. They absolutely loved that."
She also worked at as an art teacher for 10 weeks at a continuation school for kids who had dropped out of high school. "We made dioramas about their lives and did drawing and meditation and sculpture," says Khan. "Like in England, they cut funds here so much on art, sports, creativity, music. There's not even recess in some schools. For me, that's one of the most pressing things. For me, creativity and art are the answer to every problem that a civilization might have, from being creative about problem solving and knowing yourself—and knowing what you will take and what you won't take—and connecting those aspects of yourself that are being hidden nowadays."
Listening to Khan speak about the importance of arts education mirrors her passion for her own art and why she is enjoying holding the reins now. She agrees with the notion that everybody should be creative in one way or another, even if they do not make money at it.
"It's so important," concurs Khan. "I was a nursery school teacher. I know that play is vital to your brain development and social development, and then creativity is vital to refine your mind and make you understand the human condition. If they go away from schools, then we're really f**ked. That's what I think."