By Kelly Dearmore
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Natasha Khan creates illusions to help take her audience on a journey and, in part, as a way to dispel those images for herself. She's the wildly creative force behind Bat for Lashes, a moniker she created for herself as she made the transformation from art school student to celebrated performance artist.
"Bat for Lashes allows me to create some necessary distance between myself and that person whose songs I hear on the radio and who deals with the press and all that," she says.
And she has now embarked on her first major tour of America, the country whose cities, people and music served as the inspiration for her latest—and stateside breakout release—Two Suns.
The 29-year-old Khan, who has already gained wide recognition in her homeland of England where her Two Suns garnered the singer-songwriter her second nomination for the Mercury Prize (the honor given to the top album in the U.K. each year), first came to America as a 20-year-old, and it was after spending time in Los Angeles and San Francisco that she mapped out the career that she finds herself realizing today. She returned to England and enrolled in a three-year degree program in music and visual art.
The curriculum included visual arts coursework such as painting, photography and sculpting, combined with musical composition and recording studio craft. Recalls Khan: "In the course of getting my degree, I built up a portfolio that is well-represented on the first album," her 2006 release, Fur and Gold. "I could not immediately make a living as a musician, so I got a certification in child care, moved from London to Brighton and, to pay the bills, spent my days teaching art to young children or children with learning difficulties. Then I would go home at night and work on my music, adding to my portfolio of songs. And I made a pact with myself that I would perform at least once a month."
After almost three years of this schedule, she met the man who would become her manager—and that served as the catalyst to go into the studio to record the first album. With the success of Fur and Gold (her first Mercury nomination), Khan followed her desire to move to New York to pursue romantic interests.
"My boyfriend at the time was living in Williamsburg, and I had been reading books like The Last Exit to Brooklyn and looking at the work of artists like Andy Warhol," she says. And, sure, while hanging out and listening to the music from friends in bands like Yeasayer and Gang Gang Dance helped Khan find the "influences for the beats and electronica-driven music that found its way onto Two Suns," sadness eventually overcame her as she recognized the serious gap between her expectation of life in New York and the reality of living in the city.
"I would escape to Joshua Tree [National Park] for relief from the city," she says, "and that is where the spiritual side of the album came from."
In Bat for Lashes performances, that spirituality comes heavily on the visual end; Khan, accompanied by a band of accomplished musicians (including Charlotte Hatherly of Ash and Sarah Jones of New Young Pony Club) dresses in body paint and feathers, and it's not atypical to see animal and religious figures adorning the stage. But, just as is the case on record, it's her strong, clear voice and well-crafted songs, that ultimately impress.
Which is precisely what New York City couldn't do for Khan. While stateside and observing herself and the lives around hers, she realized that chasing happiness through constant movement and activity was futile. So she returned, alone, to her hometown of Brighton, where she bought a flat overlooking the sea and now lives when not performing. And though she's returned to the U.S. for her current tour, and will no doubt return again in the future, it's unlikely that she'll ever do so again permanently.
"Collectively," she says, "I had formed quite a romanticized vision of what living in New York would be like."