New York was something of a letdown for Natasha Khan. The British musician spent some time there while she was writing the latest Bat for Lashes album, Two Suns.
Perhaps naively, Khan set out for the city that never sleeps expecting the streets to be crawling with the type of beautiful-but-doomed subterraneans—drag queens, sideshow freaks, and assorted nuts—that she’d seen in Andy Warhol movies and Diane Arbus photographs. Not finding the kind of people she hoped to meet, the resourceful Khan decided to invent one, naming her Pearl.
“I imagined there’d be all these artists walking around, and characters, and basically it didn’t quite turn out that way,” says Khan, interviewed by telephone en route to a Bat for Lashes show in Atlanta, Georgia. “I think Pearl was my way to deal with the disappointment of New York not being what I thought it was going to be. And so she was kind of like an art project I created, by putting on a blond wig and changing my face with makeup and dressing up and taking pictures quite privately in Brooklyn at night-time.”
Pearl, then, is something of a femme fatale, wandering the streets of Williamsburg after dark and perhaps indulging in the sort of behaviour that, 40 years ago, might have found her immortalized on a Velvet Underground B-side. “She represents a night-time, underground, quite dark and debauched side of me,” Khan confirms.
Pearl pops up several times on Two Suns, most notably in “Siren Song”, where she describes herself as “evil”, and in “Pearl’s Dream”. In the video for that ethereally melodic, synth-driven number, the raven-tressed Khan confronts, and seemingly defeats, her platinum-bobbed opposite.
In the just-as-striking video for “Daniel”, the singer drives through a charred arboreal landscape, pursued by mysterious figures in black, before winding up safely in the arms of her heroic love. Khan says the song, with its imagery of woods and hearts equally aflame, is a reminiscence of her first sweetheart, but she’s not naming names. The title comes instead from Daniel LaRusso, the teenaged protagonist of that quintessential ’80s movie The Karate Kid. “I wanted to give the song a boy’s name, but I didn’t want to make it too personal, obviously,” she says. “As a young girl I was in love with Ralph Macchio from The Karate Kid. He was my teenage crush. So I just decided to call it ”˜Daniel’ after him, because he kind of is a bit of a metaphor for the whole thing. He symbolizes that kind of boy.”
The song’s driving beat, its chord progression, and the general dark-and-spooky-woods aura will remind listeners who know their ’80s alt-pop of “A Forest”, a tune by the Cure that Bat for Lashes recorded and savvily released as the B-side to the vinyl single of “Daniel”. There are thematic similarities, too, in that each song concerns itself with the unattainable. In Khan’s case it’s a past love that can never be recaptured, and in the Cure’s case it’s a girl who “was never there”, leaving the narrator “running towards nothing”.
“At the time I wrote ”˜Daniel’, I was also trying to work on the cover of ”˜A Forest’, because we were doing it for this charity record [Perfect as Cats],” Khan says. “I don’t know if it’s the key, or something, like, in the bass line that is similar. It wasn’t until after I looked at both of them that I was like, ”˜Oh shit, yeah, there’s a similarity.’ ”
Whether she’s inventing alternate personalities for herself or invoking familiar film characters, Khan is adept at weaving fact and fiction together in her songwriting. She says that, while certain of her lyrics can be taken at face value, she sees advantages in sometimes couching things in metaphor.
“I don’t really see much difference, except that I suppose when I do the really straightforward songs, they do feel more vulnerable and a little bit more edgy for me to perform and sing,” she notes. “And sometimes it is easier to tell stories or kind of describe tough emotions through the use of a narrative. But that doesn’t make the narrative any less poignant or true.”
If this approach leaves much for listeners to fill in for themselves, then so be it. “I think that’s the beauty of it, that people have their own space within which to connect their own feelings and experiences,” Khan says. “That’s why music’s such a great communicator, I suppose.”
Bat for Lashes performs at Venue on Tuesday (August 25).