Natural wonder

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A glimpse inside the mystical world of British singer Bat for Lashes

Natasha Khan was a nursery school teacher until she broke big in the U.K. as art-pop outfit Bat for Lashes. ((Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images))

On a recent dark and stormy night, the stage of Toronto’s Mod Club looked like a speakeasy on the Island of Misfit Toys. Two sets of glowing eyes – one crowned by a fibre-optic halo – stared out at the crowd, a thrift-store Jesus and his kewpie henchwoman holding court amid a sea of twinkle lights. When singer Natasha Khan finally made her entrance, she looked like a little girl preparing to open the portal to Narnia.

In concert, as on record, Khan’s songs come off like modern-day fables – over great whorls of synthesizer, strings and primal drums, she spins otherworldly yarns about beloved bears and dream horses. While performing, she often wears ensembles that involve feathers, capes and crude smears of face-paint.

Khan, who releases music under the moniker Bat for Lashes, is one of the hottest acts in Britain right now. Her latest album, Two Suns, broke the top five on the British charts. Last year, she was up for two Brit Awards and she almost won the Mercury Music Prize for her 2007 debut, Fur and Gold.

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Before she started appearing on magazine covers, the 29-year-old Khan worked as a nursery school teacher in her home base of Brighton, England. She says that communing with preschoolers helped her reconnect with an inner child who had gone into hibernation.

"Hanging out with children sort of vibrates this little person inside of you," Khan says backstage before her Toronto show. "It’s almost like they’ve been sleeping for 100 years inside your belly, and then they wake up and it’s like," she says, pretending to groggily rub her eyes, "‘Sleepy… Oh, hello!’

"I feel like my inner child kind of woke up and became more animated and more confident and was like, ‘I’m sticking around! I’m not going back underground again,’" she says. "I think the main killer of inner children is cynicism and being grown up and serious. Why do you need to do that? We have to keep the magic alive."

(EMI Music Canada)

Khan’s childhood touchstones have shaped the atmosphere she creates as Bat for Lashes. A true product of the 1980s, her reference points are films like The Goonies, E.T. and The Karate Kid. On the surface, mainstream kiddie flicks may seem an odd inspiration, but the sentimentality and thin plots of those movies masked much darker themes – she views these films as "our [generation’s] version of fairytales."

Her parents split up when she was quite young, and she has always identified with narratives about divorce and absentee parents. She’s wistful as she recalls her connection to stories about "moving out of the safety of home, where children were creating their own protective worlds and their own relationships."

At times, her love of these films is explicit. The video for What’s a Girl to Do, a haunting track from Fur and Gold, riffs on the iconic bike ride in E.T. The cover art for her latest single, Daniel, features a topless Khan with a portrait of the original Karate Kid, Daniel Larusso (played by Ralph Macchio), painted on her back. The supernatural elements of Bat for Lashes’ music have antecedents in campy '80s fantasy and science fiction, which combined bad special effects, slightly apocalyptic undertones and a balance of familiarity and fear.

Traces of the '80s can also be heard in Bat for Lashes’ sound. There’s a direct correlation between the crystalline synthesizers and swooping, ethereal vocals on a track like Daniel and artists like Fleetwood Mac and Kate Bush, who were pushing the boundaries of pop music when Khan was growing up. Years ago, Khan’s mom introduced her to the track 30 Century Man by the notoriously reclusive singer Scott Walker. Khan ended up contacting Walker to lend his resonant vocals to The Big Sleep,a creaky duet that closes Two Suns.

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Khan acknowledges that her approach to crafting songs was refined when she enrolled in a short-story writing course.

"When I was a little girl, I always thought I would be a writer before a musician. But I think I specifically chose modules that were interesting to the landscapes and colours and characters I was bringing together for Bat for Lashes. Like, the first term [in university] I chose Religion and Mythology, and that seeped in, and it also introduced me to strange Scandinavian folk tales and, like, the idea of home as odyssey."

Those ideas came into play when she was creating Two Suns. "I didn’t have a home while I was making this record," Khan states, "and what I ended up writing about was my search for home and the fragmented feeling you get when you’re — what’s the word? When you’re subjected to such dynamics and such extremes."

The songs on Two Suns veer between traditional forms like old English murder ballads (Sleep Alone) and weird electro-futuristic cuts (Pearl’s Dream). Khan sings in her own voice and that of "Pearl," her imaginary hedonistic alter ego.

Indeed, while writing Two Suns, Khan was experiencing an internal split. After making Fur and Gold in relative obscurity, she suddenly found herself poised at the uncomfortable precipice of fame. For the first time, she was writing with the awareness of an audience that knew and loved her work.

Bat for Lashes finds her musical inspiration in popular movies of the 1980s. ((David Sherry/EMI Music Canada) )

She had settled in Brooklyn, drawn to an underground art scene she had fantasized about after listening to Velvet Underground songs. She’d also fallen in love with a boy in a band (New York-based Moon and Moon, whose name she borrowed for a love song on Two Suns). The relationship eventually collapsed and Khan ended up embarking on her own odyssey, moving between urban centres and awe-inspiring vistas (like the desert near Joshua Tree, Calif.). As a result of her travels, one major thread on Two Suns is a reverence for the natural world. That theme, she insists, feeds into the zeitgeist.

"You know how there’s been a whole trend of zombie films, like 28 Days Later and stuff like that?" she says. "Infections and everyone fleeing the city and all that’s left is this rabid, full-on grotesque version of animalistic violence? I think those types of films have become really popular because we’re all repressing so much of our wildness and beauty and power — because they are about fleeing the city, getting out into the country, escaping the madness."

On Two Suns, Khan invokes the significance that natural wonders held for humans before the Industrial Revolution shifted our focus. There’s a mystical quality to the way Khan writes about the stars, the moon, the mountains, the rising sun, great expanses of water and greater expanses of sky. Songs like Two Planets and Siren Song carry the weight of holy chants.

Bat for Lashes isn’t the first musician to draw inspiration from our damaged relationship to the natural world – Kate Bush crooned witchily about the English countryside decades ago, and the latest album by Antony and the Johnsons laments the changing global landscape. Khan is part of a wave of freaky outsider artists making spiritual pilgrimages to pastoral settings.

As artistic subcultures increasingly fall prey to gentrification, it seems that returning to our primal roots is the most subversive thing a girl can do.

"The more we separate ourselves from [nature], the more our instinctive, animalistic sides start to long for it," Khan says. "Artists are lucky that they have a chance to ponder these themes and perhaps bring them to the foreground through their work. And on behalf of society, [artists] can say, ‘Hey guys, do you remember this?’"

Two Suns is in stores now.

Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.