In the build up to her latest album Lost Girls, Matthew Neale finds Bat For Lashes addressing her greatest challenge yet: being happily in love.
When Natasha Khan announced a new album informed by the baby pinks and teals of '80s music and cinema, it would have been easy to sneer at it as the latest cultural power-grab for nostalgia, the aural equivalent of a New Coke can left in shot a little too long. That it would be a costume to dress up in for the night rather than something, you know, authentic. As it turns out, Lost Girls is a phenomenal record, which should come as little surprise for an artist whose just about to release her fifth on the bounce as Bat For Lashes (six if you count the Sexwitch LP, which you absolutely should). But that’s almost beside the point.
The point is that costumes and make-up are ways of telling stories; when we strike a pose, we reach towards something higher than the everyday motions learned by rote, which is ultimately what Khan does best. Each of her albums carries a concept, and yet even when they’re playing dress-up – quite literally in the case of Pearl, the blonde-wigged chaos twin she built into the Two Suns narrative – they’re telling us something about the artist, about ourselves.
In conversation Khan laughs often, generously and genuinely, does a great E.T. impression, sings down the phone with abandon, talks about fear and terror and love and dancing, and reminds us that the latter two deserve as much attention, even (or perhaps especially) when the world is crumbling around us.
Her nine songs all owe something to the '80s – sometimes just because they’re outrageously fun or brilliant, but often because they remind us that, while 2019’s endless, winking intertextuality and postmodern references can be great, there’s also nothing at all wrong with crying about a boy taking his refugee alien home on a flying bicycle. Cynicism is exhausting; we would all do better to dress up and dance once in a while.
“The ultimate reason I picked this song is because it’s in a scene in The Karate Kid where Elizabeth Shue and Ralph Macchio meet on the football pitch and they have a little exchange where they’re doing keepy-uppies and stuff. That film is very romantic to me, because at the beginning of the film him and his mum move from the East Coast to LA, and when I first moved here I was just struck by those endless, hot blue sky days.
“I love the fact that Bananarama all sang together, I’m such a big fan of The Shangri-Las and those kind of girl groups from the ‘60s and I feel like this is kind of an ‘80s take on that. It’s a very romantic girl-gang kind of song. I love the percussion, I love the sound, it’s very nostalgic and sentimental. There’s a good handful of songs on this list - the first three anyway - that come from that ‘80s sound that really inspired this record and have always inspired me.
“As a kid coming from rainy England, I remember watching the kids in these West Coast films riding bikes in hoodies through tiny, redwood-forested roads, seeing all the pylons and hazy sunsets over downtown suburban houses. I’ve always found that so romantic and now I’m suddenly living in that world and when I walk my dog at sunset in LA, those songs play through me.
"I remember those teenage years of being young, falling in love, having crushes and being heartbroken, summer holidays that would never end, hot days spent doing nothing… that whole teenage nostalgia is very powerful still.
“When you live here you do sort of feel like you’re living in a movie, especially with the California light, it’s more of a yellow light than the blue light of England. It’s tangibly different and your eyes receive it in a different way.”
“Again, there’s that instant imagery of The Goonies getting out on their bikes, the panning distant long shot of all the kids. Those drum pads and those synths were definitely the kind of thing we were looking for when we were making this record. They’re very cinematic sounds and I found it really nice to pull some of those nostalgic sounds and combine them with modern sounds, programming things in ways that you wouldn’t have been able to do in the ‘80s.
“I love this song. I think it’s got a great beat; it’s so uplifting and sweet. I think Cyndi Lauper’s very good at those positive, upbeat songs. I’m sad that she didn’t like it! I really like the Prince cover she did of ‘When You Were Mine’, it’s kind of punky. ‘Time After Time’ was huge for me when I was 12.
“When I first moved out here, I needed someone to do acupuncture for me, and I was told that Cyndi Lauper’s sister is a great acupuncturist, so I have her number! She was definitely a huge factor when I was learning how to sing other people’s songs. I like happy-sad and I think that’s why I love the ‘80s so much: the chord changes are heart-breaking as well as being really uplifting. That’s the best combination.”
“We actually went to see E.T. projected at Cinespia the other night, for July 4th at the Hollywood Cemetery. I went with a group of friends, you bring blankets and wine and cheese and then when it gets dark everyone pulls out the blankets and cushions and you lie down. There’s probably about a thousand people. They had fireworks behind the screen that went off when they take off on the bike, it was so amazing and I was just bawling my eyes out the whole way through!
“E.T never gets old for me. People say it’s too sentimental and nostalgic, but I’m so glad I was a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and that those films were prevalent in our culture, the sense of something magic and otherworldly. For me it was a gateway to my imagination; a way to learn to believe in something greater than yourself that wasn’t just within the realms of religion, but something like an extra-terrestrial phenomenon.
“We’re in a time now where everything’s very self-conscious. There’s a self-awareness and because there’s been so much cinema history now, the only fresh thing to do is turn concepts and genres on their head and to be very hyper-aware. There were younger people at the Cinespia thing, and they were just giggling and laughing! When he was like [nailed-on impression] “E.T. phone home,” me and my boyfriend were crying, and the people in their 20’s were going, “Pffft! He looks like a paedophile or something,” and we just thought, “Wow, everyone’s so cynical!”
“Everyone’s always looking for the dark underbelly of what it means, or not able to get swept away in that suspension of disbelief. I love the fact that I’m almost 40 and I can still get swept away in that magical, childlike place, because I think it keeps your heart innocent and alive. I don’t always want to be cynical and suspicious of everything or trying to be deep and intellectual about stuff all the time. And for me on Lost Girls, there are a lot of songs where I’m not trying to be arty, I’m not trying to make it deep and multi-layered. Like the ‘Feel For You’ song is honestly just me saying, “I’m in love and it feels great, and we’re just driving around LA, and it’s beautiful.”
“It feels so doom and gloom now politically, and just the way the world’s going. I think that era of the ‘80s was so optimistic because they were doing loads of coke and had loads of money, so it was an expansive time when the future was bright and exciting, you know that song, ‘The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades’? I just feel sad that we feel so doomed now that kind of art isn’t being made, but I still think there’s room for it.
“Maybe there’s an element of burying your head in the sand in talking about those kind of optimistic, hopeful films, but I do think they’re childlike for that reason. As an artist I think the realms of childhood and childhood imagination, all those formative years, are quite pure and magical, because you’re not aware of the world’s horrors. After doing four or five albums that are quite dark, and have themes of grief and sadness and awareness, I was questioning myself: if I love those other things so much, then surely I should celebrate those aspects of my personality too? Because I’m quite a fun-loving person who loves to dance, in hard times more than ever.
“I feel like you need to remember that it’s not all doom and gloom, that we are joyous beings and when we get together to celebrate or watch films, the things we can connect on are just as important.”
“There’s a bunch of younger kids here in LA who are interpreting their own version of that very dark, goth, ’80s club music; Cure-inspired, Depeche Mode-inspired, all that stuff. They dress up and put on these amazing wigs, costumes and make-up on. There’s a thriving scene here inspired by that kind of music which I absolutely love, having been a fan of it all when I was younger.
“There’s synthetic LA aspect to it, this drag, transgender, asexual, glam, theatrical style and I like it. Just driving around LA at night listening to the record that this song comes from feels very nostalgic, but also very fresh and interesting to see younger people’s interpretations using all those guitars, pedals, synths and beats.
“As someone who went to art school, with the very punky, DIY education that I had, I think that sometimes people think it’s uncool to be nostalgic. Basically, I think nostalgia and sentimental feelings are fine as long as you don’t cross over into pastiche. And I think with Drab Majesty, it sounds a lot like things from the ‘80s, but I still felt enamoured by it. It didn’t bother me, because I love so much of that music and I haven’t heard a new album in so long that carried that feeling for me; that dark, sad, neon, night-time driving feeling.
“Like Slowdive and all those shoegaze bands, I love it but I’ve heard it a hundred million times, but I was I so excited to hear acts like Drab Majesty, because it’s still a new person with new perspectives and new lyrics from this time. I still think it’s valid. You know like Bruno Mars does his George Clinton, Michael Jackson thing? Some of it feels quite ripped off, but I still enjoy his basslines and I love dancing to it.
“It’s an interesting discussion for sure: how much can you make it your own? And with this album I was trying to do that, bring in a lot of my own sounds and feelings, but with a filter of some of these old keyboards and sounds that I loved.”
“I remember hearing this and thinking it was an amalgamation of all the things I love. For me the vocals have got that Kate Bush purity and all the little flourishes in places she goes melodically. It reminded me of being off my head and emotional on ecstasy in nightclubs.
“I just love synth arpeggios, the way it builds quietly, it’s so feminine, so visceral. It just really affected me. The first time I heard it I couldn’t stop listening to it and I just thought it was one of the most beautiful songs and vocal performances I’d ever heard. It stood out to me on the album as something much deeper and attached itself to my soul.
“It’s also got that very ‘now’ sound, something like all those kids who are into Grimes or Japanese pop or Korean pop must be feeling now, to be on Instagram all the time and questioning your sexual identity, everything constantly morphing. ‘Is It Cold In The Water’ sounds to me like the current state of affairs, channelled through something euphoric.”
“I guess when I listen back to some of the cheesy ‘80s songs, it doesn’t sound as clear and crisp and digital, but this is very clean. I just love how brave it is. There’s people singing ‘Running In The Night’ to you and really singing it, like they’re wearing leather trousers and roller-skating in a mall or something.
“I think it’s a guilty pleasure basically and I appreciate how outright emo it is. They knew they were being daft but it’s just so much fun. I loved the arpeggiated synth intro of Stranger Things, although I think perhaps being a musician you start to notice these things ahead of time. For me it was when the Drive soundtrack came out and I remember thinking “That’s it, the ‘80s are going to come back into popular culture.” Now it’s almost gone overboard. I love Stranger Things but I haven’t been able to watch more than a few episodes of the new series, because every single scene feels like a pastiche. Are there no original ideas? To me its lost its innocence and the same can happen with music.
“I honestly didn’t consciously think about channelling all that ‘80s energy when I started writing Lost Girls. I was asked to meet with JJ Abrams’ company Bad Robot, and when I moved out here I met with a couple of different film companies; they were doing some Netflix series and were interested in meeting bands who made songs that sound like they could have come from the 80s. So I wrote ‘Kids In The Dark’ in a day with Charles Scott, who I ended up making the album with – we’re both huge fans of The Cure and Peter Gabriel, all the old ‘80s stuff.
“But it’s no different really to ‘Daniel’ and a lot of the songs I wrote back in 2009, when I was thinking about The Karate Kid. It’s not like it’s anything different, I just felt this time that I was in the studio with someone who had access to all that stuff. He’s also a very good bass player and I felt that offered an alternative to the darker, slower bass parts of previous albums.
“I’m really into doom metal and those kind of gothy basslines, but Charles came in on ‘The Hunger’ with all that hi-tempo bass and I realised with all the sad chords I like it really took it up to a new level that I hadn’t explored before. It wasn’t even necessarily about creating ‘80s music, but more about the attitude and the fun of collaborating.
“I’ve always loved those fuzzy synths and gothy aspects, but they’ve been across all the Bat For Lashes albums, and this one was more about the beats and the basslines. It’s just another facet of me.”
“I really like driving around on the motorways at night here and listening to instrumental music. I always turn this one up really loud because it’s got a deep, thumping bass and just gives me a nice feeling.
“I’ve always loved Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher but then also classical music, so I’m always on the lookout for instrumental stuff, my friend Jon Hopkins obviously is someone whose music I love. Com Truise have that very ‘80s sound, but mainly it just reminds me of being a teenager and buying vinyl. I really like ‘Propagation’, especially because I was writing a script for Lost Girls and I put that song on loads when I was working on that.
“Lost Girls has more instrumental sections than on previous albums; a lot of people have mentioned that they like ‘Vampires’ for example and it’s nice to hear that something that doesn’t even have my singing on it can still be compelling. I’d definitely love to soundtrack some horror films.”
“This song definitely feels like it has a sense of place. Every album I make is set in a place in my mind, like a film, with characters and colours and costumes and weather. The Haunted Man was written about England in the winter; the rugged coast. It was very much based on living in Sussex and winter fields, and there’s a theme running through it of men coming home from war, harking back to my grandad.
“Two Suns is very much about going between New York and the desert. They’ve all got landscape integration and that’s really important to me. I can’t just sit in a room without experiencing weather and colours, I think it would be really boring, so I always try and go to weird places
“Lost Girls is definitely set in suburban LA, but then going out to the forest and desert. I did a lot of travelling and making films in the desert, painting a lot, just using a lot of other mediums to explore that landscape. The whole album’s drenched in the peach light, for example. I love this song because it’s very romantic and it feels like how I feel living here, exploring and writing.”
“I had an album of piano songs by The Blue Nile’s singer Paul Buchanan called Mid Air, which is just perfect sad piano music. I think someone very close to him passed away, a daughter or a wife or something, and I was just obsessed with the sad, beautiful power of that record.
“I was re-listening to it and discovered The Blue Nile. I wasn’t that aware of them before and ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’ just makes me cry, it’s so full of love and heart and soul. It reminds me a little of Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be The Place’ in the sense that there’s something very rhythmic, upbeat and sweet about it, but it’s also really heart-breaking; that happy-sad thing again.
“It’s such an evocative, sensual record and I love how long it keeps going, because I don’t want it to end. It sounds like falling in love to me.”