In a crucial scene from Natasha Khan’s short film I Do (trailer shown below), a young woman, dressed in a pristine wedding dress and veil, throws herself from a car to comfort a man reeling from a fight. The mood is dreamlike and strange, though real enough for the audience to worry she might get hurt, or – such is the power of a wedding dress – get mud or blood on her frock and wreck it (spoiler alert: she does).
I Do, which forms part of a 2016 movie called Madly featuring six shorts on the theme of love, was Khan’s first narrative short film. It’s a confident debut, but considering she has been working towards this point for a couple of decades, perhaps this is not surprising.
Khan is most famous for her music. Performing under the name Bat For Lashes, she has gained critical and audience acclaim for her four studio albums, which stretch back to her debut, Fur and Gold, in 2006.
Bat For Lashes has a distinctive sound, though from the outset, Khan also established a singular visual look too. Regularly labeled ‘kooky’ by the music press, she has offered up an experimental, arty style that has often sat determinedly at odds with the prevailing trends of the time.
This approach came out of Khan’s art school background (she studied on the foundation course at Middlesex University and then did visual arts and music at Brighton), and the recurring ideas and imagery she had built up over years.
“I had all these books, huge, thick documentation books full of visual ideas and references – this whole visual language that I’d built up over my life up until that point,” she explains by phone from LA, where she is currently staying.
“[There were] these weird Photoshop experiments of pictures of my little brother when he’s five in a car, and I’d cut out the windscreen and put a lightning storm behind him,” she continues. “There were pictures of my mum’s wedding and I made her and all the bridesmaids transparent and hovered them off the ground of this family home. It was very science fiction, ET, Poltergeist…. I was really into the symbolism of those sorts of films – 70s and 80s horror.”
Khan began experimenting with film in her late teens, and this – publically at least – came before the music. “The music at the time was still my own private expression and something I did quite secretively,” she said. “It was more normal to study visual art but I hadn’t really told anyone that I was a singer or a musician. Although I was doing that since I was 11.”
When the music took off, Khan worked closely with the directors of her videos to try and articulate her visual ideas. Perhaps most successful in this was Dougal Wilson’s promo for What’s A Girl To Do (shown below), which sees Khan channel Donnie Darko with extra BMX bikes. “He totally got what I was saying and my world visually and then he came back with that really succinct, beautifully choreographed, simplistic way of doing it,” she says.
Other videos were less successful and Khan’s desire to direct herself grew. “I did feel I could do it better myself but I’d never have had the confidence at that point to even attempt to lead something in that way,” she says. “So often I felt that I had these beautiful ideas in my mind and would explain them to someone exactly how I saw them and then inevitably they’d come out really different.”
In her more recent videos she has taken on more of a collaborative role alongside her directors, before going solo on her first promo in 2013, to accompany the track Garden’s Heart (created by Bat For Lashes with Jon Hopkins). Starring actress Saoirse Ronan, it is a haunting piece of film, filled with beautiful, cinematic flourishes. It also clearly demonstrates Khan’s ability to draw out her vision from other actors.
“It was really such an enjoyable experience,” she says of the shoot for Garden’s Heart. “[Saoirse’s] performance is so beautiful and it gave me such a thrill to be watching the nuances of it and feeling the emotional temperature…. It was this beautiful collaborative experience.”
In preparation for the promo, Khan and director Noel Paul (who has directed numerous Bat For Lashes videos) took an experimental approach, turning her LA home into a set and inviting actors to “come and workshop stuff in a sort of Cassavetes-style improvised workshop month”.
“We were both wanting to learn about working with actors and improvisation and living the scenes,” Khan says. “My frustration has always been that whenever you do anything you always just have a day or a few days and you have to film everything so quickly…. There’s definitely an energy and an instantaneous thing about that and if you’re working with good actors, it’s great, they can get there. But there’s something in me that naturally gravitates to the more living it, breathing it approach and finding the gems in letting things unfold slowly.”
While Khan is certainly not moving away from music, describing it as “a companion that follows me around everywhere”, she is interested to explore where directing will take her. She is currently developing a feature film, based on the themes she explored in her last album, The Bride, and has also signed to B-Reel Films for commercial projects.
“I think there’s a lot of surface stuff in the commercial world, and I think there’s plenty of room for rich voices to come through,” she says. “I love the idea of doing documentary style commercials or short films, because I’m fascinated with people, I love people from all walks of life. Being someone who’s mixed race and has lived in different countries, I feel a real universal love of everybody’s different backgrounds and stories. So that’s something I want to push further because with the Bat For Lashes stuff people might label it as mythological or magical or whatever, but there’s definitely a gritty realism side to me that I really hope to explore.
“I want to test myself,” she continues. “That’s where it becomes scary and exciting, to be moving into something new. I could fall back on what I know but I’m really up for pushing myself to see what I could come out with if I was given a brief that’s really not something I would naturally do. How would I approach that? I think that’s really good for your creative muscle to be stretched in that way.”