Whenever I’ve tried to write my own songs, I’ve encountered the same problem. With so many instruments, effects processors and sounds at my disposal, how do I know what is enough? When do I stop adding layers of sound? When does the music I’m trying to make become just noise? This is especially problematic for a bedroom recording artist like me, because I don’t have a flesh-and-blood band that I’m writing for. Songs could be two layers or 20 – their live playability matters only in the abstract.
This is debilitating in two ways. The first I’ve already mentioned – unconstrained, I can keep adding layers and layers indiscriminately, until I’ve made a mess that’s near-impossible to mix and master. The second is that I end up spending way too long on every single song, and stop seeing the song’s promise and focus only on the flaws. In both cases, I lose motivation quickly.
Sometimes what I’ll do is create some artificial constraints for myself: the song must be able to be played live by a 5-person band, the song must contain no more than 2 guitar tracks, the song must be written and recorded in one day. All of these methods work at hauling me out of the doldrums of song writing, but they can leave me with this nagging feeling that the song I’ve finished isn’t fully realized – that the minimalism I’ve imposed onto myself and my song has done the song a disservice.
I think this is the struggle for songwriters. If unrestricted, how do we reign in maximalist impulses?
Natasha Khan is the woman behind Bat for Lashes. She’s a multi-instrumentalist with a flair for the grandiose, very much in the mould of Kate Bush. Bat for Lashes songs typically collide disparate sounds: tribal beats and Enya-style string synths, jittery guitars and fantastical lyrics typically dominate her compositions. Her usual genre-gymnastics don’t prepare the listener for the sparseness of her arresting ballad, Laura.
Laura, uncharacteristically, is an exercise in restraint. With little more than her quavering voice and simple aggregated piano chords, Natasha Khan delivers this devastating song about the glamourous but fragile Laura, lost in the excesses of a never-ending night life threatening to leave her behind. The singer keeps pleading that Laura is “more than a superstar”, but she’s forgotten how to be anything else.
The waltzing lilt of the melody is familiar even on the first listen: it at once feels timeless. The chord changes feel inevitable and necessary – giving them incredible weight , especially on the chorus.
Bat for Lashes may be known for tireless experimentation, but Laura is perfectly unadorned.