In 2006 Natasha Khan, better known as Bat For Lashes, floated into the consciousness with her magnificent and magical debut, Fur and Gold.
In the years following, she did everything from working as a nursery school teacher and illustrating children’s books to rigorous touring, but teased our hungry ears by only releasing one further album. Not exactly fast work, but for a sound as rich and a voice as lovely as Bat For Lashes’, it’s been worth the wait. Now in 2012, she’s back with a third offering: the more direct, more adult, and, as she tells us, much more personal third release, The Haunted Man out 15 October through Parlophone.
Khan is now mid-way through a harsh promotion schedule for the new release, having just finished up with the festivals, but she kindly takes a bit of time to chat to us about the new album, its difficult birth, and the new woman she feels it’s made her become.
“It was a really, really gruelling process this album, for me,” she tells us. “It just took such a long time and I felt like a lot of times I was pretty lost and couldn’t work out what I was doing. It was very painful and slow… This album to me is definitely a coming of age. I became a woman through the making of it and so it is a lot more upfront and honest, and just probably a lot more personal, definitely… It definitely left the wrapped-up-in-the-drama of Two Suns, the conflict of that and the fairytale metaphors of the first album – that was quite childlike. I don’t think there’s any characters that I’m hiding behind. I think there are characters like Marilyn or Laura. But they are facets of the female personality… I think the album is basically a lot of different facets of me, and they all feel quite close to my heart and quite genuinely from genuine experiences”.
It’s a slightly fuzzy phone line, but her voice is still noticeably emotive; as if she’s lacing each word with a little bit of the struggle she felt over the two years it took to make the album. “Little bits would come and then nothing would come for ages and I had plenty of panic attacks and sleepless nights and crying and… it’s traumatic sometimes…” she trails off, before her voice comes back brighter. “Then other times there’s real moments of elation when you crack something and it comes through.”
“‘All Your Gold’ was a complete different version for most of the making of the album and just sounded awful and I couldn’t… I knew it had something but I couldn’t get it. Then very close to the end I completely scrapped it and rewrote it in a different key, different timing with a different chorus, and it just suddenly became what it was supposed to be.”
Indeed, the album “becoming what it was supposed to be” has meant a fairly distinct change in the style from 2009′s Two Suns. Although much of it remains what Natasha calls her “dark atmospheric songs”, at least half of the album is much more electronic and beat driven. We ask how this came about. ”When I started off I definitely started writing quite beat-y dance rhythms and quite dance based songs, quite electronic sounding, so half of the album’s coming up in that way… It’s fun…. It’s good to represent a more sort of happy, dance-y side to myself… to represent a bit more joy and high-spirited-ness is good for me, and makes it more fun to play live.”
And seeing her perform at Bestival a few weeks ago, it’s certainly clear that Khan and her band are having a good time on stage. It’s also clear, however, that Khan is no longer the glitter strewn, fairytale princess of alt pop she once was. Gone are the flapper-girl headbands, the theatrical make-up and the flowing long hair. In their place, a much more mature and confidently raw Bat For Lashes seems to have found her position on stage. “I think it’s just growing up a bit. Cutting my hair and things – it was more of a personal choice that I did ages before this album has come out… You don’t want to just stay the same person forever and keep exploring the same old themes, I think it’s a bit boring to do that… It’s just kind of an experiment on myself really to see: can I still communicate something magical and beautiful without telling everyone I’m magical and beautiful in the visual… and for me I feel quite confident in my abilities, so I don’t, perhaps, have to dress them up so much.”
This more honestly portrayed Bat For Lashes has, of course, affected the themes of the writing too, and it’s clear to see from the way she passionately explains her work why The Haunted Man feels so much more stripped back lyrically. “I think the theme of the record is ‘the haunted man’ and the album is very much about the haunted man representing relationship baggage, I suppose, that needs to be let go of, or the weight of past relationships or the weight of history or my family, you know, things that I am ready to be liberated of, and move through… ‘The Haunted Man’, the song, was written quite early on and so was ‘Lilies’, and I think both of those really started to make it clear to me that there was to be a lot of stuff about relationships and history and ancestry and patterns that come down the generations, in terms of relationships and things like that. Early on I knew that he, the haunted man was quite a central figure, but as the album progressed I realised that the haunted man doesn’t necessarily need to represent just all the darkness. I think the album’s very much about healing that and there’s a lot of nurturing songs and quite pro-life songs… happy to be alive, looking forward, developing, blossoming into a woman and feeling sexually and creatively alive… I think the haunted man can be both the dark and the light side of letting go.”
‘The haunted man’ is immediately present, then, not only from the name, but on the front cover. It’s a brave and iconic image to represent such a personal work. We ask Natasha how the artwork came about. “I saw some Ryan McGinley photography and I love his work. I saw the series of the animals around the shoulders that he did, and very early on I was like ‘I really want to recreate that with a guy around my shoulders”…then as the album progressed it just seemed more and more apt, because the album was so stripped back and it felt much more raw and more kind of vulnerable or just intimate”.
In case it isn’t obvious, the woman in the photo is Natasha herself. We get into talking about how she felt about doing the shoot. “It was definitely nerve wracking, having to take all your clothes off in front of someone and be photographed, but it felt liberating. I felt connected to those artists in the ’70s, I guess, that would be kind of very honest with their nakedness, quite proud and honest with their artwork, like John and Yoko and Patti Smith… there’s all sorts of things, but I think there’s more of a celebration of natural body and more of a willingness to be honest with bodies, as well, instead of having to be purely sexually provocative, or glossed up and photoshopped… So while I was doing it I just thought ‘well, I shouldn’t be ashamed of my natural body and this guy’s natural body, it’s the most natural thing in the world’. I just wanted to just be and represent a more multi-faceted being… looking at it… perhaps I look powerful, perhaps I look vulnerable, perhaps the weight of him’s really heavy or perhaps I’m nurturing him or there’s all sorts of aspects to it, especially the female naked body, that’s much more multi dimensional than just kind of tits and arse.” And she giggles a little.
“I could have done quite a magical, beautiful, colourful cover, but through the filter of that front cover I think it gives it a sort of power which is very different to the way I’ve represented albums in the past…. I think it gives the album a backbone, in a way that I think it just enhances the emotional directness of the music… As a visual artist as well as a musician I think that’s doing my job well, if you can create a whole body of work rather than something with just a half-arsed cover on it.”
We move on talk more about where the album came from – the place Natasha was living while she made it, and the things which she took inspiration from over the long writing and recording period. “Brighton inspired this album very much by its landscape and the natural forces around it. The sea, obviously, is a huge aspect. My flat’s right by the sea, so I would do regular walks there and then exploring the Sussex Downs and the countryside was a big soothing, nurturing aspect of being at home, and when I felt everything was too much I’d definitely go for walks in downs and check out like Alfriston and Rye and Glynde, small villages and I just really love that countryside. It just makes me so happy, and there’s something really romantic and it reminds me of The Snowman – when you’re little and all those rolling hills and little cottages and stuff. I feel like there’s something very wild and romantic about that landscape…”
“In terms of art, the David Hockney exhibition and the Freud exhibition,” states Natasha of her artistic inspiration. “I’ve kept up to date with painters and I’ve got into Ryan McGinley, and I was reading Patti Smith’s book ‘Just Kids’ about her and Robert Mapplethorpe which I found fascinating and really inspiring. I did life drawing classes and illustrating for children’s books… I’ve re-read a lot of my childhood books like ‘The BFG’, ‘Goodnight Mr. Tom’ and ‘Ring of Bright Water’… I think probably what that’s to do with is going back and rereading things that were a massive part of my childhood, and looking at them from an adult perspective. I think there’s something quite healing in that; immersing myself in my roots and my English childhood and the countryside and the history, coming to terms with my history, working through it and loving it and appreciating aspects of it. And letting go of some aspects helps you come fully into adulthood and put some of those things to rest, so maybe it was a bit of a nostalgia trip, in some ways.”
The Haunted Man, with all its varied inspiration will be out on 15 October via Parlophone. We thoroughly recommend it.
Catch Bat for Lashes at the following UK Dates:
18 Oct – Inverness - Ironworks
19 Oct – Edinburgh - Picture House
21 Oct – Glasgow - O2 ABC
22 Oct – Manchester - Cathedral
23 Oct – Manchester - Cathedral
25 Oct – Leeds - Metropolitan University
26 Oct – Norwich - University of East Anglia
28 Oct – Leicester - O2 Academy
29 Oct – London - Forum
30 Oct – London - Forum
01 Nov – Birmingham - HMV Institute
02 Nov – Bristol - Anson Rooms
03 Nov – Portsmouth - Pyramids
04 Nov – Brighton - Dome Concert Hall