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Bat For Lashes Neil Krug TLOBF

Once Upon a Time

21 June 2016, 09:02
Words by Ed Nash
Original Photography by Neil Krug

As Natasha Khan drops her fourth album as Bat For Lashes, she talks to Ed Nash about the art of storytelling.

Dressed in character, wearing that silver loveheart necklace - the one with “The Bride” etched into its metallic shell - and the same blue eyeshadow from her album cover, Natasha Khan isn’t just donning her Bat For Lashes persona: Today, she is The Bride.

Meeting her on a beautiful afternoon in London, I can’t help but wonder if she knows the subject matter burning a hole in my mind. It’s the noble art of storytelling in music that has always drawn me to Khan, her ability to inhabit characters as well as create them and the every intricate detail of their fictional lives.

What is immediately apparent is the seriousness with which Khan takes her art and the mission she’s on as a storyteller. Whilst the topics we discuss are anything but frivolous - ranging from the meaning of true love to self-realisation - our conversation is constantly punctuated with laughter. She’s incredibly engaging, personable, and, above all, down to earth.

As Bat For Lashes, Khan has always placed storytelling at the heart of her music. As well as providing a narrative construct for the songs, it creates a space for her personal life to seep into the stories and characters she writes. “Often in hindsight, when I look back on an album, it’s the story of my life. The story of something that happened or it’s shedding light on something I needed to understand better. I think songwriters are storytellers. It’s our responsibility to channel the truth without diluting it, without getting in your own way.”

Khan has been entranced with the magic of stories since childhood, from the religious parables she was taught at school to the fairytales her father told his children. “He was really good at conjuring ideas and characters out of nothing and that’s something I’ve taken on, I’ve carried the torch. I was a nursery school teacher as well. I like doing it.”

On her fourth album, The Bride, Khan has taken the idea of storytelling to its ultimate conclusion - the whole thing is written as a linear narrative. It’s an astonishing record that’s as elegant musically as it is sophisticated lyrically. As a body of work it’s comparable to an album of the calibre of Joni Mitchell’s Blue in the way it describes a relationship through words, music, and emotional candour. “We all build up these hardened walls and borders around our hearts and there’s all this bullshit that’s getting between everything else. We’re all vulnerable, we’re all soft and mushy people, we know we are.”

When she released the album’s trailer, the beautifully wide-eyed, blissfully romantic “I Do” and announced that the record would be called The Bride it was clear Khan was planning to take her storytelling to the next level. Yet those expecting a Mills & Boon, idealised love story clearly hadn’t been paying attention to her previous albums, where her characters - such as “Laura” from 2012’s The Haunted Man - frequently lived through some dark times before discovering who they really are.

The premise of The Bride [spoilers] is that on the morning of her wedding the groom is killed in a car crash, prompting the titular heroine to embark on a journey of self-discovery, both literally - The Bride leaves the church alone in the honeymoon car - and spiritually. As the story unfolds The Bride battles depression, anger, and grief but eventually reaches a place that’s heartbreakingly bittersweet, both for the listener and the character. “I feel it’s really interesting how the album starts with ‘I Do’. That and ‘If I Knew’ are the pivotal love songs of the album. They come from a very different personal perspective, with the character arc, because the way I treated it was as a storytelling piece.”

“There was something that struck me: the Miss Havisham quality, the innocent bride."

I tell her I was blown away by “If I Knew” and her response is a humble “Thank you, lots of people, well the men especially, seem to be really soft on that one and really like it.” Given the journey The Bride undertakes it feels like the records’ centrepiece. It’s a song that marries the personal and universal, the heart-breaking and hopeful yet is ultimately celebratory - the standout line being “You brought every weather from storm to shine / but I’m thankful for who you helped me find.”

The starting point for her story was the title. She’d recorded a song of the same name with TOY in 2013, and released a mesmerising album of psych-rock interpretations of folksongs with them as Sexwitch last year, but she doesn’t think it was the trigger for the idea behind the album. “I don’t know if I subconsciously picked up on that, it was an Iranian song about a woman who gets banished to the desert when her husband dies, because she’s useless to society.”

Instead it was through working with renowned photographer Neil Krug that the eureka moment arrived and the character of The Bride was crystallised. In between photo shoots, with Krug in L.A. and Khan in London, they sent each other reference imagery from “old weird 1940s surrealist films, images of Maya Deren or a Roman Polanski film, Alejandro Jodorowsky, who made Holy Mountain, basically all these weird film people that we both really like.”

When Krug sent her a “1940s, Hitchcock looking” image of a woman wearing a veil, she texted him to say her next project would be called The Bride. “There was something that struck me: the Miss Havisham quality, the innocent bride. I thought it was a nice metaphor for putting a character into a position where she needs a groom to fulfil her bridal obligation and what happens when you think you need something outside of yourself to make you happy. If you lose that external source of happiness there’s a grieving process and ultimately the redemption of finding that within you, hopefully.”

Such visual narratives have always been important to Bat For Lashes’ aesthetic, where the imagery adds another layer of detail to the songs’ stories. We saw it on the cover of The Haunted Man which featured an image of Khan naked and bearing the man of its title on her shoulders and in the video for “Daniel” from 2009’s Two Suns where she dressed as The Karate Kid. Interestingly for such an accomplished songwriter she feels that visual expression comes easier to her than music does and that her ability with visual imagery is often overlooked.

“I’m just as much a visual person as I am musical one; I actually think I’m way more accomplished visually than I am musically. Visually you can learn your craft; it’s a different part of your brain. I really enjoy design, composition and structure. I can see when something’s off visually and that’s something I get a kick out of.”

“Storytelling for me is a construct that beautifies morals, ways to learn things and be a better human being."

It won’t be overlooked for long though, her talent for visual imagery is about to get wider exposure. As well as creating the artwork for The Bride Khan and Krug also made two books of photography, which she plans to publish in the coming year. The first, titled The Dreams is a series of surrealist black and white images where Khan is photographed in what she describes as “strange landscapes” and the other is Rose Syrup, a collection of pictures of the plants of Los Angeles and England.

Given the importance of visual narratives to her, every element of The Bride’s artwork was designed with a focus on telling the story. “I had very specific ideas about the lighting, the colours I wanted to use, the artwork, how we laid it out, the font, all of it is really enjoyable to me. It’s a universe; it all has to be right because it’s a 3D thing you need to step into so it has to cover all the bases.”

Creating the music is a very different process; compared to her instinctive eye for detail with imagery, writing is a more organic method. She likens it to going under an “ethereal, sacred spell, I feel like this thing wants to come through but it’s invisible and you can’t see it. It’s kind of like a vibration or a sculpture. I’m trying to make something that’s invisible and to me that’s a much more sensory and emotional undertaking.”

The way she composed the songs on The Bride was markedly different to writing her other records. She wrote the song titles first, decided what order they would run on the album and then created the words and music. Most of the titles came to her quickly, but some took a little longer to finish. “"Joe’s Dream" was called originally called "Don’t Say Goodbye", "Widows Peak" was "Bride in the Fog". "If I Knew" was there early as well, I just didn’t know what it was called straightaway.”

It sounds almost like how the chapters of a novel would be mapped out. “Knowing how it ends and then fulfilling the musical obligations of those titles but it didn’t feel like an obligation - it was a really nice construct to work inside. I knew exactly what each song had to say to move onto the next one to keep the character thread going.”

This linear approach has led to some describing The Bride as a concept album, which she rightly dismisses. “It’s a storytelling album. For me sometimes the concept album is… not a dirty word, but it’s related to quite cheesy things like prog. rock, not that I mind that, but I think it’s different to this.” They key difference is that whereas the concept album is renowned for its frequently overwrought, extraterrestrial narratives The Bride is a very personal, very human story. “I was thinking about The Wizard of Oz a lot making this record and those 1940s children/adult films about journeys of the soul through a psychic landscape and this is very much a hero/heroine’s journey through a psychic terrain. So in that way it’s more like a David Lynch film or a musical, rather than a concept album.”

She’s right in thinking a better comparison would be with films and records that are built around character arcs, such as Lou Reed’s Berlin or the Robert Mitchum film The Night of the Hunter. She bought the audiobook of the latter and marvels at its execution, which sounds like the inspiration for spellbinding spoken vocal on The Bride’s “Widows Peak”. “It’s got all these amazing, orchestral, lush, surreal sounding strings behind it. I just love those ways of having the spoken voice with music as the accompaniment. I’d like to do a whole album like that, maybe like a children’s album, but a dark tale.”

Khan took a course in short-story writing when she was a nursery school teacher and to prepare herself for the task of writing The Bride she revisited scriptwriting and read screenplays. “Learning about how you encompass a story in a small space, but eventually this became like a novel or a film in its scope, it’s like an hour long. I don’t know how I did it, it was just in me - it wanted to come through.”

Even though the lyrical narrative of the record was central to how she wrote it, she doesn’t view the words as standalone pieces; they have to intertwine with the music and are often dictated by the melody. “It is poetry but it needs to be written to music, I can’t just do it on its own. It’s not so much about the rhyming metre… it’s more about the syllables of the melody.” Her infectious laughter gets the better of her again. “I can’t really describe it in musical terms, the cadence of the words is so important. I’ll write a chord structure and then I know exactly how many syllables each sentence needs. On ‘In God’s House’ the rhythm was written on an Omnichord, so it was ‘dum-dum-duuum’ and it keeps doing that.”

At this point she sings the verse, clapping out the rhythm as she does so. As well as being treated to an a cappella version of the song, the impromptu singing reminded me that whilst the songs’ electronic splendour is a joy to behold, the vocal melody is astonishing and a key element in telling the story. Equal parts hopeful, angry, and fearful, the combination of major and minor keys guide the listener through how The Bride is feeling when she realises something has gone horribly wrong on her wedding day.

That’s not to suggest that the music in The Bride is anything less than fantastic, more just pointing out that the arrangements are just as important as the words and artwork as part of the narrative construct - matching the mood of the lyrics uncannily, forming that world she wants us to step into. The music moves from the reflective piano ballads that she’s always excelled at to more experimental electronica - the psychedelic eeriness of “Widows Peak” and the Tarantino-esque runaway bride guitars of “Honeymooning Alone”. As ever there’s the dulcet instrument that is her voice, which veers from the controlled falsetto of “Sunday Love” to the graceful intonation of “Land’s End” and the bittersweet happy/sad of “If I Knew”.

“I think putting someone on a pedestal and saying they’re going to rescue you and make your life complete is a huge mistake."

Prior to meeting Khan I Googled ‘the rules of storytelling’ and found endless theories on the subject, but the one that caught my attention was a list of twenty-two rules compiled by a former writer at Pixar, who like Khan, mix visual imagery with written narratives to tell their stories. I hand her the list to see what she thinks.

‘You admire a character for trying more than for their successes’ gets her approval. “I think there’s something about having an element of humble vulnerability, humanity and truth about my characters. There’s so many characters that are black and white and one-dimensional. Even in supposedly arty films sometimes the character arc is really boring. When a character isn’t just interested in getting ahead but they’re going through a process, that’s more resonating.”

The next one she picks out is ‘Come up with your ending before you write your middle’. “Endings are hard. I came up with ‘I Do’ first but I knew what the ending was.” She explains that she worked with the playwright Lucy Kirkwood on the script of The Bride to help to shape the story flow. “Once I’d really understood what my ending was then I could go back and really understand what the beginning was and also the middle particularly, because sometimes you’re like ‘What happened in the middle?!’ I think the practice of writing all those song titles, it’s almost like you’re measuring out incrementally what each song is meant to do. It feels like they each have a distance to cover, rather than having to say everything with one song, or one chapter or the last part of the film at the end.”

The other rule that piques her interest is ‘Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of?’ “With every album, no matter what characters you put into it, or who you embody in that moment it has to come from the heart, from a sense of understanding deeper than just the surface. If I can’t get really deep or Jungian or psychoanalytical about something then I don’t really enjoy it. Singing the songs is my own personal process; it makes me feel more complete as a human being and helps me to understand things.”

After reading the Pixar rules of storytelling she tells me that such a theoretical approach doesn’t completely resonate with her, that writers don’t always know where their best stories originate from. “They come from a magical place, not in an airy-fairy way, but if you’re really tuned in, you contemplate, you have quiet time and you read, sit and absorb other people’s work. If you think about life you’re a melting pot of ideas for your art. I think that all it takes is listening.”

She compares art to a beautiful mystery that’s like falling in love and if you fall in love with an idea it speaks to you. “It can’t help but be great if you’re listening closely enough. My advice would be take some quiet time, step out of all this external craziness and just go and do a bit of gardening!” Khan makes a point of walking for at least 45 minutes a day. “Take a walk in the park and think about ‘What’s your soul concerned about? What do you really believe in? What’s making your heart beat faster?’”

She’s done the same with the characters she’s created, such as when she donned a blonde wig and walked around New York as Pearl from Two Suns. On The Bride it feels like Khan’s storytelling is so immersive it’s like method acting, where she becomes the character. “It’s like I am her, although I don’t know whether it’s method-acting. I think it’s just an aspect of myself that I fall deeper into.” She thinks it’s more to do with understanding the psychology of who she’s writing about. “I don’t think I'd be a very good actress, because it has to come from somewhere real, so maybe it is method acting, as opposed to putting something on.”

Whilst The Bride tells her narrative in first person, the listener gets to know the character of the groom Joe through his absence and the impact that he had on his bride to be. Khan talks about him with a touching fondness, describing him as “a lovely person”. “I feel the role of Joe in the whole album and why the ending is so sweet is because aside from the tragedy he actually gives her the gift of self-discovery and self-love, by unconditionally loving her spiritually through the process.”

She compares the two central characters to the people we’re fated to meet in life, who have an indelible impact on who we are and the paths we take. “He was supposed to die, but I feel like they made a spiritual contract, where he made a roadmap for her of this honeymoon they were supposed to go on but he knew he was never going to go on it. It’s almost the perfect journey that he knows as a soul she needs to go on to become a fully-fledged woman and to find happiness.”

When I ask how Joe and The Bride first met Khan says that the finer details will be revealed in a novella of the story. Chapter one has already been published and ends with the words: “This is a journey she might have to make alone.” She’d like to adapt the novella into a full length film, “something really incredibly beautiful and fantastic and like nothing else that’s happening right now”.

She explains she uses the word ‘beautiful’ because, despite its inherent tragedy, The Bride is a story of true love and the opening “I Do” is in fact a red herring to set up the narrative reveal. “That’s an unattainable ideal, I think putting someone on a pedestal and saying they’re going to rescue you and make your life complete is a huge mistake. But she had to be in that place, to feel the lust to get to what real love is - which is companionship, generosity and giving someone the gift of happiness and contentment in themselves. You’ve got those troughs and peaks all fitting into each other.”

The Bride moves towards acceptance at the end of the story, reaching a closure of sorts after the celebration of love that is “If I Knew” on the heart-lifting “I Will Love Again”. The two songs flow into each other wonderfully and show Khan’s idea to decide on the titles first was a masterstroke. “That song is the understanding that all isn’t lost: that she’s a new person, retaining hope when you could choose to be cynical or become this hardened person - like in “Widow's Peak”, where the widows take you over and you’ll never get out. It’s the fact that she can open her heart to possibly loving again, who knows? But she knows that it’s there and that’s really reassuring to me. You can get heartbroken and cynical but it’s really important to remain open, because love is all there is at the end of the day.”

“If I can’t get really deep or Jungian or psychoanalytical about something then I don’t really enjoy it.."

That doesn’t mean The Bride will ever forget her tragic groom. The closing “In Your Bed” is a heartbreaker, a song of love and loss, happiness tinged with sadness that Khan wrote with the end credits of a film in mind. “It’s like flashbacks, her parting thank you for all the good times and the memories. It’s a reprieve. When I try and sing it live it’s impossible sometimes, all of the record, it’s just really full on.”

The live shows are also built around a storytelling aesthetic. The initial concerts have taken place in Churches with Khan wearing a veil and gown and the audience invited to dress as the congregation at a wedding. “When I played in L.A. I came down the aisle at the beginning in the dark and everyone stood up and clapped. People were really emotionally affected by it. It felt like coming to see a play rather than a conventional gig, the sense of ceremony and ritual. People seemed to lap up the excitement of coming together to witness something; we went on this journey together.”

I experienced this first hand at London’s Union Chapel and, as well as being the first time I’ve ever worn a suit to a concert, it was a live event unlike any other I’ve seen. The audience, unaware of the narratives reveal, shared The Bride’s blues as she gets lost in grief, before moving to a collective euphoria as she comes out the other side of the story’s emotional arc. I suggest to her that when she headlines the End Of The Road Festival she should tell the audience to wear wedding attire, which prompts another of burst of raucous laughter. “All their best clothes will be covered in mud, but maybe I will, that’s a good idea!”

Khan links playing live to her love of rituals, which she believes are becoming less important in modern life, where funerals and weddings the only significant rituals remaining. “There’s something to be said for marking pivotal moments in your life, no matter what it is. I still remember my 13th birthday, we had a cake in Paris and I’ll never forget it. Even in this quick, technological age we live in I don’t think people will forget that gig, of all the Bat For Lashes gigs, because I think the human brain really likes to punctuate things with ritual and being embodied by experience.”

She thinks that storytelling in music is suffering a similar fate, that it’s a ritual that’s been forgotten about. “Pop music doesn’t cover that anymore, people sat around a campfire telling stories, which to me is such an enjoyable, beautiful thing. Even though I didn’t become a religious person or a writer of fairytales, I realised that human beings have the spoken word and that’s what differentiates us from every other animal on the planet.”

Khan believes the reason we have language is to pass human experiences and ideas about humanity down through generations. “Storytelling for me is a construct that beautifies morals, ways to learn things and be a better human being. The world feels like we’re losing the good side of religious ideals - be kind to your neighbour and be part of a whole system of animals and creatures on the planet.” She passionately believes that one of the responsibilities a musician has in contemporary society has to include a storytelling role. “I feel like I care enough to want to pass stories on, so that people can contemplate the things I’m thinking about, not that the things I’m thinking are any better or worse, but just my experience and sharing our humanity.”

“We’re all vulnerable, we’re all soft and mushy people, we know we are."

Musically Khan hasn’t planned what’s coming next but she’s adamant she wants to keep writing stories until she’s in her seventies, citing Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell as role models, “or do a David Bowie and be doing it until the day I pop.” For now she feels The Bride is her most accomplished and confident record. Given the quality of the songs, music, and words her own opinion of her artistic progress seems irrefutable. I’ve listened to it on a daily basis for nearly two months, it’s so intricately layered that each time it reveals a nuance I hadn’t heard before, be that in the music or the words. “I just had such a strong idea of what I wanted to do, I feel like I’ve achieved that and I can’t believe it happened. This isn’t an apex but it has set a precedent. I only hope to get better at it.”

Khan feels she can create a singular genre for herself, “a place where I fit and occupy, ways of doing shows, things that are different to mainstream music. I feel like I’m carving my own thing and I don’t quite know where it will go but I’m hoping it’s somewhere really exciting, because I do see myself as a storyteller, I think I’m defining my own place.”

The art of storytelling may come in and out of vogue in music, but with The Bride Natasha Khan has written a record that has a timelessness that trumps such fickle fashions. No one in the world of pop music tells a story with her eye for character detail or makes a story so relatable. She’s expanded her approach to storytelling over an entire record and keeps you gripped from the first song the last, just as a great novel would - it’s an unbelievable achievement. It’s a record that reminds us of what matters - of how one story can change things, bring true priorities to the surface and of the importance of love - the inspiration for the greatest stories told. For Khan, love sums up The Bride, it’s the album she was born to make.

“Real love and deep love is a very elusive thing we all seem to be searching for. Everybody wants to love or be loved and I think it’s the most poignant mission.”

The Bride is released on 1 July. Pre-Order on Amazon or iTunes. Bat for Lashes plays festivals throughout the summer including End of the Road in September.
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