Bat For Lashes' Natasha Khan talks new LP The Haunted Man
On her last album, the gloriously extravagant and layered two-disc concept album Two Suns, Natasha Khan, alias Bat for Lashes created an alter-ego by the name of Pearl – a colourfully-dressed and made-up glamour girl whose persona she adopted while living in Brooklyn. Two Suns dramatised the end of a transatlantic relationship, and was influenced by the bands Khan encountered in New York, including Yeasayer, whose Ira Wolf-Tuton assisted with the production duties and electronic textures on the sprawling recording.
Three years on, and Khan is ready to return with The Haunted Man, and much has changed in both her visual aesthetic and her musical approach. Where the cover of Two Suns was an allegorical collage of mythical, magical and archetypal imagery, the cover of The Haunted Man is a stark, black-and-white shot by celebrated photographer Ryan McGinley. Naked, and sans make up, Khan stares unflinchingly at the camera, a stark man draped over her shoulders. It's a powerful, arresting image, conveying strength, femininity, power and vulnerability, and it gives several clues towards defining the sound of the album. Stripped-back arrangements underpin Khan's devastating vocal acrobatics, with her voice this time almost completely free of effects, delay and reverb. This is Bat for Lashes in the raw, in more ways than one – and yet many songs on the album are also celebratory, full of beauty and joy; a contrast to the more reflective, melancholy songs that echo the themes of her first two albums.
In person, Khan is open and upbeat, more than happy to discuss the genesis of the album and the risks she has taken in departing from familiar lyrical and musical territory. “The second album sounded very lush and layered; quite textural and dense,” she explains. “I'd been really interested in effects and delays. So when I started the demos at home in my studio for the new album, just instantly, my instinct was to put the vocal up really loud, without much reverb. I was writing these bold beats with very heavy basslines. There wasn't much music – it was just those elements. And almost instantly I recognised that this was the kind of template I wanted to work towards – a much more direct, stripped back approach.”
Her voice, free of effects, is revealed as a powerful instrument. “There was a lot of emotion,” says Khan of the studio process. “I was exploring my voice.” Once she had the core of the songs, she began “...colouring in the gaps with choice, beautiful performances and extras, or lovely things that could just come in and kind of... colour it in slightly.” The Haunted Man was produced by Khan, with assistance from David Korsten (who worked on her first two) and Dan Carey, also featuring contributions from Portishead's Adrian Utley, sometime PJ Harvey conspirator Rob Ellis, and Lana Del Rey collaborator Justin Parker. “From a construction point of view, this whole album was very difficult at times, but also very enjoyable,” she affirms. “I feel like over three albums I've learnt so much, about mixing, the production side. I feel very competent now, and I really enjoy the studio process, even though it's quite gruelling and long.”
Was this the dreaded 'difficult third album' then? What were the challenges involved? “I think the biggest challenge initially was that I was tired from touring the second album for so long,” confesses Khan. “I wasn't feeling grounded – I was feeling kind of lost really, creatively. The first challenge was just to let myself be at home in England, and do very normal things – I bought a kitten, and I did some gardening, bought loads of cookbooks, stayed at home in my flat and made myself healthy meals; I just kind of rebuilt myself as a person, I think, from someone who had grown tired and a bit disenchanted with music.”
Khan even considered giving up her music career altogether, but thankfully, she pushed through the hard times. “It was just a very long process,” she says. “It took a lot of soul-searching. There were very high expectations, and a lot of criticism, from myself. It was like getting blood out of a stone sometimes. The longer you go on, the better you want it to be, so your expectations rise and rise and rise, and you almost can't fulfil your expectations and do what you want to do. It just gets harder and harder.”
Brooklyn was a huge influence on Two Suns – was there a particular place that was important to the themes and genesis of The Haunted Man? “I think Brighton was definitely central,” Khan explains. “Maybe not Brighton specifically, but the seaside, and the Sussex Downs, the surrounding countryside. That linked in to Hertfordshire, which was the countryside where I grew up. I'd been watching films about the coast of Ireland, and I read Ring of Bright Water, which is set in the Highlands. So it was the connection to the whole British Isles, really, the connection to history. I was immersing myself in our whole culture.”
Would it be fair to call The Haunted Man her 'pastoral' album? She laughs before conceding to the suggestion. “I suppose so – there are songs like Lilies, which is about lilies up on the hill, and Winter Fields, and Deep Sea Diver, and The Haunted Man, obviously, which talks about coming over a hill... there are lots of references to landscape. I was reading a lot of Romantic literature; the Romantic poets. They were obsessed with nature – the force of nature as a metaphor for human experience. I suppose that always plays a big part, but I suppose this album is more pastoral... I don't know, what do you think?” Khan's musical laugh rings out again.
Given that the recording techniques and album art are so stripped back, will the new stage show reflect this aesthetic choice too? “It might be in a kind of modernist style,” hints Khan. “I'm very into dancers like Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch – they were these avant-garde ballet dancers who had really interesting costumes. I think I might bring some of that in, so it won't be completely stripped back.”
The collaboration with Justin Parker on Laura feels like a big departure – this was intentional, Khan explains. “I chose to work with Justin, because I'd heard his track Video Games [recorded by Lana Del Rey] quite early on when it came out, and I was really taken by it. I felt like I wanted someone to push me, and to teach me more about the traditional structural songwriting, with middle eights and chord progressions and things like that. It wasn't an easy decision to make, but once I'd made that decision we wrote the song very quickly. It was actually a really enjoyable process. So I'm glad that I've learned some new skills, and that I've made a departure, but it still sounds like me. It was very collaborative – I was involved in writing all of the music, and I even ended up arranging the horn and string parts myself, which I really enjoyed. So I've really taken it to my heart, and I feel like Justin is such a good person to bounce ideas off, because he's very generous, and he doesn't have a big ego. He wasn't trying to impose anything – it was more like, what do we want to achieve together.”
What it was like working with Ryan McGinley? “He was extremely charming and lovely,” says Khan. “He's very softly-spoken, a really lovely soul.” Khan wanted to recreate his shot Girl With A Wolf, but rather than having an animal draped around her shoulders, Khan wanted to use a naked man. “I met up with him, and he was totally up for it, he thought it was a fantastic idea,” says Khan. “It was very relaxing on the day,” she says, despite the fact she “had to stand in front of the camera for five hours, which was physically quite challenging. He made it very comfortable. I felt like we were making a beautiful piece of art; it didn't feel like a fashion shoot or anything like that, it just felt like we were all involved in making a beautiful image which was hopefully going to be iconic, and raw, and make a real statement. I feel like a lot of the 1970s albums, the covers of John & Yoko or Patti Smith, those were the records I admired as a teenager. I felt like we were kind of doing something similar. I hope we were. But it just felt really nice – it was great. I was really happy with it.”
Was the cover intended in any way as a feminist statement? Would Khan call herself a feminist? “It's really weird that you would ask that, because just last night I was lying in bed thinking about feminism, and I had this really amazing idea but now I can't bloody remember what it was!” She laughs again. “I definitely wouldn't class myself as a classical feminist. I think my work speaks about femininity, rather than feminism. For me, as a woman, it's not about being a feminist – it's about exploring all the aspects of femininity.
“The front cover of The Haunted Man depicts a lot of those aspects – the man could be a lover, someone I'm rescuing, so that's a nurturing feminine force; or it could be a lover I am trying to forget, and get off my back – that's quite powerful, and strong, and angry. It's also quite vulnerable. It could be very maternal, it could be sexual, it could be sensual. And I think that the album, over the three years that I made it, because I was at home just being me, I felt like there was a really rich array of emotions, and things which I was thinking about as a woman – childbirth, motherhood, sexual relationships, my relationships with my family, my relationship with nature. I also think that categorizing a man or a woman in a particular way can be quite dangerous. Each to their own – I think life is about having a love affair with yourself, finding out about you and who you are; all of the aspects off your personality, whether they are dark or light. That's the job of men and women. I think applying things like feminism or politics to a human being is a bit black and white, for me.”
That laughter again – quick and bright and earthy, without a hint of nervousness or self consciousness. Is Khan a happier person these days? “Yes, I think I'm much, much happier,” she says. “I think I've done a lot of growing up and a lot of maturing on a personal level. Generally I am quite a happy person – I laugh a lot. I muck around quite a lot. I think sometimes people are quite surprised, because the territory I explore creatively is often quite dark, and is shining a light on some quite subterranean things. I think I enjoy that as an artist. In the past, that's been a place where I can uncover lots of secrets and ideas, so the darkness has been quite appealing. But actually if I think about it, this album is much more true to who I am, which is definitely quite a smiley, happy, silly person!”
On Lilies, Khan sings the line 'Thank God I'm alive' – it's an emotional performance, and in many ways that moment embodies what Khan was trying to achieve on the album as a whole. “That's a very emotional sentiment for people to hear and for me to sing,” says Khan, “because of course it's very cool and rock n' roll to stay in the dark and slit your wrists over things. I think it's a lot harder and a lot more life-affirming to express joy and elation. I think it's quite shocking sometimes for people to hear those things in art, because it's so easy to go the other way and be dark and brooding. So I'm quite proud of that song, and the sentiment in that song, because it is about the joy of feeling alive, but also the difficulty and the vulnerability of being alive. It's very raw. But what else is there? If you can't feel those moments, then what's the point?”