Bat For Lashes' first two albums were wonderfully witchy, electro-tinged fantasies, ripe with rich productions and poetic storytelling, propelled by the brilliant brainchild of the project, Natasha Khan. Fur and Gold and Two Suns launched Khan into the lofty realm of other prominent British artists; names like PJ Harvey, Goldfrapp, and Radiohead come to mind. But in the lead-up to album number three, Khan faced every artist's greatest foe: writer's block.
"Writer's block is terrifying for an artist...it is terrifying if you're desperate to create something and nothing's coming. I think a good lesson to learn is to deal with that, because it happens all the time and maturing as an artist and developing your skill is partly about realizing when to let go and see what other interests you might have or just have fun and lighten up a bit and not worry so much."
Thom York told Khan to draw. She also did some gardening, read books, baked cakes, and went back to her university to hang with her old art professor. By her own account, she nested until the songs came. First "Lillies", then "The Haunted Man", and later, a batch that would become an album by the same name. When she finished The Haunted Man two years later, Khan had a very different sort of collection on her hands; a more minimalist affair where beats, programming, and synths all seemed to bloom a little slower than previous records. More organic elements infiltrated her craft as well. Her voice too, had changed ever so slightly; more delicate, wispy, as if meandering on air currents from far off places, hitting the listener at the perfect, trance-inducing time.
It's a new aesthetic that's captured beautifully in our session with Natasha. Joined by collaborator Ben Christophers, Khan performs exquisite versions of The Haunted Man's "All You Gold", "Laura", and "Lillies", as well as "Lumen", an unreleased, special treat for the occasion. In between performances, Khan tells of her journey with The Haunted Man. If you've been a fan of Khan's work over the years, consider this essential viewing. If you have not yet experienced her music, we are certain that our session with Bat For Lashes is a spellbinding introduction to one the world's greatest, pure creative talents.
Never see the big church steeple when I call you on the phone Never feel the rush of angels, when we stay up late alone Never whisper you a great love story, only scream and cry and moan But you're a good man, but you're a good man I keep telling myself to just let go, oh, oh Let go, of the one who took all your gold I get home and there's a love note waiting But only he is here tonight And the words, the promises you're making, only echo all his lies And for every sweet nothing you whisper, why is goodbye my reply? 'Cause you're a good man, 'cause you're a good man I keep telling myself to just let go There was someone that I knew before A heart from the past that I cannot forget I let him take all my gold, and hurt me so bad But now for you, I have nothing left of, all my gold It's turned my heart black, am I ever gonna let him go? Get my gold back And today I was a dead girl walking, see the light burn through my tears Heard you say my name and get to talking of the love and all the fears And you saw all the pain I was holding, and yet still you'd hold me near Cause you're a good man, cause you're a good man I keep telling myself to just let go There was someone that I knew before A heart from the past that I cannot forget I let him take all my gold, and hurt me so bad But now for you, I have nothing left Cause there was someone that I knew before A heart from the past that I cannot forget I let him take all my gold, and hurt me so bad And now for you, I have nothing left of all my gold - I guess the more acoustic sector is definitely closer to how the songs started out maybe how I wrote them, and, for example "Lilies" was just me and the alter-harp, that's how I wrote that song, and All Your Gold was just my voice and and the old harp sound I started out with. So I guess today it is a bit more stripped back and probably more like the demo, yeah. "Wounded Man" is a lot of different things, but I think he definitely features all along the record. He could either be a lover, or a soldier coming back from war, or he could be my granddad or he could represent the ancestry of England and sometimes represents nature. I think the "Wounded Man" in general, is the concept of something or somebody or past relationships that I'm trying to let go of and move through and become kind of, hopeful and joyous about that process. Shaded curl up in a coat Of a sleeping man He reached inside her dress A glowing tear spilled on them both And a lighthouse beamed, it softly spoke Lumen, Lumen Lumen, I'll see you again Too still to life Swim in the lake And fall down drunk And roll around I found all the hurts I see them both Throughout the nights Clean out the ghosts Lumen, Lumen Lumen, I'll see you again - If you are not pushing yourself into territory that's frightening then I think you're kind of sitting on your laurels a bit, I think there's bravery in this record in terms of the fact that the vocals are very up-front. There's quite a lot of emotional intimate, interaction between the listener and me. I think I really laid myself on the line, with my emotions and being quite open about things. For me, the artwork was done by Ryan McGinley We worked together on that image and kind of, the concept came into my mind and I kind of went to him and asked him, 'cause it was based a series of photographs he did with animals and naked people. What I wanted to represent was not something that we see a lot nowadays, which is like a very sexualised representation of the female body and I think it has a lot to do with male gaze and... And I think that has its place but I think it has become quite one dimensional and there is also this kind of ideal that lots of people are trying to aspire to, which I think is really unrealistic kind of superficial. For me, I wanted to represent the feminine energies or something, that's not just sexual or sensual but also really powerful and or nurturing or kind of strong and angry or you know, like the warrior, or maybe like the mother or the lover, that's kind of dealing with all the weights and burdens of her man. You say that they've all left you behind Your heart broke when the party died Drape your arms around me and softly say Can we dance upon the tables again? When your smile is so wide and your heels are so high You can't cry, put your glad rags on and let's sing along To that lonely song And the train that crashed my heart You're the glitter in the dark Ohh, Laura, you're more than a superstar And in this horror show I've got to let you know Ooh Laura, you're more than a superstar You say that you're stuck in a pale blue dream And your tears feel hot on my bed sheets Drape your arms around me and softly say Can we dance upon the tables again? When your smile is so wide and your heels are so high You can cry, put your glad rags on and let's sing along To that lonely song You're the train that crashed my heart You're the glitter in the dark Ooh Laura, you're more than a superstar You'll be famous for longer than them Your name is tattooed on every boy's skin Ooh Laura, you're more than a superstar, You're the train that crashed my heart You're the glitter in the dark Ooh Laura, you're more than a superstar And in this old horror show I've got to let you know Ooh, Laura, you're more than a superstar You're more than a superstar - Writer's block is terrifying for an artist. I think it's the worst thing that can happen, well not the worst thing, but, it is terrifying if you're desperate to create something and there's nothing coming. But I think it's a good lesson to learn, is to learn to deal with that because it happens all the time and I think maturing is not just to ... developing your skill is partly about realizing when to just let go. And pursue other interests and just have fun and lighten up a bit and not worry so much. I did drawing classes, I did some gardening, I went back to my old university, hung out with my art tutor, and read books and baked cakes, and kind of just nested, I suppose, at home. I suppose all of the creative things I do feed into the albums and the album feeds into them, I suppose. It's a whole process and I don't think that I can really separate them all but the drawing, and writing and the music all grow together as a kind of fully formed being. Over time, I think I'm just constantly plowing in and putting stuff into the whole concept and it grows as a kind of entity, I suppose. Betray her if you will. Fell to the floor on blackened knees And all the trees fell still Press my hands between my thighs And pour the thistle milk Beg the thunderbolts to strike And mark me as alive The lilies on the hill Oh, the lilies on the hill Oh, the lilies on the hill, centered night In the second before escape And in the second before sleep Did I believe what I did see Did I believe what came to me Fear the figure of a man waving upon the hill To window I run and saw what he had sent Children of a private world to be conceived in milk A hundred marching to my door or bringing dreams to drink Thank God I'm alive Thank God I'm alive Oh, the lilies on the hill Oh, the lilies on the hill Oh, the lilies on the hill Scented night
Album number three. In the trajectory of any recording career, it's a milestone. But it's one with a mythology so powerful it's become a syndromic clich, around which swirls a dread that threatens to swallow its (supposedly) panicking creator. For plenty of artists, the "difficult third album" can loom like a hurdle of K2-scaled monumentality. How the hell might you tackle it, is the question. The answer, if you're Bat for Lashes, is you simply climb higher and through that, conquer your fears.
The creation of Natasha Khan, Bat for Lashes first captured hearts way back in 2006 with a set of distinctively haunting and rich, darkly phantasmagoric songs ripe with magic realism. Her sensual and gilt-decorated dream world was opened up in two Mercury Music Prize nominated albums, the atavistic, reverb-drenched Fur and Gold (2006) and 2009's more electronically poppy Two Suns. The latter featured the irresistible Daniel - which won Ms Khan an Ivor Novello award for Best Contemporary Song - and was recorded in London and across America.
In the wake of its success, Khan was left in a migratory, unfixed state and a not altogether certain frame of mind. Coming off a heavy tour and after the end of a trans-Atlantic relationship, she decided some self-nurturing was in order and resolved to take as much time as was needed to make her third album. "I felt quite drained and tired, creatively," Khan remembers, "so I decided to get back to this really domesticated existence in my flat in Brighton. I felt like I needed to be immersed in nature and have a quiet, reflective time." That involved working on dance films, writing a script, children's book illustrations, a spell of volunteer gardening at Charleston House in East Sussex (the Bloomsbury Group's country retreat) and going back to Brighton University for some informal tutorials with her old art teacher and reading recommended books. One of these, 'The Enchantment of Art' provided a small epiphany and planted a seed of change in her approach to what was to become The Haunted Man.
"I found it interesting," she says of the book, "because I'd felt quite disenchanted myself and needed to find the magic again. It's about how modernism is all to do with the individual, and the fact that your worth is measured in how different and inventive you can be. The more we get into post-modernism, the harder it is to feel that you're doing something that hasn't been done before. I was trying to navigate fresh waters and find something new to say with the third record, and a lot of the book talks about getting back to nature sacred spaces and about communal, collaborative activities."
Khan invited Scott Walker and Yeasayer to contribute to Two Suns and worked with Beck on Let's Get Lost (from the 2011 soundtrack to 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse'), but collaboration isn't something she has fully embraced until now. On The Haunted Man she racks up a co-songwriting first with Laura. This devastating, tear-stained swoon of a piano ballad, which tips its hat at the '70s pop greats - Elton John, Neil Diamond, The Carpenters - and features seductively sombre horns and strings (arranged by Natasha) was co-authored by Justin Parker, best known for his work on Lana Del Rey's chart-topping Video Games.
Khan's aim with that song was "to learn something about writing a standard, because my chord progressions are naturally more subversive. The concept of a middle-eight is really foreign to me! It was like doing a workshop in songwriting, and I think it's really helped me see where you can go. I've always been a bit snobbish about the idea of writing with somebody else, but when I looked back at a lot of artists I admire and respect, it turned out they had often co-written their songs." Relinquishing her idea of "ownership" a little isn't the only change Khan has made with this record. She's also upped the contemporary beats ante (she's as big a fan of Lil Wayne, Rihanna and OutKast as she is of Kate Bush and Steve Reich), turned up the volume on her vocals, experimented with harmonies and production, and at times opted for unusual contrasts over straightforward complements. It's a bolder, more direct album that's achieved Khan's aim of "clearing away a lot of the fog", without sacrificing any of her trademark sensuality or emotionalism.
Autoharp and piano again feature, alongside strings, horns and synths/samplers, but they are used in a more expansive and jubilant manner. Lilies ignites a gorgeous conflagration of strings, through which Khan's triumphant "thank God I'm alive" cuts like a freshly sharpened scythe through long grass. Horses of the Sun moves to a more tribal and incantatory beat and All Your Gold dazzles with its mix of electronic beats, echo-laden synths, strings and sudden blurts of electric guitar. The fx-heavy Marilyn is the album's most romantic, playful track and features Beck, who was the first person Khan took her new songs to for feedback in May of last year, when she stayed with him and his family in Malibu. Most intriguing is Oh Yeah, which meshes a male voice choir with grimy hip hop beats, psychedelic synths, flanged guitars and a piano outro, without once losing its way.
The title track is one of the album's two pole stars. Khan sees it as the record's "godfather", representing the trauma of loss and miscommunication (with the other being the more hopeful 'Lilies', exploring creative resurgence, love and sensuality). 'The Haunted Man' is an overwhelmingly lovely song, poignant and ghostly, but with a strong restorative charge and was inspired by David Lean's movie 'Ryan's Daughter', which is set in 1916 against the backdrop of the Irish conflict. Explains Khan: "I thought: What if all the soldiers came back from war and yours was the only one who didn't return home? I wondered, if your soldier did come home, how as a couple would you cope with the experience of being tender again. It's about women waiting, and carrying the weight of men's mistakes and it's about our desire to communicate, even though we sometimes speak different languages." This was one of several songs she worked on with Rob Ellis, when they and other players decamped to a house in Perugia last summer, and it involved projecting massed male vocals across a canyon with an amp, then recording the slapback - a sonic metaphor for the men returning over the hill from war.
The Italian sessions were - like her trip to LA, where Khan also spent a couple of days swapping ideas with producer David Sitek about finding a way forward for the album, "a collage-like process" which lasted for over a year. The Haunted Man was co-produced by Khan with David Kosten (as were both previous LPs) and Dan Carey, who she says did "an amazing job, setting up old drum machines and putting them through a load of old amplifiers and mic'ing those up around the room." Further contributors include guitarist and producer Adrian Utley and venerable arrangers John Metcalfe and Sally Herbert, who both worked on orchestrations alongside Khan, for the recording session at Abbey Road.
Other changes Khan effected ran deeper than the album's sonics, and involved her making important bloodline connections and observing generational patterns, leading to an exploration of her own ancestry. The idea of place - geographical, emotional and spiritual - has always been important in her music and the nomadic Two Suns was very much to do with America. This time, Khan decided to put her roots down in her homeland, resulting in a very English record.
With this rediscovery of her roots and beloved home, The Haunted Man is the most autobiographical of Khan's records so far. "On this album there are more jubilant, overwhelmingly ecstatic songs and I don't think I've really accessed that part of myself before. I feel those things all the time, but hadn't really expressed them in a musical way. It's always been easy for me to be atmospheric and look at the darkness - and I do love that side of art and music - but I think it's much harder to be unabashedly joyous and vulnerable and happy. I wanted to challenge the creative patterns I'd set myself in and also to just surprise myself. I'd bored myself. So, out of that came some very lovely and some very challenging moments for me as an artist. But I think it's very important to be challenged. It's a good sign to be scared, I think!"
Surprised. Challenged. Scared. That might sound like the very definition of a "difficult third album." But it's only in the telling of this confident and openly expressive record, not in the listening. And it's clear that Natasha Khan wouldn't have had it any other way.