NATASHA KHAN can’t control the weather – at least, we don’t think she can – but today, the skies over London are eerily suited to the musician’s disposition. “It’s been a mix of thunderstorms and bright sunshine, so we’re getting a bit of everything,” she says with a cheerful laugh.
Khan’s musical pseudonym, Bat for Lashes, has thrived on contrasts of dark and light, melancholia and euphoria, disaster and triumph, since she released Fur and Gold in 2006. Its follow-up, Two Suns, pursued the dichotomic nature of her music further with the introduction of an alter ego, Pearl, who provided the reckless foil to Khan’s grounded, spiritual self. A brave concept, perhaps, but the album proved a hit and provided Khan with her most successful release to date, thanks to tracks such as the brilliant Daniel.
After a three-year break from recording, Bat for Lashes is back with The Haunted Man. In showbiz, a lot can happen in three years – not that Khan would know. She spent most of her downtime outside of the “crazy music-business world”, adjusting to normality and spending more time honing her domestic skills, rather than her creative ones.
“I’m definitely a firm believer in letting the work denote the amount of time it needs,” the soft-spoken singer says of the gap between albums. “My only responsibility in that time – initially, at least – was to get back to being myself again, and regroup and reground myself. I did a lot of drawing, I did a lot of dance, I made some ballet films with friends, and I did some gardening and lots of different courses in pottery and cooking . . . good, wholesome things that pleased me. But what was important about them was that they weren’t directly linked to making songs. The following two years were just a real mission, creatively: I wrote maybe 30 or 40 songs, and waded through all sorts of ideas and production treatments . . . It was very much like I was marshalling this album through a few years of living, I suppose. Trying to keep it on the straight and narrow.”
The Haunted Man is arguably Khan’s most focused work to date. She agrees that some of that is down to being back in England, after a period spent in New York living the big-city life that inspired much of Two Suns. In comparison, The Haunted Man, particularly the psychedelic folk of the title track, sounds like her “country” album.
“Well, inevitably, I had to come home at some point,” she says, laughing. “And actually, I was really happy to come home. I had always been trying to escape before, and suddenly I realised that I had a real affection for England – especially the landscape, and the history, and the people, with all its darkness and dysfunction.
“And I also really take a lot of solace in nurturing the landscape of Britain, and the whole of the British Isles, I think. Wherever I’m making an album, that landscape definitely becomes a dramatic backdrop on to which I can weave these much more personal, intimate tales, with that concept in mind. And that’s what I did, I think.”
That return to normality also gave Khan more time to find inspiration in more unusual ways. Songs came in different stages, but the opening track, Lilies, was written in less than half an hour after watching Ryan’s Daughter one afternoon.
“I just watched that film and it really resonated with me: just the landscape and the headiness and the feeling of parts of that film; it really pushed me to explore my feeling of frustration, and just feeling empty and wanting to be pregnant with either a child or an idea . . . It was like broodiness, or creative longing. I just sat on my sofa with the autoharp after watching it, and got my little notebook that I do all my drawings and stuff in, and I just had the lyrics immediately.
“Then there were others, like All Your Gold, which took two bloody years to complete, and drove me absolutely mental! I had Oh Yeah for months and months, too, and the lyrics came, literally, the day before I was meant to finish all my vocals on the album. It takes all sorts, I think.”
It may have been written piecemeal, but a sonic thread knits together songs as superficially disparate as the stark piano ballad Laura and the mystical, beat-driven experimentation of Horses of the Sun. Her experience – coupled with the fact she has worked with musicians as diverse as Scott Walker, Yeasayer and Beck over the past six years – brings a sense of newfound possibilities and confidence, particularly vocally, to The Haunted Man.
“I would say that vocally, on this album, I’ve come through a bit more than I did before,” Khan says. “That’s partly down to performing, and the fact that I toured and became a bit more confident with my vocal range – but also that production-wise, I made a bolder step to really raise my vocals in the mix and take away a lot of the reverb that I’ve been using, sort of as a cover-up, I suppose. So I’ve made it a lot more real and intimate; and it took some confidence for me to do that, but I feel like I’ve done it on this album.”
As much as The Haunted Man lays Bat for Lashes bare (quite literally, given the cover art) in a previously uncharted way, there remain questions over the direction Khan ultimately wants to take. She is a fiercely independent artist, yet she is signed to Parlophone and has supported major acts like Coldplay and Radiohead. Where does she belong?
“What makes my life slightly harder is that I try to straddle both of those worlds,” she says. “And it’s sometimes confusing to a lot of people who don’t know where to put you, or how to deal with you. I think sometimes that people would like to give me the same promotional campaign as they gave Lily Allen, but obviously they can’t; they have to tailor-make it to me, and the things that I would and wouldn’t do are very different to a mainstream pop act.
“I suppose I can’t help loving both worlds, and I’m constantly trying to balance the two. My most favourite artists are the ones who are really innovative and pushing boundaries and breaking boundaries, but they’re not so avant-garde that they alienate their audience. David Bowie’s a great example of that. He was super-art, expressive and inventive, yet he also wrote fantastic pop songs that spoke to a lot of people. And I think that’s my template, I guess – that in-between-two-worlds space. It can get a bit hair-raising when you’re on a tightrope between the two . . . I feel a little bit lost sometimes, and I don’t particularly know where I fit. I wish sometimes that I did fit in a more conventional place, because it might make things a little bit easier, but then I would never be happy with having to compromise.”
No artistic compromise, perhaps, but Khan’s constant references to domesticity, broodiness and a “normal life” (she considered returning to primary-school teaching between albums) perhaps hint at a shift in her work-life balance over the next few years. Like the weather, the duality of her personality is a force to be reckoned with.
“Oh, sometimes I threaten it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop making music,” she says. “But I think as I go on, my desire to move away from extremes and try to integrate these two parts of me becomes more pronounced. There’s the very extroverted, out-there, take-on-the-world . . . and thinking my destiny is to do music, and that’s all fantastic. But there’s the other half of me that’s so private and quite shy, and likes intimate relationships and is domestic. I feel like the secret to my success is possibly learning how to do both of those things.
“Hopefully, the more I create boundaries in my professional life – like not being away for absolutely years on end – then maybe I won’t need to rebel so much and feel like I have to take 10 years out,” she says with a hearty chuckle. “It’s about not pushing yourself too far in either direction. And I think I might be able to manage that.”
* The Haunted Man is out today