With her third album, The Haunted Man, out this week, Natasha Khan (better known to the Mercury Prize nominations committee as Bat For Lashes), is back with one of the year’s most anticipated new releases. In doing so, she is also giving that nasty artistic bacteria, writer’s block, a decisive heave-ho.Featuring eleven new songs (or thirteen if you’re splashing out on the deluxe version), the record arrives after a worrisome spell of creative drought for Khan. Here she tells PlanetNotion about the painful process of writing songs, her creative involvement in music videos and the inspiration behind the new album.
You have spoken openly about The Haunted Man being the result of a lengthy period of writer’s block. At what point did you think to yourself: ‘Ah! I’ve managed to come out of that difficult stage’?
I don’t think I ever felt like I came out of it over the two-and-a-half years… [chuckles] It was quite sporadic. Ultimately, I guess you’re trying to find about fifteen good songs that feel right and it was quite intermittent. Not being able to get anything and then suddenly something amazing would happen and then it goes again for a while. You keep trying. I think I did consciously get more of a ball rolling about a year in, after finishing Two Suns. I was writing over the two-and-a-half-year period and in the first year I wrote a lot of songs that didn’t make it onto the album but were essential for the sake of writing anything. I did quite a lot of research, reading books and watching films. I went back to my old university and spoke to my tutor about some of the themes I was interested in and thinking about. So I think perhaps I felt blocked whilst I was still gathering the information, in a way. It’s hard to be gathering and giving out at the same time.
Which of the songs that made it onto the final cut came to you first?
It was ‘Horses of the Sun’ which, interestingly, is about coming home off the road, walking through the front-door and saying, “right, I’m back!”. All the garden is in bloom and everything is alive and it’s like coming back and having that feeling of returning to something more wholesome from the crazy music and rock’n’roll lifestyle.
Two Suns was somewhat of a concept album. Would you say that The Haunted Man similarly has a theme holding it all together?
No, I don’t think it’s a concept album in the same way that Two Suns was. Two Suns very clearly set out to use the metaphor of planets and the universe for a couple in a relationship. But this one does have things that run throughout it, like the British landscape and the sea and being nurtured but also haunted by past love-affairs or haunted by ancestry and patterns or paths that have trickled down and being conscious of not repeating patterns and things like that. And the haunted man is sort of a figure who permeates a lot of the songs but I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album as such. There are definite themes but it is altogether much less conceptual and much more personal, intimate and autobiographical.
Who is the haunted man for you?
I think the haunted man can be all sorts of people. He could be my son who has come back from a war, he could be my lover that I am missing, my grandfather… he could be lots of different archetypes.
Which song on the album was the easiest to write?
The ones that come quickly are sort of similar. ’Laura’, I’d say, came fully-fledged within two hours. ‘All Your Gold’ probably came within an hour. On the last album ‘Daniel’ happened within about an hour. It’s me sitting with my 16-track sequencer which has, like, thousands of sounds on it so I can programme beats, basslines, core parts, strings… and then I put my vocal on and get it down on GarageBand really quickly. That’s my initial way of doing it and then I’ll go to Logic and start producing it properly. But then the others took absolutely ages. Painstakingly slow. Layer by layer, taking bits out, putting bits in, deciding that things don’t sound right…
So would you say that there is a streak of perfectionism in the way you work?
Definitely! It’s painful. You just think “damn it!”. You have such expectations as to where you want to get with something and it’s not quite right. It’s very painful for me. You can feel when something is right because it clicks so I just keep searching until it is right but it almost becomes an obsession or madness. Very consuming.
Was it clear to you from the outset that the first sound you wanted people to hear from the new album would be ‘Laura’?
Not from the outset, no. It wasn’t until the album was pretty much finished that I had to make my decision about that. It was actually a choice between ‘Lilies’ and ‘Laura’ and the record company wanted me to go with ‘Laura’ more than ‘Lilies’ so I said ok but I wanted it [‘Lilies’] to be the first song on the record. I think that song is important. I love ‘Lilies’. But I do think ‘Laura’ was a good choice because it was a signal that I was touring and that I was back and that the album was due out within a few months and it was the opportunity to choose a track that they would never have chosen for a Radio 1 single or anything. So to put out something that is so stark and minimal and so different was quite a nice change. Not to be pressured straight away to put out your poppiest number. And luckily the reception has been amazing.
The video for ‘Laura’ is very striking. Did you enjoy making it?
I did. I came up with that treatment and gave it to Noel Paul who directed it. Together we had lots of meetings. I wanted it to look like a John Cassavetes film. There’s a film of his called Opening Night, which shows a theatre and the back-stage of the theatre a lot and I found it really interesting. I wanted it to have a very specific look. My friend styled it and I worked closely with her to get the look that I wanted and it was lovely because I had quite a production-ey, director-ey role in it.
And Marques Toliver, co-stars with you in the video…
Yeah! I’ve known Marques for years and he used to play live in Brighton, where I lived. Actually, about six years ago my ex-boyfriend sent me a video of him, saying he’d seen him singing on the Subway in New York and he said Marques had made him cry. And then I saw him in Brighton and I was, like, what are you doing here? We’ve become friends and he’s supported me several times. I think that, visually, he was great for that role.
The video for ‘All Your Gold’ is quite different to the ‘Laura’ video.
It was a 20-hour shoot in the freezing cold in Kent with me wearing monochrome leotards and dance costumes [laughs]. Visually, I think, it’s quite arresting. Noel Paul directed it again. We’re developing a very interesting visual relationship. He really understands the themes I like to go for and the references.
You’ve previously worked with brilliant quirkytronic singer-songwriter, Ben Christophers, and he has also contributed some vocals, piano and synths to the new album’s title track as well as the track ‘Marilyn’. How did you initially come to work with him?
David Kosten [long-term Bat For Lashes producer] introduced him to me. I was working on my first album and I needed a musician to play guitar and bass and David said, oh there’s this lovely musician called Ben Christophers. And he came in and we just became firm friends. Musically, we seem to be quite compatible so we’ve been playing together for years. He’s always involved in some way.
Would you ever contribute to one of his own projects?
If he asked me! I’ve not been asked… [laughs]. Maybe he doesn’t want me to. He’s probably sick of me!
When you’re performing songs you wrote years ago for the first album, do you find that they mean exactly the same thing to you as they did back then?
It differs. A song like ‘What’s A Girl To Do’… you know, every time I break-up with a boyfriend and I sing it I don’t necessarily think about the person I first wrote it about. It’s quite a universal theme. But then, a song like ‘Horse & I’, for example, always takes me back to being quite young and naïve and being excited about this musical journey I was about to embark on. ‘Bat’s Mouth’ really reminds me of this one particular person, whereas ‘Glass’ could be about an argument you have had with any lover. It really does differ from song to song.
You’ve had a bit of an ‘always the bridesmaid; never the bride’ thing going on with the Mercury Prize, for which both your previous albums were nominated -
[Natasha pretends to cry] –
How do you feel about the Prize and has not winning on both occasions put you off being involved in the future?
Well it’s actually terrifying going on telly and doing the performance and then sitting with all these people. I’m quite shy in those kinds of circumstances and I find them really nerve-wracking. And then also suffering public disappointment. It’s really grueling having to produce a reaction. I find it to be a bit of a circus. But obviously it’s also amazing because it has really helped me in terms of exposure and people hearing my music so I can’t knock it. It’s fantastic to be nominated and it’s quite high-profile. But, yeah, sometimes I have been baffled about who’s won, not because I wanted to win but, like… Amy Winehouse had been nominated and didn’t get it. I don’t want to be mean but sometimes I couldn’t understand the thought process behind it and felt that at times it may have been a political choice.
Who’s your favourite for this year’s win?
Alt-J. I want them to win.
Now that you’ve come out victorious from your battle with writer’s block, can you see yourself starting to write the next record quick-sharp on the double?
Haha. I still feel like I’m breast-feeding a new baby. You get very much into the mindset of the culmination of about three years work. I have had some twinges of perhaps sitting down at the piano, more for fun rather than thinking about anything new. I’m often quite strict with myself in terms of being in one head space or another. I’m now very public-outward but I’ll probably go inward again at the end of this album era, so in about 18 months or so.
Words: Doron Davidson-Vidavski
Photography: Ryan McGinley