Interview: Bat For Lashes

Interview with Bat For Lashes

Bat For Lashes

Introduction

With her third long-player ready to go, Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan talked candidly to us about sexism in the industry, how she’s “letting go of ghosts of the past” with The Haunted Man and why she chose to bare all on the album cover.

Questions and answers

It’s been a while since we heard from you last; what have you been up to?

Lots of things! (Laughs) I toured the last album for two years, and I was really tired. I was trying to write but I didn’t really have anything to say, and it makes you feel rubbish if you can’t write anything that’s any good. So I spent a lot of time at my home in Brighton doing domestic things, and did lots of drawing courses, read lots of books, watched lots of films, bought a kitten...

How did the experience of writing The Haunted Man compare to the experience of writing Two Suns or Fur and Gold?

It was much less concentrated. Two Suns was fairly gruelling to write but it seemed to all come about from one particular time and set of experiences. Whereas this album developed over a much longer period of time, so I think it incorporates a lot more subtleties and more diverse subject matter.

I did a lot of production at home, worked on the songs with David Kosten and Dan Carey, and went out to Italy and LA to jam with other musicians and bounce ideas off of them and get inspired. And then I kept bringing things back and refining and editing it again.

Do you ever feel any pressure to conform to people’s expectations of you? Or do you find that being successful affords you more creative freedom?

It’s kind of a mixture of the two. Initially, I felt a lot of pressure, but it was from myself. My own critical voice is very harsh (laughs) and I’m quite a perfectionist, so I put pressure on myself to stay creative and innovative.

I think the perception is that the more successful you become, the more the record company should trust you to do what you do, and I think in some ways they are quite trusting of me. But, in terms of pop songs, I had quite a struggle with the record company. I don’t think record companies ever really trust someone’s vision because they’re frightened about commercial success.

"Laura" was the first track you unveiled from the album. It’s a beautiful ballad, but not really representative of the album. Why did you choose to leak that one first?

I thought it would be really nice to put out something as a signal that there was a new album coming. And because I knew [the label would] want to release the most poppy, mainstream song from the album, I just decided to put out a ballad. Which I do think is quite unusual... (Laughs) But I felt that it was a really good piece of songwriting and that this was my one opportunity to put something out there that was quite arty and had a lot of integrity.

It’s a pretty eclectic album: we love it. What did you want to achieve sonically with this record?

Thank you! Well, I wrote about 40 songs initially and when the strongest songs started to rise up, they definitely had two different elements. Half of them were quite romantic and poetic and organic and English, I suppose, and the other half were less minimal and quite dance-y, with lots of beats and heavy bass lines.

But, as the album progressed, I started to fill in some of the space: if they were organic songs, I’d put some electronic sounds in, and if they were very electronic, I’d try to put some real instruments in. So I think eventually I married up the two sides. I think it is a very eclectic album but I think that’s because it was written over a longer period of time. Sonically, I think it works as a family. I hope so, anyway!

Also, there are a lot of similar themes running through the record, like family and relationships and ancestry. It’s about letting go of ghosts of the past and running into this new, exciting place.

Were there any key musical reference points for the record?

I was in LA last Christmas, and I discovered an album by Active Child called You Are All I See, which I love, and have listened to non-stop for months and months. (Laughs) I also really enjoyed the Drive soundtrack and I was listening a lot to choral music. And I went to see Björk do her Biophilia live show at the Manchester Arts Festival. I found that really fascinating, particularly the way she used a choir and kinetic instruments. And then, I’ve been doing a lot of dance stuff and watching a lot of dance films. Actually, I think that was perhaps much more of an inspiration than music.

You mention being inspired by choirs: you can definitely hear that in "Oh Yeah"...

Yeah, though that’s actually a really funny old sample of these gospel singers. But yeah, there’s a few different choral bits on the album, like on "The Haunted Man", where all these men are singing in a war-time ditty kind of way.

And that song became the title track. What’s the significance of the title for you?

The title and the music marries very closely with the front cover. I think the haunted man represents some of my baggage to do with relationships, and me wanting to let go of that weight, those patterns. And I was looking back at my family history and the history of England. Like the men who have been haunted by war and then things like witch burnings: crazy things, that are actually quite close to us generationally.

So I think the haunted man could be all sorts of things – a lover that I’m really missing or that I want to let go of, or a son that’s been to war that I want to nurture – but, as a symbol, he runs throughout the album.

Speaking of the cover, it’s quite a brave statement! Was it your idea?

(Laughs) It was my idea... God knows why. (Laughs) I saw Ryan McGinley’s pictures, where he had these naked people with wolves draped around their shoulders, and I loved his work: it’s very raw and natural and wild-looking. So I just felt that the pagan-rawness of it was a much more stripped-back version of what I’ve done before, with symbolic references, and feathers and shamanistic imagery.

Also, when I imagined creating a photograph like that – with a man around my shoulders – I viewed it as a piece of art. So when it came out as an album cover I did think, “Oh my god, that is quite intense.” But I feel quite detached from it as Natasha; I definitely look at it as a “Bat For Lashes” piece of work.

I think that it’s really important to represent women in their natural, healthy state, without being super-anorexic, or super-massive. There’s been a lot of extreme, or provocative, sexual nakedness of women, so me standing there without make-up or any Photoshop trickery, is quite rare. In the 70s, that used to happen a lot, like with John and Yoko or Carole King or Janis Joplin or Patti Smith. I felt like I wanted to honour that tradition a little bit.

It seems like there’s been a lot of strong female artists emerging recently. Do you feel that there’s more equality in the industry nowadays?

(Sighs) I love all the female artists that have come out, and I think Anna Calvi in particular is superb. But I would say that, even in this supposed aged of feminist equality and female empowerment, I feel like in general terms it’s worse than ever for women.

I mean, look back at those artists from the 70s: Carole King would never have been famous nowadays, people would be like, “Get a nose job.” And I’ve seen people write comments about me saying, “She needs to get a rack.” There’s this really quite fascistic expectation of women and how they should be beautiful, or how they should have a particular visual look.

In the past, there were lots of [famous] people of all different ages, who looked like they came from all walks of life. Nowadays, even though there seems to be some kind of empowerment – simply because there are some really accomplished female musicians doing well on the alternative side of music – I think in general we’ve become quite objectified. It’s a strange dichotomy.

Ok, so back to the album: we heard you ran the new tracks by Beck?

Yeah, about 10 of the very early demos, of which probably only two made it onto the record. Beck was fantastic: we played and experimented with lots of different instruments that he had in his studio in LA, and he ended up playing on ‘Marilyn’ and ‘Oh Yeah’. But really, his role was to be a sounding-board; a creative contemporary who was very supportive. Because, as a solo artist, you don’t have a band that you can go to rehearsal space with and just try stuff out.

Is there anyone you’d still like to collaborate with?

Generally, when I’m working on an album, someone will come to me in my brain: y’know, I can hear that particular person in there. So for the first album it was Josh Pearson, and then on the second it was Scott Walker. And for this one it was more like choral male voices, in a layered away. But I do like to have that masculine counterpart. I wouldn’t mind singing with Thom Yorke one day, I think he’s got an amazing voice.

So do you have a favourite track on The Haunted Man?

I go through phases but I do love the romance of ‘Marilyn’. And I think the first song of each album tends to be a bit of a favourite for me, just because it’s a manifestation of the tone. So "Lilies", to me, encapsulates the frustration and the darkness of being stuck, but at the end there’s this epiphany – this huge release and resolution – and I kind of think that’s the theme of the record, in a general way. And I also like "Deep Sea Diver" because it’s so soothing and textural, and quite filmic.

You’ve been nominated for the Mercury Prize twice, and won an Ivor Novello: what’s left for you to achieve?

I’d love to have a single that does well on mainstream radio, because that’s how I got to know about a lot of really innovative artists that I love, like Prince or Kate Bush or David Bowie. And I think if I could cement some kind of reputation with this album, then it would afford me more financial support and more creative freedom to do things like making a dance film or some quite-theatrical productions.

Prizes are obviously a lovely by-product of what I do, but I just want to be able to carry on really, and not have as much pressure to sell out. (Laughs)