Two Suns, the second record Natasha Khan made as Bat for Lashes, ended in death. In “The Big Sleep,” Khan – assisted by Scott Walker, at his ghoulish best – sang from the perspective of a dying drag queen, watching the Big Light blink out from her dressing room floor. It was the perfect distillation of everything Khan does best, combining High Drama with aching tragedy to chilling effect. As it turns out, concluding the record in that way – with the passing of a heavily-costumed, aggressively theatrical performer – was appropriate: When I meet Khan in the garden at the Bowery Hotel to discuss The Haunted Man, the aspect of the record she’s most emphatic about is its rawness. “I had really pushed myself to explore different production techniques – it was all very full and layered and complex, she explains.” And this time, I felt a really natural need to pull away from that and strip it all back. I wanted the vocal to be much louder in the mix.”
Accordingly, the subject matter on The Haunted Man is more immediate and, consequently, more wrenching, its songs giving equal weight to the impact of war and the fallout from collapsing relationships. The chief difference is that this time, Khan mostly plays the consoler, supporting wounded friends and encouraging the defeated. The album’s cover art is an extension of that theme: It depicts Khan, naked, carrying a man across her shoulders, conveying a sense of both strength and vulnerability all at once. As she sings to the doubting protagonist in elegiac first single “Laura,” “You’re more than a superstar.” It’s the kind of deep empathy and passionate support that can only come from a survivor.
I know probably everyone is asking you this, but it’s been three years since Two Suns. I was just kind of wondering what you’ve been up to.
Well, I needed to take a year to get over touring and the craziness that my life had become. And so I did lots of normal things like gardening, lots of cooking. And I was writing lots of songs, but they were kind of frustrating, because I wasn’t really ready yet. I guess I was trying to just live my life a little bit. So I did lots of art – I took up a life drawing class, I did an Illustration for Children’s Books course for a week, I made a film script with a friend, I made a couple of dance films.
What was the script about?
It was for a teenage kids’ film. I’ve put it to the side, but it’s something I’d like to take up again – it was just to give myself something to do. I worked with a screenwriter friend, and I just found that discipline really interesting. It’s all dialogue and action – which is what music is, really. I think by doing those things you keep the cogs oiled and the channels open. And I was also watching lots of films and reading lots of books, and slowly the themes of the record started to come forward.
You worked with Beck a bit on this record, is that right?
Very early in the process. I was feeling quite lonely, and I’d worked with Beck before, so I thought, “Maybe I’ll just take 10 songs out to him.” I just think he’s really playful, and he still has that childlike inquisitiveness – he’s just eccentric and funny and wonderful.
So we just did a really early session, and I think maybe a couple of songs survived – “Marilyn” and “Oh Yeah” were two of them. But the point was just to go out there and play and have fun and collaborate. I was telling him about all the filmic references [on the record] and he was like, “We can put them on while we’re playing.” And so we had films projected – we were watching, like, Purple Rain and Under the Cherry Moon, and he played Anna Karina films and Through a Glass Darkly. And we went for a walk to the sea every day – it was just really a nice “open the cupboards and let the air in.” I was just bouncing ideas off of someone to try to understand the palette of what I wanted to do.
I read an interview where you said that it was after you wrote what ended up being the title track that you started to unlock what the record was going to be about.
Yeah, both “The Haunted Man” and “Lilies” were the two songs that I wrote when I wasn’t really sure [where the record was going]. I had about 30 or 40 songs to choose from, but once I wrote those two, I felt like I finally had both the dark and the light aspects of the record, thematically. For me, “The Haunted Man” is about all the things I want to let go of – the burden and the weight of ancestral patterns that have come down through generations and caused strain, whereas “Lilies” is about being in that dead space where you might have let go of those things, but now you’re waiting for the next thing to happen. At the very end, there’s the “Thank God I’m alive” bit, and it’s really joyous and elated, and that was important to me. I think it’s really hard to get that sentiment across in music – people feel intimidated by pure joy and happiness, as opposed to the dark, you know, “I want to die” kind of thing.
You did some interesting things in the studio when you were recording the song “The Haunted Man” from what I understand.
We were fiddling around with these crazy synths from the ’50s and ’60s that were completely unpredictable. So that sound you hear at the beginning of the song [makes wooshing noise] is this weird electronic pulse that we looped. And some really personal, traumatic thing had just happened to me, so I played the chords and wrote that first bit. I had that first verse. And then I came up with the end part, which was all those female voices layered, and I thought, “Well, what connects the beginning, which is really personal, to the end, where I’m almost holding out my hand, like I’m on a hill in Sound of Music.” Of course, it’s the sound of the men coming back from war. And so I just wrote those lyrics for the men to sing. We recorded it in the mountains, but then we projected the vocals across a canyon and recorded the natural reverb, the echo that came back, to give this huge spatial sound.
You mention the notion of ancestry and English history – did you hear PJ Harvey’s last record, which dealt with a lot of the same things?
Yeah, I’d actually already written “The Haunted Man” when I heard PJ Harvey’s record, and I thought “That’s so cool.” It’s really felt like, in the last couple of years, this weird portal opened, and there were a lot of people talking about their ancestors, and soldiers in war and England’s history. When I heard Polly’s record, I was like, “That is awesome.” And then also, my family’s been doing a family tree thing for a while and we found lots of pictures of my Victorian great, great grandma, and we were going back generations and looking for connections. You know, the Islamic side of my family, people talk about how women have to cover up their ankles and their wrists and they can’t show anything – but literally 100 years ago in England women couldn’t show their ankles. They couldn’t let their hair down, they wore black, we had witch burnings. Society and man’s suspicion of women’s emotions and intuition is something that goes through all cultures. It’s not just an Islamic thing, it was a Victorian thing and an English thing. Christianity is very suspicious of women, slipping them into either the virgin or the whore.
I feel like, on this record, you’re very much playing the role of the supporter, of the encourager, the “shoulder to cry on,” which is very different from the last two records.
I feel like the first album is the child in me, the second is the lost and vulnerable woman, and this one is the more maternal, strong, nurturing aspects of my personality. I think I’m just peeling back more and more layers and getting closer to the center of who I am, and I feel like until I had explored all of those aspects, it was going to be impossible for me to integrate them. I feel like this record is my last archetypal, sort of “Way of Being a Woman” record.
Have you known any haunted men?
Of course. I mean, I guess when I was thinking about England and my family, in the last 150 years we’ve had two world wars. My granddad fought in a war. How did that affect his relationship with my grandmother? And how did that trickle down to us? I just think as a country we have an awful lot of repressed sadness and trauma that trickles down. And so the haunted man for me is a universal thing, but it also deals with the idea of being haunted by someone else, or haunted by your own preconceptions about things.
Those opening lines are crushing. (“I couldn’t sleep last night/ because I tried to forget you”)
I think there’s a lot on this album that deals with vulnerability. Love can only really thrive if you’re completely honest. I think emotional honesty doesn’t frighten people, I think it’s the drama and repression of real feelings that frightens people. I think if you can be like, “Look, I’m fucking needy as hell and I’m freaking out right now, what can we do about that” – that’s honest communication. And it’s tricky to find someone else who wants to do that with you, because it’s terrifying.
Well, because if you do that, and it’s not reciprocated or the person leaves, you’re sort of worse off than you were before.
And that’s really putting yourself on the line. And [the song] “The Haunted Man” is about something falling apart that felt that real. That sheer shell shock, the disappointment, feeling alone and not knowing what to do. I think for me, there’s an endless feeling of “I’m gonna stick by you and nurture you, and we’re gonna get through this,” even when you’re speaking really different languages.
I feel like you start to explore those issues a little right out of the gate with the album cover. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
As I started writing and recording, this much more raw direct intimate aspect was coming through. In the past I guess I’d been wanting to shroud myself in protection using things like layered reverb or even with objects – makeup and totems and visual symbols. And I just wanted to strip all of that away. At the same time, I felt like there was this trend of “faux-mysticism” happening in pop music that I’d become disenchanted with. You know, “Oh, stick a feather in it and even though I’m the most disgusting person ever, I’m suddenly really hippie.” I’d just grown really comfortable in my own belief, in my own skin and with my own connection to beautiful and magical things. And so the best way for me to show that was to work with [the photographer] Ryan McGinley, who celebrates rawness, wildness, natural bodies. He reminds me of Robert Mapplethorpe in that way. I didn’t feel vulnerable on the cover, I felt really empowered. I think I would have felt more vulnerable if I had lip gloss and fake tan and my boobs out, which we see all the time – those really sexualized, pornographic imagery. For me, this was beautiful. I just thought, “If I take all of this external stuff away, will I still be able to communicate strength?” And I think I can.