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Bat For Lashes

Stripped Bare

Oct 24, 2012 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Though every artist has his or her own trajectory, Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan seemed like the kind of songwriter whose creative gestures would only become more and more elaborate with each successive release. Having made a creative leap from her 2008 debut, Fur and Gold, to the conceptually adventurous Two Suns in 2009, she emerged as an artist whose work would likely only get more and more complex and ornately adorned. Yet when she sat down to work on her third album, The Haunted Man, she found herself moving in precisely the opposite direction. Khan wrote, recorded, and produced her new music on her own, stripping her songs down to their fundamental melodies, rhythms, and vocals. As a result, her songwriting feels even more intimate and immediate than before, her richly evocative voice exposed and vulnerable in the mix. Despite being more straightforward, it’s still conceptual art, this time dealing with the burdens of cultural heritage and personal history. That concept was translated into the album’s cover photo—a striking shot of a naked Khan with a nude man slung across her shoulders—a haunting image that captures the threadbare essence of the music perfectly. Speaking from London, Khan explains how she reconnected with her roots, the concepts at the foundation of The Haunted Man, and her now-infamous album cover.

There’s an article on Bat For Lashes in the print version of our forthcoming Fall Issue of Under the Radar. These are extra portions of our interview, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print issue article on Bat For Lashes. The digital/iPad version of the issue includes an even longer, more in-depth, version of this interview. So be sure to check out both the print and digital versions of our forthcoming Fall Issue for much more from our interview with Bat For Lashes.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So when you started writing the songs for The Haunted Man, did you realize you were making a more stripped down record?

Natasha Khan: Yeah, I guess I did. I came out of making the last record feeling like I’d really explored the conceptual side of things, and it was a lush, multilayered, sonically dense record. So when I started writing the demos and doing production at home on my own, without realizing it, I started making demos that had very loud vocals and I was stripping away all the reverb and making them really dry and present and putting in super loud beats and bass lines and not much else. From the outset, I think I was subconsciously wanting to make something much more stripped back. So that’s how the record sonically began. Also, I made a decision, for sanity reasons, to stop traveling around so much and spending so much time in other countries. I really wanted to make a record about being in England and just being at home and privacy and being in one place to see what would come out of that lack of chaos. It was kind of the opposite of the second record.

And you studied some of your family history while you were writing this record?

I did do some of that. I did research into looking at religious art and folk music of both England and my dad’s country, which is Pakistan. And looking at Iranian and Mongolian folk music and listening to the connections between that music and English folk music. And looking back at how women have been represented or treated in both cultures. We discovered some pictures of my great-great grandmother in there, like in Edwardian and Victorian dress, which in England was extremely austere, high necks and they weren’t allowed to show their wrists or ankles or have their hair down. It’s very similar when you look at the Islamic side. In England, we are so shocked about women having to cover themselves up, but it’s only been 100 years ago that English women had the same treatment. There were a lot of similarities that I found fascinating. Also, there’s been a lot of suspicion of feminine power and feminine ideals in the Pakistani side, but when I look at my English history there are the witch burnings on that side, too. That was really interesting to me, those ideals and patterns that trickled down the generations. Where do I stand with that recent history and trauma that happened to women, but also to men, in the fact that my grandfather fought in a war? There are all these rich historical things that created us as a nation and how we feel.

And that’s where the idea of the haunted man comes from, this idea of a burden that you have to carry?

I guess I can only talk for me on a personal level, and I guess from that front cover image, there’s that aspect to it, that it’s a burden that hangs over you in some ways. But I think there’s a liberation aspect to the record, which is about letting go of the weight, or trying to. There’s a kind of shift in that dynamic for me and in this generation, letting go of the weight of that haunted character.

Did that photo more or less turn out as you were intending?

Yeah, like, exactly how I envisioned it. It was strange, because in my mind I had that one image, and it looked very much like the one we chose in the end. But we did it a whole bunch of different ways, and I was picking him up and we were doing different angles and different expressions. But once I saw that particular image, I knew that was the one.

What have you thought about the attention the photo has gotten?

I don’t really know how much attention it has got, because I don’t really look at any responses online or anything like that. There was the not fit for work thing, but I don’t know. I’m not really aware of that much of what people are saying about it. I don’t know how much attention it’s got. It’s difficult for me to gauge, really.

You must have known that it was going to be a really striking photo, the sort of thing that can become iconic.

I didn’t really realize what I was doing at the time, when we did it. And when it did come out, people were saying “Were you inspired by John and Yoko’s album cover or Patti Smith?” And I love that stuff, but I didn’t think of it in that context. I guess it’s interesting, because in this day and age, there’s so much nudity, but it’s done in a way that’s very sexually provocative and polished and it’s photographed and blown up and it’s just tits and ass. I knew that I wanted to do a shoot with no makeup and no retouching, and I wanted it to be really raw, but I didn’t realize quite how that hadn’t been done for such a long time. I am proud of it as an iconic image. I do hope it becomes something that people remember, because I think it’s powerful and a good piece of art.

Was it important to you that this album ultimately end on a positive note?

I think there was definitely a desire on this record to represent not just the darkness but the light, as well. I felt that a lot of the brighter, more joyous or celebratory aspect to myself had a chance to come through. I think on the second album there’s a lot of darkness. Not one dimensional but one flavor, not to mention a particular period of time. But because this is over two and a half years later, and I’m obviously—hopefully—a more well-rounded human being now. I’m actually quite a happy person, and I think I’m also aware that I wanted to… when I represent the dark, to present a way out of it. Something blossoming and joyous and growing and some excitement about the future, as well as releasing the past. It’s definitely quite a healing record. Songs like “A War,” which is all about when you see a wall or a nurturing voice. Or “Deep Sea Diver,” the last track, is about letting your hair down and tasting the rich, good things in life—the small but rich things. They all come towards the end of the record, after “The Haunted Man” song and the more difficult songs. Ultimately, it’s quite a joyous record and quite happy, which I really love, because that’s me. I’m definitely not a sad, doomful person.

It seems like this must have been a very freeing album to make. At this point, it would seem that you can do whatever you want creatively. That must be exciting.

I hope so. It’s actually terrifying. It’s the most frightening place to be. [Laughs] But you have to scare yourself.


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November 3rd 2012

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