Character studies: an interview with Bat For Lashes

There’s a trace of eyeshadow on Natasha Khan’s eyelids. Although the café we’re in is dimly lit, even a little smoky, I can make out faint lines of blue when she moves her head to the side, sweeping strands of black hair out of her eyes.

As Bat For Lashes, Natasha is known for bringing her surreal musical worlds alive. The release of her fourth album sees her adopting the persona (and neon makeup) of The Bride, a woman whose fiancé dies on their wedding day. The idea came while Natasha was developing a script for the short film I Do (which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York earlier this year), and became increasingly interested in the emotional landscape of the bride-to-be. Out of a sketch of a burning car and collage of 1940s pictures grew a desert universe inhabited by Elvis impersonators, vagabonds and cults of women. The song titles came first, like scenes in a film. Natasha then wrote the music to the titles with an electric guitar and omnichord, a kitsch 1980s instrument from California that she describes as “a weird electronic harp”.

Photo:  Clare Hewitt

But beneath the conceptual theatricality and Lynchian aesthetic, the subtly intricate songs explore Natasha’s own experiences with relationships and commitment. This September marks 10 years since her debut album Fur and Gold was released and The Bride revisits the misty, long and winding roads of those early stories. The wide-eyed girl who leaves her partner on ‘What’s A Girl To Do?’ as the embers of romance start to turn cold has grown into a woman eager to explore the more shadowy territory of why that is. Does love equal happiness? Or are both love and happiness way more complex than the first trembling touch of any budding relationship?

As The Bride slowly comes to terms with the loss of her fiancé, she’s also coming to terms with herself. A glow of hope is ignited towards the end of the album as Natasha’s clear-cut vocals entwine with a comforting bass line: “One of these nights, one of these days / I will love again.”

When The Bride sets out on the honeymoon alone, it seems like she goes on an internal journey, in comparison to what she would have experienced with her husband.

I think she has to go through the dark nights of the soul to love again and find a place where she can be strong in herself. Sometimes we think of a husband as life being complete, like everything’s sorted out because you met the man you love. Even if you’re with someone, you’re always doing the journey alone internally. A relationship can sometimes be a nice distraction from having to do the work on yourself.

It seems like the story can speak to different forms of loss.

If you take away the narrative arc, the story can apply to any form of loss. Or something being taken away from you that you thought constructed your life or defined you. What do you do in those moments? Often what happens is a real thing of beauty. You don’t know where you are, but sometimes the dark abyss of the void gives birth to something new. We’re all in a bit of a void at the moment. There seems to be this feeling of uncertainty or confusion. Things are changing really fast, time’s speeding up. There’s a feeling of loss for me about the innocence of the time before. Singing these songs helps me connect with something deeper and more internal. I realise now that I’ll always be making music, no matter if I release it or not. It’s just my best friend in that way.

You’ve used personas before in your music. What’s the power in that for you?

Paradoxically, if you work within the construct of a character you can be more vulnerable. There are boundaries and underneath that you can get quite deep, emotionally. This time I found it a real permission-giving device. It was nice to say “this is who she is” and then delve into the feelings and the story, because they’re all part of me.

Are you similar to The Bride?

Definitely. The Bride has come out of something personal to me, where I’m questioning relationships and what’s supposed to make you happy versus what actually makes you happy, going past the romantic beginning of things. I think the death of the honeymoon and moving into reality is an important gateway into true love. To me, true love is a hero’s journey and you have to be a fucking badass person before you decide to go on a hero’s journey with someone else, because it’s hard and it’s deep and it’s real. As soon as you get with someone, the deterioration of them will occur. You’re expecting death and permanence and all these weird things about commitment and going through cycles with somebody else and tolerating those things and not wanting to escape or have that quick, drug fix of something new.

Do you believe in committing to someone fully?

It might sound ironic, but I do. Human beings do really well when they commit and work through stuff, but a lot of people are reluctant, because we aren’t brave enough.

Does that duality resonate with you – the freedom of the individual versus committing to love and compromising your own wants and needs?

There’s a duality to everyone, not just women. The greatest relationships are those where you feel that you’re compromising out of love and in a respectful way and you’re both encouraged to be who you are. It’s a balance you have to strike. There’s a balance to everything, though, like ‘career or kids’ or ‘New York or London’. If you stay in the middle, you’re living a wishy washy life. Sometimes when you make a decision and commit, you get a much clearer idea of what you want.

How do you feel about that in terms of your career? Is that something you struggle with?

Definitely. I’ve dedicated a lot of my life and time to music and art and creativity and it’s hard to balance a personal life with that. Also, I’m getting to that age now where I don’t want to be the person who makes art and forgets about real life. Considering what I do, I think I’m quite grounded. I have a garden. I cook all the time. I have my own little house. I’m close to my family. I’ve got lots of friends. But it’s been a struggle and in terms of marriage and kids, I’m quite far behind my friends and people I know.

Photo:  Clare Hewitt

Is solitude important for you in terms of creativity?

It’s essential for creative people to have that quiet time of reflection and discipline and capturing your thoughts. I think the quality of art and music is going downhill because people are constantly on their phones and can’t fucking think for themselves. Just the act of reading a book is a gentle feeling, whereas flicking through articles on your phone is a hard feeling. I try to encourage everyone who’s younger than me - because I’m sounding like an old lady now - that what’s important if you want to be a good artist is not to care what other people think. Get off your phone. Stop looking at the new trendy thing and Pinterest boards. What’s your soul, the recesses of your being, interested in? What are you intuitively picking up and why? Usually it’s much richer than just the surface of what everyone thinks is cool. Or maybe I’m just being grumpy.

Has success changed that for you or are you still making music without an audience in mind?

The times when I’ve tried to write for other people are the times when I’ve written the worst songs. ‘Should’ is the worst word a creative person could use. I think of myself as someone who’s the keeper of this creativity. It’s not mine, but it’s my responsibility during this lifetime to look after, uphold and protect it. My role as Natasha when the music comes is to create that sacred space and keep it as pure as possible. I refuse to think about what people would think until much later on, during the production process. Two brains can really help hone and sharpen something, but when I’m seizing the idea, fuck off everyone. Leave me alone!

How do you grasp or channel the ideas when they start to flow?

I write in my notebook. I take little polaroids and stick them in or cut out pictures of actresses from old films. I draw a lot and write words next to the drawings. The first thing I drew for this album was all these mountains and a car on fire, before the story really came. Or I sit down with an instrument and just start playing.

I find internal worlds and imagination so interesting. Stories can sometimes seem more real than the real world.

It’s hyper real. It’s all about perception isn’t it? The Bride has become real. She started off as a thought in my mind and now you can see her. She exists. That’s the beauty of imagination. The places you go in your mind, I think, are just as real. That’s why we love to see the product of other people’s imaginations, whether novels or poetry. I love the idea that there’s a mysterious, uncanny place that we can tap into when we write or make things. The idea of a collective unconscious and the zeitgeist... it’s a language we all understand.

This interview was originally published in issue 32 of Oh Comely.