“I suppose that all the artists I’ve ever loved, like Kurt Cobain or Joni Mitchell or the great songwriters, they always give you a piece of themselves and show that vulnerability and exposing what it is to be a human being – there’s something loveable for me to share about that,” sternly asserts Natasha Khan, before gazing into the East London skyline and lightly chuckling. “It’s hard being a human, it’s fucking hard sometimes.”
Amen. While love and companionship are commonplace throughout the animal kingdom, the one thing that sets us apart from beasts is the concept of ‘marriage’. It’s this bonding of two people and the emotional ecstasy and turmoil that comes with it that preoccupies Khan on Bat For Lashes' new album, The Bride. As with everything else she does, it’s a very intimate and honest affair – strikingly so.
“Sometimes I feel you have to be quite brave to share those deeper parts of yourself, but as a story-teller and musician I feel that’s my responsibility in a way,” she admits. “Like Bjork or PJ Harvey, those amazing female artists I listened to as a teenager set the precedent for exploring psychic terrain and putting their bleeding hearts on the line for other people to resonate with. Otherwise, what’s the point? I only get off on music like that really. It’s got to be real.”
While Khan assumes the character of ‘The Bride’ for her fourth album, she is still every bit herself – using the forlorn premature widow as a vehicle for travelling down the road of a broken heart, passing the many different signposts that all relationships pass by on the rocky road through love in the real world, free from fairy tales and fantasy. To do so, she started by writing a feature film about the subject, which led to a flood of words and inspiration before song titles came to be. These titles then became the milestones to lead The Bride on her journey. However, Khan is quick to assert that this made the record a contrived or forced process. Quite the contrary. Marriage, partnership and loss have always been a constant thread throughout the work of Bat For Lashes, but now comes the time for her to make those themes manifest.
“I suppose the strongest message that comes out of these songs for me is that the trauma and the grief from the death of Joe, the groom,” says Khan. “It’s definitely more of a metaphor and it allows me to explore the concept of love in general, which requires a death of sorts.
“In all relationships you have this romantic ideal at the beginning, and all of these projections and Cinderella ideals that you’ll meet someone who’ll satisfy your every need, then once you get married you’re off the hook and they’ve rescued you – everything’s going to be fine. Deep down, we all have that wish that someone else will do the work for us, of keeping us happy forever. It’s a high price to pay and expectation to have.”
On The Bride, the death of Joe stands for the shattering of illusions that we all carry for that relationship without flaws or strife. Not to say that love isn’t worth it, but that the heart needs to get over the fact that nothing can be perfect in order to stay in love with things as they are. Naturally, that requires a certain level of depth; a depth that Khan struggles to find in the gadget driven virtual reality of ‘modern romance’.
“Nowadays with Tinder and all these swipeable people and surface instant gratification, you can get that high and that thrill,” she shrugs. “But no one is really going to that next level of depth. For me, it starts with ‘I Do’, that’s that height of the project. He dies in the story but really it’s about the death of that romantic period. If you move through that you realise ‘fuck, it’s just me – it’ll always just be me’. No one can possibly please you forever and keep you in that space. It’s up to you to do that. “I think there’s a period of panic, loss and grief – a sadness that we’re all alone, ultimately. It’s an existential crisis.”
As the album continues, The Bride comes to terms with the passing of her love. Khan reveals as the record draws to a close, ‘If I Knew’ finds peace by thanking the other for the short, sharp, shock of their departure forcing them to take the journey in the first place. “Really, that’s the biggest love gift of all,” smiles Khan. “Real marriage is when someone loves you enough to let you go through that process on your own. You can both be individuals and love yourselves, as much as you love each other. That’s the maturing of her and she comes into her own.
“I’ve always been searching and looking at that story across all of the albums but to me this is the most cohesive way of describing that process. It is a grief process and love is full of birth, death and rebirth.”
The album is not a critique of love and marriage by any means. Khan stresses that she firmly believes two people can co-exist, but it must be as fully-formed individuals rather than one defining the other.
“I think companionship is beautiful and marriage is hero’s journey and I respect it because of that difficulty of being ‘real’ with someone else, and not expecting them to fill a void in you. Not many people realise that’s what marriage is about. A deep marriage has to go through a lot of shit. Sometimes you have to go on your own heroic journey to feel like enough of a hero to say ‘look, let’s do this’. You have to be pretty evolved to get to that point.”
You need to discover the flaws, then get over the flaws…
“Yes,” she lets out a dark and devilish laugh, “and be disenchanted and then accept the flaws as part of the whole. Accept that we’re all going to die! You can’t keep living on that heightened perspective. When you swipe someone on Tinder it’s like ‘oh I’ve found the one!’. Not that I’ve done it because I don’t do Tinder, but it’s such a superficial construct. "
She pauses to summarise: “A long-term relationship is a spiritual contract, it’s not about the externals. That’s the shame about today; there’s so much emphasis on this external dream and it’s all irrelevant.”
Fortunately, Khan has been let to stroll down the many avenues of love of her own volition. For one very, very, brief moment, faith led her Muslim father to suggest an arranged marriage for Natasha – an idea that was swiftly shot down.
“When I was very young, my dad did suggest it. We said no!,” she chuckles. “My mum and I thought ‘this doesn’t really apply to Natasha’. Bless my dad, I think he felt that it was his religious obligation to just ask, but he didn’t force the point. Muslim fathers just feel that’s what they should do for their daughters.”
For better or worse, many of us acquire our vision of what marriage is supposed to be from our parents – either be witnessing a perfect union or a partnership in sync, or by learning from their mistakes. Seeing as this is the preoccupation of Khan’s work at the moment, I thought it necessary to put this scenario to her.
“I think my parents, even though they’re divorced, they did really love each other and they were really fun,” she fondly remembers. “They did loads of dressing up parties and they seemed that they were in love. It was quite a passionate relationship. They were from two very different cultures so they had to compromise and work around it all a lot. That was my model of marriage from quite a young age.”
The Bride comes after a long four years away for Bat For Lashes. Such an ambition project is the fruit of quite a lot of time of Khan pursuing many other avenues of interest. She released music with Beck and Jon Hopkins, before teaming up with TOY for the very explosive and primal SEXWITCH project – a million miles from the more considered approach we’ve come know from the Mercury-nominated artist.
“It was very liberating,” nods Khan, thinking back to SEXWITCH. “There was such a wide range and it was so free and guttural – unabashed. That really broke through any remaining barriers I had about feeling ashamed or self-conscious or worried about my voice.
“It freed up all the aspects of my womanhood. It was very permission-giving. Before I did quite a contemplative and fully-formed album, to do something so visceral and immediate got that out of my system and exorcised some demons so I didn’t mind focusing on this one. They are two polar opposites.”
It was also an exorcism of brazen energy away from the time she spent studying film – something which has lent itself quite naturally to the very filmic and cinematic feel of The Bride. Did she feel more like ‘a director’ of the music this time around, rather than a songwriter?
“With the other albums, I’ve always seen the landscape with the characters I’m singing about – coexisting on an island, if you will,” she gestures a bubble of life before her eyes. “This time I had the arc with the song titles, but that was enhanced by the fact I had this short film, I was studying script-writing and reading a lot of interviews with Kubrick, David Lynch, Polanski and all my favourite directors. Something stuck in my mind about structure and the thread of tension that you’re holding – it was really nice to look at that way as a writer. It was more like directing the movie in my mind with music.”
“I was just studying the medium of cinema, and being a traditional girl I like The Wizard Of Oz, Rebel Without A Cause and those melodramatic stories of the soul’s journey. It naturally translated.”
The music videos and visuals from The Bride so far have been pretty Lynchian too… “Oh yes,” replies Khan, “a master of capturing the subconscious mind and patchworking together dream states that have this uncanny meaning that you can’t quite put your finger on but you sense it in your stomach and your heart. It’s a very palpable, emotional collage of imagery. When albums or stories are coming through, I’ll get a few very strong images.
“With this I had The Bride on a mountain and this car on fire – that was one of the first drawings I did. These impressions showed themselves to me, then I learned to join the dots. Maybe the landscape we dwell in is quite similar – it’s that darker terrain of dreams and fears.”
Needless to say, this is a more ‘traditional album’. Like a movie, it can only be fully appreciated from start to finish, rather than with scenes in isolation. It was written as a whole, which is impressive, especially when you consider that there must always be the pressure or the temptation to write another ‘Laura’ or ‘Daniel’ to keep the radio pluggers happy…
“I’ve been guilty of that in the past and it’s never turned out well,” she admits. “With this album I knew that wasn’t a ‘Daniel’ on there and I really didn’t care. That kind of song can often overshadow things and skew your confidence. It’s liberating to make an album that’s just a story-telling piece and inhabits a different universe to the ‘radio world’. But I’m still proud of it and feel that people might understand it.”
Anyone who’s ever fallen in and out of love or found redemption after heartbreak will relate to The Bride. It’s another development of the knack that Khan has for translating such universal feelings into something so melodramatic and grand but graceful and real all at the same time. That’s what we’ve come to know her for, but let that work as a reminder that she is one of us after all. The very open and playful Khan we meet enjoying the East London sun is very much of this world, and not the wistful pixie or the wildchild of the woods she’s so often painted to be.
“People think that I’m serious – I think I’m really silly,” she shrugs, screwing up her face. “Whenever I meet journalists, we’re talking about ‘the work’, and that probably is the deepest and most serious part of me. But really I’m listening to Luther Van Dross and being stupid. Me and brother and sister just make each other laugh and put on voices. There’s a lot of silliness in my life. It’s probably because the work is so deep that I need to counteract that with some mental fun. I’m a lot more simple and less ethereal than people expect."
So you’re not really a witch?
“There’s definitely a witch in me, but like anyone being I’m very complex – but in my general day to day life I love a cup of tea and an episode of Girls. I’m only human after all.”
- Bat For Lashes releases The Bride on 1 July
- See her performance at Glastonbury on the John Peel Stage at 4pm on Sunday 26 June