Dressed in a plain white t-shirt, looking intensely yet guarded into the lens and waltzing gently to sombre, distant chords, the Bat For Lashes that returned with ‘Laura’ this summer was sonically and aesthetically moons away from the Two Suns she last left us with.
In the two years since that album, Bat For Lashes moved back from NYC to Brighton and spent some time getting to know herself away from life on the road. She spent hours recording on her own in her flat in-between visiting her old tutor at the university of Sussex and taking classes in life drawing, pottery and children’s book writing. She also worked with the largest number of collaborators in her entire career, including David Sitek, Beck and Justin Parker. The result, The Haunted Man, peels back the layers to reveal the artist at the centre of Bat For Lashes’ previous colourful carnival.
Despite a gruelling afternoon of promo in a soulless white-washed meeting room in the corporate caverns of EMI’s head office, Natasha is disarmingly friendly and refreshingly full of unbridled enthusiasm about her new album. Curled up on the monstrous white sofa, it’s more like having a really good catch-up with a long lost friend over a coffee about what they’ve been up to than interviewing a twice Mercury Prize nominated, Ivor Novello winning artist.
She talks warmly about setting-up home with her kitten Mopsy in Brighton, how she's ‘sstarrrving!’ before sending her PR out for a much needed meatball wrap, and laughs when we mistakenly say ‘Loose Lemons’ instead of ‘Loose Women’. Most importantly though we discover why the glitter and dense sonic layers have now been put to one side, what working with Beck is like and the hysteria over that album cover.
The Haunted Man, from the cover art to the record itself, seems like you deliberately stripping everything back to its basic form. Was it about you to trying to find out who you really are as an artist?
Yeah, I think with the second album...I really delved into unknown territory of living in America, travelling all over the world – being very kind of groundless. Sonically there were loads of layers and textures - it was quite dense I think, musically. So, when I finished that album I just felt like, 'I'm just going to strip everything back and distil it back to the essence’.
I wanted a more minimal sound and when I was recording the tracks in my studio at home, I noticed that I was doing very minimal production and the vocals were up really loud and I wanted to strip all the reverb away. It was slightly unconscious as well, I think I'd really pushed the colourful, adorned, multi-layered, faceted all that thing on the last album - I was quite bored of it. Also, in culture it had become quite passé to be plastered with glitter and feathers
It did seem like your image was co-opted by the mainstream
It was difficult for me initially as I love those things and they're very personal to me. I was like, 'I don't like my things any more! Everyone has got them on and Topshop's making golden headbands'. In the end I thought 'it's fine', because I've done that and I don't need to repeat myself and there's new things I can try out.
There was a lot of fuss over the release of the cover art for The Haunted Man. Considering there's a lot of women pictured naked in the media everyday, probably too many, the reaction seemed a excessive. What did you think?
What I find really funny about this was...having been a lover of Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, the John and Yoko album covers and Frida Kahlo with her monobrow – I didn't have any make-up on in this photoshoot, there was no Photoshop, no retouching, I wanted to present a very raw, quite wild, natural visual of human bodies and what I found quite interesting was how people were like, 'oh my God! It's so like, whatever'. I think that's so revealing about our culture, because the amount of visual imagery of women that's so sexualised and so homogeneous and lip-glossed, photoshopped, boob-jobbed, overtly sexual poses, really provocative...and that's fine because it's for men and men don't mind looking at women that are debasing themselves in that way. As soon as you put someone who has a man round their shoulders…
As you do!
Yeah as you do! It's quite bizarre, but I think the dynamic in that relationship is really interesting and it was definitely saying something about a multifaceted woman. Perhaps in that picture you could say I'm looking vulnerable because I've got a wounded lover on my shoulders, perhaps he's my son who's come back from war, perhaps he's some arsehole who's cheated on me and I've killed him and I'm going to chuck him into the sea! Or, he could be the lover I'm haunted by and I don't want to let go of. There's all these things and I think in it I could be vulnerable, I could be sexual, sensual, powerful, pissed-off, or tired.
It gives a greater sense of identity to a woman rather than it being just from the male gaze and sexualised.
Exactly, and there's so much more to us than that. I love a lot of pop stars but I think the big ones recently have used the sexual angle - it's almost gotten like we've become desensitized to how sexual things have become. For me it was just like, 'yeah, I've got a couple of pubes showing but everyone's got them. What's the problem?!'
It's like natural beauty has become offensive, because it's become so acceptable for everything to be hairless...
Waxed and plucked and I was like, 'fuck that! I'm so bored of that'. And also the men that I've spoken to don't know what to do with it, because they're like 'god, you're really cute and usually I really fancy you but in this one you look a bit weird'. It's like, 'wow'.
Really? Most of the men I know usually say they prefer women when they're more natural
I get that when boyfriends have said, 'I love you in the morning when you've got no make-up on'. Today I've got to wear make-up as I've got a TV thing, but I don't like wearing make-up at all. I'm sort of like, we've got to get back to real bodies! Me and my cousin were talking about artists in the seventies – Carole King had a really big nose, Janis Joplin had frizzy hair...fucking bad ass, what an amazing woman.
I saw Patti Smith last week at the Troxy..
She's so brilliant now, even more than ever, because she's so fucking cool.
It reminds you that she did it her own way and didn't compromise.
She's not become a cliché as well as some of the male rock stars do as they age. I just think that when I was growing up we had Bjork and PJ Harvey and then in the seventies there were those other women and I just think, 'what's happening now?' It's supposed to be in this empowered feminist society, but I think we've regressed into Cheryl Cole territory where unless you're perfect you can't really get a look in.
There are artists such as Soap&Skin and Savages coming through that don't conform to those expectations.
I think Anna Calvi's amazing – her guitar playing is so good. In the alternative sphere there are more natural, being themselves women, but I think in terms of women in the mainstream I think it's horrific.
You said earlier you were quite groundless when you were recording Two Suns whereas this time you decided to stay home. What prompted that decision?
It was a spiritually important decision for me to be back in England and try to find my sense of home rather than looking for it outside of myself; I was looking for my relationship to provide that and not feeling rooted in myself and I think that's a big maturing lesson that we all have to learn as they say 'home is where the heart is, but it's so true. If you just sit still with yourself for a while, what comes up? Stop running, stop looking for other people to fill that sense of loneliness because we are essentially lonely people and the more you can be compassionate to that...
It was really about coming off that tour and being in the music world, which I find fucked-up anyway - it's not really my natural place to hang-out. It was all about self-nurturing, cooking myself really wholesome, healthy meals, gardening, I got my kitten Mopsy and snuggled her for hours and bought blankets and got really nurturing and domesticated. I think that sort of whirlwind touring life is totally the opposite to what I need, which is to be very self-nurturing and to keep myself very looked-after because otherwise I'm very sensitive and can feel lost and depressed and really overwhelmed by everything.
So, my main thing was sort of a more or less psychologically healthy angle and then from that you can write more multi-dimensional music because you're not writing about 'that' relationship drama, or the heartache or the being whirlwind and getting fucked-up. There's only so many albums that you should be doing like that, like the second album I did, because it gets boring after a while as you're not really evolving as a person. When I stopped and started living my life I realised it was much more interesting than I thought it was going to be in not having to create these explosions.
What things did you do creatively during that time or did you just stay home and watch Loose lemons, sorry Loose Women?!
Loose Lemons, amazing! I watched some Loose Lemons and I love Sex And The City re-runs, how sad is that? I signed up to do life drawing classes, I did some pottery stuff, I did an illustrating for children's books course. I watched loads of wartime films, I went back to my old tutor at my university and she gave me loads of reading and video artists to look at, I re-read lots of English romantic poetry and Roald Dahl books and a book called Goodnight Mr Tom, which is really amazing. It's actually really dark and traumatic - a little boy gets evacuated from London and sent to the countryside, but it's all about the city and the countryside and how healing the countryside is for him and how routine and quietness and calmness and love really rehabilitate him and back in London his Mother beats him – it's really scary.
The BFG really inspired 'Lilies' and it was also inspired by Ryan's Daughter. There's this one particular scene, I was with the autoharp on my lap watching this, and this woman has had an affair with this soldier. She's an Irish young lady married to this teacher, who's she's sort of bored with and she runs out her cottage at dusk and it's right by the sea and this beautiful soldier that she's in love with drags his wounded leg across the top of the hill – this silhouette of this soldier – and all the lilies in her garden are swaying really violently and trembling with all the pollen going on her skirt. You can see it's a really heady, intoxicating, elemental moment and it's really sensual and bursting with frustrating. I was really blocked and really broody and feeling all these desires and so 'Lilies' was sort of born out of that as well.
Two Suns was about the end of the love affair whereas with this album you were on your own. Do you see this as more an exploration of yourself?
Yeah, but this album - because it was over two and a half years - I had another relationship and an ending and rebirth and a beginning, so for me the album's more 360 degrees from dark to light; from releasing ghosts of the past and relationship burdens and baggage or my family history that's not helpful - patterns I want to change. By the end of the album I feel like there's this real resolution as the songs become quite nurturing and accepting and there's this new-found optimism and comfort with just being me, just being single.
Listening to it is like going from the dark to the light both sonically and lyrically. At the beginning there's a lot of fear and tension and even the way the songs are structured - it goes from being quite sparse to very full. Was this always the journey the album was going to take?
I had about 40 songs and they were all of differing gradients of all these things, but I always find it an unconscious process that the ones that want to be there present themselves, and you have to just accept that and listen to them. They kind of arrange themselves like family members - 'I want to be at the front! I want to at the back! I want to be the littlest'. And you're like, 'oh God, ok'! It had to be that order, it just fell into that, but it wasn't because I was consciously going 'it goes from this to this' but it does. I think if you listen to things and you have that little place inside that has that little click of integrity about it then often later on you look back and you're like, 'it's perfect'. It's when you force things it's when it doesn't sit right.
Your vocals are much more of a focal point and are more expansive on the record. Was that something you wanted to work on as a new challenge? Or, did you deliberately want to be at the centre?
I think it was evolving, I was touring for two years and my voice naturally got stronger compared to the first album - and because it had got stronger I felt more confident about it. Emotionally I wanted it to be more upfront and direct and to feel like I'm right there being emotionally intimate with the listener, rather than hiding behind a wash of colour and reverbs and being this mystical, unobtainable, ethereal thing. It was like, ‘right it's time to step forward and now I've got the tools to do that I feel really confident to let my voice speak’. I think it was only because I felt confident enough that I allowed my voice to be so bare.
I think it was telling that Laura was the first song that was released from the album as it's so bare and the video reinforced that as it begins with you singing directly to camera in a white t-shirt. You seem to have consciously taken a more personal approach and an intensity that you don't get at the moment.
I just got sick of all this mystical bullshit with everyone flinging their arms around going, 'I'm this mystical being' and then actually they're just really coke-snorting pains in the arses, and I was just like ‘this is becoming all very topsy-turvy’. I think if you truly are a spiritual person or if you've got that inside you don't need to dress it up, so I knew that I felt safe in who I am to wear a white t-shirt and just be like I can communicate something magical and wonderful and I don't need to push it in people's faces and I just didn't need to do it anymore.
I think as I said before, if your image or what you do has been co-opted, if you come back and do it people will go, 'I've seen that before' not necessarily knowing it was you that started it, you'd want to say 'it was me!'
Yeah, like “Hi!, It was me, I'm wearing headbands seven years later alright!” Exactly, it's so embarrassing and also I would be bored stiff if I kept repeating myself I want to keep progressing, it's really important.
Part of this progression was you working with the most collaborators you've ever worked with such as Beck, Robert Ellis, Dave Sitek
What was ironic is as even though I did more collaborations it actually meant that I had to be more controlling to keep a check on everything that was happening. I'd go away and get people to play stuff, and it was a beautiful and nice experience, but it was actually slightly more stressful because I had to keep coming home and editing and taking away and picking tiny bits to put in. I had to be a very watchful guardian of the record, because it was over two and half years and you have to be so strict constantly. I felt production-wise I had the most involvement on this album, I love the technical side, and I feel quite proud of how I managed to keep it quite a cohesive record considering it was written over such a long time with lots of people.
Would you ever do collaborate on a whole album with Beck?
I wouldn't mind trying to do something really different. I really like that Sbtrkt and Little Dragon 'Wildfire' song, really electronic dance music or do a weird thing of like piano ballads or some Tom Waits stuff. I don't know, I haven't thought about it. I wouldn't mind trying, but I do find it hard as I have a vision. Beck and I did that 'Let's Get Lost' and I thought that was really nice and that was really equal, so we can do it, I can do it.
What do you like about working with Beck?
I just thought he was really playful and free and just this sort of eccentric wizardy type. He had all these amazing instruments in storage and he got them out - an old celeste and he had an original fairlight - these crazy, beautiful machines. He’s very mellow, super chilled-out just anything goes, because his style has been so eclectic over the years and he's got such a great history of knowing about all different types of music. His mum was an Andy Warhol superstar and his dad is this amazing orchestral arranger, so for me it's just perfect like everything... all the references he totally got.
You co-wrote 'Laura' with Justin Parker. Why did you work with Justin? What was that like as a process?
I was being bullied by the record company for pop songs and they weren't liking my album and I was like, 'I think I've written enough pop songs to be honest with you'. They were trying to get me to write with really cheesy, awful writers and I was like, 'this is so embarrassing, I don't even want to think about it' and 'urrrgh!' run off crying. In the end what was so ironic was the one person I chose was Justin Parker and they were like 'Go on then'.
And then he had a hit with Lana Del Rey and they were like 'amazing!'
And also that they ended up loving 'Laura' even though it's a really unconventional single...what I decided with that was, 'ok, I will write with someone, but I'm going to do it in my own way where I can learn something from this experience'. It was really that I love The Carpenters, Elton John's 'Tiny Dancer' – they're both seventies ballads – Roy Orbison and Scott Walker. Amazing ballads that have really sad, subversive subject matter – that was my mission.
I feel like it was a songwriting workshop really as we worked together, it was a collaborative process, but he pushed me and showed me things that I wouldn't usually go to or chords that I wouldn't normally choose and middle eights and stuff - it was a really good learning process for me. I went away and wrote the melody and the lyrics and arranged the strings and the horns, so I feel like it's very much my own but I wouldn't have been able to do it without Justin and he was brilliant.
It's like having a tutor – someone to guide you
Exactly as I can fall back quite easily on my ways of writing piano ballads and I thought this is the area where I think I could learn something new, I don't think pop music writing area is something where I want to be.
The Haunted Man is Out Now.