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Natasha peels back the layers
7:00am Saturday 13th October 2012 in Music
Bat For Lashes - aka Londoner Natasha Khan - releases her stunning new album the Haunted Man on Friday, October 12, and begins a huge UK tour on October 18. She tells Andy Welch about the album and how she moved to the country and took up gardening to help overcome writer's block.
Just one look at the cover of The Haunted Man, the third album from Bat For Lashes, is enough to know that things are different this time around.
The black and white photograph, taken by New York-based photographer Ryan McGinley, depicts Bat For Lashes - otherwise known as Natasha Khan - naked, with an unconscious man draped around her neck.
Compare it to the cover of Khan's previous two albums, both elaborate works of art featuring mystical symbols with the artist herself almost unrecognisable in heavy make-up plus, in the case of 2006 debut Fur And Gold, a horse, and the simplicity of McGinley's photo becomes all the more apparent.
The Londoner's long flowing hair has gone, too, replaced with a neat bob, making Khan look slightly more business-like and mature.
"I don't want to hide behind the costumes and the symbols any more," says Khan, 32, explaining her new, more simple, aesthetic.
"It was my idea to be naked, though when it came to doing it I thought, 'Why am I doing this?' But it's a statement.
"I knew I wanted Ryan McGinley to shoot it. I'd seen some of his work and was blown away. I loved how raw and wild it all was, and not retouched or Photoshopped, and none of them were the sexualised, glossy images of women we're used to seeing."
Khan thinks it's a "shame" some shops and websites have censored the image.
"It's crazy because the naked body is the most natural thing in the world. Kids should see it and think it's natural and normal, not think of it as being sexy.
"We constantly define women by how tiny their waist is, how smooth their skin is or how big their boobs are.
"It's weird that when a naked body appears that isn't being overtly sexual, it's considered shocking. It says a lot about society, and you have to wonder how we've arrived at this point," she says.
The album's contents are just as raw: Khan constantly questioning who she is and trying to discover what made her that way.
It wasn't an easy point to arrive at, however. Having toured her second album, 2009's Two Suns, for two years, Khan was left without a creative spark, alone and disconnected from home.
"When you leave the routine of touring, you get home, shut the door and that's it, no one rings you or anything. They just say, 'see you next time', and you're on your own. It can be lonely and there's nothing but the pressure of writing the next album," she explains.
"I felt void of inspiration and I felt very miserable about it. Sometimes you can try really hard and try to push on through a block, but that gives me anxiety."
She decided to busy herself with other things and wait for inspiration to strike naturally. First, Khan went to live by the sea in Sussex, not far from where she went to university, believing that after two years of being on the road and travelling, she needed to be in one place again and live a normal life.
Secondly, she started reading her old school books, visited former university tutors, studied English history, watched a lot of black and white films, enrolled on various courses (pottery and painting), took up dancing and started gardening.
"Onions," she exclaims, laughing. "I done some onions, which is the technical term. I planted potatoes, dahlias, roses and other things. It wasn't my garden, though. There was a place nearby called Charleston House. The house used to belong to Virginia Woolf's sister, so she stayed there a lot.
"There's an amazing walled garden I loved to visit, so I made friends with the gardener and asked if he'd let me help him."
All of this helped Khan to focus, and led her to think about the nature of inspiration.
"I had a realisation after the last album, about what inspires the best art. When you are embroiled in drama and darkness in your real life, that's the only thing you can write about, and it's all coming from a place of fear, unhappiness and anxiety. There's not much else and it's all very extreme.
"When I finished my last album, I felt very sad about everything that had unfolded and inspired it," she says, referring to the relationship break-up that inspired Two Suns.
"In turn that inspired the decision this time around to stay at home and be normal. I didn't want to go anywhere. There's a lyric on this album that goes, 'Just sit still. Does it hurt? Does it hurt?' and it's me asking myself if I stay still and avoid all the drama and stop the sabotage of my private life, what comes up? What am I actually feeling?
"And what I discovered was that by living a wholesome life, making myself happier, eating nice food, seeing friends and taking care of myself properly, it allowed me the space to see more minute emotions rising to the surface.
"I avoided creating any drama so I could see who I really was. Again it relates to peeling back the layers of my personality. As a result, this album is grounded in reality and not crowded in other noise. And as it was written over a space of time, it covers a mix of emotions, it's not bogged down in just one."
Khan's forthcoming live shows won't be stripped back, however, as she believes there's a theatricality to live performance that shouldn't be ignored. The idea of being on tour for the next 18 months doesn't really excite her either, as much as she loves each show.
"After this tour I want to focus on my home life, and relationships," she says.
"I just feel like I'm going round and round, and I don't want to end up being 50 having not married or settled. I think my thirties are beckoning me on a more human level, so there's a conflict with the professional life I lead.
"There's something very Peter Pan about the music industry and the musical life, that keeps you young and attached to your youth, but I don't think it's that good for you as a person to avoid maturing.
"I can't wait to get old."
Extra time - Bat For Lashes
:: Natasha Khan was born in London on October 25, 1979.
:: Her father, former professional squash player Rehmat Khan, is Pakistani, while her mother is English.
:: Khan didn't enjoy school, and has in the past talked of racist bullying which led to her skipping classes and listening to music at home.
:: After graduating from the University Of Brighton, where she studied music and visual arts, she worked as a nursery teacher while writing the songs that would make up her first album.
:: Her debut album Fur And Gold was nominated for the 2007 Mercury Music Prize.
18 - Inverness Ironworks
19 - Edinburgh Picture House
21 - Glasgow O2 ABC
22 - Manchester Cathedral
23 - Manchester Cathedral
25 - Leeds Met University
26 - Norwich UEA
28 - Leicester O2 Academy
29 - London HMV Forum
30 - London HMV Forum
1 - Birmingham HMV Institute
2 - Bristol Anson Rooms
3 - Portsmouth Pyramids
4 - Brighton Dome Concert Hall
:: Bat For Lashes' third album The Haunted Man is released on Monday October 15. She begins a 14-date UK tour on October 18 (dates below)