Bat For Lashes: “The record company didn’t think I had enough singles”

Ahead of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival Natasha Kahn, aka Bat For Lashes talks to SAMANTHA CLODE about finding inspiration through collaboration on album number three.

The Haunted Man is the third album from Brighton singer/songwriter Natasha Kahn, aka Bat For Lashes – and, according to the 33-year-old singer, her most difficult creation to date. Exhausted from touring the Mercury and Brit nominated Two Suns (2009) and suffering from writer’s block, Natasha broke up with her American boyfriend and retreated to her seaside home in England, where she took drawing classes, directed dance films, and asked Thom Yorke for advice. Reading a book titled The Enchantment Of Art encouraged her to seek inspiration in collaboration, and so after building song basics on piano and autoharp, Natasha travelled to places like Los Angeles, Italy, and New York City, enlisting the help of Beck, Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey), David Sitek (TV On The Radio), ‘Video Games’ author Justin Parker, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, producers Dan Carey and David Kosten and more.

The resulting record is her best work yet: 11 tracks described by Pitchfork as “one of the year’s most beguiling albums”. And then there’s the striking cover. Gone are the feathers and glitter – instead we get the singer stripped bare, a naked man slung over her shoulders. It was really important, Natasha says, that she didn’t have any make-up or retouching. The image had to be “completely raw – just like the record.”

Now, Natasha will bring The Haunted Man to Australia in February, as part of the St Jerome’s Laneway bill.

In the bio for The Haunted Man you discuss the book The Enchantment Of Art, saying it gave you an epiphany. What was it about the book that spoke to you?

Basically I was feeling a little bit under pressure. I read this book, and it’s all about how in modernism individualism was really celebrated – the individual being innovative, doing something that hadn’t been done before. So in modern art it was really still possible to pioneer new forms of painting, new types of music.

And then post-modernism hit, and as we move through post-modernism, this book was saying, because so much has been done before it’s a lot harder to tread new territory in a big way. And that’s why a lot of artists feel disenchanted, or sad about the fact that they don’t feel like they’re doing anything new or innovative. Yet it was saying that’s not the truth – the way to find innovation and feel less lonely is to collaborate. I thought that was a great idea to take with me.

While you were working in Perugia, Italy, you told me you wanted to “come back to a place of wonder” for this album, spend more time at home. Was that a result of reaching your early thirties? Your twenties are usually a bit more turbulent…

I agree. Definitely coming into your early thirties I think I’ve definitely matured. I don’t know if I’ve got it quite right just yet [laughs]. But having been away so much spending time at home in Brighton by the sea, going for walks in nature, gardening and cooking, those wholesome things I really needed… perhaps in the opposite spectrum of where I’d been. It’s just that maturation process you go through, I guess. Can I communicate something deeper, more raw and intimate by being me, and not having to fly across the world and have mad love affairs and be this crazy person?

Is that what you’re expressing with the refrain of the opening song, ‘Lilies’, with the lines, “Thank god I’m alive”?

Yeah, it’s intense that statement. Because it’s a very pro-life statement, as opposed to something that’s usually in music and rock ‘n’ roll – usually it’s celebrated when it’s quite dark, or suicidal [laughs]I felt like just exposing that level of joy and openness… it’s quite emotionally raw for me, but in a really good way.

‘Horses Of The Sun’, how did that song come about?

It’s one of the first ones I wrote, actually, at the very tale-end of the Two Suns tour. I was in a hotel room in San Francisco. It’s the only one as well that I wrote not in England, which is interesting. But it makes sense, because it’s all about coming home after being away – “I curse the road” – so it was almost like the tipping point from the last album. It was like, “Oh okay, this is me moving on from the last album now.” I wrote it in a hotel room with the autoharp and my voice, so those repetitive twanging notes that you hear and all the chords, that was all me. When I started writing the album I re-recorded my vocal, replayed the autoharp, and I’d had the song for a little while.

” I knew I wanted it to be more electronic; I knew I wanted the vocals to be a lot louder.”

Then Adrian Utley from Portishead did some really beautiful bass and synth wobbles, all the weird deep bass sounds, quite tribal and deep. And then David Kosten was great too, he brought in a drummer from a British band called Everything, Everything, and he came down. We recorded toms and snare beats, and then David and I sat together and cut them up. Think I was even referencing Lil’ Wayne or Snoop Dogg with the snares. But yeah, it gradually built from there. And then at the end, I was working at KT Tunstall’s studio in the countryside, putting on vocals, and I just layered up the really crazy choral part you hear right at the end, all the backing vocals. I was in a sort of banshee, in a wailing mood [laughs]. Like all the songs, the layers built up slowly over time, and that’s why they feel quite sure of themselves.

You worked with a variety of different male collaborators on this project, from Rob Ellis to Dave Sitek. What were you looking for in each person, and what did you take away from person to person?

Obviously two and half, three years is a long time, and throughout that time it’s like having different boyfriends, or love affairs. You need different things, especially in the creative process. Rob and Beck were very good at the very beginning, because I had some really early demos and I was trying to find my way stylistically, with the sonic landscape. I knew I wanted it to be more electronic; I knew I wanted the vocals to be a lot louder. I’d done a lot of demos at home, where I’d recorded string arrangements on autoharp, but I’d recorded my vocals up really loud, with really loud bass and beats. And that was the songs that I took out, you know? They had form and structure.

Then it was like, “How do I want to fill in the big gaps now? What colours do I want to fill this in with?” Doing the male choral part on ‘The Haunted Man’ with Rob was really special – we projected the voices across a canyon and recorded the echo coming back. Did all sorts of natural experiments. I needed to get out of the flat, and Rob was really great at making me come away and grabbing together a group of people who were really nourishing, and interesting.

And similarly with Beck. He had loads of interesting instruments, and we just played – it was at that early instrumentation stage, where you just play things through. Dave Sitek, I think he plays a tiny part on the record in the end, but he was more about hanging out, getting feedback towards the end of the album. He helped me that last push, ‘cause the record company weren’t sure… it was a difficult time. I felt very alone towards the end.

” I was referencing Lil’ Wayne with the snares.”

Was it a hard record to finish?

It was a hard record to finish because the record company wouldn’t let me -they didn’t think I had enough singles. It was really stressful, but I knew it was going to be good. I was just biding my time and not freaking out. But I felt very repressed and unable to finish when I wanted to. It was really nice to speak to Dave Sitek, because he was just like, “It’s amazing, I love it, it’s brilliant – you’ve got to carry on.” He was a real staunch supporter, so that was really nice.

And then David Kosten, Dan Carey were the two guys who I recorded and produced most of it in England with. They are the two pivotal characters of this album. It’s produced by me and both of them. They were the people I came home to, crafted things with, spent hours and hours working with.

Can you tell me how ‘Laura’ came about? Did you know it was an instant single?

It came very late in the process, I think it was the last song I wrote. I felt that there was a gap on the record for a ballad, or a piano song. I’d done lots of piano songs before, so I didn’t want to repeat the same stylistic choices. It’s the only song I’ve ever co-written – I wrote it with Justin Parker, who did [Lana Del Ray’s] ‘Video Games’. It came quite quickly: two hours from start to finish, which is a good sign – the best ones always come quickly. Justin and I together wrote the choral bits, but he very much pushed me in ways I wasn’t used to, which for me was really interesting. I’d went to him saying, “I want to write something in line with those ‘70s ballads I loved when I was growing up, that my mum loved too – the Carpenters, Elton John.” We wrote the music, I went away and wrote the lyrics and melody, and a week later I arranged the horns and string part myself. We got that recorded at Abbey Road. That was a real moment – it really made the song. The track was a real collaborative process, and what came out I probably would never have written on my own, but it still felt very close to my heart. I was happy.

If you go back and listen to your debut, Fur and Gold, who do you hear?

Gosh, um… I hear someone who is much less confident vocally, definitely, and quite shy and childlike. To me, Fur And Gold is the child, and Two Suns is the teenager, and now The Haunted Man is the woman. It sounds quite clichéd, but I think it’s true. Fur And Gold was a young woman starting out, very wide eyed and naïve, and excited to be in the world… but still not quite ready. But also I was fiercely independent as well at that time – I was really interested in making a weird, dark, beautiful album, and I feel quite proud of myself. Being 26, and now getting swept up in having to do pop songs, stupid photographs. I was very sure about what I wanted. I feel really happy that I set out my territory, and for me it was a great first statement.

Bat For Lashes new album The Haunted Man is out now through EMI. Read what FL thought about it here.

Bat For Lashes Laneway Festival tour:

Wednesday, January 30 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Friday, February 1 – Alexandria Street, Brisbane

Saturday, February 2 – College of the Arts, Sydney

Sunday, February 3 – Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne

Tuesday, February 5 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne

Friday, February 8 – Fowler’s Live and UniSA West Courtyards, Adelaide

Saturday, February 9 – Cultural Centre, Perth