Crafting a strong sophomore album after a successful debut can prove to be one of the most difficult tasks for any musician. But Bat for Lashes (Natasha Khan) handled that undertaking with graceful ease by releasing Two Suns in 2009 to high critical and commercial acclaim. Along with her stunning debut, Fur and Gold, Khan is becoming one of the most talked about artists in recent memory.
Surprisingly, creating songs for her third album, The Haunted Man (available now), came quite slow for the English singer-songwriter. We recently caught up with Khan to talk about those struggles, her creative process and what experiences helped with producing The Haunted Man.
Paste: You have said that the creative process of writing songs for this album came a bit slower than in the past. Did you feel that the lack of immediate inspiration might have forced you to access creative depths you didn’t know you had?
Khan: Actually, I think it was a combination of having a bit of writer’s block, but also deciding that I was going to take my time. I think that allowed me to do other things and to be more of a normal human being by doing normal things and creating some space. And I think that from that space came the ability to reflect and concentrate on what I was really feeling on a lot deeper level than the immediate drama of the last record which had me caught up in how I was feeling and it was very high emotion, whereas I think for this album I was able to settle down and to listen to the complex kinds of subtlety of what I was feeling.
Paste: Can you give any examples of some of the ‘normal things’ you allowed yourself to do that had an effect on your songwriting?
Khan: I think it was just living by the coast in England in my flat and doing things like drawing and cooking in my kitchen and hanging out with friends and doing dance classes with them. I made some films. I think I sort of made an effort to keep myself creatively nourished and refueling the part of me that had gotten kind of tired from touring and being so exposed for so long.
: The album cover for The Haunted Man can be interpreted in several different ways. Personally I see maybe a female unafraid to expose the weight she has been carrying in the past. Was it your intention to have multiple interpretations a possibility?
Khan: Yeah, I think that I wanted to create an iconic image that hopefully had a multitude of different meanings you could take away about the relationship between me and the man I’m holding. Because I think it is complex- it’s black and white and it deals with my relationship with men or even historically the relationship between men and women. And so I wanted to create something that showed many different things. I could be nurturing him, I could have rescued him, I could have hunted him, I could be wishing that he was a bed and that I could drop or I could be taking on responsibilities. There’s all sorts of meaning behind it for me and I think over the course of this record there are a lot of different dynamics and relationships of that nature as well.
: Do you have that same approach when you are writing songs? Do you like to leave them open enough to let audiences draw their own conclusions?
Khan: I generally only write music for my own ears. I don’t craft an album wondering if the audience will have enough space. I think it’s really only about the craft of songwriting and only I know what I think about that. So, some people will think that it’s good and some people won’t like it and so it’s really hard to second guess what your audience will think and often I leave that out of the equation. I think that’s because if I trust my own judgment and intuition that usually kind of feels good to me and I feel good about what I’m doing. So, I think across the album I was trying to balance a lot of different emotions and feelings and textures and to try to get myself to leave- you know when you read a really good book or hear something from a really good storyteller you see that there’s really a craft to it? So for this album it was really about testing myself to see whether I can write a song about something that doesn’t explain away every detail so that a bit of the magic gets dispelled. Like trying to create something that retains its central mystery but also communicates something really emotional is really what I was trying to do.
: Having released two previous albums, did you feel any pressure to evolve or try something new with The Haunted Man?
Khan: Definitely. I think there’s nothing worse than imitating exactly what you’ve done before or playing it safe because I’m the one who is going to have to tour with it for two years [laughs]. That would just be devastating to me. I think if you’re any kind of creative person it feels quite natural to push your boundaries or be innovative or try to rethink the way you do things. It’s important to use that opportunity because the whole process of making an album takes two or three years and you want to be pushing it as far as you can in order to keep things interesting to yourself.
: Was there anything you took away from your first two experiences in writing an album that you were able to utilize within that experimentation as well?
Khan: I took a lot of production techniques and things that I’d become familiar with and used them as a bedrock for this album and then tried to push myself further from that. But there were things I changed as well that I had learned from the first two albums as far as things I didn’t do this time around. Like I didn’t fill up the space with layers and layers of ambient sound and I didn’t use as much delay as I had before. I exposed the vocal and made it much drier. The beat programming was approached in a much different way by using different machines and things like that and then programming real sounds into digital programed beats. There was a lot of different experimentation with that. I did bring along a sort of confidence that I had gained I would say as a producer and a songwriter and that because I felt comfortable that maybe I could change the rules a bit.
: When you are in the songwriting process, or even in the studio, do you have your live act in mind? Or do you leave that for when you have completed the album and are getting ready to go on tour?
Khan: I generally leave it for when it’s finished. That is definitely the way I’ve been working. And I don’t know if with the next album I will approach things in a different way and play with a band first and then try to record the songs that way to make a much more live sounding album. But for the last three I have very much been in that sonic-detailed world and then only afterwards do I think about how to present it live, which is a quite exciting shift for me to think about interpreting it live.
: Is there a particular track or moment that you’re excited to perform in front of the live crowd on this upcoming tour?
Khan: I think The Haunted Man has some quite haunting moments and the band moves around quite a bit during that song so I am definitely excited about that one.
: Having finished three albums, do you feel that as an artist you’ve been able to have your work fully realized in the studio? Or is the live show maybe the completion of that? Is it ever fully realized?
Khan: I think the live show is definitely a completion of the studio work. With the album you’re definitely trying to create something that will stand alone because obviously not everyone will be able to see the live show. I do think that the live show sort of brings a real life 3D element to the songs, but I think that if a work ever did get fully realized that you might not want to carry on. There’s always something else to try.
: In playing your live show, have you ever experienced anything in particular that wasn’t captured in the studio that maybe raised the song to a new level?
Khan: I think that the difference with live is that I’m performing it. And when I’m recording vocals in the studio I try to put myself in interesting places like outdoors in the woods or I will walk somewhere with a microphone because I don’t think the enclosed space of a studio isn’t great for raising your adrenaline or getting you really feeling in the scene. Whereas I think when you’re playing live it’s almost like I’m in this different world and just hearing the sound off of the huge PA and the sub bass and feeling people’s energy coming back and forth…there is something very 3D about that.