The latest album from the wildly creative Bat For Lashes casts her as a doomed bride whose fiancé dies on the way to the wedding. Sam Richards joins the congregation
We meet a couple of days after Natasha Khan’s wedding – her fourth this year. Held at London’s Union Chapel, it found Khan – AKA Bat For Lashes – gliding elegantly towards the altar, dressed in a blood-red gown and clutching a bouquet of pink flowers. But there was no groom, no vows spoken and no rings exchanged. Khan was acting out the story of her new concept album ‘The Bride’, a haunting saga of love, grief and self-discovery in which her heroine is left stranded at the altar and forced to honeymoon alone before eventually getting it on with a ghost.
The show’s mock wedding shtick might sound a bit corny on paper, but it’s allowed Khan to give some of the most passionate – and celebrated – performances of her 10-year career in the realm of folky, fantastical pop. Khan admits that even though she knows she’s not actually getting married, she still feels overcome when she walks down that aisle. “When everybody turns around to look at you, it’s very intense. I feel like I’m going to cry, so I have to compose myself before playing the first song.”
That song is the opening track on the new album, a gorgeously naive ballad called ‘I Do’, which explores common misconceptions of love and marriage. “When I wrote that song I was thinking about how romance is projected to us in society through films and fairytales, and the whole idea that finding the right person will complete you. We all have the capacity to feel that – it’s part of the beauty of falling in love – but I think it can be quite misleading and a little bit dangerous.”
As it happens, The Bride’s fantasy is shattered when her groom dies in a car crash on the way to the church, forcing her to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Songs such as ‘If I Knew’ – which finds Khan getting a little misty-eyed on stage – cleave closer to her own view on relationships. “You can’t really be happy with anyone until you love yourself and feel secure in your own skin. A lot of the strife I see in relationships is where people are expecting that this person’s going to rescue them and they don’t have to do the hard work themselves.”
This being a Bat For Lashes album, there is still a brush with the supernatural. ‘Close Encounters’ was introduced at her show as a song about “making love to someone from the other side”, prompting blushes all round. “I’m not imagining them at the top of a pine tree, shagging away!” she clarifies. “I’m just seeing the emotional desire to reach out and communicate with someone who’s gone.” Ultimately, she says the album is still “a real pro-love and pro-relationship record, but bound up in this dark story.”
So would Khan get married with the same pomp and ceremony as her fictional Bride? “I don’t think I’d do a church wedding because I’m not Christian. But I’m in favour of marriage if it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s quite a heroic journey to take.” What about the old feminist argument that marriage is a symbol of female subjugation? “It’s b*llocks. I don’t agree with that at all. I love the idea of marriage if it’s with the right person, because there’s something about committing – you have to sign up for the good and the bad and it’s a test of your character.”
Khan is well known for playing with characters in her music. On her 2006 debut, the 100,000-selling ‘Fur And Gold’, she sang about wizards and horses as a mystical persona that was part Kate Bush, part Narnia’s Emerald Witch. Several of the songs on electro-poppy 2009 follow-up ‘Two Suns’ were written from the perspective of Pearl, her blonde, reckless alter-ego. In 2012 ‘The Haunted Man’ ditched the costumes for a more candid, stripped-down approach – literally, when it came to the album’s nude cover.
Then came last year’s Sexwitch side project, with Khan undergoing a “voodoo exorcism” in order to interpret a clutch of folk songs from around the world in the style of a ’60s acid freakout, backed by drone-rockers Toy. “Bat For Lashes inhabits certain aspects of my character but I’m a multi-dimensional being. And there is a rebellious, punk-rock aspect to me, so it was nice to let that out,” she says.
By reinterpreting a number of non-Western songs, Sexwitch also allowed Khan to reconnect with her Pakistani Pashtun heritage. “I haven’t been to Pakistan since I was little, but I remember it as an assault on the senses. The smells, the tastes, the colours, the heat, the dust, the vibrancy of the people – they wear their emotions on their sleeves. I think I get my warm, passionate side from there.”
It may be why Khan is so easily moved to tears. Recently, she found herself in floods watching the new Radiohead video – not just because of its inherent melancholia, but because she was so thankful to see a band cutting through what she calls “the drivel of everyday life”. She excludes most of what she currently hears on the radio in that description. “What passes for good music these days is sometimes just so s**t. What worries me about the loss of Prince and Bowie is who’s going to set the bar for the level of quality that I demand from my pop stars?”
Over to you, Natasha? “Haha, well I try my best. I can’t say I’m as influential as Bowie. But everybody who’s coming through needs to know that you have a responsibility as an artist to create from the deepest, most intelligent place you can. Because art to me is so powerful – it’s more powerful than politics or religion. So as musicians we have a responsibility to keep the standards of humanity high. That’s my manifesto.”