Natasha Khan's creative output is a mythology all her own. The singer-songwriter's musical fables, performed under the alias Bat for Lashes, feature a variety of rich characters, from Two Suns' cosmic warrior Pearl to the lovably damaged party girl in her 2012 single "Laura." Khan's new concept album, The Bride, out July 1st, stars a blushing belle whose lofty plans for holy matrimony are foiled after her fiancé dies en route to their wedding. From there, the title character embarks on her honeymoon alone, confronting her own personal demons on the path to self-discovery.
"Marriage is one of the few spiritual rituals we can collectively share as a culture," Khan told Rolling Stone during a recent sit-down about the new album. "You can't count on someone to complete you and make you happy forever. So what happens when you take the crutch away?"
Inspired by the work of David Lynch and Kenneth Anger, and loosely based on her own recent short film "I Do," The Bride is a smoldering journey through the supernatural. For a few days, it seemed like the album's promotional tour was too. Khan and her band were forced to scrap a recent planned live rendition of The Bride at Brooklyn church St. Ann and the Holy Trinity after the ceiling collapsed above the stage during their soundcheck. Then, later that week, torrential downpours would thwart their performance at Governors Ball.
Yet Khan emerged victorious onstage at a make-up show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, decked out in a black veil and cherry-red, Gunne Sax-like gown, ceremoniously tossing a bouquet into the crowd and plucking serenely at an omnichord. ("We’re the most depressing wedding band," she joked.) Fresh from this disconcerting series of events, Khan seemed cool and composed – albeit a little spooked – when she met with RS at Warner Music HQ.
I caught your show at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Even though it didn't happen inside the church, as you had hoped, the saturated colors, the Karen Carpenter dress, the candlelight – they all really set the scene.
The feeling of playing in the church was so theatrical and so special. Like, coming down the aisle with a bouquet – it was perfect. My heart is so sad. Sad for you guys, really, because you didn't get to see it.
You're a Scorpio, right? The stars must be crossed right now.
There's a lot going on, astrologically. Neptune is squaring Saturn. Last time that happened I just had the worst migraine; it hurt so bad I couldn't even speak. Now Mars is in retrograde, and it's my ruling planet. I just wanna hide!
Let's talk about The Bride. What was the impetus behind this album?
Basically I just finished The Haunted Man, and I felt a real pull to make work in other media. I was interested in doing a feature-length film. I had just directed a video for a song called "Garden's Heart" [as featured in Jon Hopkins' film How I Live Now] and knew I wanted to get into screenwriting, that sort of thing. I went to see Kenneth Anger present a series of his films, like Scorpio Rising. It really inspired me visually.
[Photographer] Neil Krug and I, we ended up doing all the visuals together. We started geeking out on loads of old films, sending each other old 1930s images of women with veils, and cults. And I got this vision: I told him I wanted my next project to be called The Bride. And he said, "That sounds like fun!" I wrote the story, but I know that to make a feature-length film, the production companies want you to prove you can do it with a short film first. My short film, "I Do," is thematically linked, but it wasn't the same story. As I worked on that film, the music started coming through. I wrote the song titles before I actually wrote any of the songs.
The Bride is not exactly an alter ego of yours, but a character in your universe. How did you come up with her?
She doesn't seem like a character to me; she is a part of me. In this album I am navigating my own psychic terrain. I find it quite hard to separate us. I don't need to step into her; I just tune into her and where she's coming from. She could be anyone. Marriage is one of the few spiritual rituals we can collectively share as a culture. It's interesting that anyone's willing to go through this ritual, but if you take away the thing they need to fulfill that obligation, what happens? So I took away the groom and made her go on a honeymoon alone. I thought it would be a nice metaphor for falling in love with yourself, starting a journey of self-discovery. You can't just give that responsibility to something outside of yourself – you can't count on someone to complete you and make you happy forever. So what happens when you take the crutch away? In film and storytelling it's really interesting when the character is flung into the opposite of their expectation.
Have you ever been married, or engaged? I once read that you once escaped an arranged-marriage situation.
Oh, no. I honestly didn't think about arranged marriage until an interviewer asked me about it! [Laughs] I was 18. It didn't really affect me because I grew up with a Muslim dad. ... It was just part of the package. But my mom was English and very Westernized; she said no. Plus, I had a boyfriend at the time, so no way was I doing that. It's not nearly as dramatic as people make it out to be, I didn't exactly run away or escape anything. I was just like, "Oh, dad, shut up."
You say that marriage is one of the few spiritual rituals we still retain as a culture, but your character skips out on that experience. How did your views on marriage shape the album?
[The Bride] doesn't skip out on what I consider a true love, a true relationship, a true marriage. She skips out on that in the song "I Do." What I find very frightening is this projected ideal of romantic love that we're all fed from a very young age. It's all really dangerous and doesn't have much to do with the reality of relationships. Relationships go through constant births and deaths. The death of romantic love has to occur so you can really get to know someone and become real. So you can unconditionally love somebody, warts and all.
"What I find very frightening is this projected ideal of romantic love that we're all fed from a very young age."
She wants to be married; she wants to take the hero's journey. The hero's journey is marriage, in a way. It's the antithesis of instant gratification, ego stuff, Tinder and all this shit we have now. It's a long-term commitment to riding through the ups and downs of life, with yourself and with somebody else. At the beginning, she's like, "I do! I've been rescued by the most beautiful man – everything's gonna be fine now!" She wants that, but I don't think she's mature enough to realize what she's committing to. She needs something to be taken away; she needs to go through some kind of initiation before she'll be ready. And only then will she get married. It's like the spirits are protecting her.
She has to marry herself before she jumps into this spiritual pact with somebody else.
To me, marriage is a very spiritual, beautiful thing. Many people treat marriage as the sort of thing you can just bail on when it doesn't work out straight away. Or you just do it for romantic reasons. I want to go deeper than that.
People really de-spiritualize the marriage ritual, especially with the commercial aspects of it, as we see in shows like Bridezilla and Say Yes to The Dress. Whereas you are remarrying marriage to the spiritual side of it in this album.
What does being spiritual mean to you? What makes you a spiritual person?
Intrinsically, I've always been that way. The things that keep me connected to myself – and therefore reach universal consciousness – is meditation and yoga. Yoga really helps me when touring, because you have to stay fit. It's physical preparation for meditation. Besides that, my biggest spiritual ally is nature. I absolutely can't function if I can't see trees, or do something green everyday. I feel like that's just human. A lot of people may have forgotten that. I feel sad for people who can't access nature, because of how much it's given me. I'm going to Central Park after this. Also, the act of creation and writing music and storytelling ... The fact that my art goes out into the world and brings people together, where they can all collectively share a journey, where they can delve into the unconscious together ... to me it's extremely spiritual. So as a musician, I take the responsibility to connect people and introduce them to worlds that are subconscious and magical.
"As a musician, I take the responsibility to connect people and introduce them to worlds that are subconscious and magical."
You worked on this record in a house in upstate New York.
The house is on a mountain – it belongs to an old lady in Woodstock. We took out all her furniture and brought in a mixing desk, vibraphone, piano, drum kit – all the instruments I wanted. We hauled all these instruments up a mountain. Musicians came and visited and played. I needed to be in nature, but also the mythology of being an artist on the mountain is very much like being in that house on the mountain. It felt like being closer to God, closer to the heavens, close to thunderbolts, the atmosphere swirling about. I love the Romantic period in poetry because of their spiritual understanding of the importance of nature. Nature is a character, a concept, an entity. I feel like nature is the Mother; she's the macrocosm of all our emotions. Our cycles of death and rebirth, you can see all that through patterns in nature.
Your last two videos were set in the desert. As somebody who grew up in London, what is your connection to the West?
I grew up just north of London in Hertfordshire, which is really green and lush. Lots of meadows, fields, lakes. I grew up playing outside all the time. The reason I filmed these visuals in the desert was really because of budget; we had to get all the video done near L.A. I would have liked to film a bit in Woodstock [where they produced The Bride] or even in Iceland. I was on the search for landscapes that were difficult to put your finger on where they were. I do love the desert, though, it's great. I've been coming out to New York and L.A. twice a year since I was 18, taken several road trips through the West, been to Big Sur, Mexico. I feel a definite spiritual connection to the landscape of America. I feel creatively alive and inspired in the West. There's a sense of clarity in all the space there. When I'm there, I feel like there's less human-centric, human-built things that separate you from your natural habitat. I feel the reflection, the contemplation, the quiet-time and the ability to hear, and not be blasted by so much noise and people and Internet. …
I think as a creative person, it's all down to what you can hear. It's important to listen to what's actually coming through. In the desert, when the stars are so bright, and the horizon is huge, it cuts the bullshit, immediately. It's so naked. It's like the pregnancy of a pause. It's so full of energy, you can just step out and catch it in the wind. It makes me tune in even more.
You collaborated with photographer Neil Krug, who's also worked with Lana Del Rey. Although you pre-date her!
[Laughs] It's true, I do. Neil Krug has been my visual collaborator for the last two years. It's been really fun. We did all the album artwork up in Angeles Crest, California. We also made two other books, separately, full of of black-and-white monographs. They're full of weird avant-garde things. I've had loads of musical collaborators I'd really love to go back to. But he's the visual one I've really enjoyed working with, he's got a psychedelic, surrealist mind. I just love the saturated colors, the Polaroids and old film.
Do you usually start with visuals before writing the music?
Definitely, yeah. I made up the whole story, the landscape, the characters. ... The feeling of it has to whirl around my brain for a while before I put pen to paper, or actually play something. It has to marinate. I collect imagery; I draw a lot. I make lists of words; I collect songs that set the scene. It's how I was taught how to do it in art class – you have to collect inspirations and make these big sketchbooks full of things. It's a juicy way of doing it.
Which songs and sounds were part of your musical palette while writing The Bride?
"Dream Baby Dream" by Bruce Springsteen. ["Wicked Game"] by Chris Isaak. Some Nineties shoegazey stuff, doom metal. Elvis songs, Carpenters songs. Ennio Morricone soundtracks, Western soundtracks. And Delia Derbyshire, she's this BBC Radiophonic Workshop woman ... She did these crazy early analog electronic experiments. And The Wizard of Oz soundtrack for sure, with all the close-harmonized choral parts, harps and strings, the magical kind of Forties soundtrack music. The Twin Peaks soundtrack, Nick Cave.
But your baroque chamber-pop stylings still shine through.
I don't know where that comes from, really! I don't really listen to that kind of music. Maybe it's in my blood or something. I like the pagan-influenced, folky side of English music. The sea shanties. They're kind of in our blood in England.
When I think of pagan folk music, I think of people singing incantations, people singing mantras. There are many of those in The Bride. Like the lines you repeat in "I Will Love Again." If you repeat something enough, you just will it into being. Like learning to love yourself, commit to yourself.
Yes, it is very mantra-like. The reason I loved Nirvana so much was because [Kurt Cobain] wrote these, like, kids' nursery rhymes. They're quite simple, but when you repeat the lines enough, they really stick to your head. You repeat it 'round and 'round like a mantra: "I will love again." It's quite witchy. It's like a spell.