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 unrecognizable in heavy make-up plus – in the case of 2006 Mercury-nominated 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 Natasha, 33, explaining her new, more simple, aesthetic.
‘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: Natasha 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, Natasha 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 a 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, Natasha went to live by the sea in East 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.
‘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.’
The idea of being on tour for the next 18 months doesn’t really excite Natasha, 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 30s 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.
‘I don’t think it’s good for you as a person to avoid maturing. I can’t wait to get old.’