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The world is one big art project for Bat for Lashes

Greg Kot

10:54 AM CDT, August 22, 2013

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Attending a Bat for Lashes show is a bit like going to play, a movie, an art installation and a concert all at once. And the architect of it all, Natasha Khan, wouldn't have it any other way.

The singer is also a visual artist, dancer and writer. Though music is her primary calling card – she has three acclaimed Bat for Lashes albums, including last year's "The Haunted Man" (Capitol) – her other interests play a key part in who she is as a musician, producer, songwriter and performer. She's hands on with every aspect of her art, including the videos, artwork and design for her albums.

"An album is a whole universe, and the recording studio is a three-dimensional kind of art space that I can fill with sound," she says. "Just as the album art and videos are ways of adding more dimensions to the words and music. I like to be involved in all of it because it's all of a piece."

"The Haunted Man" cover is a striking black-and-white photograph of Khan with a man draped from her shoulders. She peers into the camera – troubled, anxious – while the male figure acts as if he were unconscious or dead.

The troubling image reflects the complicated nature of male-female relationships explored in the songs. "The cover was in my head while making the album," Khan says. "There were a lot of songs that incorporated themes about relationships, war, the history of my family, my grandparents — a whole load of personal feelings. As the album was taking form, I started thinking of this image of a man and a woman and their relationship, and how I could possibly give it a twist. Normally you'd think of the man lifting the woman on his shoulders, but life isn't always like that."

"The Haunted Man" took a while to gestate, as Khan took an extended hiatus after releasing and touring behind the 2009 "Two Suns" album – a highly theatrical song cycle about a relationship. "The theatrical presentation was paramount on that album, and I still love the idea of adornment, rich imagery, space and objects. It's not like I intentionally went the other way on this album toward something more stark. But music can absorb many different possibilities. That's why I go away for a while, to let the next album tell me what it wants."

She came home to London and didn't think about music for several months. "Each album takes two or two-and-a-half years to finish between recording and touring," she says. "It's like being with an old boyfriend every single night watching the same things on TV. There is a world out there going on that I'm missing. I try to balance my life out because you're not supposed to go in one direction all the time. So I spent time with my family, just experiencing nature and friends."

Her other interests took over, informing the themes that would course through "The Haunted Man" before she even thought about recording anything. "I've always done visual arts, dance, writing when I'm not on the road, and I was able to indulge other projects," Khan says. "Mixing it up has been pretty natural for me from an early age. When I was young, I wanted to be a writer or painter. I was always writing stories, and I excelled at drawing. My teachers encouraged my art work. When I was 9 or 10, I began learning piano and started writing music. The turning point came when I was 20, and I visited America and Mexico for three, four months, seeing and playing a lot of music. I came back to England completely energized. I started studying engineering, music theory, composition, the history of art, culture (at the University of Brighton). It was a fantastic time for me to bring all these things together."

That ability to draw on other art forms is a great way to defeat writer's block. For Khan, she just moves into another discipline whenever she feels stuck or burned out. It also enabled her to get past her anxiety as a student who knew almost too much about the music and art that preceded her. At one time, she wondered if it had all been done before and whether there was any room for her to add to the cultural conversation.

"I used to be worried about that more when I started, but I've gained confidence," she says. "To be a great artist you need to know yourself as best as you possibly can. I live my life and delve into my own psyche. It's more about exploring how I feel rather than making pale imitations of something that came before. We are unique beings, and the way we look at things is our own. You have to be brave enough to keep challenging yourself, questioning yourself, get down to the center of who you are to make great art. You drill down into yourself and the quieter it is, the more peaceful it becomes, you get to a place where you're not bombarded by outside forces. Then what you create becomes a truer representation of who you really are."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday with Depeche Mode

Where: First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, 19100 S Ridgeland Ave., Tinley Park

Tickets: $29.50, $59.50, $119.50, $155; ticketmaster.com