Published Oct 29, 2012In the mid-2000s, Natasha Khan was a nursery school teacher. She spent her formative years listening to pop and grunge, studying music and visual art at the University of Brighton, and had an enjoyable job nurturing children that allowed her to be creative. Alas, teaching was not the same as writing music, and Khan found that the structure of her life gave her the impetus to pursue music elsewhere. The outcome was 2006's Fur and Gold, a quirky, self-confident debut on which Khan established a grand, theatrical sound that replaced the synth stabs and canned drums of '80s pop with strings, harpsichord, and acoustic percussion. The album nabbed her a Mercury Prize nomination and near-universal acclaim from music press.
Before the release of her new album, The Haunted Man, Khan nearly went back to the classroom. "When you have a proper job," she asserts, "you have something to push against creatively. When you're not allowed to write music when you're at work, it gives you a desire, you know? You miss it."
Khan needed that desire back. She'd just wrapped up a gruelling promotional trail for her second album, Two Suns, and the pressure of the third album ― conventionally perceived as the one on which an artist branches out, and makes a statement as a fully-formed artist ― was nearly unbearable. "Coming out of the second record, you take stock of everything that's happened, and I think I realized in advance that the third album might be kind of hard for me to make. It stifled me initially, gave me artist's block."
Which isn't to say she didn't try. "When I finished touring Two Suns, I quickly had 11 or 12 songs that I took to Beck, and we worked through some of them, but it was very early for me, and while I didn't necessarily trash them, I kind of grew out of them over the new few years. I'm always writing, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. It just wasn't quite there."
When new songs wouldn't come, Khan says, "I just had a big panic. I felt unable to say anything new, or didn't know what I wanted to say or do. I was just trying to find something to fill my day so that it wasn't just the big weight of this album that was waiting to be made. I think it would've taken the pressure off if I'd found a job, but that didn't work out, so I went out and gardened, and went on some trips away to take the pressure off a bit."
The time spent on the English countryside gave Khan the inspiration she needed, and provided a blueprint for her third album, The Haunted Man. "It fell into place when I started writing 'Lilies' and 'The Haunted Man.' When I had those two songs, I kind of felt like there was something thematic going on. Before that, I'd written the music for songs like 'Oh Yeah' and 'A Wall,' more dance-y tracks, but lyrically, they hadn't really found themselves yet."
After failing in Los Angeles, the songs found themselves back in her home country. "I was living in England throughout all of the writing of it, but I was also doing a lot of research: English landscapes, Romantic literature and poetry from England, rereading a lot of my childhood books by Roald Dahl, looking into my family tree on the English side, the war, the witch-burnings. All the modern history of England, and how that's affected my family. I think the album's ultimately about love and relationships, memories of childhood and becoming a woman, but it's all set against backdrops like the English coast and countryside."
Hence, the album boasts a more mature, refined sound than anything she's yet released. "All Your Gold" is a spare, danceable track propelled by a funky bass line; "Marilyn," like opener "Lilies," is a grand, string-laden affair with a swooping chorus; gorgeous centrepiece "Laura" is a conspicuously bare track, just piano and Khan's haunting voice.
That she's a little older, and a better producer than ever, also contributed to The Haunted Man's sound. "It really was a delicate, detailed process. I feel almost like a sculptor who's done her third body of work."
It's odd, given its background, but The Haunted Man exudes the confidence of an established artist, signified at least in part by the fact that she literally bares herself on the album's cover. "Once the album was actually underway," she states, "I got quite fiercely dedicated to the vision of it and didn't particularly think about what other people would think. It was more my high standards that had to be met.
"In the moment, I felt more up for putting my vocals up louder, and experimenting vocally. There's a lot more swooping kinds of notes, and hard melodies to sing. I did definitely want to push myself, in terms of vocals, into a bolder sound. I regularly felt quite out of my comfort zone while producing it, because I wasn't satisfied; I wanted to push things further."
Now that The Haunted Man is out, Khan's anxieties have set in again. "It's being released today and suddenly, I feel very small. The place that you're in when you're writing an album is a place of natural love, where you're not judging what you make. It's a very childlike state, where whatever resonates with you and makes you feel good, you go with that, instinctively. But then, when you play it for someone, or when you release an album, it's like an out-of-body experience."
But, she says, "I'm happy with this one. I can only follow my impulses, and I can feel already that there's some kind of knowing voice inside saying 'Keep it fresh, keep your life moving forward.' I'll always follow that voice. I need to make sure I'm not just part of a machine that keeps going around, because that's what I've been avoiding all my life: getting caught up in the machine of things."