Natasha Khan, better known as Bat for Lashes, arrives at the east London cafe where we meet without the spring in the step you might expect of an artist about to embark on a major tour in support of her newly released album. "I'm so tired," she says, nevertheless radiant in a bright, grass-green jumper.
On a break from rehearsing, the Anglo-Pakistani singer-songwriter's less than sunny demeanour stems from a review she has read of her new album The Haunted Man. "They said it lacked heart, and that was the absolute antithesis of what I was intending," she sighs. "It's hard not to let it affect you when you're working so hard, trying to create something beautiful for people."
To avoid such bruising, Khan, now 33, makes a point of not reading reviews of her work, so it is some bad luck that the one she did let down her guard to cast her eye over was negative, standing almost alone in its criticism amid a sea of rave responses. And rightly so – The Haunted Man stands high alongside its two predecessors, its art-pop fizzing with new ideas, adventurous electronics, orchestration, and emotion. It has attracted Kate Bush comparisons and was at No 6 at the time of writing.
Khan's 2006 debut album Fur and Gold set her apart as a distinct songwriting talent with a taste for the theatrical in her dramatic vocals, imagery and the glittery headdresses that dominated her stage costumes, and earned her Mercury Prize and Brit nominations. Her 2009 follow-up album Two Suns was a Top 5. Featuring her troubled blonde alter-ego Pearl, it gained her a further Mercury nod and an Ivor Novello award for the single "Daniel".
A third album loomed with the pressure of previous success and the determination to take her music to new, exciting places, although she admits that much of the pressure was self-imposed. "The last album was conceptual and used lots of symbolism and imagery. This one I wanted to be much more intimate, so that felt clear straight away," she says with the confidence of an artist who knows what she wants. "But then, sonically, making choices is hard when you can do anything you want."
Aged 30, having completed her tour, Khan discarded Pearl, returned from New York – and a failed relationship – to an empty flat in Brighton, and was hit by writer's block, and loneliness.
"I was rattling around the flat not knowing what to do with myself," she recalls. "When you've been in the musical machine, which is extremely regimented – you have a tour manager who tells you when to get up, when to sound check – and then suddenly you shut the door and you are at home and no-one's telling you to even get up... Sometimes the weight of that silence, it's just a void. There's no work, no ideas, there's no one there, and that, for me, is absolutely terrifying. I went a bit crazy. The first thing I'll do if I'm feeling unfulfilled is write, but I felt depleted."
If there's a con to being a solo artist rather than a band member, it's the lonely return from a pop star's existence, performing to thousands on tour, to regular life. "All my friends lead normal lives so I can't rely on them. I got really lonely. You go home and have to learn to shrink again into a normal person's life."
Being the restless, creative, and very driven, spirit that she is, Khan busied herself with all kinds of projects that both took her mind off music and gave her the tools to rebuild herself. She took up unpaid gardening work at Charleston, the Bloomsbury Group's meeting place in East Sussex, she enrolled in dancing sessions and a weekly pottery class. She even considered abandoning music altogether to return to her old job as a school-teacher.
While struggling in this "dark place", Khan called Rob Ellis, longtime collaborator of PJ Harvey. He took her to Italy to try out some new things – working with a choral master and a harpist – to help reignite her spark. It worked.
Save for the gloriously emotive, stripped-back "Laura", co-written with Justin Parker (who co-authored Lana Del Rey's "Video Games"), elation feels more present than melancholy on the album. "Lilies" boasts the album's most resonating lyric, "Thank God I'm alive", although even that was born out of a sense of desperation for inspiration to strike. "It was a desperate moment. I was sitting on my sofa with my auto-harp and the whole song is about begging for inspiration, being dried up, alone, and waiting. Through writing the song I'd taken myself from this desperate place to this feeling of existential joy."
Khan, who grew up in Hertfordshire and then lived in Sussex, also moved to Islington, in north London. It was her home for the past year, but the noisy main road disrupted her songwriting. The cafe where we meet today, where mismatched furniture is surrounded by shelves laden with vintage porcelain teacups, is her new favourite. She moved again, to Victoria Park, a week ago, for its open green spaces which are more conducive to writing. "I'm not a central London person", she says.
Fans who have attended her current tour will have observed her new sophisticated image –a neat bobbed haircut and boldly coloured stage outfits. "I don't think I've made a choice of 'I'm not going to wear headdresses live'. It's more that I grew out of it." What was a conscious decision was the striking cover of The Haunted Man, an image taken by New York photographer Ryan McGinley in which Khan poses nude, with an equally nude man slung over her shoulder, and doesn't look particularly happy with her burden. This prompts a discussion about society's emasculation of men, and women shouldering burdens that were once men's responsibility. It is un-retouched. Khan hasn't even shaved her legs.
"I was remembering being a teenage girl, when I saw Courtney Love being raw and fucked up, with holes in her tights. Lately there's slickness in pop music. There's not much imagery of women with hairy armpits and moustaches, just letting it all hang out like Janis Joplin did. Amazing! No make-up, just wild hair! I felt that was seriously lacking and I wanted to keep that tradition alive in my own way."
Now the album is out, how does it feel to see it? "Someone sent me a picture of it on the Underground the other day. It was gi-normous! I was like, 'Oh God I'm definitely not getting the train for a few weeks!'"
'The Haunted Man' is out now; Bat for Lashes tour to 4 November