Not unique, because obviously pop acts were dressing up long before her, but just at that moment Khan thought it unlikely she would bump into another woman rummaging the second-hand shops for wolf, unicorn and, of course, bat imagery. Then, all of a sudden, they were everywhere. Along came Florence + the Machine, La Roux and Little Boots, and even Lily Allen and Ellie Goulding tried to locate their inner glam elf. All of which explains why Khan, bored of it all, is standing naked before me today.
Not in this north London tea-shop where we’re discussing her fantastic third album The Haunted Man but on its cover. A man, also in the buff, is all she’s technically wearing, limbs strategically placed to protect modesty, for a striking shot by famed photographer Ryan McGinley. “I remembered a portrait of Ryan’s with a wolf wrapped round someone’s neck and thought: ‘I’d like to do that with a man,’ ” explains Khan, 32. “This album is a lot about the relationship dynamics involving men and women: lovers, mothers and sons, soldiers coming back from war, women as nurturers. I had my pick of some male models for the shoot and went with this lad because of his little soldier look. We hadn’t met before but, holding him for five hours, I got to know him quite intimately. Obviously I had some qualms. It was nerve-wracking, very exposing and totally mental. But when it was done – because I wasn’t wearing make-up and there’s been no photo-shopping since – it felt liberating.”
The sleeve has been trailed as a tribute to Patti Smith who once went naked for a cover but it’s more than that. “For my last album [Two Suns], the sleeve was influenced by Frida Kahlo and Catholic religious art,” says the newly bobbed Khan. “The music was heavily conceptual with lots of symbolism and cosmic metaphors. I carried all of that round the world for two years and by the end just got… not sick of it, but maybe disenchanted. I just wanted to strip everything away.”
Fed up of her own cosmic metaphors, fed up of other people’s. “There’s a lot of faux-mysticism around, isn’t there? The view seems to be that a headband will get you a fully formed alter ego and a bit of glitter will transform you into this magical other. When I started dressing up it was child-like and instinctive but I definitely felt like a queer fish. Now there’s this big sea of mermaids! So for me I think it’s over.”
Now, in case you’re thinking that the half-English, half-Pakistani Khan takes herself too seriously, she doesn’t. You should know that she elects Kate Bush, not herself, as the queen of any pop-tribe equivalent of The Wild Women of Wongo. You should remember that Two Suns spawned Daniel, the best soft-rock track that Fleetwood Mac never wrote. And if you’re concerned that the new album pares back the gloriously insane elements of Bat For Lashes, don’t worry – at times, it’s almost prog-rock. Oh, and if you’re worried about the prog, wait until you hear Laura, her Carpenters homage.
The last time we met she told me about a Gavin Maxwell-inspired premonition that album No 3 would take her to Scotland. In the end, following an American sojourn, it has merely returned her to England, but I forgive her this for The Haunted Man’s echoes of Curved Air and Roxy Music when they were proggy and the bold song triptychs.
“I think I’m a prog fan without knowing it,” says Khan. “I like Jethro Tull, the folkier stuff, and my godfather is Danny Thompson from Pentangle, who made me weird and wonderful mixtapes introducing me to Genesis. What I understand by prog is theatricality, fantasy, vivid imagery – I’ve always tried for these things.” For the record’s stunning orchestration, she was helped by John Metcalfe, conductor for Peter Gabriel’s revival of Solsbury Hill for Later… With Jools Holland, pop high-point of the TV year. To bring her new songs to the stage, she’d love “a full orchestra, projectionists, dancers”. But she’s in minimalist mode, of course, and admits: “I may have to settle for a big flower round my head like Peter.”
Prog, for all its scope, hasn’t been boundless enough for Khan as inspiration. “I watched films by some amazing Iranian female video artists and also [Ryan Gosling thriller] Drive. I visited Matisse’s church in the south of France and sat with my old art tutor to explore my different English and Pakistani ancestries through self-portraits. Relatives were already investigating the family tree. I thought back to my teens, all my anxieties. What things from childhood are still a burden? What needs to be let go? What ends up being repeated unconsciously? Learning about my English grandfather’s involvement in World War Two led me to the film Ryan’s Daughter. I’d just broken up with someone so I started to think about the traumatised man and the woman who tries to help. And I went back to Roald Dahl, BFG, and another book from childhood, Goodnight Mr Tom, about a boy evacuee and the healing impact of nature.”
Khan, a former nursery teacher, first had her imagination fired by the fantastical bedtime stories from Pakistan told by her father, and she finishes our chat with the one about the tragic pet mongoose wrongly accused of killing a baby, the blood in the cot being from the snake which had threatened the tot. She admits to feeling broody herself but admits: “The traditional family structure – 2.4 kids and me going ‘Nice day at the office, dear?’ in return for a kiss – probably won’t work for me, so I can’t be afraid of doing something unconventional.” As if. «
• The Haunted Man (Parlophone) is out on 15 October. Bat for Lashes plays Inverness Ironworks on 18 October, Edinburgh Picture House on the 19th and Glasgow’s ABC on the 21st