On a cool night in June, a crowd has gathered at Music Hall of Williamsburg to witness a holy matrimony. We've been instructed to dress in proper wedding attire; a few attendees comply, wearing vintage wedding dresses, flower crowns, and boutonnieres pinned to their suits. Tiny electric candles litter the stage. When The Bride finally appears onstage, dressed in a floor-length, red polyester gown and black veil, her eyes painted with bright, baby blue eye shadow, the crowd goes wild. "Welcome to my Williamsburg wedding!" Natasha Khan says, giggling as she adjusts her veil.
"The Bride" is the protagonist of Khan's album of the same name, her fourth as Bat For Lashes — a 13-song concept record about a woman whose groom is tragically killed in a car crash right before they are to be wed. A spooky collection of Morricone-influenced rock and baroque pop songs, The Bride is a work of gothic horror filtered through the lens of '60s psychedelia and road-trip movies like Wild at Heart and The Doom Generation. In one light, it's a contemporary parable about a woman finding self-love and independence; in another, it's a trippy ghost story, with Khan's Bride finally driving off onto a dark highway, alone in her honeymoon car.
Khan, who studied music and visual arts in college, has long paired her fairy tale–filled songwriting with equally striking imagery. When the onetime primary school teacher made her recording debut in 2006 with Fur and Gold, she performed in feathery headdresses and flashy face paint, poised to be Kate Bush 2.0. For her last Bat For Lashes record, 2012's The Haunted Man, Khan stripped away the glitter quite literally, posing on the album's Ryan McGinley–shot cover wearing nothing except the draped body of a naked man.
Khan says that the character of The Bride first came to her while she was exploring an interest in writing for film. Looking ahead to the conclusion of her four-album record deal, she began to teach herself screenwriting, taking classes in London and opening her house to actors for a "John Cassavetes–style" month of improv filming. "These past couple of years, I have been anticipating the freedom of being able to move into other media," Khan tells me, sitting on the couch at her label's New York office a few days after her Williamsburg wedding. "I knew I wanted to direct a film. I was getting really excited — but I [realized] I don't have anything under my belt, and people won't take me seriously."
As Khan brainstormed potential script ideas with her friend, artist Neil Krug, they exchanged striking photographs by artists they both admired: Man Ray, Maya Deren — the sort of "weird '60s sexual psychedelic cult-type imagery" they both were drawn to, she says. In the crowd of witchy photos, one stood out. "He sent me this incredible image of a bride in a veil, probably from the 1950s, and she was crying. She looked so disturbed, and I was like —" Khan gasps. "[I said], ‘The next thing I do is going to be called The Bride!’"
She wrote the character's story in mind for a film, which would go on to become the short "I Do" for the anthology film Madly, and the eventual concept album. "The arc of a character to me is most interesting when it's intercepted by something that prevents that character from fulfilling their role," Khan says. "I thought, if a bride doesn't have a groom, how will she go on her honeymoon? Will she have to go on her own, and who will she fall in love with — herself?"
The Bride tells its story in compact chapters. The synth-laden ballad "I Will Love Again" finds The Bride hopeful for her future; on the bitter "Honeymooning Alone," she's fled the chapel into the darkness. "I'll always be the girl that was denied," she sings, her voice sneering over a twangy electric guitar riff. Throughout, the ghost of her lover appears, once as a pale green light in the forest on the eerie, Angelo Badalamenti–evoking "Close Encounters," and again as the fiery vision of her fiancé's car crash in "Joe's Dream."
Khan has always been a mystic — images of witches and magic are woven throughout her past few albums, including her 2015 side project Sexwitch — but the literal ghost here feels like something new. "I definitely believe in spirit realms and unseen things, because I work in music, which you can't see," she says after a long pause when I raise the subject of the afterlife. "Music is vibrational waves that move through the air and they hit your ear and move you emotionally — to me, that's magic. I think the idea of the ghost, especially in Victorian times, has been constructed for humans to be able to deal with loss in a more tangible way ... imagining a person as a ghost keeps the experience from feeling so lonely and detached."
Khan's new album and tour can feel like their own dioramic universe. The framework of marriage (and its destruction) drew Khan to its unabashedly traditional themes. "There's a lack of genuine ritual in our modern-day society — so few are left and marriage is one of them," Khan says. "I wanted to use ritual to bring people into something they might think is sort of generic, but it actually houses so much. You can talk about intimacy, commitment, the love of the self, but also about human beings' need to witness ceremonies together and come together communally."
Everything about The Bride demands a dedication to ritual. Beyond its matrimonial subject matter, it's an album that must be heard in full to experience the story correctly. At the wedding-themed Williamsburg show, at which Khan played The Bride almost in its entirety, guests were asked to participate in her theatre: In addition to their formal attire, guests were told to turn off their phones at Khan's request and she even threw a bouquet into the audience at the show's end. The proceeds from the show benefited the David Lynch Foundation, which specializes in the self-care ritual of Transcendental Meditation, which Khan has done twice a day for the past two years. Khan admits there's something a little "cheesy" about making such a character-driven concept album, but she's hoping to make it cool again. "The musician's role nowadays is so much more important than it has ever been," she says, citing the decline of families or pub-goers sitting around the piano singing music together. "I think there's a massive desire for people to be lifted up out of their own everyday experience and to be told stories and fairy tales."
The Bride’s central image of a widowed bride realizing the merit of her own self-sufficiency carries an almost folkloric weight. Talking to Khan, it's clear that the record is not just a textured story, but something of a teaching moment. "[The Bride] thinks she's found the man of her dreams — she's like, ‘The romantic ideal has come true! I never have to be sad again!’" Khan says. "But what happens if that's taken away? Are you robust enough of a person to take away all your external cruxes and just ask: Can I satisfy myself, can I soothe myself, can I parent myself? There's a big load of grown-up babies right now who are looking for love or sex or plastic surgery or Instagram hits or whatever it is to fulfill that parental role of someone saying: you're beautiful, you're accepted for who you are, you're emotionally contained, and you can do this."