Collaboration has paid off for Bat for Lashes on her new album, The Haunted Man.
Last time Bat for Lashes's Natasha Khan toured Sydney, she was in the eye of a storm. She describes her Opera House concerts for Vivid Live - her only shows for 2011 - as a ''magical experience'', but back home the English siren was flying into heavy turbulence making her third album, The Haunted Man.
Fuelled by the pressure to follow up her acclaimed 2009 record Two Suns, and the break-up of her relationship while touring, writer's block quickly became a deeper, darker existential funk.
In short, the singer famous for her bewitching fantasy pop had lost her magic.
''It was terrible,'' she recalls on the phone from London, where she's cosied up on her couch with a blanket. ''Sometimes I'd just be crying because I felt I couldn't write anything or the record company had said it wasn't very strong.
''There was a lot of interference and doubt and me just feeling empty. For me, what I make is everything and I live it every day.''
So she decided to live her days differently for a while. She read, took dance lessons, went for long walks through nature and got into gardening and cooking (''I make a mean spaghetti bolognese with chorizo!''). She had her astrological chart done and took part in a native Indian medicine ceremony, which involved taking hallucinogenic-plant drinks to trigger spiritual visions. In between, she reflected on past relationships, her family history, fighting for her art. ''There were a lot of ghosts to think about, make peace with and let go of in order to move forward,'' she says gently.
Khan also called in reinforcements. She revisited her old art teacher, asked her mate Thom Yorke from Radiohead for advice (he told her to draw) and collaborated with Beck (who she'd worked with on Let's Get Lost from the Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack), TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, and Justin Parker, who co-wrote Lana Del Rey's Video Games.
The breakthrough came with Lilies, the album's exultant opener, in which Khan's declaration ''Thank god I'm alive!'' shines out like a lightning bolt. ''That was an epiphany,'' she says. ''It's about being creatively barren, lost and alone and then suddenly inspiration comes, like I'm tapped back in.''
In the process, Bat for Lashes as we know her was reborn. The tribal headbands and hippie trappings that defined her look since her 2006 debut, Fur and Gold, have gone, literally stripped away on
The Haunted Man's cover, where she is sans clothes and make-up, carrying a naked man.
''That look became a fashion which seemed a bit token, and I didn't want to perpetuate the trend,'' she says. ''I still love my hippie things, but I wanted to try something new, because if you repeat yourself too much, you can become a parody of yourself.''
Her music, too, has evolved. Songs such as All Your Gold and Rest Your Head might invoke her mystic brand of alluring electro-pop, but soaring slow burners including Marilyn and the Parker-co-penned Laura reveal a disarming new honesty a world away from her past tales of wizards and crystal towers. ''This one's more direct, more intimate and complex emotionally,'' she says.
With her ghosts put to rest and The Haunted Man lauded by fans and critics since its October release, Khan just hopes she can keep making records in an industry facing its own turbulent times as it deals with file sharing and reduced sales. ''I feel quite liberated and strong now,'' she says earnestly. ''This album's taught me about sticking to your beliefs. But it's hard. With the industry shrinking, there's more pressure to sell out so the radio plays you or you sell more records.
''I don't expect everyone to buy the record but the label judges how I'm doing by how many I sell. I'm being judged by something that's not relevant any more, and because people aren't buying records, I might not be able to make more - it's as clear as that. I just want this record to do well and I want to communicate it.''
BAT FOR LASHES
February 2, Laneway Festival, Sydney College of the Arts, Balmain Road, Rozelle, and January 30, 7pm, Enmore Theatre, Enmore Road, Enmore.
TICKETS Laneway: tickets.greentix.com, 1300 369 882, $140;
Enmore Theatre. enmoretheatre.com.au, 9550 3666, $77.
TRAVEL Sydney College of the Arts: 15 minutes' walk from Rozelle light-rail stop, buses from CBD down Darling Street/Balmain Road.
Enmore Theatre: five minutes' walk from Newtown train station, various buses from Central/Town Hall.
LIVE Evocative, witchy pop. Think Kate Bush for the Game of Thrones generation.
BEST TRACKSLaura from The Haunted Man and Daniel from Two Suns.