IN THE days before my interview with Kate Bush, I have several conversations with people about her. Their ages range from early 20s to mid-60s, their musical tastes even broader, but the admiration and respect Bush commands is universal. She’s an unlikely household name, and everyone I speak to seems to know a surprising amount about her, from obscure bits of biography to a frightening knowledge of her back catalogue.
When we finally speak, Bush is late, and profusely apologetic. Her day has been taken up with a short film she has directed for Deeper Understanding. It’s the first single to be taken from Director’s Cut, a new album of reworked songs culled from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes. Six years after the release of her last album, Aerial, Bush had multiple motivations in going back to these songs. Technological and production limitations were a factor, but artistic doubt also lingered in the back of her mind.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a while, and I think some of my more interesting songs are on those two albums. You look back on your work and often feel there’s something wrong with all of it, but that’s just part of being a human being as much as an artist. I tried to make some of those songs sound like I’d want them to sound now, but this time I wanted it to be more about the songs than the production. I also approached them in a lower key, because my voice is lower now.”
Ah yes, that voice. The multiple octaves of childlike coos and sibilant sensuality that can go from gothic whisper to oscillating scream. In 1977, when Wuthering Heights made her the first woman to reach No 1 in the UK charts with a self-written song, audiences didn’t know what to make of her. She had been singing and – crucially – writing her own songs since she was 13. EMI snapped her up. Bush’s voice was just one of the unique things about her. Female singers who wrote their own songs were in a minority, as were ones who played piano, never mind ones who wrote about Brontë novels. Stylistic experiments have pushed her in various vocal directions, but age has added new textures and angles to her voice. It’s noticeably lower on songs such as Song of Solomon and Rubberband Girl. Elsewhere, she sounds as distinctive as she always has, and is comfortable with these changes.“I really like other people’s voices as they age. I think singers’ voices get more interesting as they age. People like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday had wonderful voices when they were younger, but they sounded even better as they aged.”
Bush grew up in a musical family, and played piano from an early age. She absorbed all kinds of music, and she says that many of her early influences – not just her piano-playing father and musical brothers – were men. Like women in 1970s music, from Joan Jett and Ari-Up to Poly Styrene, Bush’s musical image is self-made, because of a dearth of role models. No one was doing what she was doing.“There was Joni Mitchell and Carole King, but the people I was drawn to in my teens tended to be male. My greatest hero was Elton John, and part of that was because of what he does, but that he was also a singer who played piano. A lot of songwriting at the time was very guitar-based, but Elton stood out. He’s a brilliant pianist and I still love his work.” The two are now friends, and Bush has covered Rocket Man. “When it came to being asked to do one of his songs, I was so excited, I was all, ‘Which one can I do?’ As a girl I rushed out and bought that as a single and played it to death.”
There is real glee in the way Kate Bush talks about things that matter to her. She’s never afraid to be breathlessly enthusiastic. For all the media accusations of eccentricity she faced in her youth, she’s been very much in control of her career. She is in charge of her own company, aided by her brothers (her late father was the chairman). In her early days with EMI, she negotiated a large degree of autonomy. When it came to production, she slowly became more involved as her career took off. EMI is distributing this album, but it’s released on her own Fish People label.
“It’s really important to me to be hands-on. On the first two albums I used a producer, but I started to feel that the approach and general feel of the songs wasn’t where I wanted to take them. By the third album I was co- producing, and each time you make an album it’s a learning process.” Bush has also been quite prophetic in her attitude to technology, from being one of the first musicians to use a Fairlight digital synthesiser to foreseeing (in 1989’s Deeper Understanding) the central role computers would play in our lives. It’s also the first single from Director’s Cut, and one of the most radically reimagined.
“I was trying to get across the idea of a computerised voice,” says the singer, “so back then, even with a Vocoder used as part of a group of voices, it was difficult to hear. I also wanted a single voice to convey that the computer is a single entity. We just couldn’t get the effect, but nowadays it’s so easy to computerise a voice.” The voice in question on the song is that of Albert, aka Bertie, her 12-year-old son. Bush is famously guarded of her private life, but is effusive when speaking about him. “I thought it was more poignant to have a child as this bringer of compassion in a cold technological world. I asked him if he would sing on it, and he thought it was great fun.” Has he listened to her previous work? “Yes, he has! It’s really nice for me, because – thank goodness – he likes it. He’s one of my greatest critics. I’ve always involved my family and friends in my music, and he’s the new member of the gang,” she laughs. “He also plays violin and has a lovely singing voice.”
On Director’s Cut, This Woman’s Work has been completely re-recorded. The song (and original video) deal with the idea of womanhood, especially in relation to being a mother. Bush wrote it long before she gave birth to Bertie, but on 2005’s Aerial,the sense of the domestic seeped in again, from the track named for her son, to Mrs Bartolozzi. Cyril Connolly warned of the dangers of the “the pram in hallway” for great art, but Bush thinks she has the balance, and her priorities, right. “It’s quite an intense life when you’re trying to be a mother and work, but you have to get on with it.” Has motherhood influenced her work? “Oh yes, I think so. I’ve had to learn to work differently, because I have a lot of commitments as a mother, and there are things I don’t want to bypass. I love spending time with my son. The way I set out to be a mother was that he came first and my work would fit around that. It means I don’t always get a lot of sleep , but I feel really privileged that I can do a lot of my work at home.”
Listen to any of Kate Bush’s albums and there are palpable influences from all over the world. The Macedonian chorus of Flower of the Mountain (now finally featuring Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses) and the didgeridoo of The Dreaming are flourishes, but traditional Irish music is something she cites as a major influence on her. “My mother was Irish, so I was brought up listening to Irish music, as well as English folk music. There’s something about Irish traditional music that’s really special. A big part of me is Irish, and any time I hear uilleann pipes I really feel that. There was a point when I seriously considered living there. I always felt really at home there.”
If you read the mythology that surrounds the singer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she would never speak about her family, her life or her history to the media. Not true. As are many of the public impressions of her. From Kubrickian recluse to hermetic control freak, people assume they know her. “It’s just part of life, isn’t it? Even if you’re not somebody whose work becomes public, we all make assumptions about people when we meet them – who they are and what they think. I don’t think of myself as a famous person. I live a straightforward life and a lot of my time is spent with my family and working, which most people do. The only difference is that what I do gets sent out into the public domain. I’m enormously touched that people are still interested in what I do after all this time.” She laughs that easy, throaty laugh again.
When she’s not recording or writing, she admits she loves to watch films and read – no Kindles, mind – she believes in “the energy of a physical book, the smell of it”. She admits to being “immensely flattered” when people cover her work, and is indefatigably modest when asked about being an influence on artists such as Joanna Newsom, PJ Harvey and Alison Goldfrapp. At the moment she is working on new material, but is guarded about it.
“Director’s Cut took a long time. It’s funny, every time I start a new album I say to myself ‘this one’s going to be really quick’, and of course it ends up going on and on. But it was great to go straight into the new songs, while I was still in focused, studio mentality. With Aerialand this new album I feel there’s a greater space. They’re a bit different to my other work, but then I feel that about everything when I start it, and I don’t want to keep making the same album all the time. It’s hard to talk about work when it’s in progress, because it’s always an evolving process.”
While there is no definite release date yet for the forthcoming album of brand new material, the singer’s return via Director’s Cut was bound to cause the issue of touring to resurface. Bush has famously toured just once – in 1979 – and legions of devotees would love to see her live. Few artists command the kind of fan loyalty she does, but then Bush is a one-off. A consummate artist and an original – the acme of female musicians. Will she ever play live again? “It was never my intention to go so long without touring. I have no plans to tour at the moment, but I’d like to think that I would again some day. I’ll never say never.”
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on May 6th, 2011