To the Reaching Out (Interviews) Table of Contents
(This article was taken from Andrew Marvick's The Garden)
[This interview is certainly one of the very best ever undertaken with Kate. It is quite different from the majority of interviews conducted by the mainstream music publications, in that the main subject of discussion is actually the music, and Kate's methods of making it. In this respect it's similar to the Keyboard/Totally Wired interview, but I think Kate reveals a bit more about her musical orientation in the present interview.
[This version of the interview is an edition of a version re-printed in Break-Through Issue No. 4 (April/May 1984). The interview originally appeared in 1982.]
A unique vocal style, piano and Fairlight instrumental playing, and new role as producer as well as manager, designer, choreographer, composer and arranger, inspired this interview about Kate's music and her new album, The Dreaming.
There appear to be two major steps that influenced you as a singer: that your family's interest in music inspired you to teach yourself the piano, and that after securing your first recording contract you started mime and dance lessons.
"Yes, that's right. My father played the piano, and we also had an old harmonium in a barn next to our house, where I'd spend a lot of time just pedalling away hymns. I really loved their melodies and harmonies and worked out for myself that a chord was made from a minimum of three notes, and that by changing one of these notes you could get completely different chords to work with the new note. In a way, that started my interest in the way things could sound and feel very different just by putting different chords to a tune. As the harmonium got eaten up by mice, less and less of the stops that selected the sounds worked, so naturally I turned my attention to playing the piano.
"I couldn't read music at all. It was really a question of having a logical approach, once I knew where middle C was. Even though I wasn't much good at maths at school, I could see the logic of how the piano was working, and got on with it myself very well. I've now been playing the piano for many years, and I really did start off in the most basic way. After a couple of years I'd got a slight style, and since then I've simply developed it more, just by writing and then practising playing the songs. Often, I'd be writing songs beyond my technique which would stretch my playing even further."
In the early days, did you write the lyrics first?
"I usually started off with the tunes, and used library books for a source of lyrics, but I couldn't get on too well with the restriction of always fitting the music to the words. So I started making my own lyrics up alongside the music."
And then you became involved with dance?
"Yes, but that didn't happen until I was seventeen, because I didn't really get on with the dance teacher at school. Once I'd left school I tried to get into a dance school full-time, but no one would accept me as I had no qualifications in ballet. I had almost given up the idea of using dance as an extension of my music, until I met Lindsay Kemp, and that really did change so many of my ideas. [This is, as far as I am aware, the only occasion in which Kate explains that her ambition to merge her music with movement pre-dated her exposure to Kemp's work. Usually she simply credits Kemp exclusively for her inspiration.] He was the first person to actually give me some lessons in movement. I realized there was so much potential with using movement in songs, and I wanted to get a basic technique in order to be able to express myself fully.
"Lindsay has his own style--it's more like mime--and although he studied in many ballet schools and is technically qualified as a dancer, his classes and style are much more to do with letting go what's inside and expressing that. It doesn't matter if you haven't perfect technique."
Was the dance/movement approach just a novel visual image for you, or did it actually help in the composing of songs?
"The thing is, when I'm actually writing something, I can't conceive the dance at the same time. But when I'm listening and watching dance performances, I can conceive musical ideas."
There are several avenues of composing procedures open to you: through the lyrics, the dance, the melodies, rhythms or harmoies, or even the computer. Do you follow any particular one?
"Since I first started writing, the styles and attitudes have changed. Initially, it was just 'me and the piano,' and I would write the song until it was completely finished--the lyrics, the tune of one song would take me a couple of weeks. For the last two albums [Never For Ever and The Dreaming] it's been much looser, and I've been working with rhythm machines as well as the keyboard, and using subject matter already in my head. I'll then make up the music almost on the spot for the subject matter."
How did you get on with rhythm machines?
"It took me quite a while to get used to working with them because they seemed very limiting. I like rhythms to 'move', especially in the ballad songs where the tempo would ebb and flow with the words, stopping and slowing down as necessary. Suddenly, having to work with a very strict rhythm, I found it almost impossible at first to tie myself down to the rigid beat. Once I had got used to this, I found that I could work in between the beats."
One other aspect of your dance intrigues me, since you have created a style that visually complements modern music, and that is your own preferences and influences for dance styles in this country and abroad.
"I don't really avidly follow contemporary dance styles--Lindsay Kemp definitely was the starting point for me, although I like to think that I don't visually copy.
What I try to do is work in front of mirrors--and then without--whilst the music is playing, and see what happens. This helps me to create my own choreography best. Obviously, a lot of my movements come from my training--during that time Robin Kovak certainly had a big influence on me at the Dance Centre. She certainly gave me that strength to develop my own style.
I now do my dance rehearing in a small studio room near my home, and have a set group of dancers that I can call upon to work with. My musicians haven't changed much either, that work with me."
Even from your Lionheart album days there's been a noticeable interest in unusual instruments: panpipes, mandocello, strumento da porco, sitar, koto, balalaika, harmonica, recorders, and musical saw.
"Yes, that's because Paddy Bush [Kate's brother, the middle of the three Bush siblings], who has played on my albums, has made a lot of instruments since he studied at the London College of Furniture, specializing in mediaeval instruments. Whenever he finds an instrument that doesn't appear to exist that he likes--he'll make one, and learn to play it. Consequently, it ends up on one of my tracks!
Sounds are very important to me, and I think there are a lot of standard instruments that don't actually sound that emotional or that interesting, which is why it's really nice to have the flavours of these other instruments. In so many cases they are not used any more, and that means people don't recognize them, giving an air of mystery to the music.
Duncan MacKay introduced the synthesizer, Fender Rhodes, Prophet and harpsichord in my songs. I've used the synthesizer in particular because it was part of the new music at that time. I must admit I'm now much less interested in synthesizers, especially since the Fairlight CMI. I just find a lot of the sounds that perhaps before were interesting a little too machine-like. What attracts me to the Fairlight is its ability to create very human, animal, emotional sounds that don't actually sound like a machine. I think in a way that's what I've been waiting for.
Richard Burgess of Landscape [a shortlived but musically adventurous techno-pop duo of the late 1970s-early 1980s] introduced me to the CMI at Syco Systems in London, and Steve Payne, who works there, has helped me a great deal with it. I've now got my own Fairlight which I use--the problem was, having met the Fairlight on my last album Never For Ever (played by Duncan Mackay) I'd realized that it was invaluable for my music."
Do you regard the CMI now as your most important instrument?
"In many ways it is, although I think piano still holds above it because for me it's more versatile than any kind of synthesizer. It's like an old friend in a way. Often a certain sound that you want on a synthesizer for a particular piece can be distracting when I'm composing, and it's nice to use the piano instead, because it doesn't conjure anything up in particular; then later translate those ideas to a synthesized sound."
Occasionally you've used the Yamaha CS80 polyphonic synthesizer instead of the piano for your keyboard playing. Do you get yourself involved in the technical intricacies of the instrument?
"I would never say that I'm really that knowledgeable about the CS80. I've mainly used it with the pre-set sounds. What I like about it is its velocity/pressure keyboard sensitivity--it makes it much more 'human' A lot of its sounds have more emotion, too, perhaps from its dual sound-layering, although mainly it's the touch sensitivity."
Can you read music now?
"No, I can't--I read chords, but not the actual music." [Kate's answer here contradicts other, fuller ones she has given on earlier occasions. In describing her own transcription of one of her arrangements for Fairlight strings into notation for real stringplayers to read, she explained that she could read and write music--that she had learned when, as a child, she had taken up the violin for a time--but that it was painfully slow work for her, and that she only did it when the musicians required written music. See the Swales interview, The Garden, Volume II, p. .]
So how do you arrange all the instrumental and vocal parts in your songs?
"For most of them I literally just run the tape and learn them in my head, and then translate them. I multi-track my own voice parts, having worked them out first at home. Sometimes I can tell that they're going to work in harmony without having to put one down and then work to that, but it depends, really."
Do you work up from the root and then add the third and the fifth?
"No, I never work that way--I just go for what sound right, and never think technically about thirds and fifths, because very often I think fourths and sixths could be better. I like to use parallel movement for a more medeiaeval feel [Kate Bush, Polyphonist!] , and I also sing unrelated notes against the harmony--say, dropping semitones--which helps to create a lot of tension. But I do try to avoid thinking about the technical things when I'm working--it's afterwards that I like to think about those aspects.
"For the male voice parts, I just sing to them what I want them to do, and I tell them the particular phraseology and timing. Then they go out and do it, while I oversee it in the mixing room. I'm lucky in that they're not really session singers, but more friends with good voices."
There's a lot of counterpoint in your compositions. Do you find this comes naturally?
"Yes, it's something that I find works in layers as well. For example, normally the song, with its basic tune and chords, would be down, and then, as things start to go on more to the track, I can just hear holes that need to be filled in a certain way.
"Sometimes I would be doing this with tapes at home or during a meal break at the studio. I'd go round and round parts of the tape and sing with it."
So your procedure is to compose the piece on the piano with the lyrics and have some definite ideas for performing it at home.
"For the actual tune; whilst any additional harmonies would be added afterwards using a tape with the basic piece on it. I use a Revox half-track machine to sing along with--I never put it down through at this stage--I just sing with it to see if it works. Really, it's for playback, to help me, and I would use an eight-track studio for demos. I've also been using the Teac Portastudio 144, which I find useful."
Do you have any set way of composing your harmonies?
"None at all, it depends completely on the song. Whatever the song's saying, then that little hole in there that's waiting for a harmony needs something special. For example, in the Hammer Horror song, I thought out the clashing harmonies carefully, and the Violin piece came about because that was the only instrument I was ever taught." [Does this indicate that Kate composed Violin on the violin?]
Your vocal melodies are very original and there's a recognizable style of swooping pitch glissandos, acciaccatura vocal decoration plus a preference for third/root jumps. Then of course you have an extremely wide pitch range.
In fact, I've stretched the pitch range over the years. What I used to do in my earlier performing was to go for notes higher than I could reach easily in the song, so by the time I'd written the song and played it for a good few days, I could actually reach those notes. By making my writing more acrobatic than I was, I was stretching myself to it. It's something that's grown over the years. Definitely my voice has got stronger in the last two years, because on The Dreaming I was so aware of the difference in my voice. Not only is it much stronger, but it is also more controlled.
"It has been frustrating for me in the past because my voice has never sounded the way I wanted it to, and so whenever I was listening to the albums it was unbearable for me. It was not just the weakness, but the style, of it. I've always tried to get my voice the way it's starting to be now. Because the songs always controlled me, they were always tending to be in a higher range. It sounds strange, but I think that when you write songs, very often you don't have control of them. You can guide them, but they have their own life force, really.
"My use of decorative notes probably comes from Irish music. My mother's Irish, and in my childhood my brothers were very into traditional music and we could hear it in the house all the time. The airs and inflections are beautifyl, and I love Irish singing. On the Night of the Swallow [track] Liam O'Flynn plays the Uillean pipes and the penny whistle, to give the track an Irish flavour.
"I think my use of thirds is because in a lot of songs there are times when I want it to sound like someone actually talking than singing. There are things that you say that often people don't put into songs, and I quite like to use those lines. Quite often when people speak they naturally use the 'third-to-root' pitch-change in their voices--little tension marks that take it up a couple of tones."
Another interesting aspect of your singing style is the way you change your voice tone.
"I purposely try to do that because I do feel that every song comes from a different person, really, so this is one way of making something different about it. I like to 'create' voices. I've been trying this over the years. I often find that I do 'word painting' without realizing, and my singing/speech style probably comes from the Irish influence again.
"Sometimes I don't think the words are important, and I'll just use sound shapes, which establish the mood. The lyrics of the lead vocal are awfully important to me, while the backing vocals are very often just trying to create a picture--as in The Dreaming, with 'Na-na-cha chan cha cha--'. [This is the original interviewer's transcription. Perhaps Kate actually said something like 'me-me-me-me-me, t-t-t-t-t, i-i-i-i-i--'.]
"I hardly ever use the Vocoder--only once for a tiny effect on Babooshka to make the drum sound like the title. [This is no longer true. Kate has spoken about using the Vocoder more often for Hounds of Love and The Sensual World albums.]
"We've been experimenting a lot with effects units--particularly the flanger, to get different textures with the voices. In several of the songs there are at least four or five layers of voices. In order to have them not sounding like one clump, we've had to try and separate them by treating them and placing them carefully in the stereo field. Some have more reverb or more echo than others, too."
Listening to your past albums, you seem to like running verses into choruses, without the more usual "here comes the chorus" feeling. [Absolutely true, but--as the interviewer says--mainly in the early songs. One could even argue that the opposite is true in Kate's recent work, in that she now often inserts a characteristic Kate Bush bridge structure, which she calls the "pre-choral refrain", between verse and chorus.]
"Yes, I suppose so. But you see, for me, I know where all the choruses are because they're so obvious to me, although it's interesting you say that. It's quite likely, too, that people say they can't dance to my music at parties or discos, but of course, I can dance to it, so it doesn't bother me.
"The only person I've met who is really into the same kind of approach to playing as I do is Peter Gabriel. He seems to be working 'behind the scenes' in a similar way--he's going for the emotional content of the music and lyrics, and he changes his voice. As for my use of local vibrato: if there's a song that needs it, I'll put it in. I have used a choirboy's voice (it was Richard Thornton) to get a different feeling on All the Love."
During mixing do you consider spatial placement of sounds in relation to your obviously spatial dance movements?
"No, I don't think that far, really, but that's a nice audio thing when I'm working out the dance. I do place the sounds--certainly moreso on this new album, since it's the first one I have produced myself. And anyway it't the first time I've known enough to do that."
Do you "chorus" your voice a lot?
"We have used delay machines for this on a couple of tracks, and added a very slight harmonizer effect, as well as sometimes very tight double tracking. It really does depend on the song, and how strong the lead vocal needs to be. For a more delicate song it would be wrong to put a heavy harmonizer on it--it would sound so affected. [Could she have said 'effected' here?] We've also been using an awful lot of compression on the new album--with nearly everything, in fact. It's interesting, the kind of dynamics you can actually create, which is what I really never understood before. Especially with voices: as you start compressing them more and more, so many different levels start coming through on it--the breath particularly. And for me, that's as important as the words: it's the space in between."
In All the Love the "sighs" seem to be important in this way.
"Yes, it's the idea of using the breath as a voice. There was another backing vocal sung by our engineer, and it's fantastic, because in the gaps there are these huge passages of him going 'haahuuh!' where you can feel the breath moving past."
Which studios have you recorded in?
"Normally I've recorded between Air and Abbey Road Studios, but this time I seemed to make the album at studios where I had to grab time between other major artists, because I wanted particular facilities. We worked at the Townhouse, Abbey Road, Odyssey Studios, and did the digital mix at Advision Studios with Paul Hardiman using the Sony machine. The final recording wasn't digital, even though I would prefer to do it that way. Editing with the digital recorder did seem to be difficult--some things were quicker, but others were eaily three times as long."
Does your music require a lot of editing?
"It really did this time, especially when you've got mixes that are very complicated and demanding. We'd get the whole mix and there'd be one little bit that wasn't quite right, or an echo plate would distort on us. Then we'd just have to edit that in. Having got the whole field right, it seems crazy to do a whole track again, so we prefer to do spot edits."
What's your procedure for recording?
First we do all the backing tracks in one go, and then we'd worki on it in layers until we'd got all the other musicians out of the way, so then I can really concentrate on my own stuff. It took weeks to do the vocals, especially because we were having to find the right effects and ambience for each voice. Then on top of that came the Fairlight."
Did you work on the Fairlight at home?
"Yes. I did as much work at home as I could, but it got very difficult because I was usuallly in the studio all day, and when I got back at night there were tapes of that day's stuff that I would listen to in order to decide what to go on to the next day. So in fact I wasn't really getting much time, and when I could, I'd tend to do the Fairlight in studio mealbreaks in the control room.
"I suppose I could have done tracks like The Dreaming with a large amount of Fairlight, but it does lack a little top for some sounds, and there are some things, like loops, that can be tricky to do. I ended up using three or four of the presets available on the Fairlight's menu, while most of the others were sampled. What we tended to do was try samples at home, although they would often be too noisy to use, so we'd then do them again in the studio. I have to be honest about the instrument--I really only have a working knowledge, and everything I want to do I can. I love the sampling facility, it's one of the best things--being able to put your own sounds in and then play around with them. Features like the revers play are useful too. There's loads I can't do yet, I'm sure, but I'm taking it step by step."
I would have thought the Fairlight was almost a "trademark" for you, because it can conjure up aural images while you're making the visual dance movements.
"Absolutely, it does work so well for me. As an educational instrument, too, it's fantastic. Initially, I thought a lot about buying one because it was so much money. When I started this album I did try hiring one in, but it was costing me so much, and I knew that to do everything I wanted I'd need it more or less all the time, so I decided to buy it, and haven't regretted it once. I'm also interested in the new rhythm facilities now available."
[All of this is in reference to the Fairlight CMI Series II machine. Kate later graduated to the Series III, and she now owns at least three Fairlights in all. Also, she has more recently discussed her use of the Fairlight both in composing and arranging songs, not only as a sampling device in the studio.]
"Coming back to The Dreaming album, we certainly enjoyed using real sounds, as well. The title track in particular has Rolf Harris on the dijeridu, Percy Edwards mimicking animal noises, bullroaring from Paddy Bush and crowd noises by Gosfield Goers!"
Which drum machine do you use?
"I've got a Linn drum machine, which is very good for demos, but I don't like it to be used in the finished thing. I think you can tell it's the Linn--it's got a very specific sound--and I can often recognize it on the radio.
"Some particular sounds that might stand out are the 'car crash', which was a 'screech' on the Fairlight; plus several recorded 'bangs' mixed together. It was in fact the engineer's car door miked up! ['Bang! goes another kanga...] There's also fluttering birds, and an orchestra chord sampled on The Dreaming track, and plenty of others elsewhere.
"I like to be involved with everything that's going on the album, and I do have a lot of interest in the technical problems that crop up as well--that's really happened over the last couple of years. In a way, the technical side of what is happening is as inspirational as what you get out of it."
The new album has a stronger voice feel to it, and plenty of variety in the percussion.
"There has always been plenty of vocal activity at heart before, it's just that it's never actually manifested itself as such. As for drums, it's basically a drum kit, and for a couple of songs other things like Chinese drums, military bass drum and African drums are used. The other interesting instrument used on The Dreaming is the dijeridu, played by Rolf Harris. He is such a good player, and a real honour to work with."
I like the use of silence and space in your music.
"I've begun to value silence much more because...I think even from the start I realized silence is as important as the notes. But actually getting your songs to realize that is so much harder, and also knowing where to put the silence. Again, this album is probably the first one that has actually let silence into it. The bass lines are kept fairly 'dry', which helps, too. And my piano playing is never over-busy. It probably couldn't be, though, my technique holds me back quite a lot there! I use the synthesizer for things that I definitely want to hear, so I will specifically ask for that. But again in a lot of cases, maybe I've asked them to do something, and while they're mucking around I'll pick on another sound that's so good we'll go with that.
"The LP for me has been quite fulfilling. I feel I have made a step forward, which is always great for one artistically, obviously. And I suppose one of the things that I do feel pleased about is perhaps that I feel we've got a sense of the emotional value from each song to have come across in some way. It was very emotionally demanding, especially some of the tracks, because of the subject matter. It's taken a year to put together, with a lot of studio time taken up. It was actually finished in May, but we felt it was better to release it in the autumn--but it's really such a long time to wait.
"While working on the album I can't possibly work on the dance as well, and I've got very unfit over the last year. A few weeks ago I started again in complete agony! But I'm not so stiff now, and we're getting the dances done. We've not planned any concerts yet--I wanted another two albums before I could tour them again. Now I've got that with Never For Ever and The Dreaming, so it'll be nice to do another tour. The big problem is the dance as well as the singing when performing, as this does put a lot of extra pressure on me personally--but the determination alone to do the show always keeps me going.
"I would like to mention that it's interesting to do this interview, because the music for me is, of course, the most important thing. I feel it's what I know most about, and although I'm into dancing, it's much more a matter of using my ideas for that. With the music, it's been part of me for a long time, and I'm really looking forward to the music that instruments like the Fairlight will bring in the next few years."
To the Reaching Out (Interviews) Table of Contents
"The pull and the push of it all..." - Kate Bush
Marvick - Hill
Willker - Mapes
Grepel - Love-Hounds