To the Reaching Out (Interviews) Table of Contents
Kate Bush, is one of the most innovative, idiosyncratic and
influential musicians of modern times. She disappeared from the public eye 12
years ago after the release of her last album. Finally she's back with a new
record but what took her so long?
Kate: I think it's always an evolving process. And I've compared the process to kind of making wine, where you kind of let it ferment on the tape for a few years, and it helps it mature and it comes out sounding better. And I think in this case we're talking about the kind of distilling process rather than fermenting, so it's like making a whiskey really! (laughs) A kind of double whiskey, because its, you know, a double album.
[A few seconds of "How To Be Invisible" is played]
In a special edition of Front Row this evening, I'll be talking to Kate Bush about the process of distilling musical ideas into the recorded sounds that are released next week on the album Aerial. It's the most eagerly awaited new LP of the year and the most closely guarded. To hear it I had to make several trips to the record company offices, where I was allowed to listen, on headphones, to a CD copy, which appear to be locked in a machine bolted to the floor. Securing an interview with the famously secretive Kate Bush proved equally difficult.
[A few seconds more of "How To Be Invisible" is played].
"How To Be Invisible" is one of several new songs in which Kate Bush appears to reflect on her 12 years out of the spotlight. In tonight's interview she talks about protecting her privacy, the state of modern pop, and the difficulty of balancing time between the nursery, and the studio, after the birth of her son, Bertie.
[The beginning of Wuthering Heights is played]
In 1978 aged just 19, Kate Bush became an overnight star, with her ethereal musical interpretation of Emily Brontë's classic gothic romance.
[More of Wuthering Heights is played]
Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush's debut single was a number one hit. The first album, "The Kick Inside", was an astonishingly sophisticated collection of words and music, most of which had been written when she was just 15. Six albums followed, including the one regarded as her masterpiece, "The Hounds of Love". But since 1993, and the release of "The Red Shoes", virtually nothing has been heard from Kate Bush, until now. We met recently in the penthouse suite of Abbey Road Studios. I started by asking whether, having been away for so long, she had actually stopped making music complete the during this time?
Kate: I did actually stop completely for a while, which is very unusual, normally I go straight from one project into another, and it was a very conscious decision to take a break. One of the first songs that I wrote was actually "King of the Mountain", and so that would probably be... nine or ten years ago, and even the vocal that I did is the same one... it was just like a throwaway vocal that I put down on the track. And then I probably didn't record anything again, for maybe... two or three years.
John Wilson: Really?
John Wilson: So the song itself, that is around at the moment,
that's 10 years old, in effect, then?
Kate: Yes, it probably is getting on for 10 years, yeah.
John Wilson: Did it feel like you’d found something new, you'd started again, or was it just picking up where you left off?
Kate: Well, I think every time I make an album, I don't want it to be a continuation of what I've done before. It's very important for me that I feel that I'm doing something new. It's a shame that it's such a long process for me, because I worry that the ideas might sound dated, or feel old-fashioned, in some way.
John Wilson: Where does it start? For instance, ‘King of the Mountain’, let's look at that as an example, do you start with the lyric, an idea, an image in your head, or even a chord progression?
Kate: It was just a kind of chord progression that I had, and, em, I just put this vocal down which was extremely throwaway, which is why it's so surprising that I ended up keeping most of it as the master vocal.
So that's almost,
that’s the demo vocal?
Kate: Yeah it is, and I tried a few times to re-create it and I couldn't get the same feeling.
[The first few lines of "King of the Mountain" are played]
John Wilson: What’s interesting about that vocal, the delivery of the words, is the way you almost mumble them... I mean, in the past your diction has been so clear on record...
John Wilson: ... and it sounds almost like you're masking the words... there’s a... a sort of, em...you slurred words, and, it's almost like you're making them up as you go along, but, which many people when they talk about writing songs, they say they just put the words in there and they come back to them later. You weren't doing that, but it's...
Kate: No, in fact it was meant to be my impersonation of
John Wilson: Oh, that's the drawl is it?
Kate: Yeah, yeah...
[The ‘Why does a multi-millionaire’ line of "King of the Mountain" is played]
Kate: In fact, I heard this fantastic review on ‘Front Row’ a few weeks ago with some guy who was saying he'd heard the single. He was saying [imitates geezer] "It's only 2 chords!" and then they were discussing it more and he was saying how "It's about Elvis Presley!". And it sounded really surprised I should have written a song about Elvis Presley. Which I love! I love the idea of doing something that isn't expected.
[The "..in the snow with rosebud" line of "King of the Mountain" is played]
John Wilson: And there's a sense of isolation, of remoteness, and Elvis is the key image... there's also a reference to Citizen Kane, isn't there?
John Wilson: Randolph Hearst... and about fame as well, I guess and people wanting to get at you. Was there a sense of autobiography in that song as well?
Kate: Well, I was very much writing about Elvis, because I think he's one of those people who...I mean that kind of fame that he must've been living with, must've been unbearable...I can't imagine what it must be like. I don't think human beings are really built to withstand that kind of fame.
John Wilson: But you had that, I mean you had that incredibly quick...
Kate: No no...
John Wilson: ...not to the extent he had obviously, but you had overnight fame. You must have identified, to an extent, with Elvis' situation about people clawing at you, wanting a part of you...
Kate: Well I suppose...yeah, I suppose there's an element of that. I think, em...the process is hard enough without taking on... em, other people's baggage as well.
John Wilson: You've always been a very private person
though, haven't you? I mean even after you started out you did very few gigs and
you did start doing fewer and fewer interviews... and yet the songs always been,
on the first few albums at least, incredibly personal, or they seemed like they
were personal...seemed like they were autobiographical, incredibly candid, and
people get a sense of the sort of person you were. Have you stepped back, do you
think, in this album? I mean, It's a very elemental album, isn't it? About sea,
sky, wind, rain?
Kate: Yes. Well, yes, I am a private person but I don't think I'm obsessively so. It's more that I choose to try and have as normal a life as possible. And I don't like to live in a glare of publicity. A long time ago, when I kind of finished making my second record, I realized that it was all the wrong way round. I was spending all my time doing interviews, television, press... suddenly this was what my life had become. And my initial drive had never to be famous, it had been to make a record. So I turned it all around, so that my time was being spent writing, and then doing a little piece of promotion at the end. And to me, that was the way that the balance worked best because, the creative process is something that I find very time consuming, and you have to have a lot of focus, and it comes from a quiet place. So this is what I'm trying to keep that balance of, which people seem to find... very weird and strange, but to me it's completely...you know, it's common sense, surely.
John Wilson: What must make it even stranger is... that the world has changed, the music world, the music industry, has changed completely, since that last record. I bought "The Red Shoes" on vinyl, and when I bought that record, there was no such thing as an MP3 [ed: Yes, there was], the Internet hadn't been invented [ed: Yes, it had], now file sharing, music is downloaded... music is borrowed, almost, from the ether, and then sent back into space... does it feel like a very different world that you've re-entered?
Kate: Well, you know, I still been a part of the world, it's just that I've not been...
John Wilson: I meant the music world, and the industry, and that sort of...
Kate: Well yeah, but I think the whole world is changed, very much so, very quickly, in the last ten years, but particularly the last five years. I mean, I remember when I was a little girl, if you saw people walking around on the street, laughing and talking to themselves, you thought they were mad. But now it just means they're on their mobile phone. [interviewer laughs] And you know, I think it would be a shame, amongst all this technology for us to lose our sense of humanity. And music is suffering greatly from the overuse of computers, and taking away the human element... which... art is about human expression. And I think machines and technology should be used by people, not... you shouldn't be a slave to them.
John Wilson: Does it worry you the way that music is delivered now, increasingly, down a wire?
Kate: It's not that delivering down the wire. I think the sound quality is something that...is a shame that that's deteriorating, really, but... it was a very conscious decision, with this record, that I didn't write through a computer. A lot of my friends write on computers so they, every time they hit a chorus in the structure of the song, you just have a repeat of the same chorus. Now for me that's not art because it should be something that is evolving, and developing as you move through song, and changing... not just the repetition of the same moments because... I think that what's so exciting about music is it is something that unfolds through the process of time, that's what music is, it's something that... if people get it right then you'll be whipped up into a trance frenzy or a state of prayer. Music is something very special and very emotive, and it's become very disposable.
[The end of "King of the Mountain" is played]
John Wilson: So you come up with a chord progression, as you say, with “King of the Mountain”, you get an idea of Elvis in your head and that's a sort of thematic idea...you work at home, of course ‘though, don't you, you have the home studio, so...
John Wilson: ...you're able to get everything down just as quickly as possible.
Kate: I think what's quite strange is that... a lot of the writing process is really quick. I do that very quickly! But then the arrangement of the songs can be incredibly drawn out, and long-winded and so frustrating.
John Wilson: Is that because you're our perfectionist in the studio?
Kate: I'm very opinionated. I'm horrible to work with, I'm so fussy and picky and... I think what's good is that I know what I want. And I think, actually that's the most important thing.
John Wilson: You know what you want in your head...
John Wilson: ...before you...so you actually hear, you'll have actually heard the whole song, the finished song in your head then?
Kate: Well, I have a sense of the direction to go in, which is really important, because I think it's when you don't know what you want, that you're in trouble.
John Wilson: When you get to the studio, I mean, you don't have to get to the studio, you're working at home, in effect... that must help the process, I presume, doesn't it?
Kate: It's very important for me because, em, now I have a child, I wouldn't have been able to work at all, if I hadn't have been able to work at home. It's also...it helps me to get it very good creative focus, because one of the things that's very difficult is the distractions that come into what should be a very quiet, focused process.
[First lines of "Bertie" are played]
John Wilson: Because you said in the past, I think many years ago, you said you couldn't imagine having a child and having a career in music. Was that difficult then, having to... was there a matter of balance... was it, dividing your time, and…?
Kate: What was difficult was trying to fit the album in around bringing a child because I didn't want anything to interfere with that process. Yeah, I wanted to give as much time as I possibly could to my son, I love being with him, he's a lovely little boy. And he won't be little for very long. I felt that my work could wait, really, whereas his growing up process couldn't.
[Chorus of "Bertie" is played]
John Wilson: To me, the album has a more sparse and spare... spacious...quality to, to the last work. I mean, "The Red Shoes" thirteen years ago, but before that "The Sensual World"...both very, very rich sound, layer upon layer...was there a conscious attempt to make something that was possibly simpler musically?
Kate: Very much so. I've always tried to be adventurous, and I think one of my faults is that I have a tendency to overdo things. And what was good about taking a gap after the last record was, I had a chance to actually sit back and think about what were the things that I felt I kept getting wrong, that I wanted to try and sort out. Because one of the common problems with human beings, generally, is you tend to keep making the same mistakes again and again. I wanted to make a record that had much more space in it. And I also wanted to stand in the role of narrator, much more, rather than it being the person inside the song. I wanted to stand outside and talk about situations outside of myself. Part of that process was also to not have very many backing vocals, to have a greater sense of one voice telling the story.
[The "...in the sea of honey, in the sky of honey..." of "Sunset" is played]
John Wilson: Did you have the idea of the themes... you say there's two records, two distinct records, both driven by a narrator...but did you have the idea of the sea and the sky, was that always going to be the dual theme?
Kate: No. In fact, it was more a sense of single songs that would be... each one would be about a person. And then this idea of some kind of conceptual piece just gradually started to evolve.
[First verse of Mrs. Bartolozzi is played]
John Wilson: There are individual characters that emerge over the course of the album...you're the narrator. I mean, Mrs Bartolozzi, this is a woman...I presume this is the name of the woman who you are describing, cleaning the house, almost obsessively, piling the clothes into the washing machine, watching them tumble round, there's a beautiful idea of the woman’s shirt and the man's trousers intertwining... that was about somebody else then, was it, rather than you, at home, living the domestic life?
Kate: Well, I do do a lot of washing [chuckles]. I'm sure I would never have written the song if I didn't...you know, just this woman, in her house, with her washing. And then the idea of taking the water in the washing machine with all the clothes, and the water then becoming the sea... and I also think there's something very interesting about clothes. They're kind of people without the people in them, if you know what I mean? [Kate laughs] They all have our scent, and pieces of us on them, somehow.
["...washing machine" from "Mrs. Bartolozzi" is played]
John Wilson: On several of the songs, during the lyrics, one idea sparks off another. And so when the woman is looking at the washing machine and the clothes spinning around, suddenly she's thinking about the sea. And it happens elsewhere in "A Coral Room" when the idea is, you're on a boat looking down into the water underneath, and there's almost a lost city under there...with all the fishermen's nets, like spiders web's... and beautiful imagery. But then suddenly, with the hand trailing in the water, it's the idea of an old jug in your mind, which belonged to your mother...Your mother did have that jug, didn't she?
[Kate laughs a very odd laugh at the memory, sort of a "don't know whether to laugh or cry" laugh]
John Wilson: Am I reading too much into it?
Kate: No no no, it's fantastic.
[The “There were hundreds of people living here” part of Mrs. Bartolozzi is played]
Kate: There was a little brown jug actually, yeah. The song is really about the passing of time.
[The "My mother..." part of "Mrs Bartolozzi" is played]
Kate: I like the idea of coming from this big expansive, outside world of sea and cities into, again, this very small space where, er, it's talking about a memory of my mother and this little brown jug. I always remember hearing years ago this thing about a sort of Zen approach to life, where, you would hold something in your hand, knowing that, at some point, it would break, it would no longer be there.
[The "little brown jug" part of "Mrs Bartolozzi" is played]
John Wilson: You have, so many times in the past in songs, sung almost as a child. You've sung about your parents, your father's appeared on your records, the last record was dedicated to your mother...I mean, and people have talked about the childlike quality of your voice. Is this a record that is made by a mother, rather than a child?
Kate: Yes, I think it probably is.
John Wilson: I mean, has the process of motherhood, bringing up a son, that has changed the way you compose and write and perform, do you think?
Kate: Yes, I think it has. And I think also, as well as being a mother, when you lose your mother you're no longer a little girl anymore. And so, I've had a lot of things that have changed me over the years, from the last album to this.
John Wilson: Now, I think on the last record there's a great...I mean, some of the songs, heartbreakingly sad... on "The Red Shoes". And "The Sensual World" was a real exploration/celebration of love and sex, but very dark, very often, those songs... almost like a claustrophobic feeling. And on this record, on "Aerial", as the title suggests there is a sense of freedom, I think, and space. You feel like you’re in a wider, open space making this record, because there wasn't the pressure, because you weren't in the public eye, because you had, in effect, disappeared for a while.
Kate: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways, I got my life back, and… it's very important to me as a creative person, as a writer, which is what I think of myself as.
[The "...it was just so beautiful..." part of "Somewhere In Between" is played]
Kate: To me, I'm somebody who writes and then I sing and produce in order to make the piece complete, but...
John Wilson: A writer in the literary way?
Kate: Yes, that's what I started doing when I was little girl, that's what turned me on, that's the buzz...its, its writing a story.
John Wilson: And there have always been literary allusions in your work, right from Wuthering Heights with Brontë. The song "The Sensual World", you're actually, that's about Molly Bloom, it's her soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, from James Joyce's isn't it? I knew you couldn't actually use Joyce's words, but you had to invent your own version of her story. And of course "Aerial" itself, it's the name of Sylvia Plath's most famous collection. Is that a nod to her at all, or is that just a coincidence?
Kate: I think it's just a coincidence, which there seem to be a lot of because people mention lots of things, like apparently there's a Mrs. Bartolozzi who Joseph Haydn wrote pieces for, who I was completely unaware of.
John Wilson: Where did her name come from, then, in your mind?
Kate: Just thought it was a really interesting name.
Kate: It is though, isn't it?
Kate: It's a great name!
John Wilson: It's a great name.
Kate: I tried a few others, but they didn't work as well. You know, "Mrs. Brown" doesn't quite do it does it?
[Laughing part of "Aerial" is played]
John Wilson: It struck me how live this album sounded as well, I mean live drums all the way through, or frequently used throughout the record. I suppose in a way, 20 years ago, with the "Hounds of Love", you were really at the cutting edge of technology, using those Fairlight computers, be able to sample sounds and manipulate sounds for the first time, and you were seen almost as a real pioneer. So in a way you stepped back, then and you're relying more on acoustic instruments, or those that respond to the human touch more.
Kate: Well, I've always liked the combination of both...
John Wilson: And the juxtaposition?
Kate: Yes absolutely, the fact that you got these very cold machines, against something very warm.
[Chorus of “Running Up That Hill” is played]
John Wilson: Are their echoes of "The Hounds of Love" on this album? I mean, do you think people will see the second disc, "A Sky Of Honey", which is almost a song cycle, and takes you through passage of time, as the sun is going down we go through night there's a song called "Nocturn". And then we arrived back at the end of the album as the sun is rising again, there's a real passage there, similar, in a way, to that second side of "Hounds of Love", which took you on a journey.
Kate: I really enjoyed making "Hounds of Love". I liked the two different elements, and I think in a lot of ways I was trying to make just a larger version, a sort of "Great Danes of Love".
John Wilson: You have returned. I mean you might not feel like you ever stopped making music, in your life has continued. But was a dilemma though, to do any promotion of all? Because, of course, the whole promotions industry, the whole music industry, is predicated these days on a sense of celebrity.
Kate: Well, I think there's really unhealthy fascination with celebrities, and in a lot of cases, you know, people who... you know, what they're doing is fine but...it's not really something that is so enormously special. I mean, you know, this sort of strange obsession with things that are really rather shallow.
John Wilson: Do you feel like a celebrity yourself?
Kate: No I don't, no, no.
John Wilson: Are you aware of the influence of your music on subsequent generations? And also the fact that there are so many solo young women singers/songwriters, far more than when you first appeared?
John Wilson: Many of whom would cite you as an influence?
Kate: I feel very flattered. How nice.
John Wilson: What about your own influences these days? I think there's an interesting mirroring of, when you first arrived, 1978, punk rock was I suppose, filtering out, but guitars were to the fore. And here you were, a young girl, pirouetting on "Top of the Pops", singing about a literary heroine in a leotard...
Kate: So, was the heroine in the leotard, or me?
Kate: Actually, I wasn't wearing a leotard.
John Wilson: Were you not? Some people always think of you as in a leotard. Was that the video?
Kate: It was, if I remember correctly, it was a long white dress.
John Wilson: Oh, it was wasn't it? Of course, then you became the the "white witch".
Kate: Well yes, here we go, here we go.
John Wilson: But now you come back and so much of the music, the guitar music, the young bands... they're harking back to the late 70s. It was quite interesting that you started off with that going on, and now here you are. Do you listen to what's happening? Do you take any notice of contemporary music?
Kate: When I'm making an record, I try not to listen to music, because, I don't want to be influenced. There was a very strong presence of traditional music when I was growing up, and I think that had a very big influence on me.
John Wilson: Folk music?
John Wilson: English folk music, in particular?
John Wilson: ‘Cause there's always been a real English element, I think, to your music, I think, a real pastoral... almost like a celebration of a lost England, that's something that recurs, isn’t there?
Kate: One thing I've always tried to do is to sing with an English accent. Because again, when, maybe not so much now, but when I first was making records, it always used to surprise me how so many English people were singing with American accents. And I could never really understand why people were doing this.
John Wilson: But the stuff that you were listening to is a girl...how did that filter into those first...I mean, for instance, it’s said that you wrote "Man With The Child In His Eyes" at thirteen. Did it come easily? I mean, it seems incredible to me now that a girl of thirteen could write that song.
Kate: Well, the hardest bit for me was the piano part. I
used to have rehearse
like crazy to get those "doddle-do, doddle-do"... Because I'm not really,
I'm not really
a very good piano player.
[The end of the chorus of "Man With The Child In His Eyes" is played]
John Wilson: Do you ever go back and listen to the earlier records?
John Wilson: None of them? When was last time you heard "The Kick Inside"?
Kate: I can't remember.
John Wilson: I mean, would you be able to play them again?
Kate: No. I mean...I tend to sort of dump them on to tape and leave them. Quite often I can't even remember what key the songs are in.
John Wilson: So you've been working on this record, on “Aerial”, for six years. And you said earlier, it's almost like a process of distillation, and you have to let it sit there in the vat, and ferment and change. [Kate laughs] And finally you hand it over to the public. Is there a sense relief when you do that, or reluctance?
Kate: Oh, I was so relieved when I finished this record. I thought I was never going to get it finished. There were so many times, I thought that I was just not going to have the energy to just see it through. It was really hard work. I always tend to try and do things that are bit overambitious, really.
John Wilson: How did you know when it was finished? Did
someone have to come in the room and say ‘stop now’?
Kate: No, it was when I knew that, you know, I couldn't go on any longer, or it would have killed me. I was so fed up with it, so fed up with listening to the thing.
John Wilson: I know you'd argue that you haven't been away, that you just been getting on with your life, but people will say that ‘Kate Bush has returned’. Is it good to be back?
Kate: Well, it's very nice speaking to you.
John Wilson: Kate Bush. Thank you very much.
Kate: Thank you.
[Transcription by Chris Williams; Proof-reading by Robin Gow]
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