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An enigma. A recluse. A sensitive artist scared of
the limelight. Few people get close enough to get to know the real Kate Bush.
But one writer did - and he became her confidant throughout her early career...
If there is one thing that can be said with absolute certainty about Kate Bush, it's that she has never wavered from her determination to maintain control of her career, both creatively and professionally.
Back in 1978, when I first interviewed her just after the release of the debut single, Wuthering Heights, which immediately launched her career into orbit, she said: "You see people who are into the glamour and ego of it and not the work. It has nothing to do with ego. Music is like being a bank clerk; it's still work, only on a different channel of energy."
Nice work if you can get it, most people would agree - especially when Kate's 'job' allows her the luxury of being able to leave 12 years (sufficient time for many artists to have a few hits and then disappear) between the release of her previous album (The Red Shoes, in 1993) and finishing her new one, Aerial Not that she's been working a regular nine-to-five on the new album, of course. Even so, it's been a long time coming, and another long, long wait for her fans.
Finally, with the release of Aerial, we see that she has been busy. But the 70 minutes of understated power, ecstasy, verve and creative ambition that that record represents is just the summary of her industry. It would be at least equally interesting to know what music she dismissed along the way, before finally deciding that the music on Aerial is what she wants people to hear; that this is where Kate Bush stands musically today.
Don't be deceived by the apparent innocence of Kate Bush. Her aura might be one of peace, love and understanding - and indeed that is probably the genuine backbone of her personality- but over the years she has learned to apply layers of tough veneer to protect and insulate herself and her private life from the world outside her Inner circle'.
The Kate Bush who breezed into the interview room at EMI Records back in 1978, all politeness and wide-eyed wonderment, had the submissive air of a singer destined for one-hit wonderdom. However, once she started talking about her music, her plans, her ambitions... even at that spring dawn of her career, you soon sensed that here was someone destined for greatness.
With Wuthering Heights, her startling, singular voice - which people either loved or loathed; there was no indifference - threw her into the spotlight and under the gaze of a whole nation. Within days of its release, everyone in Britain was aware of Kate Bush - or at least 'that voice', and its startling, wailing delivery of the name 'Heathcliff. Kate was on her way.
Kate Bush's self-belief was instilled with the unstinting support of a solid family. A very musical family, they specialised in English and Irish traditional music and playing local folk clubs. I think that's why Kate and I got on well from the start. I was a novice feature writer on Melody Maker then, as much as she was a kid in wonder at making a career out of music.
(Plus, I was a raw Irish man barely off the boat, and got on with her Ma quite well!) As a result, over the interviews that we conducted over the next few years, in her family home, recording studios, EMI boardrooms, video sets, our ersatz meetings and personal discussions, we seemed to be growing together.
I wanted her to succeed. She wanted me to see her succeed. I did my best... she certainly did hers. (And she wanted me to succeed too. I launched a music magazine once and asked her to the launch. The magazine was Metal Hammer-not Kate's sort of thing. The launch party would be in the New Orleans Jazz Cafe, in Beck Street, Soho. Kate wouldn't go to the party... so she arranged a private lunch in the same venue the day before; just me and her in a corner, putting the world to rights.)
The young Kate never performed outside the confines of her home, but learning the piano at the age of 11, she quickly found that she could write her own songs. She quit school at 16 with 10 O-Levels, with a particular affinity for English and Music.
"The reason I left was that I felt I could do something more in tune with my purpose - music," she explained. This she was able to do with the help of an inheritance of an aunt who died. The money gave Kate the security to become her own boss and follow her own mind.
At one time, just before leaving school, she had an ambition to become either a psychiatrist or a social worker. Both careers made sense to her as an alternative to her first love: "I guess it's the thinking bit," she told me, "trying to communicate with people and help them out, the emotional aspect. It's so sad to see good, nice people emotionally upset when they could be so happy.
"The reason I chose those sort of things is that they are, in a way, the things I do with music. When I write songs I really like to explore the mental area, the emotional values. Although in a way you can say that being a psychiatrist is more purposeful than writing music, in many ways it isn't, because a lot of people take a great deal of comfort from music. I know I do.
"It's very much a therapeutic thing, not only for me. If [people] let it into their ears, that is all I can ask for. And if they think about it afterwards or during it, that is even more fantastic. There are so many writers and so many messages, to be chosen out of all of them is something very special. The messages are things that maybe could help people, like observing the situation where an emotional game is being played, and maybe making people think about it again."
It was March 1978 when Kate Bush said those things. Then, she had released just one single (albeit a very successful chart topper); her debut album, The Kick Inside, was just about to be released. And here she was, making statements that are as pertinent to her work today as at any time during her career. Her label, EMI, must have caught the sweet smell of future success in the air. With the release of her second album, 1978's Lionheart, they pushed the boat out and rented a castle near Amsterdam for the album launch party. The next morning (for most party guests, a very hangover-blurred one), Kate and members of her family flew back to London by private plane to attend an awards ceremony, where she picked up the award for best female singer, voted for in Melody Maker. It was the first of what would be the many awards she collected throughout her career.
After that it was straight back into the studio to continue work on her third album. When asked when the new record would be out, she answered with great certainty: "I don't know. When it's ready- and that won't be for a while yet." It wouldn't be the only time during her career that she would say something would be ready "when it's ready". No matter that her record company or whoever else might be leaning over her shoulder, trying to hurry things along.
In the studio, too, she was starting to take control. "I knew what I was talking about in the studio; I knew what I should hear," she explained. "The reaction to me explaining what I wanted in the studio was amusement, to a certain extent. They were all taking the piss out of me a bit."
Kate was insecure then and I guess that she saw an ally in myself. Believe me, rock critics even then weren't the best of friends... and she had precious few. Lionheart wasn't the greatest of albums, but we both knew she was on the road to something more significant, and that formed the nucleus of many of our discussions. All she needed was a bit of faith. That came from her family, few friends, band and odd cynical critic, like my good self.
She was acutely aware of the danger of being pigeon-holed, and mindful of the problems it could create: "If you can get away with it and keep changing, great. I think it should be done, because in that way you'll always have people chasing after you trying to find out what you're doing.
And, anyway, if you know what's coming next, what's the point? If I’d really wanted to, I guess I could write a song that would be so similar to Wuthering Heights. But I don't. What's the point? I'd rather write a song that was really different, that I liked, although it might not get anywhere."
Not only was Kate exposing her penchant for musical exploration rather than standing still, she was also displaying sheer bloody-mindedness along the way. With the track Oh England, My Lionheart, she was expecting a barrage of criticism because of the blatant soppiness of the lyrics.
Her reasons for writing the song were simple enough: she had always liked composer Benjamin Britten's setting of William Blake's poem Jerusalem (And did those feet, in ancient times/Walk upon England's mountains green'), and thought a contemporary song proclaiming the romantic beauty of England should be written.
"A lot of people could easily say that the song [.. .My Lionheart] is soppy," she said in the aftermath of it receiving some severe criticism. "It's very classically done. It's only got acoustic instruments on it and it's done... almost madrigally, you know? I dare say a lot of people will think that it's just a load of old slush, but it's just an area that I think it's good to cover. Everything I do is very English, and I think that's one reason I've broken through to a lot of countries. The English vibe is very appealing."
Kate was astonished from an early stage that her record company first of all allowed her to have such a say over her music, and, ultimately, control over her career. Then again, she was very insistent that she should be involved in every facet of her career, to the point where from the very start, at the age of just 17, she had almost been self-managed, with help from friends and family.
"I've always had an attitude about managers." She confessed. "Unless they're really needed, they just confuse matters. I often think that generally they're more of a hindrance than a help."
Strangely, especially for someone so young, the pressure and intimidating newness of the music business hadn't upset her at all, and she revealed shyly that she somehow felt she had been through it all before: "I wonder if it has to do with the concept of time in some way, in that everything you do you've done before."
If anyone wanted or needed confirmation that the Kate Bush bandwagon had a unique engine, revolutionary design and wheels to last, they need not have looked any further than 1980’s Never For Ever, an album brimming with musical inventiveness and provocative lyrics. By then Kate was sitting comfortably and firmly in the driving seat.
Taken from that record, Breathing, Babooshka and Army Dreamers were the three singles that confirmed her ear for the commercial without compromising her art. The entire album was a joy. Kate Bush might have been enigmatic, but she was also desperate to share her music with just about anyone willing to listen without prejudice.
"I'm reaching people that have maybe had a totally different life from me and are well ahead of me in many standards, but yet they're accepting me," she told me around that time. "A lot of older people won't listen to pop music because they have a biased idea of what it is.
And that's wrong, because a lot of them would really get into some of the music that's around; it's not all punk. And if you can get music to them that they like, then you're achieving something. You're getting into people's homes who have been shut off from that sort of music for years. They're into their Bach: 'Bach is wonderful, but I don't like that pop music.' Maybe they do, but they're never given the option. They're always given the music that people think they like.
"I'd really like to think that there is no age barrier, because that's a shame. I'd like to think that there's a message in my music for everyone. That's the greatest reward I could get - to get different people getting into different tracks. It really means a lot to think that I'm not just hitting on an area that may be just identified with me; that people are actually identifying with what the songs are about."
Kate Bush needed to be good in the studio, because by the time Never For Ever was released she had made a subconscious decision to quit touring. It was almost unheard of that an artist just three albums into their career should dismiss what was seen as a vital marketing tool. Only The Beatles had done it successfully before.
"I don't know how I'll cope with touring," she said shortly before she was due to go on the road. As unlikely as it may sound, the only tour Kate Bush ever did was the Lionheart tour, in 1979, with dates at London's Hammersmith Odeon and the London Palladium.
It was a stupendous effort, with Kate determined to take her whole repertoire to the boards-not just the music, but also dance and theatrics. Such was the scope of the elaborate and highly ambitious production that, almost inevitably, it wasn't without fault, and was decidedly patchy in places. As an event, however, those rare live performances still stand as some of the highlights in the history of live contemporary music.
Despite that, Kate felt and looked vulnerable performing live. It wouldn't take much, one felt, to put her off performing live altogether. Sure enough, she was devastated when her lighting director, Bill Duffield, tragically died after falling through a trapdoor at the Palladium.
After that tour it seemed that she had made an unspoken decision. It's difficult to escape the conclusion that her decision to permanently cease touring was concluded with the knowledge that the scale of the production she would have demanded would have taken an important part of her plan out of her control.
Kate thrives in a family environment, and touring would have meant adopting an extended family, which she was not prepared to do. Which could explain why, since then, she has thrown herself into working in the studio, and maintained an intensely private life.
Ultimately, as she has always done, Kate Bush answers to no one but herself. "There was only a struggle within myself," she said in one of our interviews. "But even if your work is so important to you, it's not actually your life, it's only part of your life. So if your work goes, you're still a human being, you're still living; you can always get a job in Woolworth's or something.
"I suppose I would find it very hard to let go, because for me it's the only thing that I'm here to do. I don't really know what else I could do that I would be particularly good at. I think you can kid yourself into destiny. I have never done another job. It's a little frightening, because it's the only thing I've really explored, but then again, so many things are similar; they all tie in. I really feel that what I'm doing is what everyone else is doing in their jobs.
It's really sad that pressures are put on some musicians. It's essential for them to be human beings, because that's where all the creativity comes from, and if it's taken away from them and everybody starts kneeling and kissing their feet and that, they're gonna grow in the wrong areas."
I put it to her that the majority of people associate being a star with material gains. "But it's wrong," she says. "The only reason that you get such material gains from it is because it's so media-oriented. If it wasn't, you'd get the same as a plumber.
"I worry that it's going to burn out, because I didn't expect it to happen so quickly," she said in one of our first meetings. "For me it's just the beginning. I'm on a completely different learning process now. I've climbed one wall, and now I've got another 15 to climb. And to keep going while you're in such demand is very hard. It would be different if I had stayed unknown, because then it would be progressing."
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