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After more than a decade in the wilderness, Kate Bush is back. What has she been up to all this time? The singer reveals all to Tom Doyle
We have been waiting for Kate Bush. For 12 years, she has been missing, Garbo-like, from public life, leaving tabloid reporters to rattle up frothing reports, and patient fans to gratefully absorb every molecule of drip-fed information. Until very recently, EMI Music's directors were chewing their nails down to their elbows wondering if their most elusive signatory would ever finish making her eighth, long-gestated record, Aerial. The rest of us could rely on nothing but whispered rumour, adding to an already towering myth.
Yet here, in Kate Bush's home, there is a 47-year-old mother of one, the
antithesis of the mysterious recluse, dressed in a workday uniform of brown
shirt, jeans and trainers, hair clipped up in practical busy-busy fashion, all
wary smiles and nervous laughter. We shake hands, tentatively. She seems tiny
(five foot three-and-a-half inches) and more curvaceous than the waif-like
dancer of popular memory.
Famously, Kate Bush hates interviews - the last was four years ago, the previous one seven years before that. So the prospect of this interrogation, the only one she has agreed to endure in support of Aerial, must fill her with dread. Around us there is evidence of a very regular, family-shaped existence - toys and kiddie books scattered everywhere, a Sony widescreen with a DVD of Shackleton sitting below it. Atop the fireplace hangs a painting called Fishermen by James Southall, a tableau of weather-beaten seadogs wrestling with a rowing boat; it is soon to be familiar as part of the inner artwork of Aerial. Balanced against a wall in the office next door is a replica of the Rosebud sledge burned at the dramatic conclusion of Citizen Kane, as commissioned for the video of Bush's comeback single, King of the Mountain, and brought home as a gift for her seven-year-old son Bertie.
Can she understand why people build these myths around her?
"No," she begins, apprehensively. "No, I can't. Pffff. I can't really."
You once said: "There is a figure that is adored, but I'd question very strongly that it's me."
There is silence. A stare. You did say it ...
"Well supposedly I said that. But in what context did I say it?"
Just talking about fans building up this image of you as some kind of goddess.
"Yes, but I'm not, am I?"
So, do the rumours bug you? That you're some fragile being who's hidden herself away?
"No," she replies. "A lot of the time it doesn't bother me. I suppose I do think I go out of my way to be a very normal person and I just find it frustrating that people think that I'm some kind of weirdo reclusive that never comes out into the world." Her voice notches up in volume. "Y'know, I'm a very strong person and I think that's why actually I find it really infuriating when I read, 'She had a nervous breakdown' or 'She's not very mentally stable, just a weak, frail little creature'."
This is how 12 years disappear if you're Kate Bush. You release The Red Shoes in 1993, your seventh album in a 15-year career characterised by increasingly ambitious records, ever-lengthening recording schedules and compulsive attention to detail. You are emotionally drained after the death of your mother Hannah but, against the advice of some of your friends, you throw yourself into The Line, the Cross & the Curve, a 45-minute video album released the following year that - despite its merits - you now consider to be "a load of bollocks". You take two years off to recharge your batteries, because you can. In 1996, you write a song called King of the Mountain. You have a bit of a think and take some more time off, similarly, because you can.
Two years later, while pregnant, you write a song about artistic endeavour called An Architect's Dream. You give birth to a boy, Albert, in 1998 and you and your guitarist partner Danny McIntosh find yourselves "completely shattered for a couple of years". You move house and spend months doing it up. You convert the garage into a studio, but being a full-time mother who chooses not to employ a nanny or housekeeper, it's hard to find time to actually work in there. Bit by bit, the ideas come and a notion forms in your mind to make a double album, though you have to adjust to a new working regime of stolen moments as opposed to the 14-hour days of old. Your son begins school and suddenly time opens up and though progress doesn't exactly accelerate ("That's a bit too strong a word"), two years of more concentrated effort later, the album is complete. You look up from the mixing desk and it is 2005.
If the outside world was wondering whether Kate Bush would ever finish her long-awaited album, then it was a feeling shared by its creator. "Oh yeah," she sighs. "I mean, there were so many times I thought, I'll have the album finished this year, definitely, we'll get it out this year. Then there were a couple of years where I thought, I'm never gonna do this. If I could make albums quicker, I'd be on a roll wouldn't I? Everything just seems to take so much time. I don't know why. Time ... evaporates."
There was a story that some EMI execs had come down to see you and you'd said something like: "Here's what I've been working on," and then produced some cakes from your oven. True? "No! I don't know where that came from. I thought that was quite funny actually. It presents me as this homely creature, which is all right, isn't it?"
Even if apocryphal, it's a nugget that reveals something about Bush's relationship with a record label she signed to 30 years ago. For a long time now, she hasn't taken a penny in advances and refuses to play them a note of her works-in-progress. In the latter stages of Aerial's creation, EMI chairman Tony Wadsworth would come down to visit Bush and leave having heard nothing. "We'd just chat and then he'd go away again," Bush says. "We ended up just laughing about it, really."
If the completion of Aerial put paid to one set of anxieties for Bush, then its impending release has brought another - not least, a brace of newspaper stories keen to push the "rock's mystery recluse" angle. It seems the more she craves privacy, the more it is threatened. "For the last 12 years, I've felt really privileged to be living such a normal life," she explains. "It's so a part of who I am. It's so important to me to do the washing, do the Hoovering. Friends of mine in the business don't know how dishwashers work. For me, that's frightening. I want to be in a position where I can function as a human being. Even more so now where you've got this sort of truly silly preoccupation with celebrities. Just because somebody's been in an ad on TV, so what? Who gives a toss?"
A clock somewhere strikes two and the chipper, ever attentive McIntosh arrives with tea, pizza, avocado with balsamic vinegar and cream cake for afters, only to be playfully admonished by his partner, who protests: "I can't eat all this shit!"
If there is perhaps less mystery to Kate Bush than we might have expected, her music remains reassuringly the same ecstatic alchemy of the humdrum and otherworldly. Recalling the hello-clouds wonder of The Big Sky from 1985's Hounds of Love or the frank paean to menstruation that is Strange Phenomena from her debut, The Kick Inside, Aerial finds Bush marvelling in the magic of the everyday: the wind animating a skirt hanging on a clothes line, the trace of footprints leading into the sea, the indecipherable codes of birdsong.
But the one track on Aerial that best bridges the divide between Bush's domestic and creative existences is the haunting piano ballad Mrs Bartolozzi, in which a housewife character drifts off into a nostalgic reverie while watching clothes entwining in her washer-dryer. It's also the one track set to polarise opinion among listeners, with its eerie, unhinged chorus of "washing machine ... washing machine". Bush acknowledges as much.
"A couple of people who heard it early on," she says, dipping a spoon into her avocado, "they either really liked it or they found it very uncomfortable. I liked the idea of it being a very small subject. Clothes are such a strong part of who a human being is. Y'know, skin cells, the smell. Somebody thought that maybe there'd been this murder going on, I thought that was great. I love the ambiguity."
The shiver-inducing stand-out track on Aerial, however, comes at the end of the first disc. A Coral Room is a piano-and-vocal ballad that Bush admits she first considered to be too personal for release, dealing as it does with the death of her mother, a matter that she didn't address at the time in any of the songs on The Red Shoes.
"No, no I didn't," she says. "I mean, how would you address it? I think it's a long time before you can go anywhere near it because it hurts too much. I've read a couple of things that I was sort of close to having a nervous breakdown. But I don't think I was. I was very, very tired. It was a really difficult time."
Kate Bush begins to tidy up the plates and cups and get ready for Bertie's arrival home from school with his dad. Before I go, however, there is one last Bush myth to bust. Apparently, when she attended a music industry reception at Buckingham Palace this year, she asked the Queen for her autograph. Is that true? Instantly a grin spreads across the face of the Most Elusive Woman in Rock. "Yes, I did!" she exclaims, only half-embarrassedly. "I made a complete arsehole of myself. I'm ashamed to say that when I told Bertie that I was going to meet the Queen, he said, 'Mummy, no, you're not, you've got it wrong' and I said, 'But I am!' So rather stupidly I thought I'd get her to sign my programme. She was very sweet.
"The thing is I would do anything for Bertie and making an arsehole of myself in front of a whole roomful of people and the Queen, I mean ... But I don't have a very good track record with royalty. My dress fell off in front of Prince Charles at the Prince's Trust, so I'm just living up to my reputation."
· This is an abridged version of an exclusive 16-page interview with Kate Bush that appears in the next issue of MOJO magazine, on sale on Wednesday November 3
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