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It has been almost three decades since she first topped the charts and 12 years between albums, but Kate Bush has never followed the rock star script. And, as she tells Iain Shedden, she's much happier for it
SHE'S not exactly chatty, Kate Bush, or at least that's the impression one gets from her lack of media activity in the past 12 years. The reclusive English singer has done only a handful of interviews in that time, fuelling the perception of her as the 1980s pop star who lost the plot and disappeared off the face of the earth.
And let's be honest, she was always a bit mad anyway, wasn't she, even at the height of her fame 20 years ago?
Only a bit mad, she remembers, but we'll get to that later. The Kate Bush doing the talking here is no madwoman, no shrinking violet, no temperamental artist answering questions cagily for fear of being trapped by her allegedly eccentric past.
What we have is a 47-year-old singer and writer content with her lot, eager to discuss every aspect of her complex life and brimming with joy at the success of her renaissance album, Aerial, which has had critics -- some of whom were not born when she first took the world by surprise with Wuthering Heights 27 years ago -- gushing about her timeless art.
"Yes, I am happy," she says from her home outside London, where she lives with her partner, guitarist Danny McIntosh, and their son Bertie, 7.
Her tone is light-hearted, salt-of-the-earth friendly, occasionally mischievous and peppered with self-deprecating humour. If this is the Greta Garbo of pop, she has had a crash course in gregariousness.
"I'm in a privileged position to say that I'm very happy," she goes on. "I'm very lucky. I'm even happier now that the album has been received with such ..." She searches for the right phrase. "I have never been so surprised. It's extraordinary. I was really worried that people were going to forget me."
Well, they could hardly have been blamed for that, could they? Taking a 12-year break between albums is unusual. The fickle world of pop demands that you ride the wave of success until it dumps you unceremoniously on your backside.
Bush, on the other hand, decided after her 1993 album The Red Shoes that the music business could take a running jump. Enough with fame; she was going to have a life.
"I was working very hard trying to be an artist," she recalls of her heyday. "Somehow I just wasn't being seen as who I was. I was being mistranslated. It was very frustrating."
So, after 15 years, a handful of albums and with a string of hit singles including Them Heavy People, Sat in Your Lap and Breathing behind her, Bush said goodbye to the charts, the recording studio and the spotlight to devote herself to things that she believed were more real, such as cleaning the house and, eventually, having a child.
Both these subjects are addressed on Aerial. Bertie gets a few mentions and did the artwork that appears on Bush's recent single, King of the Mountain, while domesticity in the shape of a washing machine gets a full cycle on Mrs Bartolozzi.
It's no accident that these and other quality-of-life issues dominate the two CDs that make up Aerial. Bush wrote some of the material for it in the years immediately following her retirement, when she was looking for something more than artistic fulfillment.
It wasn't the writing that took so long, she explains, more the recording.
"I think a lot of people think I spend years writing stuff," she says. "I don't. It's shockingly quick."
WHAT took her so long to make a comeback was combining her home life with the recording process. She tackled the latter in her spare moments, which became less frequent after the birth of Bertie.
"A lot of my friends couldn't carry on working when they had a child," she says. "They either had to get child care or they had to stop working. I feel very privileged that I was able to do both [working and parenting], but I was also very tired.
"It's difficult to do both. I made a conscious decision early on that my son would come first."
Her record company, EMI, fretted as another year went by and Aerial remained a work in progress. Company executives went to visit, hoping to hear it at last, or at least some part of it. Most often they left, disappointed, after an earful of tea and cakes.
Early this year, however, their patience was rewarded. The headline on Kitty Empire's review in British newspaper The Observer was: "Admit it, guys, she's a genius". For Bush the album's release and the positive reaction to it have been a validation of her methods, but the proof came only after months of worrying about how the public would react.
"When I was most anxious was when there was this huge amount of anticipation starting to build about the record and I hadn't actually finished it," she says, laughing. "It's hard enough trying to keep that creative focus without feeling that everybody's banging on the door going, `Where is it?' Mind you, I've got good soundproofing." Now that it's done, she says, the relief is palpable. Hardly surprisingly, after that period of gestation she hasn't been able to listen to Aerial.
"I always put myself under a lot of pressure. It is not an enjoyable process spending 12 years making a record. Lots of it was fun but it wasn't something I intended to take 12 years to make.
"I'm so fed up listening to it, I can't tell you. The sense of relief at actually having it finished ... that was one of the greatest senses of elation, after all that time. There were so many points where I felt, almost in a religious sense, that I wasn't going to have the strength to carry on."
There is a hint of melodrama in her voice as she says this, but she calms herself when I suggest that she should be grateful for the freedom she has to work at her own pace.
"I have a lot of freedom, but I guess what gives me that freedom, what drives me, is to try and make something interesting musically. If I was driven by the desire to be famous and make lots of money, I would try and bring a record out every year."
BY the age of 16, Bush had written enough material to produce albums every year until she was in her 30s. Growing up in a musical family south of London, she devoted herself to music and in particular to composition. She taught herself piano, wrote 200 songs, then waited.
"I just love sitting at the piano," she says. "Just as some people sit with a piece of paper and doodle, I guess I was doing that at the piano. I used to write one song a day, sometimes two.
"But of course it's so much easier at that age. You have a lot less to do."
She jokes that she was so prolific in her teens because she knew she was going to slow down as she got older. In truth, she couldn't help herself. It was something she was born to do.
"Right from when I was quite little ... the first thing I really wanted to do was make a record. I'm quite lucky that that was my heart's desire. There is a reasonable amount of value in that."
An introduction to Pink Floyd's guitarist Dave Gilmour was the breakthrough. He played her songs to EMI and they signed her while she was still at school. She studied dancing and mime, building and cross-pollinating the skills that became apparent so quickly after the release of Wuthering Heights (and its landmark video) in 1978.
Her debut album, The Kick Inside, confirmed that her originality and talent were not confined to screaming "Heathcliff" in the middle of a field, and that underneath the quirky image lay a complex songwriter and performer for whom sex and sensuality were essential components. Girls wanted to be her. Boys wanted to be her really special friend.
She can look back on that pivotal moment of Wuthering Heights with some amusement, but she also recognizes that the song, so different from anything that was happening at the time, at the tail end of the British punk phase, opened the door to a lengthy career.
"It was something I was carried along by," she says. "Like a big wave picked me up."
The wave ebbed and flowed thereafter, reaching a peak in 1985 when the album Hounds of Love topped the charts and produced the hits Running Up That Hill and Cloudbusting.
By then she had long since given up performing live, mainly because she found it so exhausting, although the strain had been exacerbated by the accidental death of a lighting technician during her last tour.
There were other setbacks. In 1982 she released what she once described as her "she's gone mad" album, The Dreaming. It was an ambitious project, with lots of self-indulgent noodling and Bush taking the production reins for the first time. It flopped.
"I said that ["she's gone mad"] because of the reaction from other people," she says. "There were quite a few people who would come up to me in shops and things and say: `Just bought your new record. Bit weird, isn't it?"'
She laughs again at the absurdity of the scenario, but then controls herself. "That was the first time I'd really been able to get hands-on properly.
"It was a hard record to make because I got a lot of stick right from the beginning to the end because I wanted to have creative control. Although I had co-produced [her earlier album] Never For Ever, I think there was the perception that, `Well, you know, she might have said she co-produced it, but ...'
"So there I was standing on the front line and I picked up the shrapnel wounds. It was very experimental, which was something I enjoyed at the time. I suppose it was a bit mad, but in an adventurous way."
The Dreaming was also her first musical association with an unlikely collaborator: Rolf Harris, who played didgeridoo on the album, and does so again on two songs on Aerial. "I needed a singing painter and there aren't too many of those around," she says. More laughter. "We've been friends for quite a long time now. He's such a multi-talented guy. He's a musicologist as well as everything else and, of course, he's an accomplished painter. I don't know how he does it all, really."
Bush released an anthology and two more albums after Hounds of Love, but The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes (1993) were relatively unsuccessful commercially. The latter dealt with issues such as the death of her mother, Hannah, and the break-up with her long-term partner, guitarist Del Palmer.
She revisits her mother's death on Aerial in the song A Coral Room, a piano ballad that seeps emotion from every pore.
"It wasn't difficult to write," she says of the piece. "The bit that was difficult was that I did consider not putting it on the record. I wasn't sure how I would feel having it on there."
Now that the album is out and in the charts, there will be some expectation, from her record company as well as her fans, of another one appearing before her 60th birthday. So will she make one?
"I hope so," she says. "It's not meant to be my last work. Of course I'd really like to make another one."
Nor is she ruling out performing again. She has even returned to dancing after a long break.
"This is the first time in years I've had time to do other things, so I've just started again recently. It's something I've always enjoyed, but it doesn't hold the same importance to me any more. That's the thing about dance, it's such a discipline. You can't have too many airs and graces because it's all about the fragility of the body. It's really hard work. Being a dancer for a living ... I've got so much respect for people like that, being so strong."
Bush has other strengths, however. She has withstood the pressures the music industry can impose on artists to do things their way and has made herself happy in the process.
"There were quite a few times where I found the way I was living my life was more ... I thought it had more value than someone who was living the life of a celebrity," she says.
"What is amazing about the way people have responded to this record is that I did approach things that way. People get it. It's incredibly freeing."
It's as liberating, perhaps, as Wuthering Heights was to that unknown singer 27 years ago. Does she still see herself as she was in that video?
"I think in essence I am much the same person," she says. "But in other ways I've changed tremendously. I'm glad I have, though. Imagine going through life without any changes at all. How depressing is that!"
Aerial is out now through EMI. Iain Shedden is The Australian's music writer.
The Kick Inside (1978: Released when she was 19, included songs she wrote at 15. Wuthering Heights remains her biggest hit, going to No.1 in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Lionheart (1978: The track Oh England My Lionheart, in which a pilot who has been shot down contemplates his homeland as he hurtles towards the ground, remains a fan favourite.
Never For Ever (1980): Went to No.1 in Britain, the first time an album by a female artist had done so. Features the single Babooshka.
The Dreaming (1982): Experimental album produced by Bush that received mixed reviews.
Hounds of Love (1985): Recorded at a private studio Bush had built near her home so she could work at her own pace. Album went to No.1 in Britain.
The Whole Story (1986): Compilation album that went to No.1 in Britain.
The Sensual World (1989): Includes the quirky Heads We're Dancing, in which a woman dances all night with a charming stranger only to learn he is Adolf Hitler.
The Red Shoes (1993): Why Should I Love You featured input from Prince and guest vocals by comedian Lenny Henry. Her most successful album in the US, reaching No.28 on the charts.
Aerial (2005): Guest vocals and didgeridoo by occasional collaborator Rolf Harris. In mid-December the album was No.3 in Britain and No.48 in the US.
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