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After a 12-year absence, British rock enigma Kate Bush returns to the fertile musical landscape she helped create
In the weird cast of eccentric, renegade geniuses credited with having influenced the course of late 20th-century pop music, Kate Bush is perhaps weirder, more eccentric, more of a renegade and more influential than most.
Not that she cares.
"I've never been aware of inspiring others," she says over the phone from her home in Reading, England, on the eve of the release this Tuesday of Aerial, her first album in 12 years.
"That was never my intention. You do the best you can ... that's all I care about."
A child prodigy who burst into public view in 1978, Bush churned out seven extemporaneous, genre-defying albums in the following 15 years.
She also released a string of groundbreaking videos, undertook one strange and fantastic tour before retreating, apparently forever, to her home studio, and in 1993, disappeared completely, leaving a legion of mythically devoted fans puzzled and gasping for more.
Bush might have remained one of the curiosities of the 1980s Britpop explosion had it not been for a steady stream in subsequent years of performers who clearly owe much to her vision and style. Hip-hop star Antwan "Big Boi" Patton of OutKast has called Bush his "No. 1 musical influence next to Bob Marley." And if that's hard to believe, try listening to Björk, Sarah McLachlan, Dido, Fiona Apple or Tori Amos without conjuring Kate Bush.
Her passion, frankness and musical daring with electronic and symphonic structures has its roots in 1970s British prog rock, but Bush, who's now 47, is one of those rare and preternaturally gifted artists whose work stands outside time, impervious to musical trends and changes in social, economic and political patterns.
In fact, the time away from the music biz whirl has passed so quickly for her that she barely feels it, she says.
"I've been having a good time. I've been raising my son (Bertie, aged 7), and living a quiet life, shopping, cleaning my house, going to movies with friends. And I've been recording, taking my time. Once I start recording, I have to make it as good as I can. This album didn't start out to be as big as it is, but by the time it was finished, I'd been at it for almost five years. I have a reputation for being overambitious."
Cheerful and talkative except when it comes to details of her personal life Bush sounds genuinely at a loss to explain her reputation in the media as a wacky recluse.
"Reclusive, mysterious and weird it's ridiculous, isn't it? Just because I've chosen to live a normal life, and not in the public eye. I've never promoted myself, I'm not a celebrity, I'm a worker, and I don't see a reason to do interviews unless there's something to talk about, a piece of work.
"I don't hide from people. I go shopping, I go to restaurants and movies ... yet somehow I'm made out to be some mad hermit. It's too much.
"I think my cult following got grumpy waiting so long," she laughs.
That all sounds a bit disingenuous in light of the number of high-end
European art and fashion photographers whose ubiquitous images of Bush created
at least the impression of a showbiz diva between 1978 and 1990, when an
eight-CD anthology appeared in the box set This Woman's Work complete with a
colour booklet containing nothing but these extravagant portraits.
In lieu of personal appearances erroneous reports of stage fright that have apparently prevented her from touring after 1979 are another bone of contention with her fans have had nothing to fuel their addiction other than Bush's wild, rich and allusive music, and magnificent, stylized graphics.
"I never consciously gave up touring," she explains. "I only did just one, in 1979 and 1980, and I think other people gave up on me. I remember it as a fantastic experience, like being on the road with a circus. We're working on some ideas about doing some shows to promote this album, but it's early days."
And she says she has no regrets about the image she helped create, though Aerial comes unadorned with large and ornate likenesses of her, and instead features realistic images of the ornaments of an ordinary village life washing on the line, a view from the kitchen window, a placid seashore, pigeons in the yard.
"Graphics are important," she adds, by way of explaining the effort that went into designing the honeyed landscape artwork for Aerial. "This may sound pompous, but I'm uncomfortable working with the CD format. I used to work in vinyl, when the artwork was big, and said something significant about an artist.
"And I loved double albums. They indicated that the music was conceptual, too important to be reduced, and you could open up the covers and get lost in the pictures and information inside.
"I liked it when an album was 20 minutes of music a side, with a breathing space in the middle. I think CDs are too long for people with short attention spans, people who are distracted by all the technological tools we have these days."
The Aerial format, she explains, is a respectful nod to the great days of vinyl. The package contains two discs, both around 40 minutes in length, the first a collection of single songs, the second a conceptual piece that unfolds as a musical panorama encompassing the span of a single day, with vast dreams and powerful reminiscences inspired by simple sounds of nature, the words of passers-by and routine chores.
The album lacks the frenetic pace and bluster of her last conceptual effort, 1985's Hounds Of Love, and achieves an almost elegiac, English pastoral grace. Several songs feature just vocals and piano, and expose matters closer to her heart than the turgid melodramas of her earlier work: the joy childhood brings in "Bertie," memories of her late mother in the eerie but strangely comforting waterscape "A Coral Room," the bucolic "Sky Of Honey" with its compelling echoes of Vaughan Williams. Orchestral charts were written by award-winning composer Michael Kamen, who died of a heart attack at age 55 in 2003. They were recorded just weeks before his death.
"He was a lovely person, very talented and brave," Bush recalls. "I'd worked with him on other albums, and he was never offended if I suggested changes he'd rewrite arrangements on the spot, even with the orchestra waiting in the studio. I admire his work for its visual qualities."
While it's debatable, as acolytes claim, that Kate Bush's impact on Western music and female artists in particular is as profound as Joni Mitchell's, it can't be denied that Bush has attracted more than a fair share of serious attention from new artists in the years since her so-called self-exile began. This includes R&B singer Maxwell, whose reworking of Bush's childbearing chronicle "This Woman's Work" was a hit in 2001, as well as male-dominated British rock acts Placebo and The Futureheads, who scored a hit last year with a version of her "Hounds of Love."
Her beginnings were more than auspicious. Bush was "discovered" at age 16 by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. He who paid for an orchestra to back her distinctive, hyperbolic soprano on demos of several elaborately theatrical, sexually loaded romantic fantasies that would become the core, three years later, of her hair-raising debut, The Kick Inside.
Though she had nothing in common with the post-punk, new wave acts with whom she shared the high end of the charts she was genteel, well educated, and possessed of aesthetic and artistic sensibilities that had less to do with rock than with the progressive side of opera, world music, jazz, musical theatre and epic cinema she became the darling of British prog-rock. Peter Gabriel gave her a nod by recording the moving duet, "Don't Give Up" with her in 1986. Procol Harum member Gary Brooker's organ and vocal contributions anchor Aerial, an exotic two-CD set.
Some pieces on Aerial will remind fans of the daring Kate Bush of old: "Pi" is little more than a series of numbers sung with dramatic extremes of emotion; "King Of The Mountain," the first single, is a contemplation on celebrity and its cost, with direct references to Elvis; in "Mrs. Bartolozzi," a washing machine becomes a sexual allegory in the romantic fantasies of a cleaning woman.
"After seven years with Bertie, I know a lot about washing machines," Bush chuckles. "He keeps me normal. I never wanted to be famous. I just want to create nice music, and I believe celebrity threatens creativity.
"What's important to me is to have a soul and my lovely little boy."
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"The pull and the push of it all..." - Kate Bush
Marvick - Hill
Willker - Mapes
Grepel - Love-Hounds