Out on her own

IN John Mendelssohn’s 2004 novel Waiting For Kate Bush the protagonist threatens suicide unless his musical heroine releases a new album in six months.

You can be assured, by the close of the book his wish has not been granted.

Fans often know as much about their favourite pop star as about family members, so the British singer of Waterford extraction breaks all the rules: she is unfathomable. Living the life of a mid-20th century Hollywood recluse rather than a cultish singer with a respectable following, she has spent the past 30 years in obscurity in misty Cornwall, displaying the creative urgency of a glacier creeping across the Arctic ice-shelf. Since 1989 she has put out two albums, the last in 2005.

So the surprise announcement that she is shortly to present a revamped version of a brace of records from the late ‘80s and mid-90s has caused a stir, fuelled by the revelation that she has secured permission from the notoriously protective James Joyce estate to incorporate extracts from Ulysses in the song The Flower Of The Mountain, a radical re-imagining of her 1989 hit The Sensual World. “When I wrote the song The Sensual World I had used text from the end of Ulysses,” she said in a statement issued through her label. “When I asked for permission to use the text I was refused, which was disappointing. I then wrote my own lyrics for the song, although I felt that the original idea had been more interesting. Well, I’m not James Joyce am I? When I came to work on this project I thought I would ask for permission again and this time they said yes ... I am delighted that I have had the chance to fulfil the original concept.”

What is it about Bush that provokes such strong feelings in her fans? After all, she isn’t the world’s only limelight-adverse pop star. However, she is one of the few whose fame endures despite the infrequency of her public appearances and the paucity of her output. Perhaps it is the JD Salinger effect. Like the notoriously publicity-adverse author, the greater the lengths to which Bush goes to stay out of the public eye the more insatiable our interest in her becomes. She has done a remarkable job drawing a veil over her private life. It was a full 18 months after the birth of her son Bertie in 2002 before the news leaked. And that was only because her friend Peter Gabriel let the secret slip while chin-wagging to reporters. In the information vacuum, all sorts of rumours have sprung up. There have been stories about Bush’s ballooning weight, her two mansions in Berkshire and Devonshire, the days she spends alone sobbing into a mirror. Out of sight, it is as if she has ceased to be a real person and has become a character from an early Stephen King novel.

The reason people still care about her, of course, is that she has profoundly influenced popular music. It is no exaggeration to say Bush created the archetype of the slightly batty female singer, warbling passionately about her odd internal life. Without Bush there would be no Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, Florence and the Machine, Bat for Lashes, Goldfrapp, PJ Harvey or Bjork. If the Beatles and the Rolling Stones set the template for every rock band that followed, then Bush wielded the same influence over female singers of an esoteric disposition. She is the alpha and omega of the ululating girl-crooner in the funny frock. All of which is remarkable considering she hails not from some hippy-dippy enclave of California or upstate New York but suburban Kent in the distinctly unglamorous south east of England. She was born Catherine Bush in 1958, the youngest of three children. Her father was a family doctor, her mother a nurse and former Irish dancer from Waterford. Growing up, she was torn irrevocably between the old and the new. She worshiped Buddy Holly and Elvis. But she was also drawn to the music of her mother’s homeland. Bush adored sean-nos singing and was haunted by the sound of the uilleann pipes. Remarkably precocious, by her early teens she had already incorporated these influences into the musical style — overwrought yet deeply moving — that would be her hallmark. At 16, she wrote her hit The Man with The Child In His Eyes (an ode to an early boyfriend). Several months later, performing with a folk group call the KP Bush Band, she came to the attention of Pink FLoyd guitarist Dave Gilmour. He was so impressed he stumped up the cash for a three-track demo which led to a deal with his record company, EMI.

The relationship did not start well. Bush wanted to record a strange love dirge called Wuthering Heights which EMI was reluctant to put out. Taking some time out, she studied with mime artist and dancer Lindsay Kemp, already famous for having tutored David Bowie. Charged with confidence after her time with Kemp, she felt able to revisit Wuthering Heights and embellish her vision on vinyl. Confronted with this pixie-proportioned force of nature, her label felt it had no option but to relent. A gorgeously-dramatic ballad, Wuthering Heights went a long way towards establishing Bush as a public persona (as did her OTT performance in the accompanying video). When her debut album, The Kick Inside, followed in 1979, it soared to the top of the charts. Had she followed the established route, Bush would have proceeded to build her fanbase through an exhaustive touring schedule. But she disliked live performance. For all of the poise she displayed in her videos, she was quite shy and found it difficult to bare her innermost feelings before a room of baying punters. Still, she was cajoled into touring The Kick Inside and, accompanied by mime artists and jugglers, she set off on a trek around the UK. As she suspected, the experience was not to her liking. Her first tour was also to be her last.

Not that she disappeared from the public eye. Not straight away at least. Through the ’80s, she released a slew of hit albums: Never For Ever, The Dreaming and The Hounds Of Love. By the middle of the decade, however, she was chaffing against what she felt were the restrictions of the record industry. She refused to collaborate with producers, feeling the pace at which they wished her to work was to the detriment of the music (on The Kick Inside, she repeated one vocal take more than 20 times, despite her producer’s assurance that the first had been perfectly fine).

So it was that, with 1989’s The Sensual World, she ushered in a new phase in her career, where she would release records in her own time, regardless of how badly the public craved her music. A full four years would pass until 1993’s Red Shoes, which saw her hooking up with Eric Clapton. And that was nothing compared to the hiatus upon which she embarked until 2005, when she returned with the psychedelic Ariel.

Released next month, will her ‘reworked’ new album open a fresh chapter in Kate Bush’s story? Don’t count on it. She may be one of the most influential singers of the past three decades and an artist who provokes remarkable devotion among her fans. Bush herself, however, seems remarkably unfazed by all of this. In her secluded mansion, with Bertie and husband Danny McIntosh, the impression is that she is perfectly happy with her life the way it is. Even her publicity shots for the new album were taken her brother John Carder Bush. “I am just a quiet reclusive person who has managed to hang around for a while,” she said in a rare interview seven years ago. Whatever else happens, you suspect this state of affairs is unlikely to change.

Kate Bush’s new album, The Director’s Cut, is released on May 13

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