This month adds another blockbuster to record shop shelves. Presented with the requisite lavishly illustrated booklet, This Woman’s Work is the title which gathers together Kate Bush’s six albums plus 31 further tracks hitherto only available on B-sides, in French, as “alternative” mixes, and on the live Onstage EP. In short, the complete works. And still only 32.
For Kate Bush, this collection marks both a breathing space and a turning point. “In some ways this boxed set has almost put an end to an era,” She says softly, a charming, unaffected woman in jeans, boots, blouse and jacket you wouldn’t remark if worn by a schoolteacher. Her only armour, in fact, is the tape recorder with which she duplicates our interview, perhaps just in case she is misquoted. “I can’t say what will be that different about my work from now on, but it feels like a rounding up, a putting to bed — putting all those little sheep in a pen!”
So with one eye on the future, Kate looks back at a dozen years as a recording star, and assesses how she feels about the songs that today stand as a cornerstone of modern British music, songs mostly never performed live or, if so, not for 11 years and therefore unchanged since the day they were cut, With one exception…
Q: Why did you sing a new vocal on Wuthering Heights for 1986’s The Whole Story compilation? (Both versions are included in the box.)
“I’m happy with my voice now, and I suppose I wanted to make Wuthering Heights somehow step up through the decade. It sounded very dated Me: my voice sounded so young, the production sounded so ’70s. I like the idea of taking the song I’m most associated with, and making it me now as opposed to a very young girl, as I was in ’77.”
Q: When most artists revise their old songs, they do it live. This, however, is an option you’ve forsaken since 1979 and the multi-costumed and exhausting shows of that year, never repeated. Will you continue to forsake that option.
“I think I’m starting to feel different about a few things, and my attitude towards live work is one. I would like to think from this point onwards I could speed up, and keep the momentum of my work faster. I have a tendency to think too much.
I’ve just started writing again, and there’s no pressure on me. I get no sense of people expecting anything from me, because I take so long. That’s a very nice feeling, actually doing something in my own space. How I wrote at least the last two albums was to go into the studio and write ideas on to tape, as it were dump stuff on to tape, forget about it and then move on to the next area.
But when I first started, I always used to write on the piano, and just the last couple of months, I’ve felt at home again writing on the piano. It’s such a different process, I find it quite shocking. It’s like suddenly you’ve become the memory banks; instead of dumping it on to tape, it’s staying in you. And each time you play the song, it changes. The sense of transformation is very subtle; each time you play it, something will change. And by continually playing that song, it actually begins to develop, almost like it takes on a life of it’s own. I find this fascinating — and exhausting, because I have to use memory and concentration which I haven’t had to use in quite a while. Going back to a rooted way of working, I do feel a change in myself. Maybe I’m taking the opportunity to peruse the landscape, and see if there’s not things I could change.”
Q: Is this return to the piano a result of feeling you’d gone as far as you could with hi-tech?
” I do feel that I’ve achieved things on that last album,(The Sensual World). At some points when I was making it I thought that I would never finish it. It was so mammoth a task. Just getting up the courage to get in touch with The Trio Bulgarka took me a long time. I wanted to preserve the sense of how precious they were, I didn’t want to abuse it. A lot of time goes into fear and worry about something, and afterwards it’s all right anyway. In a way I feel what I should do is just jump in there and do it!”
Q: What are you trying to prove? Or have you now overcome that need to prove yourself?
There is a big part of me that is very over-ambitious. It’s ridiculous! And it drags me along behind it. It’s one of my qualities that I can’t deny in my work. I guess I’m trying to prove something to myself. But perhaps rather than having to prove something, people who create feel a great empty sense of hunger, a feeling of emptiness in life. And by being able to create, you can somehow express yourself in a way that maybe you can’t in the ordinary realms of life. I really feel it’s connected to religion — real religion. In your teens you hit the point where there’s a big introversion — you’re saying, Who am I? What am I going to do with myself? I really felt that when I was 17, which was when the whole propulsion of my creativity took over. I changed very dramatically in about two years. I do feel it’s an introversion that all creative people go through, and a lot of it is linked to religion. So many artists are looking for God, and this is where we find the voice to try and speak. It’s also a kind of self-therapy, trying to heal yourself.”
Q: Of what?
“Probably a sense of inadequacy. And through this expression you at last have a voice, whether it’s through painting, whatever. And I think it can be a much wiser voice. In your creativity there can be quite deep attitudes, and I think it’s got to be linked somehow with the unconscious that you’re tapping into”
Q: Which of your songs particularly connect with this form of spirituality?
“Breathing, I think was one of my first, what I would call spiritual songs. The subject matter isn’t, necessarily, but the spark is. When I was writing it, it felt like: Hang on, I don’t think I’m writing this — this is a bit too good for me! Rather than the song being my creation, I was a vehicle for something that was coming through me.”
Q: Have you defined your religious feelings?
“No, I don’t think so. I was a Roman Catholic and brought up in Roman Catholic schools. I would never say I was a strict follower of Roman Catholic belief, but a lot of images are in there; they have to be; they’re so strong. Such powerful, beautiful, passionate images! There’s a lot of suffering in Roman Catholicism. I think I’m looking for not necessarily religion, but ways of helping myself to become more understanding, more complete, a happier person — what we all want in life. But I really don’t think I’ve found a niche.”
Q: You hint at the possibility of confronting a live audience again. Was your performance as a hapless bride in TV’s Comic Strip play, Les Dogs, by way of dipping a toe into public appearance?
I love comedy. I think comedy is so — profound. And like everyone, I really love the whole new wave of comedy that started with The Young Ones. I’m a big fan of all the people involved. I’d seen Strike (another Comic Strip special), and I was very impressed by the look and Peter Richardson’s direction. What those guys do is very special: it might not always work — it’s experimental — but its essence is challenging and wonderful. I wanted to make a video for The Sensual world, but I was feeling insecure as a performer. Though I like being the observer rather than the observed, I felt this time I had to confront myself as the observed. And what would help would be to take on a part that would give me a sense of confidence and creative feedback.
I liked the idea of working with Peter, and I also really like the attitude in their work towards women. A lot of films I sit there thinking, That’s stupid! We worked on the video and it was a lot of fun, and we stayed in touch as friends. When he was working on the Comic Strip series, I got a script and he asked me if I’d play a part. It was a perfect challenge. I thought, OK, if you’re going to confront yourself as a performer, here’s an opportunity. I felt very honoured to be asked. It was a completely different pace of working and I learned a lot. You sit around and read all day, but also you’re on tenterhooks. Videos are much more frightening, because there I’m trying to be me rather than someone else. I quite enjoyed acting; I wasn’t sure I would. I’d never really wanted to be an actress, but I love film. I’m not sure if I want to act again, but if an interesting director asked me, my ego probably wouldn’t let me say no! I love film directors, and I guess part of me would eventually love to make a film — just a short one.”
Q: The Promo film for Cloudbusting was short — and it included Donald Sutherland, a real film star…
“I still can’t get over the fact that he did it! It was great! It means a lot to people that someone who is supposedly so famous and inaccessible makes the effort to make themselves accessible for such a little project. I was extremely moved by the fact that he did that; it meant a tremendous amount to me. And to work with him — Jesus, I thought I would never have the luck. I was his co-star! Ridiculous!”
Q: The boxed set rarities include Cloudbusting’s so-called ‘Organon mix’. The song was based on A Book Of Dreams, Peter Reich’s memoirs of his father, Wilhelm Reich, who held that sexual energy could be transformed into what he called ‘orgone’ energy. Yes?
“If I’ve got this right, he believed that sexual energy was positive, usable energy, that he tied in with this concept of orgone energy. He upset a lot of people when he started selling orgone boxes, saying they could cure cancer and stuff. He ended up being arrested and put in prison.
I knew nothing about Wilhelm when I read the book, which was his son’s experience of all this, written from a child’s point of view with a tremendous innocence and sadness. Years ago, I just went into a shop and picked it off the shelf, and really liked the title and the picture on the front. I’d never bought a book before which I hadn’t known anything about; I just felt I’d found something really special. And nine, 10 years later, I re-read it and it turned into a song. When it was finished, I wrote a letter to Peter Reich saying what I’d done. It was important to me in some way to have a sense of his blessing because his book really moved me. He sent back such a lovely letter. It was an incredible feeling of returning something he’d given to me.”
Q: Molly Bloom’s monologue from Joyce’s Ulysses in the sing The Sensual World, Wuthering Heights, of course — have other books provided inspiration?
“Every book I’ve read has a very big effect on me. At the moment it’s a conscious decision that I’m trying to do a lot more reading. When I was very little I read a lot, but not that much in my twenties. I think people should read more; we’ve all got conned by the cheap thrill of television. Reading a book doesn’t just make you think, it makes you explore. I think The Shining is terrific; it’s the only book by Stephen King I’ve read. Its atmosphere ended up in a couple of songs, and Get Out Of My House (from The Dreaming) was very inspired by it. I think literature is the most powerful form, but all works of art inspire artists; I find films very inspirational.”
“So many films touch you, even if it’s only the atmosphere you’re left with. There was The Innocents (adapted from Henry Jame’s ghost story The Turn Of The Screw and directed in 1961 by Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave), which I saw when I was a kid. It was so strong, and years later I wrote The Infant Kiss. There’s an old horror film called Night Of The Demon (adapted from M.R. James short story Casting The Runes and directed in 1957 by Jacques Tourneur, starring Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins) and that very much inspired Hounds Of Love.”
Q: Is other music inspirational?
“I tend not to listen to music as I take in visual imagery. I don’t know if this is deliberate or because I spend so much time working my ears listening to music. There’s also a slight problem, I guess, that if you really like something, you find yourself being pulled towards it without realising.”
Q: And Pictures?
“I love paintings. Years ago when I didn’t have the money to afford it at all, I brought a big picture. People thought I was mad, and they were right! But I fell in love with it. It’s a bit like Millais’s Ophelia, but a modern image of it; in fact, she’s floating in a sewer, hahaha! But I thought the irony was great, and the water, although it’s disgusting, has all the colours of oil in it. I do have a tremendous fascination with grotesque beauty and sad humour, opposites put together. I’d sit and look at that picture and then spent a couple of hours writing.”
Q: Your fans are among the most devoted in music. Lacking the feedback of a live audience, are you aware of many people’s more that averagely intense interest in you and your work?
“It sounds corny, but I feel so honoured that people into my music are so… patient. Their priorities are gorgeous; I don’t feel there’s a fickleness — they’re happy with whatever I do. It’s almost a form of love.
When we did the shows last time (1979), I did love it. The contact with the audience was fantastic. But I did feel a tremendous sense of intensity towards me, and I felt very exposed. I’m really quite a quiet, private person, and it was very difficult for me, and that’s got to do with why I haven’t toured, which has left me without a great sense of contact with an audience. It’s quite a surprise to me to think that I’m a famous person. It jolts me and I think, Oh my God! Right now, I would like to have more contact with audiences again. I think it would be a nice thing.”
Q: Peter Gabriel, Nigel Kennedy, Dave Gilmour — these are the musicians with whom you’re linked. Is it a social set, or do you have a social life that excludes music?
“It depends. I do go through phases, very much so. Some are professional and some very much friends. Nigel is the fullest of the two, in that we work together and he’s also a great friend. He’s really nice to work with, and because we’re friends, the communication’s great. You develop an almost unspoken sense of what you want, and a lot less needs to be said. They trust you, you trust them. It’s much easier to experiment because they’re not so frightened. There’s a lot to be said for working with people who are close to you.
I’ve lost one of our important members of that group: Alan Murphy (a regular guitarist with Kate) died late last year and another friend of mine died this year. Again, that’s why I feel the boxed set marks the end of an era because I’ll never work with them again. And I do miss them, and it’s made me think about a lot of things, and I have consciously taken a break from work since their deaths to do nothing. I’ve just taken six months off. I’ve had six month gaps between things, but always carrying this project around, and I don’t know why I haven’t done it before. I’m a bit obsessive about my work, you see. But now I can see there’s a part of me that loves not being tied into a project, That loves just to be able to go off.”
Q: Have you begun to formulate your next move?
“Yes, I have, but I can’t tell you because it’s probably going to change! I want to find a balance between observer and the observed. I love making music, and as long as I’m doing that, even if the albums don’t sell, there’ll be a certain amount of recognition. I feel I have to accept that, and learn from it and not run away from it any more…”
Kate Bush relaxes with a Silk Cut — a habit common among ballet dancers past and present — and is asked once again to contemplate the life of isolation. In other words, to select her desert island discs. Sitting as we are in the legendary Abbey Road studios, her choice of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour could not be more appropriate, followed by Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (“tremendously influential on me and the whole of modern music with the repetition and sampling”), her friend Nigel Kennedy’s The Four Seasons (“there’s something light and uplifting about it”), The Trio Bulgarka’s Strati Angelaki (on the Bulgarian compilation LP, Balkana), Donal Lunny’s last album (called Donal Lunny) Eberhard Weber’s Fluid Rustle (“a lot of fond memories”), Billie Holiday’s I Love You Porgie (“the singer of singers. Lindsey Kemp used to use this one in a show of his, and the combination of her singing and his theatre was terrific”) and Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.
A song of your own?
“The song The Sensual World. Cloudbusting has fond memories for me because of the book and the video, but The Sensual World because musically I’m jolly pleased with it — and it was hell to make!”
And your book?
“Oscar Wilde, in particular The Happy Prince. That’s a strong story for me; I heard it a lot when I was little. It’s so sad. I guess that’s the Irish. We all like the beauty of sadness, but I do think there’s a real Irish link of happy with the sad. Everything contains the opposite — the little observer and the little observed. This is my plan to get the balance…”
Transcribed to HTML 02nd. September 1999.