An interview with Kate Bush, whatever form it takes, is exciting enough to cause heart problems in otherwise healthy music journalists. She is a genius: Every album she has released has been something of a reinvention. She is elusive: She has toured only once and she last came into view six years ago for the release of her album Aerial, even then doing only one interview. She is hugely influential: Everyone from Lady Gaga to Beyoncé owes a debt to the woman who invented the idea of the female pop star as performance artist.
"She was the first female singer that wasn't a songstress," says Lindsay Kemp, the legendary dancer, actor and mime artist who taught David Bowie and Bush, and who was a key influence on her. "Much as I adored Dusty [Springfield] Kate was something else; a chameleon, really, and very cultured, with a great imagination."
It is 33 years since Bush, with her debut single Wuthering Heights, became the first woman to have a U.K. No. 1 hit with a self-written song. Now she is emerging ever so slightly from her castle of domesticity in Berkshire co-habited by her guitarist husband, Danny McIntosh, and her 12-year-old son Bertie, for the first time in six years with a reworking of two of her albums. And she has agreed to talk about it.
Director's Cut revisits The Sensual World from 1989 and The Red Shoes from 1993, either rerecording the songs entirely or tweaking them into new forms. She won't do an interview in person, and she will talk only about the new album; any questions straying toward the personal will be ignored. But with Bush you take whatever you are given. So the first question is: why would someone so forward thinking and original want to go over old ground? "I'd wanted to revisit some of the songs from these two albums for a while now," she replies. "I think there were some quite interesting songs on there, and I wanted to see how I could make them sound at this point in time. I've tried to allow the songs to breathe more by stripping a lot of the production out and lengthening some sections, but keeping the best performances from the original tracks."
You can't imagine Bush looking back much. "I don't listen to my old stuff very often at all," she confirms. "But when I've heard bits and pieces from these albums I felt some of it sounded a bit dated, some of it a bit cluttered. I approached them as if they were newly written songs. To me it sounds like a new album."
The lead single is Deeper Understanding, which predicted the Facebook age by documenting the intimate relationship between a lonely person and a computer. The new version features Bush's vocals placed through Auto-Tune software and a chorus from Bertie, who sounds like a disembodied choirboy. It takes some getting used to. "I can't say I'm really that happy with anything I've done," she says, reflecting on the new version. "I don't aim for perfection. But I do want to try and come up with something interesting.
" The process veers between ideas that seem to work quickly and others that are painfully elusive. It's tedious at times. Normally a good night's sleep gives me the energy to keep pushing it along ..." she adds, sounding much like any busy middle-class mum juggling the school run with the day job, which in Bush's case is making albums that are routinely upheld as masterpieces. Speaking to her now, you might wonder how so much mystery and intrigue has built up around her. Then you return to the video for Wuthering Heights, which she wrote one moonlit night in 1977, aged 19, as a response to watching a BBC adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel (she got around to reading the book only years later).
Wuthering Heights, which Bush insisted would be her debut single against EMI's wishes, came after 2 1/2 years hard work. Bush was signed to EMI in 1975, aged 17, after David Gilmour of Pink Floyd heard a demo tape she had made with her parents. Gilmour recorded Bush playing a handful of songs on her piano at the family home in Kent before booking her in for a session at Air Studios in London. EMI signed Bush at Gilmour's suggestion. Two years later she got back in touch with him, in 1978, shortly before her debut album, The Kick Inside, was due to be released.
"She sent me Wuthering Heights and said, 'I'm thinking of releasing this as the first single,' " Gilmour has recounted. "I said: 'I wouldn't if I were you!' So I was completely and utterly wrong and she was completely and utterly right, as she always is."
From the summer of 1975, when she went into Air Studios for that initial session, to the release of Wuthering Heights in January of 1978, Bush finished her schooling, wrote songs, and used some of her advance from EMI to take the train from her flat in Brockley to the Dance Centre in Covent Garden, where Kemp held open classes for the equivalent of a couple of dollars on Saturday mornings. It was Kemp who taught Bowie the basics of mime; he was the obvious choice to tutor Bush in a new form of self-expression.
"It must have been 1976 when she appeared in one of my classes," says Kemp, 70, who lives in Italy and is still working. "I can't say she particularly struck me at first because she was so timid and waiflike. So I helped her to bring herself out, and once she was dancing she was great: passionate, observant and diligent. I told her I wanted to see her spirit dancing, for her to be unafraid and audacious; to bring to the outside what was on the inside, which she has certainly done since."
Kemp did not know she was signed to EMI. Assuming she was just another penniless artistic type hanging out at his classes, he gave her a job in wardrobe. "She was sewing countless sequins on outfits for our production of Salome at the Roundhouse [in London]" says Kemp, who, with his camp Scottish brogue, sounds perpetually amused and a touch surprised.
"She was so very quiet that I had no idea she had plans to be a pop star. It was only later, after I came back from a tour of South America and there was her debut album underneath my front door, when I discovered what she had been up to. I thought she was still sewing sequins."
Kemp's influence really came into its own on The Tour of Life, Bush's first - and last - U.K. tour in 1979. A combination of experimental rock, modern dance and theatricality, it featured the first microphone headset (built from a wire coat hanger with a mike on the end) and had Bush variously climbing onto a muscular dancer's shoulders while dressed as a flying squirrel and acting out a wild-west shootout, all the while staying within character and never once addressing the audience.
Why didn't it happen again, or any other kind of tour? "It took a lot out of me, and I don't feel prepared again for that kind of commitment," Bush said in a television interview in the mid-1980s. The tour was also marred by tragedy: The lighting designer Bill Duffield fell from the rafters and died at the dress rehearsal in Poole. Bush doesn't rule out the possibility of playing live again - "I'd like to think so before I get too ancient" - but The Tour of Life remains a sole entity, witnessed by a fortunate few.
A year after The Tour of Life, Bush went into Abbey Road Studios to do her third album, Never For Ever. Working next door was the folk-rock singer-songwriter Roy Harper. They provided backing vocals for each other's songs, and became friends.
"She grew up with my music, which was unknown to me when I met her," Harper. says. "So we met, got on, and we've worked together a few times over the years since. It's always been a delight: she's organized and gracious, a very sweet woman. She is some sort of a perfectionist, but then a lot of us are, searching for the Holy Grail as it were, so that's not particularly unusual for an artist. I imagine that she felt she had to go back to these albums [on Director's Cut]before she could move on."
Bush hasn't toured since. But despite protracted periods of invisibility giving rise to reports of her as a tormented recluse, she comes across as a grounded person with an uncommon talent, who simply needs space and privacy to work. (She has recently revealed she's "in the elusive process" of collecting fresh material for her ninth original album at the moment.)
She is, however, happy to talk about the process of making Director's Cut, describing the challenge of recording new vocals for the songs, 20 years on, in a matter-of-fact way. "My voice is lower now. But once the key was dropped I could find my way in," she says. "I don't know if the new vocals are better, but they are different."
She says that making the Director's Cut album involved lots of "boring technical work, tedious plodding through lists of stuff to do. Luckily I work with people I like or it would be murder." Why did it take so long to emerge? "I'd wanted to do this project for a few years and thought it would be easy. It wasn't. Should have known that ..." After a frustrating studio experience with 1979's Lionheart, and after being allowed to co-produce the follow-up, Never For Ever, Bush has produced all her albums herself, retaining full control of her output.
Bush's impact burns as brightly as ever, 33 years on. John Grant, the American singer whose album Queen of Denmark dominated the U.K. Best Of 2010 lists, lays down the influence she had on him in stark terms.
"She changed my life," Grant says. "I first heard her in 1985, with Running Up That Hill. I was in Parker, Colorado, in the middle of nowhere, and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. ... I wish I had a chance to tell her how much her music has meant to me."
Grant isn't the only one. I have hundreds of questions to ask her, but only a handful get answered. The interview ends with a brief summation of Director's Cut that is as straightforward as the woman herself. "I'm pleased with how this album sounds now."
Then she concludes, with an air of peace: "I feel I've achieved what I set out to do."
The Times of London / NI Syndication