Kate Bush Speaks

In the ’80s, she changed the shape of pop, but rarely explained her art. Now, in one of her most honest interviews ever, Kate Bush tells the whole story.
Story by Owen Myers
Illustration by Emily Keegin
Kate Bush Speaks   Chris Moorhouse/Getty

Kate Bush saw the future. Two decades before Lemonade, the British pop auteur wrote, directed, and starred in the first-ever visual album, 1993’s The Line, The Cross, & The Curve. Long before anyone had ever swiped right, her late-’80s song “Deeper Understanding” detailed the erotic pull of technology. For her debut tour in 1979, she helped invent the headset mic, which allowed her to move onstage with the same freedom as her distinctive high-register vocals. Unfazed by a lack of precedent to her visions, Bush’s genre-spanning music didn’t just push pop forward with its embrace of avant-garde styles, her work also left the tools for other artists to do the same.

Like today’s most powerful stars, Bush has always rejected the idea that pop artists had to pander to the media. Her press engagements are few and far between, and for the last four decades she’s chiefly communicated through dazzling self-directed music videos. In her most prolific period — from ’78 to ’86 — these rivalled the visual innovations of David Bowie and Prince. She’d shift from playing a steely seductive warrior in “Babooshka” to donning military fatigues for “Army Dreamers,” as at ease with folklorish fantasy as post-Vietnam social commentary. In the ultra-conservative Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1980s, her embrace of theatrics made Bush a beacon of individuality for LGBTQ people, art freaks, and anyone who didn’t like their culture served straight-up. Three decades on, our political leaders still hate what is “other,” which often makes watching a Kate Bush video feel like an affirming few minutes of self-care.

Contemporary artists who’ve probably done just that include FKA twigs, Solange, and Christine and The Queens, all of whom don’t use movement as an adjunct to their music, but as a core expression in itself. From the very beginning of her career, as a 19-year-old from the London suburbs with two years of dance training under her belt, Bush used the whole of her body to express her art. Unlike the stiff-hipped rigidity of the punk singers that had been Britain’s alternative icons before her, Bush’s seemingly elastic body found strength in sensuality. In the video for her indelible baroque pop debut single “Wuthering Heights” she traversed the Yorkshire moors with ecstatic fluidity, while the “Running Up That Hill” video is modern dance at its most powerful.

Her work behind the scenes was just as pioneering. As an artist, she’d inked an EMI deal at 16 as a piano prodigy, and by the early ‘80s Bush’s hands-on hunger for new sounds led her to double down on the production of her music. Buoyed by the creative control afforded by her Fairlight synth sampler — first used on 1980’s Never For Ever — Bush produced all of her albums herself starting with 1982’s progressive The Dreaming (a Björk favorite). Later, she retreated from London to the countryside to create her 1985 masterpiece Hounds of Love, which contained her most iconic pop epics as well as her most accomplished experimental work with Side B’s cinematic song suite, “The Ninth Wave.”

One area in which she fell behind her peers, however, was in live performance. Her one-off 1979 “Tour Of Life” was described by Melody Maker as “the most magnificent spectacle ever encountered in the world of rock,” but for many decades it was the only time Bush translated her bold visuals to the stage. That all changed in 2014, when she put aside a deep embedded fear of live performance for a 22-night run at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Titled “Before The Dawn,” the show brought her best-loved hits and most innovative compositions to life. Bush threw herself into elaborate theatrics, in a virtuosic show which finessed theater, pop, and performance art.

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Two years on, Bush is releasing a live album, Before The Dawn, that captures the magic of those shows. When I reached her by phone on a drizzly November day, she spoke in warm tones while reflecting on her storied career. In our hour-long conversation, her responses were thoughtful yet precise (she politely deflected enquiry into the personal motivations behind her music). Considering that this was one of a very small handful of interviews she’s done in the past 25 years, it’s no surprise that she never gave up control. It’s not in her nature.




You have a very distinctive phrasing and intonation to your singing. How did you develop that style?

It's a bit like how you develop a certain style as a pianist: It's just something that gradually evolves. The more you work, the more a certain type of character evolves. It was very much a phase that went with when I was working in dance. I wonder if, as I was exploring a technique of dance, I was also sort of exploring a technique with my vocals as well.

One of the inventions for your first tour was the headset mic. How did that change the way you performed?

I wanted a microphone that I could obviously sing into, but also dance. That meant having both my hands free so that we could do lifts and different kinds of dance work without being too restricted. It was really so liberating.

There has always seemed to be such confidence in your performances. Is that true to how you're feeling inside?

Well, thank you! I'm very pleased that it comes across that way, because I don't think I do feel confident all the time. That's obviously how I want it to feel. When you watch a performer you want to feel that it’s comfortable [for them], and you're not seeing any sense of the technique behind it. Hopefully you just feel [the emotion]. It's very important to me to try and get a sense of emotion to come through the performance.

It might be a great compliment for performers to look as if they’re making it up as they go along, whereas as in fact it’s meticulously rehearsed.

I think that's true of great dancers, isn't it? It's the gift where they've trained extensively to get to that point, but what you see is this wonderful fluidity. I'm not saying that that's how it is with myself [laughs], but ideally as a performer, that's what you're trying to achieve. Obviously work has gone into what you're doing, but hopefully it feels very spontaneous.

Who to you is the greatest music performer?

I think probably the best stage entrance I ever saw was Tina Turner. I saw her a long time ago at some open air gig that she was doing. She was just fantastic, the way she burst on stage. She appeared at the top of a flight of stairs, shimmied the whole way down these steps, came straight to the front of stage, and went straight into the song. It was so exciting.

“I was aware that [production] was male-dominated. But what mattered was being able to experiment on my own terms.”

You really dug into the archives for your 2014 live shows. How has your relationship with your older material evolved?

Well, part of the decision to do the live shows was because it was such an interesting challenge to work with the two narrative pieces [“The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey”], rather than just doing a bunch of single tracks.

It was within such a specific context, because [the setlist] was very much put together for a live event. Through that process, the songs naturally evolved because I was working with a band, a lot of whom I never worked with before. I just chose tracks that I wanted to do, that really worked with the band, and to keep it really focused in a rhythmic way.

Although the music was always kept as the lead, I didn't want the visuals to feel separate. What I had hoped was that what had been created was an integrated piece of theater that worked with the music — that it wasn't just music that had theatrics added to it — that there was a real sense of it being something that worked as a whole.

As a performer, do you you get lost in the moment or do you focus on the technical intricacies?

I had to stay really focused as a performer because I'm quite nervous, and I wanted to make sure I was really present when I was performing so that I could try and deliver the character of the song. And actually, the first set was the most difficult part to perform for me, because almost each song is from a completely different place.

Before the 2014 shows you hadn’t toured since 1979. When your return to the stage was so well-received, did you wish you’d done it sooner?

I don't know really. The original show was of the first two albums that I’d made, and I had hoped that to do another show after I had another of two albums’ worth of material. And as I started getting much more involved in the recording process, it took me off into a different path where it was all about trying to make a good album. It became very time-consuming, so I moved into being more of a recording artist. And every time you finish an album, there's the opportunity to make visuals to go with some of the tracks. So I became very involved in that, as well.

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There’s a statistic that only 5% of music producers are women, to this day. When you started working in production, were you aware that it was a role dominated by men?

I was aware that it was very male-dominated. But what mattered to me was that I was able to make the whole experience a much more personal expression and to be able to experiment on my own terms. It allowed me to use the production to express the actual songwriting in a way that I wanted.

How did the Fairlight synth sampler give you greater control over your music?

I'm not sure it really made me more in control, but it introduced a whole new library of sounds that I was able to access. And the Fairlight had a very specific quality to its sound which I really liked, so it was very much a sort of atmospheric tool for me.

There's a Joni Mitchell quote from the ‘70s — which Björk recently responded to — where she said that if there was ever a man in the room while she was creating her music, he would get the credit for it. Is that a sentiment that you have ever related to?

I've been really lucky in that the people that I've worked with have been really supportive and embracing of trying to make the project as good as we could. And I've always worked with very intelligent, sensitive people. The actual creative process is not always easy, so to have good people with you is really important.

Kate Bush Speaks   Chris Moorhouse/Getty

For me, one of your most impressive visual works is The Line, The Cross, & The Curve.

Oh!

These days, artists like Beyoncé are releasing full-length films to accompany their albums, but you were perhaps the first. What made you see the potential of that medium?

I really love film, I think it's just a fantastic art form. I started to really enjoy making the visual accompaniments to the tracks — it was a very challenging and exciting [evolution] from making the music to then making visuals to go with it. And I suppose in some ways it felt like a sort of natural progression to try and make something that was more like a film.

The whole process has gradually evolved for me, where I've become able to creatively work in these different mediums. Initially, I was really somebody who wrote songs, and then it developed into becoming more involved in all the processes that went with that.

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When I did the first couple of videos, I had spent quite a bit of time working in dance, so that was very dominant in my day-to-day world. I didn't want to keep doing the same thing again and again, so I moved away from the influence of dance, and more into filmic imagery. As the tracks became more story-like, like for instance on Hounds of Love, "Cloudbusting" was something you could really treat like a short film. But in a lot of ways I was quite restricted to whatever songs we were able to put out as a single, because certainly then, there wasn't the opportunity to spend such a lot of money on something that was just an album track.

Were you bound by a single-driven economy? Most people think of you as working slightly apart from traditional release structures.

Yeah, it would've been really nice to have been able to move away from that. But there simply wasn't the opportunity to get material shown if it wasn't tagged onto a single release.

I know that seeing choreographer Lindsay Kemp's production "Flowers" — based on Jean Genet’s book Our Lady of the Flowers — made you want to investigate dance as a creative outlet. Have you always felt connected to artists on the fringes of society?

I think for me it's whether I'm moved by something, really. And when I saw "Flowers" I'd never seen anything quite like it. In the hands of Lindsay, it was a incredibly powerful artistic expression and interpretation of the book. And that's part of what makes him so special, is that what he does, it has his mark.

One of your collaborators was Prince, on “Why Should I Love You” from The Red Shoes (1993). What was it like to work with him?

We kind of became friends for a while. I didn’t know him very well, but [he was] so full of fun and a really sweet person, as well as really exquisite musicianship. Prince was a really unique artist and was so good at so many different things. When we actually worked it was done at quite a distance. I wrote the song, and then he worked on that and then we discussed where to take it from there.

Did he suggest anything to you that you might not have considered otherwise?

It was more the work he put on top of the track that I had sent him. He changed the original feeling of the song. But then when you collaborate with someone, that is sometimes what can happen, and it's really a matter of whether you want the song to go there or not. I don't know, it's very difficult to talk about music, you know? It's one of those things that you feel.

Is that part of the reason why you don't do a lot of interviews?

There's a few reasons. Yes, there is an element of that, but I think that I ideally like the work to do the talking rather than me.

Through your music, you've spoken out about issues affecting marginalized groups, such the indigenous Australian people on “The Dreaming.” Do you think that musicians have a responsibility to speak to social issues?

I think musicians have a responsibility to try and do something that is good. It's so hard. It's very difficult to pull something out of the hat creatively. Although I say it’s their responsibility, it's really just people trying to do the best that they can.

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What creative heights do you feel like you've yet to explore as an artist?

[Laughs] Oh my god. What a question. I don't know at the moment. I think every time I start an album, it feels like I’ve never made one before. It's always enormously challenging. So...creative heights? Just to try and do something that's interesting.

What contemporary artists do you admire?

I don't listen to a lot of contemporary music, especially when I'm working. I tend to watch films or do other stuff. But one of the most powerful things that I heard recently was Blackstar by Bowie. I thought it was beautiful. Very moving of course, but I think one of the best things he's ever done.

You wrote a beautiful tribute to Bowie after he passed away. What was your relationship with him like?

Well I was asked whether I would write something, and because he meant such a lot to me, I really felt moved to do so. He was one of my great heroes when I was growing up. He was such a brave artist, so unusual, and I loved his music. I met him a few times; he was really charming and playful. But I just sort of admired what he achieved creatively.

Bowie always challenged gender norms, which I think your work does too.

Oh, thank you. I think when I'm working creatively, I don't really think of myself of writing as a woman. I just think of writing as me, as a person, if that makes sense.

It’s society that puts these labels on us rather than ourselves, right?

Yeah.

Some people hold you up as a powerful example of what a woman artist can achieve, regardless of sexism. Do you feel connected to those who think of you as a feminist icon?

It's not really something that has ever occurred to me, but I take that as a huge compliment.

“I’m happy if people can connect at all to anything I do. I don’t really mind if people mishear or misunderstand it.”

One song that you reworked for Director's Cut (2011) was "Deeper Understanding," which talked about how computers can take over people’s lives. How did it feel to revisit that in the internet age?

[Laughs] Yeah, it was fun to revisit that. What was interesting for me was the idea of somebody having a relationship — actually really falling in love — with an inhuman presence. Yes, [the internet is] an enormous part of everybody's lives, but I don't know if they're actually in love with that entity that is a computer.

Have you seen Black Mirror? It seems a little like that.

I loved the first two series — but I haven’t seen the latest ones, I’m really looking forward to it. It’s on Netflix, isn’t it? I was talking about it with a friend the other day.

You're often cited as an influence by contemporary artists, from Björk to Solange, and hip-hop artists like Big Boi from Outkast. What do you hope that other artists are able to take away from your work?

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I'm just so delighted if they like my work. And the more diverse [they are], the more exciting it is for me.

Are you currently working on new music?

No, I'm not. I've been tied up with this project for a really long time. And right now I'm tied up with the promotion and other elements that go with getting ready to release the album. I'm looking forward to being in the space where I can think about what's next.

Do you have a technical achievement that you're most proud of in your career?

I'm really proud of what we did with those live shows, because it was very ambitious and I didn't know if it would work. It was a very complex technical show that involved the most incredible team of people. The most intelligent, sensitive people. Fantastic band, actors, everybody there had something so special to bring to that show, and I think the response that we got was more than you could ever wish for. I'm so pleased that we did it.

It was a very humbling experience, really. Every night you had a completely different audience, and every night they were so warm. It really meant so much that they liked it. It was very moving, because it felt like the audience came on that journey with us, and, each night, it was a slightly different journey.

At school, you wanted to be a psychiatrist. Does exploring the interior life of people still appeal to you?

Yes. I think it appeals to a lot of people, doesn't it? I suppose if you're in any form a writer, which in a sort of way a songwriter is, then I think it's sort of a natural thing to feel intrigued by.

Your songs usually write from the point of view of a character, rather than from an autobiographical point of view. Do you feel it frustrating if people assume that your lyrics are confessional?

No. I'm really very happy if people can connect at all to anything I do. I don't really mind if people mishear lyrics or misunderstand what the story is. I think that's what you have to let go of when you send it out in the world. I'm sure with a lot of paintings, people don't understand what the painter originally meant, and I don't really think that matters. I just think if you feel something, that's really the ideal goal. If that happens, then I'm really happy.




Before The Dawn is out on November 25 (U.K.) and December 2 (U.S.) via Fish People/Concord.

Kate Bush Speaks