In conversation with Kate Bush - Macleans.ca

In conversation with Kate Bush

The reclusive British singer-songwriter on gender equality, the environment, and the moving power of art

by
Ken McKay/REX/CP

Ken McKay/REX/CP

In the summer of 2014, British singer-songwriter Kate Bush surprised her fans by announcing she was going to give her first concert in 35 years at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, England. Tickets to 22 shows sold out in 15 minutes and Bush aficionados—who had long since made peace with the fact that they’d never see the British singer-songwriter live—travelled from around the world to witness Bush’s two-act performance of what is now known as Before the Dawn. Set up as part-concert and part-theatre performance, this multi-sensory work cannot be found online on YouTube or Instagram (Bush insisted no recording devices or phones be on while she sang) and apart from a handful of written recaps from fans or reviews from a select group of publications, no evidence of the concert series is readily available. To soothe the Bush admirers who couldn’t get to witness the 58-year-old Brit belt out hits such as “Cloudbusting” and “Running Up That Hill” on stage, she decided to produce a companion live album, which came out on Nov. 25—and is now set to hit No. 1 on the British charts, which would be for the first time for her in nearly 30 years.

As many music enthusiasts know, Bush rarely gives interviews and when she does, she holds her cards close to her chest. But in a rare interview via phone from her home in the U.K., Bush spent nearly an hour chatting with Maclean’s about her ever-changing creative process, her past work, and her hopes and fears for the future.

Q: You’ve built up quite a musical legacy through the years. Was there any worry it would be compromised in any way if Before The Dawn was not up to snuff?

A: Oh yes. Even just making albums—which was more within the structure that I’ve worked in for years—you have no idea how people will respond. You don’t know if it’ll be any good whatsoever. It can be terrifying. You hope that the ideas will come together. You just don’t know. That’s part of what I suppose is part of being brave and putting creative work out there.

Q: What steps have you taken to make sure your creativity is protected?

A: None. I’ve learned you can’t take any steps to protect any art. It is so vulnerable. I knew I wanted it to be a piece of theatre rather than just a concert. I split it up into working on the two narrative pieces that can tell a story. The scariest thing was whether I’d be any good performing live again. It was such a long time since I’d done any live work. It’s so different for me than recording. Every night my audiences were what I would dream of. You could just feel their support.

Q: One of the key performances in Before the Dawn is “Running Up That Hill.” The song deals with themes surrounding gender equality. What are you most concerned about for the next generation of people dealing with inequality?

A: My God, the world is continually changing. I think in some ways it’s changing in a very positive way. You have to try and embrace it all and everyone who represents that change because it is happening. I suppose my biggest concern would be if the planet is going to be in good enough shape for the next generation to have the privileges that we’ve had.

Q: Stephen Hawking recently said the Earth only has 1,000 years left. As someone who has written about environmental issues, does that alarm you?

A: Well, nobody really knows, do they? They told Stephen Hawking he only had a year left to live and how many years ago was that? You can’t know it all. If ever there’s been somebody to hold as an icon of sheer determination and willpower, it’s that guy, let alone any of the things he’s done scientifically. I’m sure that’s his driving force, but he’s a miracle and an aspiration.

Q: A track called “Waking the Witch”—which was released in 1985—was performed for Before The Dawn. You once said that the song was about “the fear of women’s power.” With regard to Hillary Clinton’s recent defeat, do you think that this fear is stronger than ever?

A: We have a female prime minister here in the UK. I actually really like her and think she’s wonderful. I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to us in a long time. She’s a very intelligent woman but I don’t see much to fear. I will say it is great to have a woman in charge of the country. She’s very sensible and I think that’s a good thing at this point in time.

Q: “Running Up That Hill” was originally called “A Deal with God.” Was it changed because the record company was afraid that the Church would condemn it?

A: They were worried we wouldn’t get any radio play at all. That’s why it was changed. It wasn’t that we were afraid of the Church or the Vatican. The record company thought people might find the title offensive. They asked me if I would change it. Normally I don’t compromise at all but it felt important to give that song the chance to be heard. It was the first single off Hounds of Love. I’d put a lot of work into putting that album together and I wanted it to have every chance.

Q: You worked with Prince. He often talked about how he felt that as a mature artist he was constantly having to undo the compromises of his youth. With regard to revisiting songs on projects such as Director’s Cut and Before the Dawn, can you relate?

A: It’s a really great thing to have said, but I think as a mature artist, you’re probably always trying to undo the compromises of one’s self [in general]. It’s not necessarily to do with youth. It’s not easy putting creative projects together. In my case, it might take a long time and you try to do the best. As an artist, you’re never happy with anything you do. It’s part of the process. You’re never really happy. I’m certainly not. That’s a good thing. It means you’re always striving to do better. You hope the next piece will be better.

Q: The song “Hounds of Love” is about maintaining hope against great adversity. Do you think art can enlighten those who are diametrically opposed to each other?

A: Yes. The great thing about art on any level is that it can speak to all people if it’s achieved properly. When I’ve heard a piece of music or seen a painting that moves me, it gives me something. That’s such an incredibly special experience. I have intentions as a writer, but people—when they’re listening to a track—will take from it what they interpret. Sometimes people mishear my lyrics and think a song’s about something it isn’t. That doesn’t matter. If it speaks to them and they get something positive from it, it’s great. A few friends sent me the video clip of [300 dancers dressed up as Catherine in the “Wuthering Heights” video] and asked if I’d seen it or heard about it. I found that very touching and sweet but there was definitely a union formed and many different thinkers were part of it.

Q: You were 30 years old when you wrote “Never Be Mine”—does a song like that change meaning for you, as it gets older?

A: In some ways, when you re-envision a song like that, there’s a completely different energy to it each night. You have a different audience. Your personal energy is different because some days you’re energized, some nights you might be tired so that affects your memory and your emotion.

Q: As you were preparing vocally for this project, did you have change certain notes to make sure you’d have the optimal sound?

A: With some of the songs, we brought the pitch down to alto. I’m older, so naturally my voice is lower now. For “Running Up That Hill” we had worked with a drum machine [in 1985]; the basic rhythms of “Running Up That Hill” happened because the whole track was built on a drum machine. [For Before the Dawn] it was in the hands of a fantastic drummer and percussionist and who drove it into another moment in time. It’s such a poignant song and it was transformed into entirely different beast.

Q: Two of the songs not on the set list—“Army Dreamers” and “Breathing”—are informed by the fear of war, which is present in so many people’s psyches right now. Is it present in yours?

A: It’s very unfortunate that war has always been and probably always will be a part of human beings on this planet. It’s a terrible thing. I don’t know about it affecting my creativity. I think we’re all a party to this information all the time. It’s every day, in a way we probably weren’t a few years ago. We’re more informed, which is a good thing because war is always there somewhere on the planet.

Q: You once said that the song “King of The Mountain” anchors the performances in Before the Dawn. How so?

A: When I was singing “King of the Mountain,” it was a pivotal point in the show. That’s the song that took us from this concert setting of individual songs into the theatrical narrative piece. The whole positioning and atmosphere of the song was to build up this thunderstorm that would take us all onstage off into a story where we were suddenly in the middle of the ocean.

Q: Performers such as Annie Lennox and Lana Del Rey often talk about getting wrapped up in a trance while performing. Did you lose yourself in the midst of singing these songs during the show?

A: Absolutely not. I was so nervous every night that I had to really focus and keep myself in that moment so that I would not forget the words. I was really present for every song. Being nervous actually kept me very tense. I didn’t dare let my mind wander off.

Q: Would you ever consider doing a full-blown cover album of songs by other people? Is that something that’s completely disturbing to you?

A: I don’t know. But I suppose in some ways doing some of the songs in the show felt a bit like I was doing cover versions. I was covering myself. Not that they didn’t feel like my songs, but the way I was approaching them was from a place so outside where they were written. The fact that these songs were in the context of a live show was a new thing.

Q: You asked people to not use their cellphones and not post anything on Instagram and YouTube during the Before the Dawn performances. Why?

A: We deliberately chose a small theatre so that the show was still intimate and the audience would become a part of the show. Using telephones, they would be so intrusive and would really disrupt the show. Apart from the first set—which used high-level concert lighting—once you stepped into the two narrative pieces, we were working with lower-level theatrical lights. In most cases, people were really respectful of that. I was touched that they took that onboard and embraced that. I’ve heard several people say that they loved that. It made the show so much more of an event for them. They could be present watching the show.

Q: In part of the show, you brought in your son Albert. Would he ever think of working on his own solo project?

A: I hope that if he does, he asks me to produce it, because I’d love to. But he has his own life.

Q: Have you written and recorded any new tracks since the making of 2011’s 50 Words for Snow and Before the Dawn?

A: Apart from the couple of pieces written for the show, no.

Q: One of the headlines that popped up during your concert run in 2014 was “Kate Bush: Pop concert or disappearing act?” I was wondering what you think of it being called a “last hurrah.”

A: Disappearing act? That’s a magic trick, isn’t it? I like magic tricks! But, no. That’s what they see. I don’t know why they’d think that. Why would they think that? I’m not vanishing into thin air.

Q: When you think of your last project, what track took the longest to ensure you got it right?

A: The thing with 50 Words of Snow is that it was literally back-to-back from Director’s Cut [also released in 2011]. It was more or less that I got to make two albums in one hit. I was already in this space in my mind to be writing and making an album. 50 Words of Snow just didn’t seem to have the complications that quite a lot of albums have. It felt to me like it had this very good flow of energy.

Q: I was reading a story about the making of “Breathing.” The guitarist, Brian Bath, said you asked him to play his guitar more than 200 times on that track. Are you satisfied with the end result of “Breathing”?

A: No. I’m always hunting and prowling. I’m sure Brian was exaggerating!

Q: There’s always chat about a Kate Bush biopic kicking around the BBC. Is that a turnoff for you?

A: I don’t think it’s a very nice idea at all. I don’t think my life is that interesting. I’m quite a private person and I like my work to do the talking. However, if I ever were in a position to choose who would play me, I think I’d choose Johnny Depp.

Q: What are the last few works of art that have truly moved you?

A: I saw Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which I thought was a masterpiece. Not that long ago, I listened to Blackstar by David Bowie and thought that was a masterpiece. Those are two incredibly talented people who’ve left their mark with us. It’s a real joy to be moved by something, but it doesn’t happen often to me.

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