“I was born in a cloud.” Those are the first words heard on Kate Bush’s new album 50 Words For Snow, and they might as well be autobiographical, considering the cosmic power of Bush’s talents. For nearly 34 years, since the 1978 release of Bush’s astonishingly precocious debut album The Kick Inside through her most current work, this iconic British singer has been groundbreaking and innovating every aspect of music and visuals. Through the ‘80s, Bush revolutionized the music-video medium in clips for her hits like “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” incorporating cinematic flourishes, avant-garde dance and theater, and performance art into what up to that point had been a mere promotional tool; in the clip for “Cloudbursting,” she created a true mini-movie around the song’s narrative, including the appearance of an actual movie star, Donald Sutherland – an unheard of phenomenon at the time. On landmark albums like her 1985 classic Hounds of Love, she helped take music production into truly contemporary realms, pushing instrumentation, technology, and studio techniques to create sounds never heard before.
At the core of Bush’s appeal is her voice – a soaring, wildly unpredictable creature that takes unexpected flights yet always serves the song. Bush is a virtuoso, yes, but she uses those talents not to show off her skills but to take every idea to its most intense end. She’s a rare commodity – a truly experimental artist who has found success in the pop realm on her own terms. Interest in Bush is now at an all-time high – for one because it seems every recent female singer of significance owes her a debt for paving the way: Bush’s influence can be discerned everywhere from Bat For Lashes to Florence and the Machine to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
As well, she has entered into a new prolific period: in 1993, Bush released The Red Shoes and then waited twelve years to put out the follow-up, 2005’s acclaimed Aerial. In 2011, however, she’s apparently back with a vengeance, first releasing Director’s Cut – a collection of unique, iconoclastic reworkings of previously-released material – and a revered new studio album, 50 Words For Snow. 50 Words For Snow has been universally hailed as one of the best albums of the year, and it’s easy to see why: some three-plus decades into her career, Bush continues to pursue her idiosyncratic, complex vision without compromise. 50 Words For Snow is in fact one of her best albums – coming at a time when many artists of her generation are resting on their laurels. Here, we talk to Bush in a candid conversation about the sparks and epiphanies that brought her to where she remains today: at the absolute apex of her career once again. Read on…
The Daily Swarm: On your new album, the track “Misty” is, I believe, your first song about making love to a snowman.
Kate Bush: Yeah, you’re right there! At several points, I thought it was a ridiculous idea, and wasn’t sure if I’d pull it off. By the time I wrote that, I was fully submerged in this idea about writing album about snow. “Misty” just evolved from the idea of building a snowman in the garden into it what is. Instead of being silly, it’s actually quite a dark song about a spirit who happened to take the form of a snowman.
The Daily Swarm: You’d written songs like “Under Ice” off of Hounds of Love, but 50 Words For Snow is your first album fully devoted to snow as a metaphor. How did that come about?
Kate Bush: It’s something I’d researched in various songs over the years. It’s turned up quite a few times, actually: years ago, I wrote “December Will Be Magic Again” about Christmas, and when you think of Christmas, you think of snow. Snow is fascinating and atmospheric; we don’t get enough of it here in England. It’s precious as a substance. It is transient: it arrives, and then goes away; it makes itself known, then disappears. Like everything.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first moment you decided to make an album of new original material after six years between releases?
Kate Bush: I love making albums – it’s what I do. Before I made 50 Words For Snow, I needed to get Director’s Cut out of my system, however. Director’s Cut is something I’d wanted to do for a long time, a personal exercise; it’s not new material, although it sort of felt like it was. It features a selection of songs off two albums, The Sensual World and The Red Shoes, that I’d reworked anew. It wasn’t that I wasn’t pleased with them in their original versions; I just felt there were things I could show off a bit better. Both albums proved very intense in their initial creation. The Sensual World had a lot of ambitious ideas, some of which weren’t allowed to breathe; with The Red Shoes, the production sounded a little bit dated.
The Daily Swarm: Your first recordings were analog, but then you became known as a digital-production pioneer, innovating the use of the Fairlight synthesizer in the studio on albums like Hounds of Love. But with your two most recent albums, you’ve returned to the analog domain again. Why?
Kate Bush: We were working with digital in its infancy, and it didn’t sound as great as I wanted it to. I’m a huge fan of tape: analog is a warmer and softer sound, which I love, whereas digital is a bit edgy. These days, I bridge the gap between the domains, using the best of both worlds. I still work with digital in the studio – the editing is so much easier in Pro Tools – but I only record on analog tape. It has a strong presence: I like the tactile nature of tape as much as the way it sounds. I love technology, and anything that allows you to experiment; they’re sort of toys really, aren’t they? I just want it to sound the way I want it: as long as they’re making tape, I prefer to work in the old-school manner.
The Daily Swarm: What was your reaction the first time you heard Maxwell’s cover of your song “This Woman’s Work”?
Kate Bush: I was really touched, actually! I found it moving. I wasn’t aware of Maxwell as an artist, but he sang it so beautifully. I was flattered someone from such a different walk of contemporary music would have chosen one of my songs.
The Daily Swarm: Were you surprised by the interest in you from the African-American musical community? John Forté released a hip-hop version of your “Running Up That Hill” a couple years ago; as well, Big Boi from OutKast has been forthright in his love of your music.
Kate Bush: What a guy, aye! I’m not sure I’m quite aware of it on that scale, but I’m actually delighted. Music is an enormous world, like film and literature; everything is contained in that tile. We might work in other forms, but it’s all music. I’m knocked out if people like my stuff, especially if they incorporate it into what they do.
The Daily Swarm: You’ve been covered memorably by artists spanning The Futureheads to Pat Benatar to Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers, and sampled to great effect by the Utah Saints. When was the first time you heard someone cover you?
Kate Bush: I very much think of myself writing songs as part of what I do. Songwriting is the beginning part of the process. If people cover the songs and do them well, which they all have, I find it extremely flattering. It’s interesting when they have a different take, like Maxwell and The Futureheads. Placebo took “Running Up That Hill” to quite a different place.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first record that made you want to make music?
Kate Bush: I don’t know. I’m not sure it was a record that made me want to make music. I heard a lot of stuff, but it had more to do with the environment I was brought up in. I grew up in a creative family, and there was a pretty broad spectrum of music going on. My father was a general practitioner, but he had a piano, and was very musical and always playing. It was quite natural for me to tinker around on the piano; it felt like a very natural thing to do. I have two older brothers who were really into music. They played records around the house, and everyone played instruments; my mother’s family were musical as well, and would come ‘round and play. There was always live music happening, which was great at such a young age. In a way, it was like learning another language.
The Daily Swarm: You based your first big hit, “Wuthering Heights,” on the beloved Gothic novel by Emily Brontë. Since then, you’ve taken inspiration from a number of literary sources: the continuous song suite on side 2 of the Hounds of Love album, “The Ninth Wave,” takes its name from Tennyson’s poem “Idylls of the King”, which concerns the rule of King Arthur. The Sensual World‘s also originally incorporated parts of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Tell me about your influences from the world of books.
Kate Bush: Originally when I wrote the song “The Sensual World,” I had used text from the end of Ulysses. When I asked for permission to use this 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 the Director’s Cut project, I thought I would ask for permission again, and this time they said “yes.”
With “Wuthering Heights,” I’d encountered it first on an old TV series: I’d just caught the tail end of it, the section where Kathy comes to the window. It was pretty spooking stuff, and very powerful. Some years later, I came to write the song. I hadn’t read the book at that point, but after I wrote it I did. I loved it: it was clear I’d understood the atmosphere – that what I’d done was kind of okay, and would still work as a song, regardless. That’s how it should be, as a song is a completely different journey from a book. All these things should work within their own realm, really…
The Daily Swarm: In 1978, at the age of 19, you held the #1 position on the U.K. singles chart for a full month with “Wuthering Heights,” which you had to pressure your record company to release as your very first single. That success made you the first woman to reach the U.K.‘s #1 spot with a self-penned song. Another landmark came when your 1980 release Never for Ever made you the breakthrough British solo female artist to both ever top the U.K. album charts and enter at the #1 position. What, if anything, did those milestones mean to you?
Kate Bush: Actually, I wasn’t aware of any of that stuff; it’s sort of only come to light in the last few years. It didn’t have any relevance at the time. I suppose I’m surprised there wasn’t anyone before me. It’s shocking – I can’t understand it. Only in this country! In the States, though, women before me like Carole King and Joni Mitchell were pioneering forces, and doing it so well. It’s funny to be a feminist milestone when you don’t realize it, isn’t it?
The Daily Swarm: A key track on 50 Words For Snow is “Snowed In At Wheeler Street.” It’s your first-ever duet with Elton John, although in 1991 you’d also released a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
Kate Bush: “Rocket Man” wasn’t the first cover I’d released. The first one I did was a b-side of Donovan’s “Lord of Reedy River.”
As for my first duet with Elton John, I’ve always been a huge fan of Elton’s. He was a huge inspiration to me: when I was first starting to write songs, he was my hero. I played all his songs over and over. He’s a hot pianist as well as great singer and performer. When it became apparent that “Snowed In At Wheeler Street” was going to be a duet, Elton was the first person I thought of. He was so brilliant to work with – such a knockout. I was delighted when he agreed, and his performance is so imaginative and wonderful. A few people actually asked who it was!
The Daily Swarm: I thought it was Nick Cave at first.
Kate Bush: Right! It’s fascinating. Elton went in a new mode – he goes where song needs to go. He’s an extraordinary performer, and someone who loves music; he’s so in touch with new bands. We spent a lot of time listening to music.
The Daily Swarm: Which of Elton’s music initially inspired you early on?
Kate Bush: My favorite album was Madman Across the Water. As a complete album, there’s something about that one for me. I listened to it on the original vinyl album recently, and it is such a fantastic album.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first album you made where you really took the reins and became an auteur of the whole production process?
Kate Bush: I think I’ve always been lucky. Even with my first two albums, while I wasn’t involved in the production really, I had a lot of ideas for arrangements. I’ve always been in the position where I wrote the songs and presented them to the record company. The first album I really took the reins of, though, was The Dreaming. All of my previous albums were a stepping stone to this process. My first album, I made quickly, during the same year as the second album; when I finished that, I wanted to be more involved, and I wasn’t brave enough. By my fourth album, The Dreaming, I was driven to double down and take control of the whole process; artistically, I was pleased with the results. It was an experimental album: I wanted to go in and play with the rules. I didn’t see that things had to be a certain way. I was pleased with it, but at the time the response wasn’t that positive. People didn’t get it, and thought it was a bit weird. Over the last five or six years, a number of people have come up and told me The Dreaming is their favorite album – that was pretty cool, and an enormous compliment.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first time you felt your vision of visuals, dance, music, and characters all came together – when you stopped being derivative of something and became Kate Bush?
Kate Bush: It was an evolving process, really. When I was first writing songs, I never thought of myself as a singer. I had a plain voice, but my family felt my songs were starting to become quite interesting; the thing of me being a singer kicked in later. And I’d not done dance as a child at all; it was something I got into relatively late, but once I’d entered that world, I loved it and it became absorbed into my work. They were almost stepping stones, where one thing just lead to another, building to something I feel is still moving. It’s still an evolving learning process for me to make an album or visual piece. Even though I’ve been making albums for a long time, I love making them now more than ever. It’s not so much that I push myself; I just want to explore. I don’t climb mountains or go to the jungle; I do that, but in the world of music. The thought of making the same album over and over, it’s not an interesting idea. Each time I start an album, it’s different.
The Daily Swarm: You’ve engaged the power of imagery throughout your career. When did you first realize the power of music video as a medium to express your vision?
Kate Bush: Again, it was evolving alongside the music. The inspiration for my visuals was dance and theater, but then over the years it moved more into film. I love film. A lot of the visuals I’ve made, if a song has an interesting story, it’s an opportunity to make a short film. It’s such a similar process to making music.
With the video I did for “Deeper Understanding” off of Director’s Cut, it really was a short film with actors, with me behind the camera. It wouldn’t have worked if some silly singer like me was in it; it worked because Robbie Coltrane is a really powerful actor. I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much! I was trying to do a lot of ambitious stuff, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. Robbie’s performance was fantastic.
“Cloubusting” also had a story: I wanted it to be a short film. I’m still so lucky – I can’t believe I managed to get Donald Sutherland! I don’t know why he did it. It’s fascinating to work with film actors; it’s such an incredible gift to turn that stuff on. It was a real honor – I can’t thank him enough.
The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you realized the influence you had on a whole generation of women musicians – artists spanning Bat For Lashes, Florence and the Machine, Björk, Joanna Newsom, Ellie Goulding, Fever Ray, and Martha and the Diamonds all have recently reflected some element of your groundbreaking, and that’s merely a partial list.
Kate Bush: It’s all rather dramatic, and very nice. It’s probably something that would’ve happened anyway, because I’m older.
The Daily Swarm: For those women, I think what they took from you was that you provided a role model for them to be liberated artistically and be themselves – to have and express themselves in their own voice.
Kate Bush: They would’ve done it anyway. I was just out there doing it before them, that’s all. I’m flattered if they’re influenced – it’s such a great feeling when you’re being received with warmth. It doesn’t always happen! With The Dreaming, the reaction was oooh!
The Daily Swarm: But The Dreaming was your biggest record in America up to that point, ironically. U.S. college radio really embraced it.
Kate Bush: I’ve never done very well in America. It’s nice to get feedback, and 50 Words For Snow seems to have received a good response there. Obviously, Americans like snowmen!