Kate Bush: ‘I was beginning to think I’d never play again’
The artist talks music, Brexit and more as the album of her rare 2014 live shows is released
Kate Bush: “It’s such a different world from even five years ago. A lot of unexpected things have happened this year.” Photograph: John Carder Bush/PA Wire
On stage during the Before the Dawn shows at the Hammersmith Apollo, London in August 2014.
“I wanted to put on a piece of theatre,” Bush says of the shows, “which is what made it exciting and challenging for me.”
Bush photographed in 1980: “Ireland is such a beautiful country and I love the people. I always feel sad when I leave.”
In March 2014, a post on Kate Bush’s website crashed the site, and set the internet alight. Quietly, out of the blue, Bush announced a run of live dates for August of that year. A gig by a singer of her stature would have generated huge interest anyway, but the fact that Bush hadn’t played live for 35 years created a frenzy. Tickets sold out in minutes. Articles dug up the same speculative reasons for Bush’s absence from touring: perfectionism; the death of a crew member on 1979’s The Tour of Life; fear of flying.
Another myth is that Bush doesn’t do interviews. We spoke five years ago, and when she telephoned last week, a little after the allocated time, she was immediately apologetic for being late. She’s also just getting over a cold but is keen to talk about the live album of the Before the Dawn shows. The same articles that gushed about her impending return were gobsmacked at the stealth announcement and wondered about her motivation. The reasons, it turns out, were fairly straightforward.
“When we last spoke, I hadn’t any intention of doing live shows and I think even I was beginning to think I’d never play again. I was getting ready to go into the studio, but I started to feel I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make another album. I’d done two records back-to-back [Director’s Cut and 50 Words for Snow], and thought it would be great to just do something different. Over the years, I had toyed with the idea of doing more shows, but it never got off the ground. I was thinking about this idea for a while, and slowly plucked up the courage to just do it.”
Unpredictable and intense
The interest in the show was not just about the rarity of Bush’s live appearances. There’s consistently been a multi-disciplinary aspect to her work: the choreography in the Running Up That Hill video; the costume elements of Babooshka; the acting sequence in The Red Shoes. Bush was making music videos before most musicians, so curiosity about what a show might entail visually was to be expected. The singer could have picked a cheap venue, played solo and unamplified, and still people would have flocked to see it. I was at the second night of Before the Dawn, and it was so much more than a gig. Unpredictable and risk-taking, it included acted vignettes (with dialogue written by Cloud Atlas writer David Mitchell), a mock helicopter, search and rescue lights, confetti cannons and Bush playing multiple characters. “I wanted to put on a piece of theatre,” she says, “which is what made it exciting and challenging for me. It was a huge amount of work, but I knew it would be, and that it was going to be really intense.”
Bush has a close-knit group of people she has worked with for years, and I try to imagine their collective faces when she broke the news that she was finally ready to play live again. “We had a conference call, and I said I wanted to do some shows, and there was this silence on the end of the phone,” she says laughing. “After a moment they all said, ‘Well, yeah, eh, great.’ I knew I didn’t want to tour, and that I wanted to do it in one venue. I also didn’t want to just do a bunch of songs, so those two narrative pieces (The Ninth Wave from The Hounds of Love and A Sky of Honey from Aerial), meant we could tell two stories. I didn’t think of this as a concert, except for those first few songs, which were a kind of ambush, so the audience thought it was just going to be straight songs. But then we slipped into these two different worlds.”
Two years after an exhausting run, the 29-track album finally gets a release. As with any setlist and a sizeable back catalogue, it’s difficult to decide what to include. On the night Bush’s voice sounded as textured as ever, but there are songs, such as Wuthering Heights, that would be challenging to sing now. “The hardest bit was that first part of the show, singing songs like The Hounds of Love or Running up That Hill. It was so full on. There was nowhere to hide and each song comes from such a different place. I was quite nervous, even after the first couple of nights, trying to focus on remembering the words.”
And what was going through her head as she stood in the wings, waiting to walk on stage on the first night? “You could feel the energy in the room, it was like the whole place was vibrating. I knew the show would be good, but I didn’t know if people would actually like it. You walk on, and there’s this incredible unveiling of the audience, they just filled the room with electricity. That enthusiasm makes you want to get it right and go for it. Every night the audience came on a journey with us.”
Audiences also adhered to the singer’s request not to take photos or video, and as the album appears many are wondering if a DVD is far behind. The show was filmed, but Bush says there are no plans for a DVD release. “Live albums are quite rare, and then people expect a DVD, but the music is sort of tucked away at the back, it’s not given prominence. This live album is more representative of those nights, and it allows listeners to imagine what the show was like. It doesn’t translate into film in the same way. And more so, the shows were all about the music.”
Words and music
An influential factor in Bush even contemplating playing live was her teenage son Bertie. Now 18, he is credited as a creative adviser on the show, and sings a new song, Tawny Moon. “He’s really intelligent, just so creative,” says Bush, “and he had some brilliant ideas. I really wanted him to be involved in the show. Any time I had an idea I always ran it by him and he was very supportive. It wouldn’t have been the same to do this without him.” Bertie is musical and has “a beautiful voice”, she says. “I don’t know if he has ambitions in music but I just hope that whatever he does, he’ll be happy.”
After enlisting David Mitchell to write dialogue, and given the long literary thread running through her work, from Wuthering Heights to Ulysses on The Sensual World, I ask if she’s ever considered writing a book. “Not really. I’m not sure if I’d be any good. I love words and books, but it would feel very strange for me to not put words together with music. You never know what ideas might come up if I tried, but the pull of music is so strong for me. I always find it so fascinating how words change when they’re being sung, as opposed to being read or spoken. It’s almost like a different language.”
We come back to the idea of writing when we discuss technology, something Bush embraced early in her career. “It’s a double-edged sword. Creatively it speeds up the process and there are things you can do now that weren’t possible in the past. With this album, one of the big problems with a live record is that you get so much spill, so the engineer was able to clean things up. But technology can also make people lazy.
“I like working with computers, but it’s very important for me to work in an organic way. I like the tactile quality of turning a page. In the studio, I like to play things rather than take sections and repeat them. It feels like cheating, but you’re also not allowing a piece of music to unfold and evolve. It’s really important to keep the heart. All my first drafts are handwritten. And I wonder if there’s a connection between oneself and handwriting. It’s more like working with a picture, isn’t it? There is definitely a character to it, whether it’s scrawly or untidy – it’s still part of you, it has a personality.”
The bulk of Before the Dawn is familiar material. It’s five years since her last album, and Bush says she’s not working on new material, due to the amount of time taken up with the live album release. “But I’m looking forward to getting into a space where I can see what ideas come along.”
Does being creative get harder as artists get older? “I think it’s such an elusive thing. Creativity takes many forms, so when you’re trying to focus on a piece of new work it’s so daunting. Focus is the big thing, and that’s definitely harder to achieve as you get older. When I’m starting an album, or creating something new, I always feel like I’ve never done it before, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, can I actually come up with this?’. Everybody works differently; I’ve always felt that you have to put the time in, so I treat it a bit like work.
“Some days will be really bad and nothing will happen, or it won’t be very interesting. With me, it’s very much the more you work on a piece, something will start to come out eventually. If I just sat and waited for inspiration, nothing would happen. I have to work at it.”
The last time we spoke, Bush spoke about her connection to Ireland and says she visited here again a couple of years ago. “I always love being in Ireland, and because I’m half Irish [her mother Hannah’s family were from Dungarvan, Co Waterford] there’s part of me that feels so at home there. It’s such a beautiful country and I love the people. I always feel sad when I leave.”
I wonder how she feels about it now, in the context of Brexit. Bush is warm, funny and engaging – and diplomatic on the subject: “Change is such an important part of life. It’s such a different world from even five years ago. A lot of unexpected things have happened this year.” She has spoken of her sadness at the death of Prince, who played on Why Should I Love You? on The Red Shoes.
There’s a sense that the recent live shows reinvigorated the singer. That in reconnecting with older work, and presenting it in a physical space, that she’s buoyed by it. So will she ever play live again? “I honestly don’t know. It was such a surprise that we actually did these shows.”
It seems that this isn’t a full stop from Kate Bush but maybe just an ellipsis.
Before the Dawn is out now on Rhino records