The Baffling, Alluring World of Kate Bush
Do you celebrate Katemas? Not Christmas. Katemas .
If you do, then you’re undoubtedly a Love-Hound. A Love-Hound is what some Kate Bush fans call themselves--the ones so devoted that they attend Katemas parties every July 30 in Boston, Santa Cruz, Bellingham, Wash., London and other locales to celebrate the English pop singer’s birthday.
Love-Hounds subscribe to Kate Bush fanzines like Homeground, which just published its 36th issue in conjunction with the October release of Bush’s “The Sensual World,” her first album of new material since 1985’s “The Hounds of Love.” Published in Bush’s home ground of Kent, England, the fanzine contains 32 pages of breathless updates, worshipful reviews, Katemas reports, short stories inspired by Katesongs, letters and personal messages.
On the other hand, there are plenty of Katehaters--among them many American rock critics. Dave Marsh once described Bush’s voice as sounding “like the consequences of mating Patti Smith with a Hoover vacuum cleaner.” Another writer called her “just a curiosity . . . with no pop hooks.”
Even those critics who’ve found kind things to say about Bush are often baffled and annoyed at much of her work. While her style is frequently “enchanting,” Ira Robbins writes in “The New Trouser Press Record Guide,” “she can be overbearingly coy and preciously self-indulgent.” Another writer perhaps summed her up best: “Not for everyone.”
The object of all this affection and abuse is the 31-year-old (last Katemas) daughter of a British physician. Her English-Irish family was a musical one, and Bush began playing piano at age 11 and writing songs soon after, including her early masterpieces “Wuthering Heights” (based on the Emily Bronte novel) and “The Man With the Child in His Eyes.” She was discovered and aided at the age of 16 by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. Her first album, “The Kick Inside,” released in 1978, was an immediate sensation in England, Europe, Australia and parts of Asia, and gave her the creative freedom to indulge in her often mystical and theatrical album projects. But she would never go beyond cult status in America until “Hounds,” her first gold record here--spurred by her first U.S. hit, “Running Up That Hill” and frequent showings of her own unique videos on MTV.
To help “Sensual World” follow up on that success, Bush went to the extraordinary lengths (for her) of going to New York recently and doing interviews.
More disconcerting for longtime fans than her delayed American success is Bush’s continuing and puzzling dislike for concertizing. It’s puzzling because her hourlong “Live at Hammersmith” video shows the lithe, attractive Bush having a ball--changing costumes, playing various personas, concocting outrageous production numbers and indulging in her love for mime and dance.
Of the last time she performed her material on stage, Bush says, “I suppose just after the tour I was at a point when I felt so exposed and so vulnerable. I needed to retreat and just make albums--be a songwriter again. That’s how I started. I lost a lot of confidence as a performer during the tour--I get very nervous about the idea of performing live.”
Very nervous. That last tour took place in 1979, when the Hammersmith show was taped.
And there doesn’t seem much chance Bush will take “The Sensual World” to the stage. “I have no plans as yet,” she said during a phone interview during her New York trip. “Because, really, I’m just too caught up with making albums, making videos. Live performance just kind of got left behind with me.”
It would seem that Bush would keep up the concerts at least occasionally, if only to give her well-known love for dancing an outlet. But, she says now, “that’s kind of been left behind” too.
“It was such a very important part of my life. When I started music I think it was responsible for keeping me sane, because training as a dancer really kept me in good spirits amid all the crazy stuff that happened when I first became popular. But I guess I’ve gotten more and more into filmic imagery and I don’t really keep fit like I used to.”
Film seems to be where Bush is headed next. “I have this desire in the back of my mind now of making music and film at the same time--putting the two together.” It would seem a natural, considering that she has conceived and directed most of her own promotional videos.
Bush--who also produces her albums and plays piano and synthesizer--came close to going beyond four-minute videos when she flirted with the idea of making a film based on “The Ninth Wave,” the intriguing, conceptual second side of “The Hounds of Love.”
“What I wanted to do was turn that into a half-hour film integrating music with visuals. When I was writing it I was really thinking visually. It was just unfortunate that by the time I had the opportunity to make the film I was just too tired. I did not have the energy.”
Bush’s lyrics are seldom easy to fathom on first listening, something she acknowledges. “My music can be a little obscure,” she admits. “It does worry me that the music might be too complicated for people to take in--that they have to work too hard at it.”
“The Ninth Wave” is as good an example as any of how challenging her themes can be. The related string of songs concerns a woman who is dreaming (perhaps) of floating on water and being lulled into sleep (and perhaps death). She finds herself drowning under ice. Then several friendly voices pull her up from this state of mind, but a Medieval witch-hunter thrusts her back under water to prove she’s a witch. Images of loved ones, salvation, morning and a lust for life end the cycle.
Though not quite so complex, Bush’s individual songs usually tend to be similarly drawn from the unconscious realms, especially since her great 1982 album “The Dreaming.” Madonna she’s not. No wonder it took her so long to sell records in America.
However, not all of Bush’s songs are difficult to enter. An excellent place to start for a beginner is one of the songs on the new LP, “Deeper Understanding,” which deals with how people often cut themselves off from others and opt for technological “friends.” Sample lyric:
As the people here grow colder
I turn to my computer
And spend my evenings with it
Like a friend ...
I need deeper understanding
Give me deeper understanding.
“That seems to be something we’re encouraged to do,” Bush said, “in that, more and more, it’s almost easier for us to stay in our rooms, watch the television, shop from our computers. To become such isolated beings.”
But hasn’t she been accused of being too isolated herself since moving to the English countryside, and spending literally years working on each album with bassist/engineer/boyfriend Del Palmer?
Bush doesn’t see it that way. True, though, she did want to get out of the city. “I find it fascinating how I’ve heard people say that they get a tremendous amount of inspiration from the cities and from this kind of unnatural situation. I get much more inspiration from being outside in nature.”
Bush admits she does spend a lot of time in her own home studio--and when she isn’t there she’s most likely to be found “in the garden--if it’s summer--or watching television, watching a film, trying to catch up on sleep.”
But, while no party animal (again, Madonna she’s not), the singer also enjoys “asking friends around to dinner, or maybe going to the theater with them. I love being with my friends, relaxing and talking.”
In fact, Bush says, there’s nothing more important to her--in her life and in her work--than relationships.
“I think that’s really my big fascination--relationships. I suppose in some ways you can look at everything in terms of relationships. It’s so crazy! I think I could spend the rest of my life just working with relationships.”
“The Sensual World,” like her previous albums, explores this fascination. The LP’s songs include “Love and Anger,” “Reaching Out,” “Between a Man and a Woman,” and--on the cassette and CD--"Walk Straight Down the Middle,” an optimistic consideration of male/female symbiosis comparable to her moving 1987 duet with Peter Gabriel, “Don’t Give Up.”
One thing that sets “The Sensual World” apart from the previous albums, in Bush’s mind, is an increased sense of “positive female energy.”
“All my music has been influenced mainly by male music,” said Bush, who has specifically cited Gabriel, Elton John and the Beatles, “and by the people I work with, which have almost always been men.
“I love working with men, but with the new album I began to explore my own ways of expressing music even more, to look for female energies. Working with the Trio Bulgarka provided that for me.”
The Trio Bulgarka is made up of three singers from the Bulgarian folk-music world, which has recently intrigued English and American musicians and audiences because of its unusual modalities and powerful female vocals.
As reserved during an interview as she is unreserved on record and video, Kate Bush came closest to real enthusiasm when speaking of the three songs on the new album where she is backed by the Trio. She has always integrated ethnic music in her work, but this was something special for her.
“Suddenly, there I was working with these three ladies from a completely different culture. I’ve never worked with women on such an intense creative level, and it was something strange to feel this very strong female energy in the studio. It was interesting to see the way the men in the studio reacted to this. Instead of just one female, there was a very strong female presence.
“It made me think of the words to ‘The Sensual World,’ ” she said of the album’s title song, which is drawn from the Molly Bloom soliloquy that ends James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The song is a torrent of sexual memory and lusty acceptance of life’s sensations, set to soft, exotic, Celtic-tinged music. The last word in the book and the song is yes .
“That’s quite a female expression for me, really,” said Bush. “A more . . . open female expression. I’m not a feminist . . . but I think I’m finally coming to terms with being a woman in this business.”
Bush has not yet “even begun to think about the next album.” As usual, she likes to take her time. Whether her American audience grows or wanes is something she cares about, but it is not the most important thing on her mind.
“I make music because I love making it,” she said. “I do it for the sheer delight of watching it come together. I’m in love with the whole process. It’s important to me to keep that kind of priority. If people want to hear it, that’s a wonderful extra. But it’s not something you should expect. You really have to do things for the love of doing them--and not for the reward afterwards.”