Dear Diary: The Secret World of Kate Bush

The singer-songwriter-producer keeps a tight lid on her 'emotional process'

Kate Bush
Phil Dent/Redferns
Kate Bush
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Cricklewood is not at all the kind of place you would expect to find Kate Bush. Although immortalized long ago in the title of a Ten Years After album, it's a peculiarly desolate and tragically unhip area of north London.

You feel Bush belongs more in an English garden, reading poetry on a bright summer day, or else in the Yorkshire moors, nursing some terrible, unspeakable grief. But on this gray morning, she is actually ensconced in a concrete building so ugly and functional that it looks virtually derelict from the outside.

It's a sound-dubbing studio where Bush has been frantically punching the clock to finish work on a 50-minute movie, The Line, the Cross, the Curve, the cinematic companion piece to her latest album, The Red Shoes. Inside, there is a plush reception area where we are introduced. Dressed in a big leather jacket, she seems small but surprisingly sturdy. She complains of being tired but looks bright and cleareyed if a little pale under her trademark thatch of lustrously dark hair. We are swiftly tucked away in a tiny, cold back room, where the stillness is disturbed only by the sound of thick sheets of rain splattering steadily against the small windows.

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As she points out several times, Bush doesn't do many interviews. She doesn't leave herself much time, for one thing. As with her recent videos, she directed this new movie – in which she sings six songs from The Red Shoes – as well as handled the choreography and scriptwriting.

Co-starring her former dance instructor Lindsay Kemp and actress Miranda Richardson, the movie is loosely based on the Powell and Pressburger film of 1948 The Red Shoes, about a dancer (Bush) who is tricked into wearing a pair of red shoes that are possessed, after which she can't stop dancing. Explaining the title of her movie, Bush says, "The Line is the path, the Cross is the heart, and the Curve is the smile," quoting a line from the movie The Red Shoes. So now you know.

A control freak who was already overruling her record company's decisions when Madonna was still playing drums in her first group, Bush writes and produces her albums, has her own publishing company and recording studio and is self-managed. Right down to the post-production tasks of editing and sound dubbing her movie, she maintains a strict hands-on policy. The effect can be draining.

"I don't have enough hours in the day," Bush readily concedes. "I don't do everything myself. I have people working with me who are wonderful. But I've managed for so long without a manager, I'm not sure there are a lot of things I'd want a manager for. I suppose I feel that at least the decisions I make are coming from me, and I'm not put into a situation that I wouldn't want to be in."

But another, unspoken reason why Bush subjects herself to interviews so rarely is her singularly English reluctance to dwell publicly on herself or her private affairs. Gracious but guarded, she will cheerfully burble on about her artistic motivations. But try to pin her down on a matter of emotional substance and her expression goes blank, a shutter descends – clunk! – and that's the end of that.

"Albums are like diaries," Bush says. "You go through phases, technically and emotionally, and they reflect the state that you're in at the time. This album has been a very big transition point for me. Right from the beginning of writing there was a different energy coming out. It probably sounds a bit silly. But I do believe that the people who are in the studio exude an energy into the tape which is very much to do with what they feel. It's a very emotional process, really. And when you get these close working relationships with people, you start to get this weird communication."

Apart from Bush, the person who has contributed most to the album has been bassist and studio engineer Del Palmer, her partner both musically and romantically since the earliest days. But despite his continuing involvement on a professional level, is it true that they are no longer a couple?

"We have an extremely good working relationship," says Bush, "and I'd like to think that the album reflects that. I tend not to talk about my relationships, really. That's quite a personal thing." Clunk!

The Red Shoes also features an unusual array of high-profile guest musicians: Eric Clapton on the smoldering, bluesy "And So Is Love"; Jeff Beck on a stately ballad called "You're the One"; and Prince, who contributes guitar, keyboards, backing vocals and a very Princely arrangement to "Why Should I Love You?"

"It started off as a bit of a laugh, a game that turned into reality," Bush says of those star turns. "The sort of people that I would have dearly loved to have played on the album, I actually got up the nerve to ring them up and ask them if they would like to come and play on the track. I don't feel they've been used for their names. I'd be very unhappy to think that they weren't being shown off properly. But I do feel honored that all of these people were so responsive."

Bush's surprise at finding such luminaries so willing to participate (even the famously negotiable "fee-paid-will-play" Beck) may not be false modesty. She has collaborated with one or two close friends in the past, notably Peter Gabriel on "Games Without Frontiers" and the affecting "Don't Give Up." But Bush hasn't spent much time fraternizing with the rock community since the whirlwind success of her debut single, "Wuthering Heights," which topped the U.K. chart for four weeks in 1978.

In many ways, Kate Bush has had a privileged – some would say cosseted – ride, having been elevated from an early age above the general rough and tumble of rock & roll. She was still a schoolgirl when Ricky Hopper, a family friend and wanna-be talent scout, financed a demo tape of her songs, which he passed on to David Gilmour, a guitarist with Pink Floyd. Through the good offices of Gilmour (who, she says, neither sought nor received any financial reward for his efforts), Bush was signed to EMI Records in Britain in 1974 at the tender age of 16.

Supported financially, but otherwise left to her own devices, she spent the next three years honing her talents and developing material at her own speed. It's a habit that has yielded diminishing commercial returns in later years as gaps between albums have grown steadily longer. "Wuthering Heights" is still her biggest single worldwide. In America, 1985's Hounds of Love is her only album to have even dented the Top 40, although The Red Shoes has become a current college-radio favorite.

Bush has toured only once, a multi-costume-changing, singing and dancing extravaganza that played for 28 dates in Europe in 1979. It was a trailblazing show, so much so that it was Bush's sound engineers who first hit on the idea of the microphone headset, developing a prototype made out of a wire coat hanger, which she used in the early shows.

"I did enjoy it," Bush says of her touring experiences, "but I was really physically exhausted. Eventually, I got nervous about performing live again, because I hadn't done it for so long, and I think I actually started losing a lot of confidence as a performer. I felt that I'd become a writer in a very isolated situation, just working with a small group of people.

"The more I got into presenting things to the world, the further it was taking me away from what I was," Bush says, "which was someone who just used to sit quietly at a piano and sing and play. It became very important to me not to lose sight of that. I didn't want my feet to come off the ground."

Does she worry that she is missing out, that she is, to use her own word, in danger of becoming too isolated?

"Touring is an incredibly isolated situation," Bush argues. "I don't know how people tour for years on end. You find a lot of people who can't stop touring, and it's because they don't know how to come back into life. It's sort of unreal."

For Bush, the trick seems to be shutting out as much of the background blare as possible. She rarely reads the papers or listens to the radio or goes to see shows or buys albums. She claims no knowledge of the notoriously Bushlike singer Tori Amos – "I heard one track and I thought it was very . . . uhh, nice" – and cites as her own primary influences the English and Irish traditional music that her piano-playing father, her singing mother and her older brothers played and sang in the house when she was growing up.

"From the earliest age I can remember," Bush says, "I was hearing the most beautiful tunes being made up."

The recent death of her mother, to whom she was always very close, is one reason why Bush has taken so long to produce The Red Shoes, her first album since 1989's The Sensual World. According to those around her, it took Bush the better part of a year after the death to get back into the frame of mind to work. But despite the long periods out of the spotlight, she has maintained a core following with a deep and unswerving loyalty.

Her fans, Bush insists, mean a lot to her. "It's very moving that a lot of people that I don't know are so supportive of what I do," she says. "I don't tour, I don't give them that much, really. Obviously I try to make the best music that I can, but after about two years of making an album you start to worry: `Is it going to come out all right? Is it all going to sound churned out?' And then you get odd little letters from fans here and there encouraging you, and that's a fantastic boost. I suppose I hope that if I keep an integrity in my work, then they'll always feel that."

This story is from the February 24th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 676: February 24, 1994
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