Long before the Lilith Fair transformed female empowered music into a marketable touring phenomenon, before Tori Amos combined arty theatrics withsoaring vocal glissandos, Kate Bush paved the way. For more than 30 years, the British singer-songwriter has offered strange, sweeping, and often impossible-to-categorize fusions of global musical influences with lyrical subjects that have roamed far and wide of the typical pop clichés. In 1978, at age 19, she topped the U.K. singles chart for four weeks with her debut single, “Wuthering Heights,” and two years later, her album Never for Ever (1980) made her the first British female solo artist ever to enter the album chart at No. 1. But Bush was not just an icon for women who want to find a singular voice in music but, rather, one for artists, regardless of gender, who refuse to draw inside the lines.
Bush’s most recent album, Director’s Cut (Fish People/EMI), offers reinterpretations of 11 of her previously released songs, with new vocal performances and instrumentation. “Flower of The Mountain” (originally released under the title “The Sensual World”) is typical of Bush’s expansive musicality. A time-traveling ode to sensual surrender, the song draws on Arabic melodies to create a primal, ancient atmosphere. “Song of Solomon” is a slow, bouncing, bass-heavy blues groove, stretched out and slowed down as if played in zero gravity. “Lily” is a mad vision of fear, fire, funk, and biblical name-dropping. The content of the songs is equally diverse; on “Deeper Understanding,” she even offers a futuristic high-concept R&B ode to the addictive false solace of the Internet. But the finest and most startling moments on Director’s Cut are the simplest and most stark: “Moments of Pleasure” is a painful meditation for voice and piano, and the aching melancholy of “Never Be Mine” should literally come with a warning—it will stop you in your tracks.
Despite all the 52-year-old Bush’s successes, she has chosen to lead a very private life. She has only toured once and has generally been reticent about giving interviews. But when I spoke with her by phone from her home outside of London, she was gracious, easy-going, and anything but reclusive.
DIMITRI EHRLICH: I thought we’d begin with talking about Director’s Cut. Let’s talk about “The Sensual World” [off 1989’s The Sensual World]. I know that when you first recorded that song, you had originally wanted to use some text from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is always a favorite on pop radio here in America.
KATE BUSH: [laughs] Yes.
EHRLICH: But the Joyce estate refused permission, and now, 22 years later you finally got the okay.
BUSH: Yes, originally, as you say, I wanted to use part of the text, and approached for permission, and was refused. I was a bit disappointed, but it was completely their prerogative—they were being very protective to the work, which I think is a good thing. So I had to sort of go off and write my own lyrics, which . . . They were okay, but it always felt like a bit of a compromise really. It was nowhere near as interesting as the original idea. When I started to work on this project, I thought it was worth a shot just asking again, because they could only say no. But to my absolute delight—and surprise—they agreed.
EHRLICH: Looking at your lyrics to “Song of Solomon,” I found it interesting how you juxtaposed sexuality with spirituality. What inspired that?
BUSH: Well, it was quite an interesting process for me to go back and re-sing these songs because, for all kinds of reasons, they’re not the songs I would write now. I can’t really remember what my thought process was when I wrote that one originally. I just thought it was one of those songs that could benefit from a revisit. That was just one of the songs that popped into my head. I didn’t really take a great deal of time choosing the list of songs, I just kind of wrote down the first things that came into my head.
EHRLICH: It’s funny. I’d think revisiting those songs would almost be like looking at old photographs or reading old love letters from a long time ago, because as a songwriter, the emotions that you’re tapping into are the most primal, raw, and immediate ones. Was it strange to step into the emotional clothing you had worn 20 years ago and see how it fit and wonder, Who is this person?
BUSH: Yeah, it was. At first, it was quite difficult, and, at a couple of points, I nearly gave up the whole process. I found that by just slightly lowering the key of most of the songs, suddenly it kind of gave me a way in, because my voice is just lower now. So that helped me to step back into it. And although they were old songs, it all started to feel very much like a new process and, in a lot of ways, ended up feeling like I was just making a new album—it’s just that the material was already written. When I listen to it now, it feels like a new record to me.
EHRLICH: Why did you decide to re-record existing material rather than do something new, or just release the old versions remixed, or whatever?
BUSH: Well, I really didn’t see it as a substitute for a greatest hits package, but it was something I’d wanted to do for a few years. I guess I just kind of felt like there were songs on those two albums [The Sensual World and The Red Shoes (1993)] that were quite interesting but that they could really benefit from having new life breathed into them. I don’t really listen to my old stuff, but on occasion, I would either hear a track on the radio or a friend might play me one, and there was generally a bit of an edgy sound to it, which was mainly due to the digital equipment that we were using, which was state of the art at the time—and I think everyone felt pressured to be working that way. But I still remain a huge fan of analog. So there were elements of the production that I felt were either a little bit dated or a bit cluttered. So what I wanted to do was empty them out and let the songs breathe more.
EHRLICH: Your music has always been defiantly different than American pop. Do you have a love-hate relationship with classic American pop? Do you just find it boring, or is there something about it that you secretly enjoy as a guilty pleasure?
BUSH: [laughs] What a thing to say! No, I mean, god, some of the best pop music ever has come out of the States. Some of that Motown stuff is some of the best songs ever written. It’s not that I don’t like American pop; I’m a huge admirer of it, but I think my roots came from a very English and Irish base. Is it all sort of totally non-American sounding, do you think?
EHRLICH: In a good way. Your music is very original—especially the lyrical structure. It doesn’t have the kind of obvious rhyme structure and subject matter.
BUSH: Oh, well, thank you. I think with some of the rhyme structures that might be connected to the fact that I do sing in an English as opposed to an American accent, which a lot of English singers have done.
EHRLICH: I went to Oxford for a period while I was in college, and we used to say America and Britain are two cultures separated by a common language.
BUSH: I think it’s a very interesting observation. I think I was just lucky to be brought up in a very musical family. My two older brothers were, and still are, very musical and very creative, and music was a big part of my life from a very young age, so it is quite natural for me to become involved in music in the way that I did.
EHRLICH: What were your early lyrics about when you began exploring composition?
BUSH: Initially, I used to just play hymns that I knew.
EHRLICH: Interesting that your music is so adventurous, melodically, because hymns tend to be very simple, so it’s interesting that you came from such a grounded place.
Bush: Well, I just sort of used to tinker around, and then I moved on to the piano. My father was always playing the piano. He played all kinds of music—Gershwin, all kinds of stuff. He was really a hugely encouraging force to me when I was little. I used to write loads of songs when I was really young, and he was always there to listen to them for me. And it was a really wonderful thing that he did because he made me feel that they had some worth, even when they didn’t really. And he was always very honest with me. He’d say if he didn’t think perhaps one song wasthat good, or he liked that one. What was greatwas that he’d give me that time, and would always come and listen when we’d written something. So, you know, he was fantastic because he gave me the sense that he believed in me.
Ehrlich: Your lyrics often seem highly personal, but some of your earlier songs drew on more cinematic source material, like old crime films for “There Goes a Tenner,” the British horror movie TheInnocents  for “The Infant Kiss,” and evenThe Shining  for “Get Out of My House.” How do these sorts of influences make their way into your work? Is it a conscious thing, or does it just happen?
BUSH: Well, “Get Out of My House” was more to do with the book than the film, just to say that. But whatever is going on in your life when you’re writing has to somehow seep into your work. And maybe if my songs feel personal, that’s very nice. I like that. I take that as a great compliment. But there are very few that really have any sort of autobiographical content. I guess that you could say that “Moments of Pleasure” has some autobiographical content, probably out of all the songs I’ve written. But I think what is great is that if anything that I do is interesting to somebody else, then I really don’t think it matters at all what I had originally intended. If people like the song, or they can draw some feeling from it, then I’m really happy about that. Quite often, lyrics get misunderstood—and I never mind that either. I guess what all artists want is for their work to touch someone or for it to bethought provoking.
Ehrlich: Well, speaking of thought provoking, can you give me a little insight into the song “The Kick Inside” [off Bush’s 1978 debut album], which is about an incestuous pregnancy and a suicide that followed? Did you walk into your record label and say, “Hey guys! Here’s the new single!”
BUSH: [laughs] Yeah, well, I guess some of those early songs are quite dramatic really—melodramatic almost. I think that’s quite often something that goes hand-in-hand with youth. I was always trying to look for something a little bit different I suppose.
EHRLICH: And you’ve done that several times, like on “Kashka from Baghdad” [off Bush’s second album, Lionheart, also released in 1978], which is a song about a gay male couple. What inspired that subject for you?
BUSH: I wrote that when I was pretty young.
Ehrlich: Oh, you mean, before Iraq was the cool subject to write about in pop songs?
BUSH: [laughs] I just liked the idea of this couple. Nobody really knew much about them—and they’re obviously having a great time.
EHRLICH: So it was just totally fictional?
BUSH: Oh, yeah. I’ve written songs from different points of view—not just as me or as a female. I just try to put myself in the sense of being a character, sometimes male. I suppose I just like the idea of trying to be different people coming from all kinds of different angles. Most of it was just from my imagination.
EHRLICH: While there are melancholic overtones to a lot of your songs, comedy has also been a huge influence on you. You’ve cited Woody Allen and Monty Python in interviews. How does comedy relate to your music?
BUSH: I love comedy. I like to think that there’s a sense of humor in some of my music—obviously not all of it. But I think comedy and music are both things that we need as human beings. I think that both art forms can touch people. Comedy is a very big part of the English culture, the sense of humor; it’s a very dominant trait.
EHRLICH: Who do you think is funny now?
BUSH: Well, I think there’s some great stuff out there, but I don’t feel that it’s the same sort of level of comedy that we have had in the past.
EHRLICH: Ricky Gervais is pretty good.
BUSH: Ricky Gervais is very good. But I think in some parts of our English history we’ve had huge amounts of almost too much great comedy. You kind of wonder how so much great work could come out of one country. In America, too, there have been some incredible periods of great comedy.
EHRLICH: Yeah. I’m a fan of the classic stuff—you know, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin. But I have to admit, I also really like the Will Ferrell stuff, too.
BUSH: It’s all got a place, doesn’t it? That’s what’s so great about all of the different art forms. I mean, to say that you like music is a bit like saying youlike the whole world, isn’t it? But, again, music is like comedy in that you can enjoy a very—for want of abetter word—sophisticated classical piece as much as you enjoy something that’s very simple pop.
EHRLICH: You were signed to your first record deal at age 16. So you’ve been doing this for a long time, but you’ve given relatively few interviews over the years. Why is that?
BUSH: Because my desire was never to be famous. It was to try and create something interesting musically if I could. The records really take a lot of time and effort, and I feel like I have to do some promotion to let the people know that the records are out there; but I kind of like the idea that it’s my work that does the talking rather than me.
EHRLICH: You were the first woman ever to have a self-written number one hit in the U.K. with your song “Wuthering Heights” in 1978. How important
was the woman aspect of that? Did you feel that that was an important mantle you were carrying for feminism, or were you just like, “Whoa, I’ve got a number one song. Holy dickens!”
BUSH: It was so unexpected. I don’t think any of us expected it to do particularly well. It was a big surprise.
EHRLICH: It’s funny because you’ve had quite a lot of commercial success, but you’ve also done work that seems almost intentionally not commercial, like the 2005 song, “Pi,” which you sing the number pi to more than 100 decimal places.
BUSH: I just thought it was a fun idea to see if I could sing numbers but somehow make them emotive. Numbers are really fascinating things, and they do play a big part in our lives. They are a language of their own, aren’t they? There are a lot of very strong connections with music and mathematics. They both can work in patterns and sequences and repetitions.
EHRLICH: You only really toured once in your life, in 1979. Why?
BUSH: It was really great fun. I had a fantastic time. And it was something that I had planned to do once I had another two albums, because that first tour was only working with the songs from the first two albums, and I wanted a whole bunch of fresh material to work with so I wasn’t just doing the same songs again. But by the time I got to the fourth album, I’d become very absorbed in the whole recording process, and I’d become very involved in the production, so the albums were taking longer. So it was never a deliberate decision not to do live shows. A few times, I’ve thought about doing them again, but it’s just kind of never happened. I’ve just sort of gone the path of becoming a recording artist I guess.
EHRLICH: That tour you did in 1979 also sounded like it might have been the tour to end all tours: all those shows with 17 costume changes, with all that choreography and even a magician.
BUSH: Yeah. It was a bit like being a part of a circus troupe. I think we all had a real laugh. It was exciting.
EHRLICH: It’s funny, because at the time, that show marked a resurgence in pop of the artfulness of David Bowie–era glam-rock, but it also sort of presaged a lot of the theatricality that we’d gone on to see in Madonna’s shows and even today with Lady Gaga. When you see, for example, Lady Gaga, do you feel any kind of kinship and connection to what she’s doing? Or does it just feel like a totally different world to you?
BUSH: I don’t know, really. I think in a lot of ways it’s something that has a strong connection, doesn’t it? If you’re going to be singing, dance and song seem to go very well together on stage, don’t they? That’s the whole vaudeville thing. I haven’t actually seen a Lady Gaga tour, but I do think she’s very good.
EHRLICH: Okay, one last question. It’s just a small one: What is the purpose of your life?
BUSH: To have been there for my son and my family and my friends. I also try to be kind and try to have a good time.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a contributing music editor of Interview.
Photos: Kate Bush in London, 1981; Stills from “Wuthering Heights”/Courtesy of Kate Bush.