Kiss me Kate
Kate Bush speaks exclusively to Eamon Sweeney about her 10th studio album, Stephen Fry, Elton John, Mná Na hÉireann and giving Ireland a big kiss
As we embark on the annual retrospective on the year that was 2011 in music, perhaps one of the biggest surprises was that seemingly even Kate Bush albums are like buses. Wait long enough and two of them come along at once.
Gaps between Kate Bush albums became so lengthy, it seemed she was pursuing the Scott Walker route into one-album-a-decade territory. Incidentally, Walker shunned the limelight after hysterical fans overturned a car he was travelling in with the Walker Brothers outside the old Adelphi cinema on Middle Abbey Street, of all places.
Bush's lengthy hiatuses have become so legendary that even John Mendelssohn penned a satirical novel entitled Waiting For Kate Bush, where the protagonist postpones committing suicide to hear the new Kate Bush album.
"It's difficult explaining to myself why some albums take so long," chimes that unmistakable voice. "If you've had a five-year gap, it's assumed that it took you five years to do an album, which is simply not true. I take a few years to do other things in life."
Bush insists that family is always her priority over music. During the period between The Red Shoes in 1993 and the colossal double album Aerial in 2006, Bush became a mother and her son Bertie is the first voice we hear on 50 Words For Snow. "It's great because I'm able to work at home and have a family life," she reflects. "I couldn't work in a commercial-studio environment. Most of the time the process is quite elongated for me, so it would end up being quite expensive too. That's really why I set up a home studio. I realised I'd have to if I wanted to continue working experimentally."
50 Words for Snow is certainly experimental and a gorgeous, meditative listening experience, but certainly not willfully self-indulgent or difficult. "I love snow," Bush beams. "It's absolutely fascinating. The funny thing is that this concept really helped to get the record finished. You couldn't bring this record out in the summer because it just wouldn't make sense. I either had to push it along and get it out for this winter, or wait until next year and I just didn't want to do that."
The title track is narrated by another familiar and iconic voice, the inimitable Stephen Fry who intones each word for snow, while accompanied by Bush's voice. "I was very lucky with Stephen, because with this record we were working to a very tight deadline and he's an incredibly busy man," Bush says.
"The fact that he was free to come in and do it was so fortuitous. He's such a lovely person and so interesting. He has just the most beautiful voice and I was so delighted that he could do it, because he really was the only man for the job. I wanted someone who had a beautiful-sounding voice, but also a voice of great authority. Even when he is saying some silly-sounding words, they still sound quite important. He makes everything sound like it has to be that way."
Another guest on the album is none other than the Rocket Man himself, Elton John, on Snowed in on Wheeler Street.
"He's one of my greatest heroes," Bush reveals. "I wrote it with him in mind and I was so hoping that he'd want to do it and also be free. I was delighted that he said yes. He's really special and it was really special for me because I've been such a big fan of his for such a long time. It was such a privilege and his performance is so beautiful and emotive."
Indeed, Bush's version of Rocket Man was deemed to be the best cover version of all time in a recent poll. "Really?" she enquires, displaying a surprising lack of knowledge of the extent of her acclaim and accolades."That's sooo great! That's one of my favourite tracks of Elton's. I used to listen to his stuff all of the time. Everyone was asked to do a cover version of one of his songs [as part of 1991's Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin tribute album]. I was so happy to be given the opportunity to able to sing one of them. It was quite hard to choose because he's done so many."
Bizarrely, it also seems to come as news to Bush that Marc Almond paid a very heartfelt tribute to her classic song Moments of Pleasure by revealing that not only was it one of his favourite songs of all time, but a source of strength and inspiration to him when he was trying to kick drug addiction. "That is so lovely," she gushes. "I genuinely was not aware of that all. I'm extremely touched."
Moments of Pleasure is a touching tribute to Kate Bush's late mother Hannah, an Irish folk dancer and nurse from County Waterford. Bush's Irish mum inspires so much of her work. Take Mother Stands For Comfort and A Coral Room as just two examples of songs dealing with magic, loss and memory in her astonishing back catalogue.
Bush believes that Hannah's spirit was very much alive when she recorded the Seán Ó Riada song Mná Na hÉireann with Donal Lunny, a classic Irish folk song that also happens to be the ring tone on Martin McGuinness's mobile phone.
"Although she'd already passed away I really felt that she was there helping me get it right," Bush says. "I loved singing it and I hope I did an okay job. I never spoke or sung in Irish before. All languages have an innate character that you need to get your head around. I became very aware of the fact when I started working on it that some of my vowel shapes are so English. I'm incredibly proud of being half-Irish and I really wanted to get that Irish blood in me to come through, so I worked very hard on it. I'm delighted you like it and it's wonderful to hear from someone who can speak Irish that I did an all right job."
Bush has never played live in Ireland apart from an appearance on The Late Late Show back in 1978. In fact, she has famously never played a full live show since the late 70s. Unlike so many legends that are forced to do a nostalgic lap of honour to pay off their tax bills, Bush has the luxury of being able to remain operating exclusively as a studio artist.
"Record sales are plummeting, so I'm incredibly lucky that I sold records when I did," Bush agrees. "Some of my albums are not particularly mainstream. I don't tour and I don't do huge amounts of promotion or interviews, so I'm continually surprised that my albums do as well as they do. It's very flattering and when I'm making records I try to come up with something interesting and hopefully I do. You often hear of people not liking their work and going into an environment every single day that they don't like very much, which must be really, really hard. I love my work and I feel very privileged."
The privilege is also all ours. As we wind down the interview, Bush thanks me profusely, saying that she'd love to chat away for hours and displaying a sense of endearing gratitude that I've not encountered since speaking to Yoko Ono. "I hope we talk again sometime," concludes the supposed Greta Garbo of Pop. "Give Ireland a big kiss for me, won't you?"
50 Words for Snow is out today, see review page 10
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