Kate Bush: The sequel

She was wacky, she was mysterious, she was a child prodigy who topped the charts... and then she disappeared without trace. This month Kate Bush is back with her first single in more than a decade. Terry Kirby traces her career

It was also the last time that Kate Bush released an album.

Although some things haven't changed much since the early 1990s, the internet and the iPod have revolutionised the way music is listened to and a whole new range of female artists such as Dido, Joss Stone and KT Tunstall are competing for our attention.

Now, one of music's most reclusive and enigmatic figures has re-emerged into what some have seen as a rich era for British female singer-songwriters. Bush's new double album, Aerial, is due out in November, only her eighth after three decades in the business. It will be treated with due reverence. This is a woman who, like Stone, was once a teenage prodigy, if a decidedly wackier one, and she is claimed by many to be the great lost talent of British female pop singers.

At 47, the elfin Bush has perhaps claim to become the grand dame of them all, above comparison to mere lightweights such as Dido, regularly cited as an influence by artists from Placebo to Goldfrapp.

There are perhaps better comparisons than Stone or Dido This is a women who was top of the charts while Madonna was still a disco dancer and - while she may not rival the so-called Queen of Pop in terms of earnings - she's more than a match in terms of the iron control she exerts over her own career and public image.

"I simply think she is one of the greatest figures in British music over the last 30 years. There are an awful lot of people in the business wandering around claiming to be artists, but she is one of the few who can genuinely make that claim'' says Paul Rees, editor of Q Magazine. He rejects any suggestion that Bush has to be judged alongside the new wave. "I don't think there is any competition, she's on a different level and quite outside them all.''

The anticipation has been heightened by the fact that even insiders in the music business have few clues what the intensely private Bush has been up to recently, although rumours of a new album have been circulating for several years. One story is that Bush invited a bunch of top EMI people down to her home and simply baked them all cakes. More prosaically, the delays may be that that her life has been occupied by other, more pressing personal matters.

Bush-watchers will already be searching for clues in the sparse announcement from EMI. Both the title of the album and the single that will precede it "King of the Mountain", downloadable on 27 September, both somehow still echo and evoke the mysterious and ethereal image that the 19- year-old Bush created for herself when she first burst onto the music scene in January 1978, with "Wuthering Heights".

Her own take on the Emily Brontë novel, written several years earlier after watching part of a television adaptation, it was UK No 1 for four weeks. Coming in the aftermath of the spit-and-bondage raw power of punk, the gargling, warbling and arm waving of Bush at first seemed like a one-off novelty act, "a ghastly apparition, an evil witch rising out the dry ice,'' as rock writer Rob Jovanovic puts it in his forthcoming biography. As became clear, Bush was in it for the long term, carefully nurtured by a close circle of family, friends and a sympathetic record company. But there was never any suggestion that Bush was being manipulated or was ever anything other than her own person.

By the time "Wuthering Heights" appeared, Bush had already been signed for three years to EMI, which was content to let her talent mature a little, an impossibility in these days of Pop Idol. She had been discovered by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, a friend of a friend of her older brother. Gilmour provided money for a demo tape and took her to EMI. One of the three songs was "The Man With the Child in his Eyes," later a hit single.

Gilmour later told an interviewer: "I didn't realise how commercially successful she might be. I thought of her more really, I suppose, in the terms of someone like Joni Mitchell - the level of a lady who's very talented, but would appeal to a more esoteric audience. But she had different ideas.''

Bush's sense of purpose was already evident and was later made clear to her parents. Her EMI contract secure, Bush carried on at school, getting 10 O-levels, but decided to leave. She said later: "My parents weren't keen on the giving up of school at the beginning to go into singing and dancing but once they saw I was serious about it they gave support. I was quite stubborn about my decision and in the end they realised it was for the best.''

They allowed her to live in a flat they owned in south London while she studied dancing under mime master Lindsey Kemp and carried on writing and singing. EMI kept a watching brief, waited for the initial fury of punk to die down and released "Wuthering Heights" in January 1978.

Some didn't get her, either then or later, being alienated by the combination of slightly contrived tweeness, the falsetto warbling and the sheer pretentious, earnestness of it all. Jovanovic notes that the late, great, John Peel, a man whose ears were open to many sounds, claimed he could not take her seriously while the renowned American rock critic Dave Marsh described her as "sounding like the consequences of mating Patti Smith with a Hoover vacuum cleaner".

Arguably, Bush is one of a handful of artists who first appreciated the power of the video. All her early singles were accompanied by imaginative videos, which made full use of her looks and her ability as a dancer. Curiously, she was always a reluctant life performer, doing only a handful of pub gigs with the KT Band in 1976 during her EMI training days and one tour, in 1979. Possibly her reluctance to tour afterwards stemmed from the death of her lighting director, who fell to his death on stage during a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon. There have been only a handful of one-off appearances.

Although her first album, The Kick Inside, went triple platinum, her artistic reputation among the cognoscenti hinges on two albums in the early 1980's: The Dreaming, released in 1982 was the first she produced herself and Hounds of Love, 1985, produced on the 48-track studio she had built at her home. Both featured a diverse and difficult to categorise blend of styles matched by her often surreal and literate lyrics. But her fans cite her bravery in often talking about subjects long before they became fashionable - gay relationships, for example.

Many see those as her artistic peak with the subsequent albums The Sensual World, in 1989 and The Red Shoes, in 1993 both being more hit and miss affairs. And at a rate of one album every four years, she could hardly be accused of burning herself out.

But since 1993, there has been virtual silence, punctuated by infrequent public appearances, such as receiving a lifetime achievement award from Q - at which she only agreed to be photographed with John Lydon, the former Johnny Rotten. Her personal life appeared to have intervened. After coping with the death of her mother, she split from her long-term partner, Del Palmer, a musician. She then began a relationship with guitarist Danny MacIntosh and in 1999, gave birth to a son. They live in a mansion in Berkshire but are reported to have another home in south Devon.

Her creative absence merely reinforced her credibility, particularly when Hounds of Love was covered by the Futureheads and a succession of new singers such as Tori Amos were dubbed "the New Kate Bush" on a fraction of the evidence.

Rumours of an album were confirmed in December last year when she confirmed she had been in Abbey Road Studios with composer Michael Kamen, (who has since died.) Gilmour is believed to be around, as he has been from the start.

At Q, Rees does admit that the expectation level is high and that, as is often the case when any artist delivers an eagerly anticipated work after a lengthy period of quiet, the dangers of an anti-climax loom. "It is incredibly difficult in this kind of situation. There is always the reaction of 'Is that it...?' And that is particular true now more than ever, when we have so much that works on a superficial level. And she is one of those that you have to listen to a lot and the more you do, the more is revealed.''

He is glad that Bush will be delivering an old-fashioned double album. "It's good to think this an artist delivering a magnum opus. One would feel slightly short-changed if she came back after all this time with 10 songs over 35 minutes.''

Stars who stepped out of the limelight

LINDA THOMPSON

According to Time magazine she was possibly "rock's best woman singer" while Rolling Stone voted her top female vocalist, but when Linda Thompson retired from the folk-rock music scene she had helped to invent in 1985, listeners assumed they would never hear her voice again. She had split up from her husband, the guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson. But she had also been diagnosed with hysterical dysphonia, the vocalist's equivalent of merciless stage fright. But after a 17-year break, she returned with an album aptly named Fashionably Late.

JEAN SHRIMPTON

In 1960 Jean Shrimpton met David Bailey while he was assisting the photographer John French. For three years they worked almost exclusively together and "the Shrimp" became one of the iconic models of the Swinging Sixties era, wearing ever shorter skirts and creating memorable images for Vogue. Unlike her contemporary Twiggy, Jean's withdrawal from the limelight has been absolute. She now runs a hotel in Penzance, Cornwall, where she raised a family with Michael Cox, whom she married in 1979.

CERYS MATTHEWS

When fame got too much for the lead singer of Catatonia she fled to Nashville. The singer with the distinctive raspy voice set up home with her husband, Seth Riddle, a television producer, away from the British media. She had always shunned celebrity but found herself in the spotlight after the band enjoyed massive success. The album Equally Cursed and Blessed was aptly titled: she had to cancel several concert tours after suffering from anxiety and nervous exhaustion, and the band split up in 2001.

Geneviève Roberts and Louisa Reynolds

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