Kate Bush: Return of the recluse

She has £30m and a reputation as the country's finest female songwriter. She lives quietly, out of sight, by the river or the sea, and has released no music for 12 years, preferring to spend time with her son. She had no need to make another record (some thought she never would) but suddenly a new album is imminent
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The Independent Online

Kate Bush's views on these momentous developments are difficult to gauge, since she has turned the not giving of interviews into an art form, and, it would seem, doesn't even see her closest friends very often. It's possible that the outside world wouldn't have known she'd had a son, Bertie, in 1998, if Peter Gabriel hadn't tactlessly blurted out the news on television. (As it was, Bush had managed to keep the news private for 18 months.)

However, ensconced in her Thames-side mansion near Reading or at her wildly romantic bolt-hole on the Devon coast, she has kept abreast of developments on the internet, where her new single, "King of the Mountain", has been made available for download. It's the first concrete evidence that after six years of work in her home studio, she has a new double album, Aerial, ready for release in November. Fans have been gasping for new product ever since 1993's album The Red Shoes. Rock critic John Mendelssohn has even written a novel, Waiting for Kate Bush, about a suicidal superfan poised to leap off a tower block, yet restrained from embracing extinction by curiosity about the singer's work in progress.

Artists who disappear for years, ostensibly to create that career-defining masterpiece, tend to deliver only bathos and disillusionment. Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose has supposedly been working on a comeback album for the past 15 years, amid rumours that he's gone mad and made himself unrecognisable with round-the-clock plastic surgery, but the appearance of the finished product would assuredly be mere anticlimax. The Stone Roses' second album arrived five years after its "Madchester"-defining predecessor, and the best that could be said for it was that it wasn't bad.

But for Kate Bush, the rules have always been different. Having never accepted the standard formula for pop stardom, where albums are delivered at carefully calibrated intervals and supported by touring and a barrage of media appearances, she has won herself unparalleled artistic freedom. She has always refused to submit to the sort of pressures that dictate the behaviour of more run-of-the-mill artists, putting her work first and treating anything else as an unwelcome distraction. "I think creative control is so incredibly important," she has commented. "I became quickly aware of the outside pressures of being famous affecting my work. It seemed ironic that I was expected to do interviews and television which took me away from my work."

With a fortune put by some at £30m, she has the luxury of doing whatever she likes for as long as she wants to, but it's indicative of Bush's stature that nobody has assumed that the long hiatus between recordings is due to writer's block or creative atrophy. Happily, "King of the Mountain" is a sly and subtle piece of work, suggesting that Bush's genre-defying musical intelligence burns undimmed.

Extended gaps between Bush albums are hardly news. Although at the start of her career she released two albums in the same year (The Kick Inside and Lionheart, both from 1978), the intervals have grown progressively longer, even if 12 years may be stretching a point. Yet 20 years ago, people were already asking her the same questions. "People ask what I really did in the three years between The Dreaming and Hounds of Love," she said in 1985. "I spent it with my family, living a normal home life." As for her recent prolonged absence from the charts or MTV, Bush has observed: "I am just trying to be a good, protective mother. I want to give Bertie as normal a childhood as possible while preserving his privacy."

During the interval since The Red Shoes, she has been forced to confront some of the inevitable difficulties of adulthood. Her mother, Hannah, to whose Irish background Kate has attributed her own affinity for music and dance, died just before The Red Shoes was released, but her passing was a calamitous blow to the close-knit Bush clan. Yet that same closeness helped Kate to maintain some kind of equilibrium. Her brother Paddy has been a musical ally since they played in the KT Bush Band together as teenagers, while Kate has been careful to keep her personal and professional affairs within the family. She owns 80 per cent of her various companies, with the other 20 per cent split between her elder brothers Paddy and John. Her father Robert, a doctor, acts as company chairman.

Then there was the collapse of her relationship with Del Palmer, her longstanding musical collaborator and sound engineer (though Palmer is still credited as engineer on "King of the Mountain"). Her new partner, and Bertie's father, is another musician, Danny McIntosh. It's as if Bush's wildly imaginative work, which has encompassed such topics as the aftermath of nuclear war, the philosophies of oddballs such as George Gurdjieff and Wilhelm Reich, the fiction of Emily Brontë and the female psyche, drew the confidence to venture so far afield from feeling centred in comforting middle-class stability. Born in Bexleyheath on 30 July 1958, she began to dabble in music by playing the organ in a barn behind her parents' house, and was writing songs by the time she entered her teens. She was a shy and withdrawn pupil at St Joseph's Convent School, but took refuge in her kaleidoscopic creativity.

A family friend, Ricky Hopper, was impressed enough by her work to arrange for a demo tape to be recorded, which eventually made its way to Dave Gilmour, Pink Floyd's guitarist. Gilmour could discern Bush's potential, but was shrewd enough to recognise that the tracks were too unpolished to appeal to a record company A&R department, so he paid for Kate to make some better-quality recordings and arranged an introduction to EMI. With a patience and perspicacity tragically absent from today's fast-food record biz, EMI funded her for three years to give her space to develop her writing. "We gave her some money to grow up with," said label executive Bob Mercer. "EMI was like another family to her. She was the company's daughter for a few years."

EMI was rewarded by the immediate success of her debut album, The Kick Inside, and the global success of the single "Wuthering Heights", but thenceforth Bush's progress would never be remotely conventional or predictable. Her first tour, in 1979, proved to be her last. If her record company hoped to exert a shaping influence, Bush outflanked them by becoming her own co-producer and building a 48-track home studio where she could create her albums unmolested.

If you can judge people by their friends, Bush is pop's own Venus emerging from the waves. She's madly admired by Peter Gabriel, Dave Gilmour and Eric Clapton, can call on Nigel Kennedy and Prince to add virtuoso flourishes to her recordings, and is spoken of with awe by the eccentrically brilliant film-maker Terry Gilliam. Bush happens to work in pop, but pop music can't claim ownership of her. As Kevin Ayers once put it, whatever she brings we sing.