The Guardian profile: Kate Bush

After 12 years the enigmatic singer-songwriter prepares to break her silence with a 'properly eccentric' new double album

When Kate Bush materialised with a wail, a waft of huge hair and the startling melodrama of her first single, Wuthering Heights, the teenage daughter of a doctor from Kent could have hardly made a bigger or odder impression against a backdrop of angry young men in punk bands. Nearly 28 years on, the country is again awash with angular guitar bands, and Bush, a 47-year-old mother of one, is preparing to break 12 years of silence and release her eighth studio recording. While Aerial, a double album described as "properly, properly eccentric" by one critic, won't have quite the same shock value, many in the music industry believe it will have as much resonance as ever.

Twelve years without producing a record would be a catastrophe for most popular artists - and their record companies. But the allure of Bush has only increased since her retreat from public view after 1993's The Red Shoes. The twilight imagery of her songs chimes perfectly with the mystery of her personal life. When she gave birth to a son, Bertie, she saw no reason to announce it, and the press did not find out for 18 months. Frustrated by her refusal to play the celebrity game, tabloids have compared her to Greta Garbo and Miss Havisham, suggesting she is obsessed with her privacy. The title of one of her new songs: How to be Invisible.

EMI, her record company, says suggestions she is a tortured recluse are nonsense. "I'm a quiet, private person who has managed to hang around for a few years," she said recently, with characteristic understatement. Spotted by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Bush was just 16 when she signed a £5,000 deal with EMI. In contrast to today's production line of adolescent superstars, executives felt she was too young for fame and let the teenager quietly compose, study dance and play the odd pub in south London. Their patience paid off: she became the first female British artist to reach number one with a self-penned song in 1978. From The Dreaming to The Sensual World, she matched esoteric and playful innovation with commercial success. Bush is estimated to be worth £25m, the second wealthiest British female solo artist after Annie Lennox.

EMI has been equally patient with Bush in middle age. She has recorded Aerial on and off for six years. "Kate's one of those artists who records and makes music to her own timescale rather than meet a record company's deadlines, which is fine by us," said an EMI insider, with no hint of gritted teeth.

Contrary to reports, Bush will go on television to actively promote Aerial, released on November 7 between new offerings from Robbie Williams and Madonna. Paul Rees, editor of Q magazine, believes a comparison with Madonna is instructive. Both women are 47, both have played totally by their own rules, but their careers could not be more contrasting. "There's nothing left that you don't know about Madonna whereas with Kate Bush there is everything left to know," he said. "She's retained that sense of enigma. We don't really know what has gone on in her life in the last 12 years. That's the key to her longevity. There's a lot held back."

The extraordinary voice of singer-songwriter Roy Harper was one of Bush's formative influences and he collaborated with her in the 1980s and 1990s and is still a friend. He believes Bush has been more influenced by literary writers than songwriters. "She is lovely to work with, a true musician. There is no need to tell her what to do, she has already done it and she is ahead, making suggestions. She is very honest and very gentle, bright and full of creativity, the kind of girl you should've married, really. She is very private and family orientated now. When you are that good a person, the danger is that everybody takes the piss. The cure for that is to keep yourself out of the public eye."

Those who have heard Aerial are, typically, amazed and slightly baffled, with Bush addressing a pigeon on one of the two albums, said to be inspired by bird song. Bush told Harper that one was a concept album and, "to lessen the blow" the other was "just Kate songs".

Firmly in control of her career, it is ironic that by complete chance 2005 has turned out to be the perfect year to craft a comeback. She has always enjoyed the praise of her peers but a raft of up-and-coming bands are inspired by her, from Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons to The Futureheads, whose cover version of Hounds of Love was a bigger hit than Bush's. Harper ranks her alongside Tracey Emin and Germaine Greer as "a teacher", although "a rather more gentle woman than a lot of teachers".

Bush has been ahead of her time, with dramatic videos in the 1970s and singing about seeking solace in computers in the 1980s, but mostly she has been in her own time, working to her own timescale. With the cycle turning in her direction, her moment may have come again.

The CV

Born Catherine Bush on July 30 1958, in Bexleyheath, Kent. One son, Bertie.

Career Debut single Wuthering Heights (1978, UK No 1 for a month). Albums: The Kick Inside (1978), Lionheart (1978), Never For Ever (1980), The Dreaming (1982), Hounds of Love (1985), The Whole Story (1986), The Sensual World (1989), This Woman's Work (1990), The Red Shoes (1993). Ivor Novello Award 1978-79. Best British Female Artist Brit Awards 1987.

David Gilmour on her success: "I thought of her as very talented but appealing to an esoteric audience. But she had different ideas."

Kate on being a musician: "School inhibited me. It wasn't until I left school that I found the real strength inside. All the rest was karma."


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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