A Demon In The Drift: Kate Bush Interviewed
, November 13th, 2011 07:04
50 Words For Snow is a masterclass in song writing by one of the UK's most indomitable and peerless artists. John Doran talks to Kate Bush
Kangchenjunga was, for a long time, thought to be the highest mountain in the world. It wasn’t until the Great Trigonometric Survey of 1849 that its height was recorded as 28,169 ft and it was demoted to bronze medal place behind Everest and K2. Sitting on the Sikkim-Nepal border in the Himalayas, it has five peaks along its main ridge and its name translates locally as the Five Treasures Of The Snow. The first recorded attempt to conquer the peak was made in 1905 by a group that contained celebrated occult writer and black magician Aleister Crowley.
After climbing up from the Yalung Glacier in Nepal he established a high camp at 21,325ft. Many of the porters and guides were inadequately supplied, some even climbing barefoot, and a splinter party fell, triggering a catastrophic avalanche that killed four members of the expedition including key climber Alexis Pache. The Great Beast’s cowardice was manifold on that day. Instead of descending to help with the rescue attempt, Crowley sat in his tent drinking tea despite hearing the shouts and screams from below. (He would later tell a newspaper: "I was not over-anxious in the circumstances...to render help. A mountain accident of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever".)
A Sherpa informed Crowley that the deaths on the peak were enough to satisfy the Kangchenjunga Demon and that if they now pressed on, he would reach the peak unhindered. He disagreed and descended off the mountain, passing the rescue attempt without stopping to help or even acknowledge them.
The Kangchenjunga Demon or Yeti, is just one of the many characters that inhabit 50 Words For Snow, the sublime ninth studio album proper by Kate Bush. Perhaps typically she sees the creature as much maligned and misunderstood, using him – on the first single from the album ‘Wild Man’ – as a metaphor for man’s brutality toward flora, fauna and habitat. Crowley himself would have recognized the idea of having many different terms to describe just one thing, even if not necessarily in regards to snow. The idea that Eskimos have 50 terms for it is a myth, for they barely have more synonyms than we do. But he lived at Boleskine on the Southern banks of Loch Ness in Scotland, a country where there are more terms for rain than there are types of malt whisky. And given that he was reputedly the world’s most wicked man, it is a certainty that he knew more than fifty Anglo Saxon terms for love making, or to be more precise, for fornication.
The snows of Kangchenjunga and K2, the mountains he attempted to scale and failed, were of a uniform and featureless powder, whose legacy was nothing but terrible snow blindness and later, he claimed, insanity. As he grew old the powders that blighted him were cocaine and heroin. He died in abject addiction, referring to his frequent terrors and hallucinations as “Kangchenjunga phobia”.
The snow of this enchanting album exists not on the peaks of mountains or in madness however but in the warm imagination of its creator; shifting through myriad ever changing forms, like the endlessly unique flakes it is comprised of. The title track asks a question. If English speaking people had fifty new words for snow, what would they actually be? Bush then invents this whole new lexicon, inviting Stephen Fry to recite the whole kit and caboodle while pretending to be an Inuit professor. This perfectly twisted and beautiful song exemplifies why Bush is without comparison and to compare others (whatever their gender) to her is simply facile. (The song became even more endeared to me when I realised it unconsciously mimics So Solid Crew’s ‘21 Seconds’ in a really weird way: “Come on Joe, just 22 to go, come on Joe, just 22 to go/ Come on Joe, just you and the eskimos/ Come on now, just 22 to go/ Come on now, just 22 to go/ Let me hear your 50 words for snow.”)
Kate Bush's abilities as a songwriter just get better and better with age. The keen eye that saw a couple’s sex life writ large in their entwining clothes drying on a line in the breeze on ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’ (Aerial) is at evidently hard at work on every song here. She sees the erotic poetic potential in places other song writers wouldn’t dare look for it. ‘Misty’ is the story of a love affair or one night stand between a snowman and a girl and she has no problem taking this to its soggy but bittersweet conclusion. She inspires a powerful performance out of Elton John on ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’, as the pair play disembodied lovers, trying to be together for all time despite corporeal disaster constantly wrenching them apart.
Kate Bush: I’m sorry I’m late phoning but I’ve been caught up in another interview that went on for much longer than it should have.
That’s fine. That’s not a problem.
KB: How are you?
I’m great thanks, how are you?
KB: [indecisively] I’m good… [decisively] Yeah! I’m good thanks!
I’ve got a five-month-old boy, he’s my first child so sleep’s at something of a premium. I say this to everyone at the moment because I'm half asleep.
So obviously looking at the artwork, the track listing, the title, and the lead single ‘Wild Man’ from your new album 50 Words For Snow, it's pretty clear what the theme is. Now culturally snow is really interesting stuff. It can symbolise birth, purity, old age, death, sterility… I was wondering what it means to you.
KB: [laughs derisively] Well, I’ve never heard of it in terms of old age or death… [laughs] That’s quite an opening line. Well, I think it’s really magical stuff. It’s a very unusual, evocative substance and I had really great fun making this record because I love snow.
What are your memories of snow like from childhood? Was playing in the snow something you really looked forward to?
KB: Well… yeah. Do you know any children who don’t look forward to playing in the snow?
I know what you’re saying but there are some who like it more than others…
KB: … Are you knackered?
KB: Have you been up all night?
Yeah, I have.
KB: [laughs uproariously and good naturedly] Well John do you like snow? Don’t you think snow is a thing of wonder and beauty?
I think that if I lived outside of London, maybe in the countryside where it doesn’t turn to a mixture of slush and hazardous black ice, I might like it more. Also, I’m very tall and for whatever reason I just fall over when it’s icy, I always have done. It’s very dangerous I think.
KB: [laughs] Are you a kind of glass half empty kind of guy?
My glass used to be completely dry. Now it’s half empty but I’m working on making it half full… No, I’m joking, of course I like snow, it’s simply marvelous stuff. But obviously there’s been a great thematic shift between Aerial and this album.
So Aerial is full of images of clear skies, still water, warm days and it’s full of the bustle of family life and an easy domesticity. 50 Words For Snow is a similarly beautiful album but there is a chill to it - it lacks the warmth of its predecessor. I wondered if it represented another switch from an autobiographical to a narrative song writing approach?
KB: Yeah, I think it’s much more a kind of narrative story-telling piece. I think one of the things I was playing with on the first three tracks was trying to allow the song structure to evolve the story telling process itself; so that it’s not just squashed into three or four minutes, so I could just let the story unfold.
I’ve only heard the album today so I can’t say I’m completely aware of every nuance but I have picked out a few narrative strands. Would it be fair enough to say that it starts with a birth and ends with a death?
KB: No, not at all. Not to my mind anyway. It may start with a birth but it’s the birth of a snowflake which takes its journey from the clouds to the ground or to this person’s hand. But it’s not really a conceptual piece; it’s more that the songs are loosely held together with this thread of snow.
Fair play. Now some of your fans may have been dismayed to read that there were only seven songs on the album but they should be reassured at this point that the album is 65 minutes long, which makes for fairly long tracks. How long did it take you to write these songs and in the course of writing them did you discard a lot of material?
KB: This has been quite an easy record to make actually and it’s been quite a quick process. And it’s been a lot of fun to make because the process was uninterrupted. What was really nice for me was I did it straight off the back of Director’s Cut, which was a really intense record to make. When I finished it I went straight into making this so I was very much still in that focussed space; still in that kind of studio mentality. And also there was a sense of elation that suddenly I was working from scratch and writing songs from scratch and the freedom that comes with that.
Had you always wanted to do 50 Words For Snow or were you just on a roll after Director’s Cut?
KB: No, they were both records that I’d wanted to do for some time. But obviously I had to get Director’s Cut done before I could start this one... Well, I guess I could have waited until next year but this record had to come out at this time of year, it isn’t the sort of thing I could have put it out in the summer obviously.
Did the snow theme come from an epiphany or a particular grain or idea? Was there one particular day when you happened to be in the snow…
KB: No. I don’t think there was much snow going on through the writing of this… it was more to do with my memories of snow I suppose and the exploration of the images that come with it.
Now the cover art features a snowman kissing a girl and I was worried that her lips might get stuck to his. Do you know like when you’re young and you get your lips stuck to a lolly ice straight out of the freezer?
And what about the carrot getting stuck in her eye? It’s a health and safety issue.
KB: Well she doesn’t look too worried does she?
Yeah, she looks like she's quite into it to be honest. Well, this leads me onto a serious question. Sometimes when I listen to your albums I think of Angela Carter. Sure there may well be a fantastical, almost fairy tale piece of story-telling going on here but just out of reach there is a quite torrid, sexual undercurrent. I mean, I’m right to read this sexuality into this album aren’t I? I’m not just being a pervert.
KB: Well, I think in that particular song obviously there is a sexual encounter going on… you are referring to that song aren’t you?
Yeah, ‘Misty’, which has the reference to the girl's affair with a snowman, the wet sheets, the idea of him melting in her hands and on her bed.
KB: Yeah. [massive pause] I’m sorry John, did you ask me a question? What was the question?
I asked if there was a sexual undercurrent to this record, which is ostensibly quite childlike and innocent?
KB: To that song, yeah. Yeah, because of the story that’s being told. But with the other tracks… I don’t know…
The song ‘Lake Tahoe’ has the feel of Michael Nyman about it to me, now I don’t know if that’s the fact it has the choirboys Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood, and maybe it's reminding me of 'Miserere' from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover or not… But anyway, why Lake Tahoe?
KB: It was because a friend told me about the story that goes with Lake Tahoe so it had to be set there. Apparently people occasionally see a woman who fell into the lake in the Victorian era who rises up and then disappears again. It is an incredibly cold lake so the idea, as I understand it, is that she fell in and is still kind of preserved. Do you know what I mean?
KB: [laughing uproariously] Oh John! I’m so sorry! Are you OK? I have this image that you just want to go to sleep and not listen to me! Are you sure you’re OK?
Yeah! Yeah! I’m fine… this is just the way I sound. [flapping] I’m going to treat myself to a very large cup of coffee as soon as I put the phone down.
KB: Well, that sounds like a good idea. And make sure it’s half full.
Oh, it will be. Possibly even three quarters of the way full. Now I’m on firmer ground with ‘Wild Man’. Kangchenjunga is a Himalayan mountain; the third tallest peak in the world.
KB: Well, I’m impressed! And the Kangchenjunga Demon is another word for Yeti.
If I tell you an interesting story about that mountain will you tell me about the song?
KB: It would be my pleasure John!
Ok, the closest anyone got to conquering Kangchenjunga before the successful ascent, was an attempt led by occult writer Aleister Crowley. Now, at about 22,000 feet four of his party died in an avalanche. Their Sherpa said that the deaths had satisfied the demon and if they carried on they would get safely to the top. And Crowley said, 'Nah, you’re alright mate. I think we’ll just be off home now.'
KB: What a wimp! Well, the first verse of the song is just quickly going through some of the terms that the Yeti is known by and one of those names is the Kangchenjunga Demon. He’s also known as Wild Man and Abominable Snowman.
Have you worked with Andy Fairweather Low before, the [Amen Corner] vocalist who presumably plays the role of the hirsute gentleman of the mountains?
KB: [laughing] Hirsute? Well, no, Andy doesn’t play the hirsute beastie, he’s one of the people on the expedition into the Himalayas. But I think that Andy just has one of the greatest voices. I just love his voice. When I wrote the song I just thought, ‘I’ve got to get Andy to sing on this song because he sounds great.’ Which I think he does. He’s just got a fantastic voice.
This is a slight digression but my favourite non-fiction book is called Straw Dogs by John Gray. And in a nutshell he’s saying that all of man’s fundamental problems come from the fact that he sees himself as being somehow separate from the animals, superior to them and in control of his own destiny, when he's no more in control of his destiny than a polar bear or a squirrel. Do you see the Yeti as being like a man or an animal or is that really the same thing?
KB: Well, I don’t refer to the Yeti as a man in the song. But it is meant to be an empathetic view of a creature of great mystery really. And I suppose it’s the idea really that mankind wants to grab hold of something [like the Yeti] and stick it in a cage or a box and make money out of it. And to go back to your question, I think we’re very arrogant in our separation from the animal kingdom and generally as a species we are enormously arrogant and aggressive. Look at the way we treat the planet and animals and it’s pretty terrible isn’t it?
Well, I think you can learn a lot about a person or a group of people by looking at how they treat both children and animals. So, yes, I agree with that. Do you think of yourself as being ecologically concerned?
KB: Well, I wouldn’t put it that way but I do have a great love of nature and I do think it’s an incredibly beautiful planet if you get chance to go and see the good bits. And I think it’s very positive that there are such a lot people looking at the whole issue and trying to do something about it even though it’s perhaps got a bit of a fashion banner attached to it and it’s pretty late in the day. Let’s hope it’s not too late that something can’t be done.
Now, ‘Snowed In At Wheeler Street’ features the vocal talents of Sir Elton John and I was wondering, was the track written with him in mind?
KB: Yes. Absolutely.
How long have you known him?
KB: Oooh. I’ve known him for a long time. He used to be one of my greatest musical heroes. He was such an inspiration to me when I was starting to write songs. I just adored him. I suppose at that time a lot of the well-known performers and writers were quite guitar based but he could play really hot piano. And I’ve always loved his stuff. I’ve always been a fan so I kind of wrote the song with him in mind. And I’m just blown away by his performance on it. Don’t you think it’s great?
Yeah, he really gives it his all.
KB: He sings with pure emotion.
It’s good to hear him belting it out. Back when you were 13 years old and practicing playing the organ in your parents’ house and just starting to write your own songs and lyrics, what was the Elton John album that inspired you?
KB: Well, I love them all and I worked my way through them but my absolute favourite was Madman Across The Water. I just loved that record. I loved the songs on it and the production. It’s a really beautiful album.
Now please correct me if I’m wrong but this song, in my mind at least, seems to hark back to ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ because it’s about a fantasy – almost idealised - lover.
KB: No it isn’t. It’s nothing to do with that at all. The idea is that there are two lovers, two souls who keep on meeting up in different periods of time. So they meet in Ancient Rome and then they meet again walking through time. But each time something happens to tear them apart.
So it’s more like a metaphysical love story between two spirits who span time by the occupation of different bodies?
KB: Yeah. It’s like two old souls that keep on meeting up.
Now I can’t be 100% sure but when I read the name Professor Joseph Yupik as having something to do with the title track on the credits to this album, I have a feeling that my leg was being pulled. Because I know that Yupik is a Siberian Eskimo language isn’t it?
KB: [laughing] Yeah, it’s just a bit of fun John! No, I wrote the song and I asked Stephen [Fry] who is playing Joe Yupik to come and read the words.
I’ve got to say that it’s my favourite song on the album. I love it and keep on playing it over and over again.
KB: You do? Awwww. Thanks!
I love the way out of the fifty words that you come up with for snow, without a bit of digging round I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which words were real, which were made up, which were partially true and which were obscure, archaic or foreign. I know that the whole idea of Eskimos having 50 words for snow is false but at the same time I do know that the Sami people of Lapland do actually have hundreds of words for snow. But from your point of view where did the idea for such a beautiful and weird song come from?
KB: Well, I’m really pleased you like it. Years ago I think I must have heard this idea that there were 50 words for snow in this, ah, Eskimo Land! And I just thought it was such a great idea to have so many words about one thing. It is a myth - although, as you say it may hold true in a different language - but it was just a play on the idea, that if they had that many words for snow, did we? If you start actually thinking about snow in all of its forms you can imagine that there are an awful lot of words about it. Just in our immediate language we have words like hail, slush, sleet, settling… So this was a way to try and take it into a more imaginative world. And I really wanted Stephen to read this because I wanted to have someone who had an incredibly beautiful voice but also someone with a real sense of authority when he said things. So the idea was that the words would get progressively more silly really but even when they were silly there was this idea that they would have been important, to still carry weight. And I really, really wanted him to do it and it was fantastic that he could do it.
One of the things that I find fascinating about your back catalogue is that you opt to work with people who don’t always make that much sense when you look at it on paper but sonically it always works. So other artists wouldn’t even run into record labels or producers saying to them, 'What the Hell are you doing? You can’t have Lenny Henry and Prince on the same song.' Because they wouldn’t even have thought of doing that in the first place. But to be clear, these experiments - if that’s what you would call them – have paid off handsomely. What do you do to motivate these people who are not pop artists per se, to get performances out of them?
KB: What do you mean?
Well in the case of Stephen did you just say come in and read this or did you have to brief him first on how to deliver what became an excellent performance.
KB: I just briefly explained to him the idea of the song, more or less what I said to you really. I just said it’s our idea of 50 Words For Snow. Stephen is a lovely man but he is also an extraordinary person and an incredible actor amongst his many other talents. So really it was just trying to get the right tone which was the only thing we had to work on. He just came into the studio and we just worked through the words. And he works very quickly because he’s such an able performer.
I guess for me this song represents the fact that outside of music, one of the over-riding themes of your career has been an interest in the literary or poetic substance of words.
KB: Er… well, thank you. I take that as a huge compliment. I love words, I think they’re fascinating and incredibly wonderful things and part of the joy of my work is that I not only get to work with music but also with words. Sometimes it’s a difficult process but a lot of the time it’s really fun.
And finally I’m torn between Anechoic, Blown From Polar Fur and Robber’s Veil as my favourite words for snow. What’s yours?
KB: I think faloop'njoompoola is one of my favourites. [laughs]
Listen, thanks very much. It was great to talk to you and I’m sorry for being half asleep at the start of the interview.
KB: That’s alright, I know what it’s like having a little lad. What’s his name?
KB: Little John… How cute! Well, you just enjoy it, they grow up so quickly. It’s exhausting but my god… there’s nothing like it. Now you go and have a nice cup of coffee my love! Ha ha ha! Bye-bye!
“50 Words for Snow” is released via Fish People / EMI on November 21. More details at Katebush.com