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A Classic Kate Bush Interview: Exploring The Sensual World
The Quietus , March 14th, 2011 11:46

As Kate Bush prepares to release a new LP based on her classic The Sensual World, we dig into the Rock's Backpages archive for a piece with Len Brown's 7 October 1989 NME interview looking at the background to the record, and her own track-by-track guide to the songs within.

"...on Howth head in the grey tweed suit in his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all of a womans body yes" (From Molly Bloom's speech in James Joyce's Ulysses)

"Mmh yes / Then I'd take the kiss of seedcake back from his mouth / Going deep South, go down, mmh, yes /Took six big wheels and rolled our bodies / Off of Howth Head and into the flesh, mmh, yes / He said I was a flower of the mountain, yes / But now I've powers o'er a woman's body – yes." (From Kate Bush's ‘The Sensual World’)

WE MEET IN a rather sensual room in a sumptuous West London hotel. It's an appropriate place to interview Kate Bush. The walls are stacked with paintings of nudes – pink boobs, vermillion nips, plenty of Botticelli cheeks – of cockfights and banquets, of mankind indulging in animal passions. Orange juice and nuts are consumed voraciously throughout discussions.

Four years from Hounds Of Love, 12 months since we last met in the company of three Bulgarian grannies called Trio Bulgarka, Kate's changed little physically. Still petite, naturally older, her hair's still long and henna-ed and the nervous laugh is as infectious as ever.

Musically she's been gone a long time. Sure there've been collaborations (Gabriel's 'Don't Give Up'), charitable outings (Amnesty, Comic Relief, Ferry Aid) and The Whole Story compilation, but The Sensual World is her first fresh substantial work since the 'Experiment IV' single in late '86. Reasonable people were beginning to wonder whether, at last, she'd lost it completely and thrown in the towel.

What's always been remarkable about Kate Bush has been the ability to withdraw from the music world, escape from the machine, and return months or years later with something rejuvenating, original, set apart from chart-fodder disposable pop. Like Bowie in the 70s, Bush in the 80s has been one of the true oddities, exceptions to the rules. Always out of step, always unique.

And always, as The Sensual World implies, provocative. Bells ring as you enter her 'Sensual World', bells of celebration, of sensual joy. "The communication of music is very much like making love," she once said, so it's entirely appropriate that she should derive her title track from James Joyce's Ulysses and, in particular, Molly Bloom's thoughts on sex, sensuality and oysters at 2/6 per dozen.

"Because I couldn't get permission to use a piece of Joyce it gradually turned into the songs about Molly Bloom the character stepping out of the book, into the real world and the impressions of sensuality," says Kate, softly, almost childlike. "Rather than being in this two dimensional world, she's free, let loose to touch things, feel the ground under her feet, the sunsets, just how incredibly sensual a world it is.

"I originally heard the piece read by Siobhan McKenna years ago and I thought 'My God! This is extraordinary, what a piece of writing!' it's a very unusual train of thought, very attractive. First I got the "mmh yes" and that made me think of Molly Bloom's speech, and we had this piece of music in the studio already so it came together really quickly. Then, because I couldn't get permission to use Joyce, it took another year changing it to what it is now. Typical innit!"

The result is extraordinarily sensual mouth music, far removed from the cod-pieced crassness that usually passes from physical love songs: "And at first with the charm around him, mmh yes / he loosened it so if it slipped between my breasts / He'd rescue it, mmh yes".

"In the original piece it's just 'Yes!" – a very interesting way of leading you in, it pulls you into the piece by the continual acceptance of all these sensual things. 'Ooh wonderful!' I was thinking I'd never write anything as obviously sensual as the original piece but when I had to rewrite the words I was trapped.

"How could you recreate that mood without going into that level of sensuality? So there I was writing stuff that months before I'd said I'd never write," she laughs. "I have to think of it in terms of pastiche and not that it's me so much."

Having begun her career on The Kick Insider singing lines like, "Oh I need it oh oh feel it feel it my love" and "feeling of sticky love inside", and then gone on inLionheart to write a lyric like "the more I think of sex the better it gets", her reluctance to get too sensual, too fruity a decade later may seem a little strange.

But as Bush has increasingly gained control over the presentation of her music and her image during this period, stepping back from early marketing attempts to titillate (God, how they worked!) these reservations are understandable.

She claims The Sensual World contains the most "positive female energy" in her work to date and compositions like 'This Woman's Work' tend to enforce that idea.

"I think it's to do with me coming to terms with myself on different levels. In some ways, like on Hounds of Love, it was important for me to get across the sense of power in the songs that I'd associated with male energy and music. But I didn't feel that this time and I was very much wanting to express myself as a woman in my music rather than as a woman wanting to sound as powerful as a man.

"And definitely 'The Sensual World', the track, was very much a female track for me. I felt it was a really new expression, feeling good about being a woman musically."

But isn't it odd that this feminist or feminine perspective should have been inspired by a man, Joyce?

"Yes, in some ways but it's also the idea of Molly escaping from the author, out into the real world, being this real human rather than the character, stepping out of the page into the sensual world."

So is this concept of sensuality the most important thing to you at the moment, is it one of the life forces?

"Yes, it's about contact with humans, it could all come down to the sensual level. Touch? Yes, even if it's not physical touch, reaching out and touching people by moving them. I think it's a very striking part of this planet, the fact there is so much for us to enjoy. The whole of nature is really designed for everything to have a good time doing what they should be doing...

"Fancy being a bee, leading an incredible existence, all these flowers designed just for you, flying into the runway, incredible colours, some trip..."

Mmh, buzz.

Many mumbles have breathed their last since Kate Bush first arrived on our screens, flouncing about in dry ice and funeral shroud, oddly crowing 'Wuthering Heights'; obviously different and apart from any musical movement before or since. But whereas the all-conquering, universally acclaimed Hounds Of Love affair at least slotted into the-then pop world, The Sensual World is clearly even more out of step with the current piss poor post-SAW scene.

Probably because it's got a slightly ethnic feel, founded on Kate's use of Irish and Bulgarian musics and musicians in the creative process. Perhaps because she's been free from pop for so long. Maybe because she's crossed the threshold of 30?

"God! Yes, I'm sure it's all tied in with it," she laughs. "I think it's a very important time from 28 to 32-ish, where there's some kind of turning point. Someone said in your teens you get the physical puberty and between 28 and 32 mental puberty. Let's fact it, you've got to start growing up when you're 30, it does make you feel differently, I feel very positive having gone through the last couple of years."

She's not specific about what she's actually gone through in recent years, apart from the usual trials by media. If you were to scan back through the smeared pages of cheaper organs you would probably come to the conclusion that she's been a) pregnant b) fighting drug and alcohol addiction c) 25 stone and d) having several flings with Peter Gabriel.

More credibly, it seems she's been reclusively struggling with her music and even living in bliss (somewhere near Kent, apparently) with long-term lover, bassist and moustachioed-mixer Del Palmer.

And yet one is naturally tempted to peer into The Sensual World and inquire whether or not a song such as 'Between A Man And A Woman' is a personal account of romantic difficulties? ("It's so hard for love to stay together / With the modern Western pressures".)

"But anything you write, people tend to think it's about you," she says, nervously. "Like Woody Allen, his films are obviously very personal, there's obviously an awful lot of him in his work, but you see him being interviewed and as soon as he's asked if it's personal he gets really defensive, it's a very awkward area...

"On this album there's more of me in there in a more honest way than before and yet, although some of it is me, the songs aren't about me. It's this kind of vague mish-mash of other people and yourself, bits of films, things you've heard, all put together in a mood that says a lot about me at this time.

"A lot of people will think these songs are about me. I've always had that and like, with 'Deeper Understanding', people react immediately saying, 'Is this autobographical? So you're into computers now? So you spend all night on computers?' People immediately switch on to the mechanicalness. It's a song about computes so she must be into computers!"

The fascination with Bush's private life, and the title-tattle speculation that's surrounded it, obviously arises from the woman's reluctance to play the fame game. True, she now and then turns out for charitable gatherings but you hardly ever see her photographed legless in Lennon's or chucking up outside the Groucho like proper pop stars.

"I've been almost me for the last couple of years but, in the last two weeks, I've been aware of people treating me as what seems to be a very famous person. It's totally surreal, going into an isolated way or working, three of four years at a time, then coming out and having everyone look at you as if they know you.

"It's healthier for me not to indulge in being a famous person. It's ridiculous, there's absolutely no reason why I should be at all, other than that I make records."

"I find it extraordinary that people should want to write about me when I do so little. I just pop out and do an album and go away gain."

It sometimes seems that way. Three years between The Dreaming and Hounds Of Love, four more before we begin to enter The Sensual World. Yet the creative business is a lengthy, complicated and concentrated process, initially begun by Kate and Del in their home-studio.

"I found the writing very difficult on this" she admits, almost embarrassed. "I don't know what I wanted to say or how to treat the songs, make them sound differently, to get outside musicians in to do something or just go away and think. A lot of it is jig-sawing. I'd get to the point where I couldn't write, where I was sick of the songs. And yet you thought they were okay to begin with. The problem is holding onto that energy level."

The diverse musicianship on The Sensual World, the variety of sounds and rootsy emotions that have been brought to bear, is perhaps the album's greatest strength. Around the hub of Kate, her multi-intrumentalist brother Paddy and Del Palmer, are gathered Celtic craftsmen such as Davey Spillane, Alan Stivell and Donal Lunny plus the remarkable veteran vocal talents of Bulgari's Trio Bulgarka. Throw in Dave Gilmour guitar solos and flurries of fiddle from Nigel Kennedy and you're beginning to approach 'the Sensual World'.

Her Celtic passion has been longstanding and comes from her Irish mother: 'The Night Of The Swallow' back on '82's The Dreaming first featured Donal Lunny with piper Liam O'Flynn. And brother Paddy's obsession with obscure European musics encouraged Kate to listen to those Bulgarian voices and try and harness them with her own.

"I wanted to work with the Irish guys again because it gets better each time. But I was never sure it'd come off with Trio Bulgarka. On 'Never Be Mine' all the Irish stuff was done and then the girls came in (the girls must be 180 years old collectively! – LB). Two separate entities put together but similar energies and sometimes you can hear little Irish riffs and flavours in the Bulgarian music and vice-versa.

"For Bulgaria, the terrific amount of suffering they've gone through is so apparent in the music, so spiritually powerful and intense that, it you let it, it'd just rip you apart. Maybe it's the same with Ireland. Maybe these are two races that have turned to music in times of hardship. Broken hearts singing, in terrible pain, getting help through the music."

The overall result of these liaisons is a definite departure from everything Bush has done before. In the past she's used ethnic instruments and accents just to make her own compositions (and costumes) more exotic – take 'Kashka From Baghdad' or 'Egypt' – but here the Irish-Bulgarian combination is powerful and effective, and integral part of The Sensual World. (Trio Bulgarka and the uillean piper Davey Spillane feature on three tracks, Spillane playing a wonderfully strange Macadonian solo on the title track/single.)

"I'm curious and nervous to know how people will take it," grins Kate. "They'll either really like it or hate it. Ethnic music for some people is just too far out, they can't relate unless there's a Western influence, they can't understand."

To be frank, when Kate Bush began and some of us where still at our physical peaks, the appeal was largely physical and sexual. Mmh yes, the wiggling of 'Wow'. Mmh yes, the bounce of 'Babooshka'. Mmh yes, the erotic womb-view of 'Breathing'. But we've all passed a lot of water since then and, naturally, all grown up.

Except, it sometimes seems from the songs, Kate herself. Listening back, to tracks like 'Cloudbusting', and now to 'Reaching Out', it seems as if the child in her has been preserved. In 'The Fog' on The Sensual World her father, Dr John Bush, paternally announces: "just put your feet down child / 'Cos you're all grown up now".

"It's hard for me to say, the way people see me is so diverse," comments Kate, on the theory that childishness is part of her appeal. "I suppose in lots of ways I'm still very much like a little girl and probably always will be, even if I make it to 60 or 70.

"It's an interesting perspective of life, a child's maybe it's because I'm so small and still at knee level. The symbolism of the child is such a powerful thing, because it's the small, vulnerable thing looking out at the big world."

But hasn't reaching 30...

"Okay, stop rubbing it in, young man..."

Don't you start worrying about what people think of you physically?

"But this is like the first time we've experienced young music growing old and it's like people won't allow it. Look at the stick a lot of our gorgeous men are getting now that they're in their 40s. It doesn't seem to be hip for guys to be in their 40s and still in the rock industry.

"I don't really see myself as a performer and that's hard for me – when I have to come out and expose myself and be the saleswoman of the hour. I don't have the same kind of exposure as other performers do. I suppose if people think I look horrible they tend to keep it to themselves. Maybe I haven't started hitting the real horrors yet, what do you think?"


"Oh dear!"

No, no you don't look horrible at all!

"It's this whole train of thought. 'Oh my God, doesn't she look old!' Usually I get, 'Oh my Gawd, doesn't she look small!'"

"When could I wear a sunset, mmh, yes / And how we'd wished to live in the sensual world / You don't need words – just one kiss, then another" ('The Sensual World')

Pleasures of the senses? Or the vicious indulgence of animal passions? You can view the sensual world either way. To Kate Bush, sensuality is obviously a positive, receptive, natural experience, far removed from Happy Mondays-style chemistry-set hedonism. Check that video, "walking through these woods, with the weather changing, the elemental energies of the earth, wind, pollen, sunset, bite of hail, continually walking through the same environment with that sense of the changing world".

To the believer this is real sensuality, communion with nature, oneness with the earth. To the cynic it's a load of hippie shit in any language. And predictably, at the centre of the whole philosophy, there's the doctrine of, yes, love. So choose your path carefully, children...

"Love is a wonderful powerful thing," trills Kate, without a hint of Fotherington-Thomas. "In many ways nearly every song I've ever written is a love song. It's very important to try and learn to love people as much as you can. But we all get so scared. It's only when people are at points in their lives when they get such shocks that they take it as it really should be. The rest of us just seem to piss about."

"Then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yet to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." (Ulysses)

A Track By Track guide to The Sensual World with Kate Bush

"It feels like ten very separate songs, ten short stories, but although I think there's probably a mood that hangs them together it's not really conceptual at all."

Very true, Kate, except there's 11 of 'em; from the Joycean celebration of 'The Sensual World' single through to the almost 'Dreaming' – like optimism of 'Walk Straight Down The Middle'.

'The Sensual World'

Based on Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of Joyce's Ulysses, 'The Sensual World' only stepped off the printed page when the publishers refused to give Kate Bush permission to quote the novel.

"It transformed the song. Obviously the words had to change but also the musical sections were completely different. By them being uncooperative it made the track better in many ways, but it was very difficult to keep the rhythmic sense of the words."

What's the significance of the bells at the beginning of the song?

"I've got a thing about the sound of bells, it's one of those fantastic sound, sound of celebration. They're used to mark points in life – births, weddings, deaths – but they give this tremendous feeling of celebration.

"In the original speech she's talking of the time when he proposed to her, and I just had the image of bells, this image of them sitting on the hillside with the sound of bells in the distance. In hindsight, I also think it's a lovely way to start an album, a feeling of celebration that puts me on a hillside somewhere on a sunny afternoon and it's like mmh... Sounds of celebration get fewer and fewer, we haven't many left, and yet people complain of the sound of bells in cities."

Why's Davey Spillane playing a Macedonian air on his uillean pipes in the middle of it?

"It was one of those, 'Oh what the hell' things. That seems to have been the way with a lot of this album. Sort of 'Oh god, tut, will it work, ooh, er...' Then when I've eventually just gone for it it seems to have worked."

'Love And Anger'

"This song, this bloody song..."

"It lay buried here, it lay deep inside me / It's so deep I don't think that I can / Speak about it."

"It was one of the most difficult to put together yet the first to be written. I came back to it 18 months later and pieced it together. It doesn't really have a story, it's just me trying to write a song ha, ha.

"Obviously the imagery you get as a child is very strong. This is about who you can or cannot confide in when there's something you can't talk about. 'If you can't tell your sister/If you can't tell the priest'...who did I have in the lyrics? Was it sister or mothers, I can't remember."

'The Fog'

Featuring Kate's dad, the good doctor Bush, plus Nigel Kennedy and some wicked seagull imitations. It seems to be more about ponds and swimming pools than pea-soupers.

"It's about trying to grow up. Growing up for most people is just trying to stop escaping, looking at things inside yourself rather than outside. But I'm not sure if people ever grow up properly, it's a continual process, growing in a positive sense."

'Reaching Out'

After Papa, Kate's "reaching out for Mama". Another song about children beginning to experience the adult world. "See how the child reaches out instinctively / To feel how fire will feel!". Probably the least developed work on The Sensual World but it does have strange strings arranged by Michael Nyman.

'Heads We're Dancing'

I found it really funny, bit strange in a way...

"That's a very dark song, not funny at all..."

"It was '39 before the music started". Did you write it to tie in with the war anniversary?

"No, purely coincidental, I wrote the song two years ago, and in lots of ways I wouldn't write a song like it now. I'd really hate it if people were offended by this... But it was all started by a family friend years ago who'd been to dinner and sat next to this guy who was really fascinating, so charming, they sat all night chatting and joking. And next day he found out it was Oppenheimer. And his friend was horrified because he really despised what the guy stood for.

"I understood the reaction but I felt a bit sorry for Oppenheimer, he tried to live with what he'd done and actually, I think committed suicide. But I was so intrigued by this idea of my friend being so taken by this person until they knew who they were and then it completely changing their attitude.

"So I was thinking, what if you met the Devil, the ultimate one, charming, elegant, well spoken. Then it turned into this whole idea of a girl being at a dance and this guy coming up, cocky and charming, and she dances with him. Then a couple of days later she sees in the paper that it was Hitler. Complete horror, she was that close, perhaps could've changed history.

"Hitler was very attractive to women 'cos he was such a powerful figure, yet such an evil guy. I'd hate to feel I was glorifying the situation, but I do know that whereas in a piece of film it would be quite acceptable in a song it's a little bit sensitive."

'Deeper Understanding'

Bizarrely balancing the ancient voices of Bulgaria with lyrics and effects from the computer age. Dark, lonely songs about someone betrayed by humanity, finding solace in the friendship of a clever black box that sings like Sparky. "As the people grow colder / I turn to my computer...I press Execute". Bleak and disturbing, almost as morbid as some of her early creations, and elevated by Yanka Rupkina's emotional solo.

'Between A Man And A Woman'

"It's about a relationship being a very finely balanced thing that can be easily thrown off by a third party. The whole thing really came from a line in The Godfather, during some family argument, when Marlon Brando says 'Don't interfere, it's between a man and a woman'. It's exploring the idea of trying to keep a relationship together, how outside forces can break into it... Rubbish, really, but I quite like the cello."

'Never Be Mine'

"Ooh, the thrill and the hurting...I know that this will never be mine."

Kate and the Bulgars again, supported by Spillane's Irish piping.

"It's that whole thing of how, in some situations, it's the dream you want, not the real thing. It was pursuing a conscious realization that a person is really enjoying the fantasy and aware it won't become reality. So often you think it's the end you want, but this is actually looking at the process that will never get you there. Bit of a heart-game you play with yourself."

'Rocket's Tail (For Rocket)'

"Rocket's actually my cat, but it was written for the Bulgarian girls. Ridiculous collection of images, nothing to do with Rocket really, he just started it all off. At the time the only song I could think of that mentioned rockets was 'Rocket Man' but since then there has been about three of them. I feel a bit like the Python sketch with that guy making eight millimeter films saying 'Hitchcock had his Rear Window out while mine was still at the chemists'."

'This Woman's Work'

"It was written for John Hughes' film She's having A Baby. Really light comedy about this young guy who gets married, very much a kid. His wife is pregnant and it's alright until they get to the hospital and the baby's in the breach position.

"That's the sequence I have to write the songs about and it's really very moving, him in the waiting room, having flashbacks of his wife and him going for walks, decoration...It's exploring his sadness and guilt, suddenly it's the point where he has to grow up. He'd been such a wally up to this point."

'Walk Straight Down The Middle'

The most positive statement on The Sensual World and featuring some of Kate's most remarkable vocals to date. Perhaps even an impression of a howler monkey?

"My mother thought it was a peacock, she was looking for a peacock, isn't that sweet? I fancied being Captain Beefheart at that point and it just came to me, standing out, calling for help in the middle. It just went 'BBRRRROOOOAAAAAAAA'.

"It's the idea of how our fears are sometimes holding us back, and yet there's really no need to be frightened. Like 'The Fog', being scared because the water's deep, you could be drowned. But actually if you put your feet down the bottom's there and it's only waist high so what's the problem? Just get on with it, that's what I'm trying to tell myself.

"'Walk Straight Down The Middle' came together very quickly. It's about following either of two extremes when you really want to plough this path straight down the middle. Rather than 'WAAAARRRGGGHHHH' and being thrown from one end of the spectrum to the other. I'd like to think of myself as holding the centre whereas in fact I'm 'WAAAARRRGGGHHHH' taking off all the time."

© Len Brown, 1989

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