Inside Kate Bush’s alternate universe

It’s fitting that Bush recorded two duets with Peter Gabriel. It wasn’t unusual for artists in the 1980s to transition from art music to pop music (The Human League) or vice versa (Talk Talk) but Bush, like Gabriel, collapsed the distinction. While her vision sometimes overlapped with what the public wanted, she didn’t care when it didn’t. The new song she recorded for her 1986 victory-lap singles collection The Whole Story was Experiment IV, a bizarre number about a secret military project to develop a sonic superweapon, with a video deemed too gory for Top of the Pops. Yet not long afterwards she was perfectly happy to write a song for the John Hughes romcom She’s Having a Baby. The extraordinarily moving This Woman’s Work has since eclipsed the film, reappearing to great effect in TV series such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Extras. She is someone who will invent 50 exquisite synonyms for snow (shimmerglisten, mountain-sob) and ask Stephen Fry to narrate them, or put Prince on the same song as Lenny Henry. In her music the separation between showbusiness and the avant-garde simply doesn’t exist.

If Bush has ever fallen out of fashion, then it was during the 1990s, when she retreated from music for family reasons after the disappointment of 1993’s The Red Shoes. That album was named after a film about a woman who is killed by her dedication to art. Her 2005 comeback, Aerial, resolved that tension by intertwining creativity, family life and nature in a more holistic way. Her music “comes from a quiet place,” she said.

Her influence, however, has been constant, with disciples including Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, Goldfrapp, Florence Welch, Joanna Newsom, Tricky and Outkast. Some artists open the door to a new room in the house of music; Bush is one of a handful whose imagination revealed the existence of a whole new wing. For her, anything can be the germ of a song (inspirations on Aerial include laundry, bird song and the number Pi) and any perspective is legitimate: a child, a foetus, a cockney bank robber, a Himalayan explorer, a man watching his wife give birth, a ghost. She is an adventurer and an alchemist; a perfectionist and a dreamer.

For a genius, Bush is unusually nice, with no reputation for tormented or difficult behaviour. The closest she has ever sailed to controversy is when she praised Theresa May, as a female prime minister, in 2016. From Joni and Aretha to Adele and Mary J Blige, great female artists are often associated with the expression of emotional pain – heartbreak is their engine – but Bush has a rare talent for joy, empathy and wonder.

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