My best friend introduced me to Kate Bush by showing me a YouTube video of the British singer-songwriter performing “Kite” at the Hammersmith Odeon (now the Hammersmith Apollo) in London, as part of her 1979 “Tour of Life.” In a sky-blue leotard trimmed with powder-blue bat wings, Bush tiptoes barefoot down a ramp in pursuit of two shirtless male dancers twirling umbrellas. She flaps her arms, leaping and prancing across the stage while singing in one of the weirdest sopranos I’ve ever heard. I remember thinking, What the hell am I watching?
If you’ve never heard a Kate Bush track, brace yourself: Her singing voice is a lilting, brashly high-pitched yelp. For the past 35 years, that voice has only been accessible through recordings: She’s released 10 studio albums spanning four decades, but her 1979 tour of England and mainland Europe was her first and last. Now, Bush has announced a series of 15 concerts this summer in London, back at the Hammersmith Apollo—her first live performances in 12 years.
Bush’s music is an acquired taste. There’s her love-it-or-hate-it voice, and then there are her esoteric lyrics, which draw from literature, old films, mythology, and, occasionally, more earthly matters—The Kick Inside’s “Strange Phenomena,” for example, is a paean to the menstrual cycle (“Every girl knows about the punctual blues/ But who's to know the power/ Behind our moves”). On another song, “Pi,” from the 2005 album Aerial, Bush sings the number pi to its 138th decimal place.
As a child in east London, Bush was raised on music. Her father, a doctor, played the piano, and her mother was a former Irish folk dancer. Her brothers, John and Paddy, were also musicians, and would go on to collaborate with Bush throughout her career. (Paddy Bush appeared on every one of his sister’s albums up to 1993’s The Red Shoes.) Kate taught herself piano at a young age, and began writing songs and playing them for her father and brothers as a teenager. When Bush was 15, a family friend tipped off Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour to Bush’s talent, and with his help she recorded a demo and, at 16, secured a record deal with EMI.
Bush’s family and her label agreed she shouldn’t rush her career; in 1978, at 19, she released her first album, The Kick Inside. The album’s breakout single was “Wuthering Heights,” sung in a haunting pitch from the point of view of Cathy Earnshaw, the doomed heroine of Emily Brontë’s novel of the same name. “Wuthering Heights” shot to No. 1 on the British charts—the first single both written and sung by a woman to accomplish that feat. The video, which features a lone Bush singing in the middle of a misty field, showcases the singer’s singular dance moves: Her alternatively flowing and choppy movements look like a cross between ballet and karate. (In fact, Bush practiced karate in her youth; she took dance and mime classes with Lindsay Kemp, who famously choreographed David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour.)
“The Tour of Life” leaned heavily on dance. Featuring songs from The Kick Inside and Lionheart, both released in 1978, it was an ornate affair, featuring dancers, mimes, a magician, complex lighting, and 17 costume changes. The British music magazine Melody Maker called it “the most magnificent spectacle ever encountered in the world of rock.” In order for Bush to dance and sing at the same time, her crew fashioned a wireless, wearable microphone; she became the first singer to use the headset mic, the kind that Madonna and Britney Spears later became known for. “It’s an amazing feeling of freedom,” Bush says in a 1978 BBC documentary, “because there’s nothing in your hands and yet you can hear your voice being projected miles away. It’s incredible.”
The 1980 album Never for Ever, which she co-produced, was Bush’s first No. 1 album, and her first to employ synthesizers and drum machines. The first album she recorded at her 48-track home studio, 1985’s Hounds of Love, is by far her most critically acclaimed and radio friendly, and it remains her best-selling album. By this time, Bush’s voice had mellowed and lost some of its squeakiness; compared to her later work, her first two albums, which showcase the uninhibited theatricality of Bush’s voice, sound like soundtracks to a stage musical.
Why has Bush avoided public performance for so long? Some have speculated that Bush’s fear of flying prevented her from touring after 1979, or that the death of a 21-year-old lighting director during a rehearsal on one of the tour stops had shaken her. Bush has said that she found the Tour of Life “enormously enjoyable,” but added, “Physically it was absolutely exhausting.” She did a handful of performances in the 1980s, often in tandem with another artist. She took some time off, and in 1998 gave birth to a son, Albert. Now that he’s a teenager, it seems, she’s ready for the public’s gaze, and it’s ready for her: When she announced her upcoming concert series, her website quickly crashed.
If you haven’t yet been acquainted with this strange and wonderful talent, now’s the time to get on it. Here are 10 standout tracks to get you started.
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