British singer-songwriter Kate Bush is 53, but to many people she remains permanently frozen in amber at 19, dramatically wandering the moors in the video for “Wuthering Heights,” the song that launched her career and those of a thousand imitators.
In the ’70s and ’80s Bush released a series of dreamy, sexy art-folk albums credited with influencing PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple, Bjork and just about any significant female artist of the past 30 years. She was tough, uncompromising and fiercely private, though never what anyone would call prolific. Bush has released only 10 studio albums in three decades, two of them in 2011: “Director’s Cut,” which features re-recorded and re-invented versions of her classic songs, and the new “50 Words for Snow,” a strange and beautiful disc of thematically linked songs about winter.
Bush lives in the English countryside with her husband and her 13-year-old son, Bertie, an occasional contributor to her albums. On the phone from home, she’s funny and solicitous and sweet, more like the British equivalent of a soccer mom than a Bronte character come to life.
You’ve put out two albums this year. Was that accidental?
It wasn’t accidental, but I’m still recovering from the shock that I managed to do it.
You’ve described working on “Director’s Cut” as being more grueling than doing a straightforward studio album.
It wasn’t what I expected at all. I thought “Director’s Cut” would be more straightforward because the songs were already written. I hadn’t expected it to be so full of technical exercises, in a way. I wanted to approach the songs from this point in time, as if I were making a new album, now. So one of the first things that had to happen was a lot of editing, to let the songs breathe and to let them be longer. It was just something that I hadn’t expected, which is the way with a lot of things you start, isn’t it?
And then when I started [“Snow”] I thought, I’ll never get it finished in time for winter, and it just seemed to come together so quickly. And it’s not the sort of album you can release in the summer, so I think in a lot of ways I was driven, because otherwise I would have had to wait and release it next winter, which I really didn’t want to do. It’s a seasonal record, don’t you think?
You seem distressingly normal. Aren’t you supposed to be dramatic, wearing long dresses and carrying on about heaths?
Yeah, but that was 30 years ago. Aren’t we allowed to change? And anyway, that wasn’t me, was it? That was the character of the song.
What’s your normal, everyday life like?
It’s pretty normal. . . . The last few years I’ve been so intensively working, they’ve been very intense, very busy. But fun.
When you’re out of the fray, do you find yourself missing it? Listening to other people on the radio and thinking, “I should be doing that”?
I’ve been doing this a long time now, and I very much think that while it’s work, it’s very much a part of who I am. I’m very lucky because I love my work, but I love my life. I have a lovely family and I love spending time with them. We’re all challenged with trying to get a balance somehow in life.
A song like “Misty,” about the romance between a snowman and a flesh-and-blood person, where does that come from?
I don’t know. By that point I had really homed in on writing about snow. It’s like, where does anything come from? That’s the fascinating thing about creative work. One minute it’s not there, the next minute it is.
A lot of artists describe songwriting as a mystical process.
I think that’s true, although there’s a level of work that kicks in, certainly for me. . . . There’s an initial inspiration that starts the process, but it always has to end in pretty hard work. There’s a certain honing process, where you get a sort of rough shape and you sort of see where it could go, and you spend the rest of the time sort of getting the details. I think a lot of processes are like that.
You have a few guest musicians on the new album. Do you find you can pretty much call anybody you want and they’ll come in? You probably don’t get turned down very much.
Well, I don’t know. So far, I’ve been very lucky.
You have Elton John on the album — that must have been a fun day in the studio.
It was a great day. I really love Elton’s work, he’s a huge hero of mine, and a great inspiration when I first started writing songs. Actually being able to work with him, it was brilliant.
A lot of female singers get compared to you, like PJ Harvey and Florence Welch. Do you hear it, too? Or are those comparisons way off?
I’m very flattered that people would say that. I guess I haven’t heard them, a lot of what they’ve done, to be honest. It’s always different when you see things from outside a process, isn’t it? It’s very nice to think that I’ve somehow been an influence, but I don’t know that that’s true.
Stewart is a freelance writer.