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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #1 - Dawning

I have been fascinated by Kate Bush since I first saw her perform Wuthering Heights as a seven-year old. At thirteen, with the money earned at my first summer job, I began buying her albums and singles and fell completely under her spell. For over three decades, Kate has been an intrinsic part of my life. Her music affects me like no other, it speaks to my soul, ignites my imagination and excites my emotions. Quite simply, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without this woman's work.


Through the decades the one element that left a slight pang of sadness was the thought that I would never get to see her perform her music live on stage. I was too young to have gone to her tour in 1979, but I bought the video of that show and played it endlessly. In some ways that made the absence harder, as Kate was electric on stage, in every part an equal to the artist she is on record.


Occasionally there would be stirrings that she might perform again, even one time when I heard it from her own lips. But each time it came to naught. It would become a regular topic of conversation with Amanda, my bestie and fellow Kate adorer: how amazing it would be, but how it might also cause us to expire from the stress of it all.


When the announcement finally came, just five short months ago, it felt unreal. Each day I had to check the news to make sure it was not another of the "Kate's doing a tour" dreams that sporadically troubled my sleep. And it was as stressful as we'd feared. That week between the announcement and the tickets going on sale was not good for my blood pressure. And the actual buying of the tickets... well, let's just say I'm glad nobody could see me shake.


Tonight, Kate Bush begins her 22-date residency at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, London. I wish her well with all my heart. I will be there in seven days' time, alongside Amanda, and we will be pinching each other. The dream is finally coming true.


These last 50 days, sharing Kate's extraordinary career with you through my own personal experience, has been a labour of love. Thank you for coming along for the ride and for the many comments and compliments that have made it all worthwhile. I'll be back in October, when the dust has settled, to share my thoughts on Before The Dawn.


Until then, here's a little something to cherish from the last time Kate played live...




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Monday, August 25, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #2 - Queen

When I was a child (running in the night), things like record sales, chart positions and awards mattered to me. I always wanted Kate Bush to sell more, climb higher and win accolades and was disappointed when other, less deserving acts beat her. I remember my best friend at high school, Ben, was a Madonna fan, and we would race to see whether Hounds Of Love or Like A Virgin was number one that week in the album charts. We argued over who was more talented, I listed Kate's many musical abilities, Ben pointed out Madonna played the cowbell.


As an adult, somewhere in my forties, I have learned to appreciate what matters most is not what the rest of the world thinks about something, it's what it says to me and how it moves my own heart that counts. Of course it's lovely when the artist you love is appreciated by the wider world, so it was a pleasure to see Kate recognised in three significant, if very different ways during 2012 and 2013.

In April 2013, Kate was at Windsor Castle to be awarded Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or CBE for short, from Her Majesty the Queen. Kate later posted this "thank you" on her website:


I feel incredibly thrilled to receive this honour which I share with my family, friends and fellow musicians and everyone who has been such an important part of it all.
Now I've got something really special to put on top of the Christmas tree.
The 'everyone' in the quote above of course includes all of you.  Thank you so very much for all your fantastic support and encouragement.  I feel extremely privileged to still have an audience.  It's you that have made my work, which would otherwise have just been creative projects, into a success.
Many, many thanks to the best fans ever,
Kate  x

It was not the first time Kate had met the monarch. At a Royal Academy of Music event in 2002 Kate had asked the Queen to autograph her programme for her son, not realising that Her Majesty does not do such things. As Kate later said: 

“I would do anything for Bertie, including making an a***hole of myself in front of a whole roomful of people and the Queen.” 


On this occasion, there were no such lapses of etiquette. The smile on Kate's face says it all.


A year earlier, Kate beat the current critical darling, PJ Harvey, and multi-million selling Adele to win Best Pop Award for 50 Words For Snow at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards. Kate made another rare public appearance to collect the award:


The third honour was potentially the most exciting. It was rumoured that Kate was going to be performing live! Yes, the Closing Ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games was to be A Symphony Of British Music, and was set to feature some of the most legendary names in British popular music. Naturally those legends included Kate, and the rumours reached fever pitch when it was reported that she was shooting a new video for Running Up That Hill featuring Jude Law! This photo was apparently a leak from the set:


I had deserted London for L.A. the year before, but managed to tap in to the live streaming of the event. Just as well, as the US broadcaster decided to cut Kate from their delayed prime-time presentation! As predicted, the opening bars of Running Up That Hill began and the commentators seemed to think it was really happening to ya... 

video

I swear I watched the whole thing expecting she would appear, even to the bitter end I thought she might jump out of that pyramid, like a stripper out of a birthday cake. Oh well, I guess that confirmed the fact that she was never going to play live again. At least we got a lovely remix of R.U.T.H. It even reached number 6 on the UK charts!

What a lovely, triumphant year that had been for Kate. Now we all just had to wait and see what she'd do next...



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Sunday, August 24, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #3 - Misty

If I had to choose just one song from Kate Bush's repertoire to illustrate why she is such a special artist, then I would select a song from 50 Words For Snow that carries all the hallmarks of her genius.


Misty is the tale of a woman who builds a snowman, only to find him come to life. Naturally she falls in love and they have a romantic encounter. There are so many remarkable things about this song, which runs to well over thirteen minutes. The legendary jazz drummer Steve Gadd's playing is extraordinary here, intertwining with Kate's piano, managing to sound both free-flowing and deliberate at the same moment. The song has no chorus, but repeating themes that grow in significance each time we hear them.

Kate delivers one of her greatest vocal performances, fully demonstrating that despite its drop in register, her voice has lost none of its power to interpret and emote. Every syllable is perfectly formed, yet there is a roughness to her voice, the touches of time, which just adds to its beauty.

The main reason though that I would choose this track to represent Kate, is it shows her abilities as a storyteller. As a writer, it can take me hundreds of words to achieve what Kate manages in a few dozen lines of verse. While naturally a great deal of attention is given to Kate's melodies, her lyrics are equally important and equally individual. She has honed her skills over the years, realising that the fewer words you need to convey a feeling, the more power it holds.


Here Kate makes us believe that snow can live and breathe, that it can hold us in its arms, drive us to love and to the edge of despair at its loss. It's a fantastical premise, but it never once feels silly or flippant in her hands. From the magic realism of the blood from a cut hand bringing the snowman to life, to the woman's searing grief at the loss of her Misty, it is the birth of a modern fairytale.

Kate commissioned a series of short animation segments for three of the tracks from 50 Words For Snow, the most elaborate of which was Mistraldespair, this gorgeous stop-motion piece made for Misty.


So after the excitement of getting two albums in one year, we all wondered what would happen next. Kate said she already had ideas for another album, that sounded promising. One thing was certain, she wasn't planning any live shows, as she told The Word magazine in their December 2011 issue:

"I guess I haven't ruled it out, because I did enjoy it, but I have no intention of doing anything live because it wouldn't work with how my life is at the moment. Never say never, but I've got no plans."

Well that seemed pretty clear and definitive...



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Saturday, August 23, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #4 - Snowing

"Well, I knew I wanted to do a wintry record... then it just honed in on this loose theme of snow and everything started falling into place... For me it's so atmospheric - so evocative of so many things."

Completing the revision of her earlier work on Director's Cut clearly provided the catharsis Kate Bush had hoped for. She immediately began work on a brand new album, a collection of songs that shared a theme: snow. Astonishing everyone, probably including herself, she managed to get it ready for the winter of 2011, meaning she made good on her jest of delivering two albums in a single year. It was like 1978 all over again!


50 Words For Snow is, like the snowflakes it evokes, hard to pin down. It is a work of popular music, but it is not "pop". Kate has taken the freedom of jazz and created her own genre, allowing her unique creativity to follow each tangent and flash of inspiration. With no major corporate label to limit her freedom, she can choose to deliver an album of seven tracks that together provide over an hour of music. There are no longer any rules, there is no formular: it is art as pure as the driven snow.


She did attempt to release a "single", but Wild Man, a tender tale of a Yeti sighting set in the heart of Asia, was never going to make sense to the iTunes generation. It once again shows Kate's ability to conjure a distant culture by carefully and sensitively entwining their musical heritage into her own.


Unusually for a Kate album, there are other voices leading songs. Her son Bertie provides a haunting descant on Snowflake, falling from a cloud into the welcoming arms of his mother. Kate realises a personal ambition when she gets to duet with her hero, Elton John, on the time-travelling love story, Snowed In At Wheeler Street. Stephen Fry plays Prof. Joseph Yupik on the title track, a linguist challenged by Kate to name those fifty words for snow.


The classically trained voices of Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood create a perfect counterpoint to Kate on Lake Tahoe, a ghost story about a woman who drowns while searching for her lost dog.



The closing track on the album, Among Angels, is really a cheat, as Kate freely admitted it was written a few years before and has nothing to do with snow. However, I think it is the perfect ending, as it evokes shimmering summer, bringing us out of the cold, dark winter, into the light. From its false start to its abrupt ending, it has quickly become a cherished favourite of mine.


50 Words For Snow may have been one of the fastest albums Kate has ever made, but it in no way feels like a rush job. It is the work of a maestro, an artist in total control of their craft. Even in the 80 degree heat of an L.A. "winter", I can put the album on and feel the icy wind and the touch of a snowflake on my cheek.



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Friday, August 22, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #5 - Directing

"Sometimes stepping back one step can allow you to take two forward, and in a funny way that's what's happened."

Kate Bush decided to give herself a "do-over" and re-record a number of songs from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes to create a new album, Director's Cut. Perhaps we have Bertie to thank for Kate opening up to her past, surely he must have wanted to see and hear his mother's work?


Whatever the trigger was, I believe this project may have been pivotal in Kate's subsequent decision to return to the live stage after 35 years. Previously, she had quickly dismissed her past material, like most artists only hearing what she considered its flaws. Now she realised that she could reclaim her work and revise it, allowing it to live again in the present. In particular there are two tracks on Director's Cut that lead me to believe that while we may know the songs Kate chooses to perform in Before The Dawn, it might take us a while to recognise some of them.


The original This Woman's Work was a fairly traditional Kate composition; piano-centred, with subtle orchestration and a perfect pop length of 3' 35''. The director's cut added three minutes, lost the piano and the strings and replaced them with delicate, barely there electronica. This is a remake, not a re-edit. While obviously still about the same subject matter, it evokes a totally different mood and emotional response to the original. It is reflective and soulful, a meditation rather than the dramatic underscoring of the original. It is a clear symbol of how Kate has evolved as an artist, but it is also a beacon showing that her past, present and future are part of a continuum.



Moments Of Pleasure was also a traditional Kate song in its original form. To Kate this is a celebratory song about the joy that loving other human beings brings into our lives, while recognising that this opens us up to equally great hurt. This director's cut does not at first appear to be quite as radical. The piano is still there at the centre of things, though now it is softer, pauses and plays at tangents. Kate chooses not to sing the line "just being alive can really hurt", replacing it with a choral hum from an ethereal choir. It is a deconstruction of the original, respectful of its heritage, but brave enough to jettison everything but the core elements of the song that are needed to convey its meaning.


It's possible that Kate may have decided to similarly reimagine other songs from her past for her live concerts. If Director's Cut proves anything, it is that she is more than comfortable with the artist she has become, separate from trends, image, expectations. If Kate decides to revisit her older material in the shows, I expect she will want it to reflect who she is now, not try and recapture an echo of her past. Am I the only one excited by that prospect? Given the warm reception given to Director's Cut, I imagine I'm not...


If you would like to know my thoughts on the rest of Director's Cut, then read my earlier blog where I compare each track with its forebear: Unfinished Business.



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Thursday, August 21, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #6 - Understanding

Aerial, Kate Bush's first album in twelve years, had firmly reestablished her as a force in music. It sold well over a million copies and was almost universally critically acclaimed. Fans wondered what was next. We knew Kate would disappear for a while to recharge her batteries, but for how long? In her Mojo interview from the December 2005 issue, when asked when the next album might appear, she answered:

"Yeah, I thought I'd do two next year... Two in one year. That would really surprise them, wouldn't it?"


Of course we all laughed, while secretly thinking "you did it in 1978...". In the end Kate would disappear for five and a half years. Then on 11 March 2011 the announcement was made that a new album was about to be released . Well, I say "new". The press release stated:

On “Directors Cut” Kate revisits a selection of tracks from her albums “The Sensual World” and “The Red Shoes”, a process that presents a fascinating portrait of an artist in a constant state of evolution. She has re-recorded some elements whilst keeping the best musical performances of each song – making it something of a director’s cut but in sound, not vision.

For an artist that had to be forced to release a greatest hits compilation and who has stated that she never listens to her old work, this came as a total surprise. The press release went on to say that Kate was currently working on new material, though no release date had been set. This all took a while to sink in. Fans did not know how to react. Of course it was amazing to have Kate back again, but re-recording songs that many of us held sacred? I, for one, trusted that Kate must have a purpose in doing this, a need to resolve a period of frustration and disappointment in her career, before feeling free to move forward. I believe American therapists call this "closure".


Before the album appeared, as always there was a single released. Deeper Understanding originally appeared on The Sensual World in 1989 and told the story of a lonely individual who found love from a computer program. This was pre-Internet, pre-Facebook, and when only around 15% of homes had a computer. Spooky! Heard today the song changes from speculative fiction (thank you Norn) to social commentary.

Ironically, when Kate first recorded the song she couldn't quite achieve the computer voice she wanted, as the technology wasn't there. That annoyance made it a prime candidate for a director's cut. This time the computer was played by Kate's son, Bertie. The song was also 50% longer, fitting Kate's new style of letting the music breathe. It was a remarkable transformation and fully justified the premise of the album. This was clearly the vision she had intended for the song, finally realised.

Kate also returned to directing film with this project, recruiting Robbie Coltrane, Noel Fielding and Frances Barber to appear in a video for the song.


I was fully persuaded that Kate was right to breathe new life into these old songs. I couldn't wait to hear what she'd done with the others...


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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #7 - Masterpiece

"I suppose really, it's very much to do with the idea of birdsong... I like the idea of these things that are different languages from use of words... I think what I find interesting about it too, is the way that they mark the day. Like, for instance, the dawn chorus - they seem to be very strongly connected with light... that was one of the sort of explorations I was trying to go off on with this, the connection between their song and light and the passing of day."

When Kate Bush released Aerial in November 2005, her first album in twelve years, I took the week off work. I was outside HMV at 9am that Monday morning, I think I bought four or five copies. One to play, one to keep sealed, one for the car, one for my partner, one just in case. The joy of holding in my hands the physical object was so intense, knowing that it contained such riches within. I got home, put the kettle on, unplugged the phone, drew the curtains and popped in disc one (it was a double album; twice the pleasure). I had heard a lot of those tracks already thanks to radio previews, but of course they were only just beginning to take root in my soul. I composed myself and, after a suitable period of reflection (i.e. about thirty seconds) I put in disc two...



Mummy... Daddy... the day is full of birds...

A bird speaks, a child listens, trying to understand. A summer afternoon, playing, listening, serenading.

We're gonna be laughing about this

The light, here, on this day, unique. Here for a moment, then lost forever. Traces of memories, other vistas, other lands. What a lovely afternoon.

Lines like these have got to be an architect's dream

The act of creation, so tenuous, so fleeting. Accidental genius. A flick of the wrist, magic. Capturing the light. Always changing.

So all the colours run

Rain. The paint runs, the colours merge. See what they have become.

Every sleepy light must say goodbye to the day before it dies...

The light is beginning to fade. Crimson. Red. Rust. Shadows grow longer. That blackbird, is it singing, or conjuring? This light is leaving, but this is only the start of its journey, out into the stars. But for us, it is a goodbye.

This is where the shadows come to play 'twixt the day and night

The day slips away, the night arrives. But not quite yet. There is a moment when both coexist, where there is endless possibility, where the balance of light and dark is acknowledged and embraced.

We stand in the Atlantic and we become panoramic

But the night isn't about darkness; it's about light. Celestial. Ancient. Distant. Sweeping. Just reach up and touch it. This day's light is on its journey to greet the stars. And now another breaks on the horizon. A sea of honey. A sky of honey. And all the dreamers are waking.

All of the birds are laughing, come on let's all join in

Light is noisy. Disruptive. The birds are talking about it. What language is that? I want to understand. Perhaps if I climb up on the roof they'll tell me. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.



A Sky Of Honey is simply Kate's masterpiece. Song-suite, concept piece, call it what you will, it is 42 minutes of utter genius. Kate was unhappy about splitting it into tracks when the album was first released and she is right. This has to be consumed whole: each movement builds on the other, interweaved, deliciously complex and layered. This is music for the ages. In decades to come people will talk about this in the same breath as a Mozart symphony. It defines what it is possible to create through song at this point in our history.

After that first playback I just sat stunned, my ears crying in gratitude for what they'd been given. Thank goodness I'd booked the whole week off work. Cup of tea, then back to disc one...



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