Running Up That Hill: The Career of Kate Bush

It has been almost 45 years since Kate Bush, alone and clad in a fully crimson ensemble, danced for her foggy bucolic debut video “Wuthering Heights”. At 19, this debut put her at the top of UK charts for four weeks, and marked the beginnings of her long and influential career. As a female musician, her accolades rival any male competitor. Among those achievements, there were three Grammy Award nominations, a Novello Award for outstanding contributions to British Music, and the record for only female musician ever to have 5 consecutive top five albums on UK charts.

Sonically, Bush’s career has always straddled the lines of modernity and anachronism. Her aesthetic has two distinct faces: one with eyes locked on the technology of the present, another staring longingly into the textures of the past. Possessing a voice that is disciplined, yet raw, warbly while powerful, familiar while otherworldly, Bush’s singing penetrates at any tessitura. Her high range challenges the likes of Joni Mitchell, while possessing a sensual power of Annie Lennox in her lowest registers. 

Bush’s ten studio albums succeed at striking a balance between melodramatic ballads and dance beats, while involving more complex chord progressions, voice leadings and song structures than her conventional pop contemporaries. Throughout her career, one of Bush’s greatest assets was that she wrote her own songs. This seems baffling, but it set her apart from many of her contemporary female performers. Her lyrics speak intimate and surreal narratives, which then are weaved into lush arrangements that incorporate whimsical strings and majestic brass on one track, and electronic beats and synths the next. Bush has explained in interviews that she was raised in an urban setting that was still surrounded by pastoral scenes. Her music exemplifies that same sense of space: a perfect blend of technology and the organic.

Bush’s success is largely owed to her fearless ability to overreach. Her “discovery” came only after sending off a prolific but roughly recorded 50 song demo to many record companies and producers. David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd fame, was among those who received it. He provided her help in producing a higher quality demo, which eventually saw her getting signed to EMI at the age of 16. Arriving on the cusp of prog-rock saturation, EMI was eager to sign an artist like Bush. She was someone who could embrace experimental sounds, while providing refreshing pop innovations.

Her first release was two years in the waiting as EMI felt she was too young at 16 to take on the career they had envisioned for her.  Using her advance, Bush utilized her time by enrolling in mime training and interpretative dance classes. The influence of her mastery of physical performance is very evident in the use of her body in videos such as “Running up that Hill” and both videos for “Wuthering Heights”. Staggeringly prolific, she also prepared over 200 songs during this time and gigged regularly with the KT Bush Band. She completed her high school education before beginning recording her first album The Kick Inside in 1978.

Bush retained a strong grasp of artistic control, a reputation she was known for from the beginning of her career. Ignoring EMI’s wishes, she chose “Wuthering Heights” as her debut single. This determination to follow her own path eventually saw Bush creating her own publishing company, Kate Bush Music, and management firm Novercia. This came after being displeased with having rushed into making Lion Heart in late 1978. She then became even more experimental. Bush retained creative control over all performance aspects of her first and only tour “The Tour of Life” in 1979. The production involved choreography, elaborate set designs, and collaboration with magician Simon Drake.

Performances of this tour were described by the The Guardian as “a no-holds-barred theatrical extravaganza.” Bush’s determination of singing while dancing required her to use headset microphones, something that had to be rigged together for her because they didn’t exist yet. Such equipment is now commonplace in performances, but in 1979 they had to be thrown together with wire coat hangers, indicating Bush pioneered the use of such technology. This is an impressive command for such a young performer, and a testament to how well respected she must have been amongst her crew.

Bush saw continued success into 1980, co-producing her third studio album Never for Ever which reached Number 1 on UK charts. She continued experimenting with her sound, utilizing more synthesizers and less accessible textures as she took on full responsibility as producer for 1982’s The Dreaming. This album, though commercially successful, was her lowest selling record.  It marked what Bush described as her “she’s gone mad album” with its dense soundscapes, and variation from track to track. 1985’s Hounds of Love, which she also produced, and recorded in her own studio, saw her return to the public eye. This album was so successful that it replaced Madonna’s Like a Virgin from the top of the UK charts.

Bush went on to record four more albums over the following 25 years.  Her latest albums Director’s Cut and Fifty Words for Snow, were both released in 2011. Director’s Cut serves as a precious retrospective into her career. It contains complete reworkings of tracks from earlier albums. More than a remix album, Bush considered it a completely new project, perhaps an opportunity to look forward while looking back. Fifty Words for Snow was an album of entirely new material, the first release of all new works since 2005.

Bush’s creative output, while impressive, may not be as prolific as some of her contemporaries. However the consistency in her creativity and risk taking certainly was. As her career progressed, she never garnered as much commercial success in the US as in the UK. Bush blames her songs being an ill fit for US radio formats, and given her atypical voicings, structural uncertainties and experimental sounds, they were likely too much on the forefront for mass American consumption. That being said, many musicians have paid homage to her in covers. This is where I first became aware of Kate Bush (thanks. Placebo, for covering “Running up that Hill” ) and her collaborations with artists such as Peter Gabriel gave other avenues for listeners to discover her unique voice. For over 40 years her unique music and powerful persona have continued to delight and fascinate musicians and listeners alike.