Exploring Kate Bush's second-generation Irish heritage

Exploring Kate Bush's second-generation Irish heritage

FEMALE, middle class, secure in adolescence with a notably placid temperament, Kate Bush is seemingly free from the warring sense of cultural dislocation experienced by many of her Anglo-Irish peers.

What she does share with fellow travellers like John Lydon, Morrissey, Kevin Rowland and Noel Gallagher is an Irish ancestry and a strong determination to control every aspect of her career.

While her male, working-class counterparts spent most of their lives fighting against the odds to break free from tough environments and suffered legendary run-ins with record companies or music journalists, Bush’s CV has been free from controversy.

Although often seen as an exotic example of English suburbia transposed to the pop world, Bush’s career suggests a far more cosmopolitan outlook. Her Irish roots emanate from her late mother Hannah, an Irish staff nurse, farmer’s daughter and prize-winning dancer.

All the Bush family were artistically creative and Kate’s musical interests originally drew from her Irish heritage. As she once explained: “I’m very influenced in my writing by old or traditional folk songs, ballads handed down by new generations of musicians but with the original atmosphere and emotions still maintained.

"The sort of music my mother, who’s Irish, would have listened to and danced to, and used to play for me when I was very little. It’s still probably my biggest influence.”

Kate’s father Robert Bush, a doctor, introduced her to the harmonium at a young age, while her elder brothers, Paddy and Jay, encouraged her interests in roots music and poetry. Precocious and secure in her own company, she was composing from an early age.

One of her early hits, The Man With The Child In His Eyes, was written when she was only 12. Her break came two years later when a friend of the family, Ricky Hooper, passed on her roughly recorded demos to Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour who duly informed EMI Records of this new talent.

Instead of exploiting her ingenue potential, the company wisely invested in her future, providing a modest income during which she completed her schooling, played some low key fun pub gigs, studied dance and mime and continued writing.

It was another second generation Irish writer, Emily Brontë, who inspired Bush’s 1978 debut single, Wuthering Heights. When it reached number 1, the 19-year-old singer was thrust into the limelight as one of the most exciting young talents of her era.

In common with other Anglo-Irish artistes, like Elvis Costello, Morrissey and Kevin Rowland, Bush increasingly sought control over the way her work and image were presented in the media. She famously championed the release of Wuthering Heights in the face of record company scepticism and, having won that battle, never looked back.

Over the years, she would successively secure control of the means of production, licensing her material to EMI, overseeing sleeve artwork, managing herself, producing her own albums and determining release dates at her leisure.

Meanwhile, her private life was a closed book. While her contemporaries cavorted in public, she remained a model of decorum, studiously avoiding superstar gatherings and concentrating on her work. Even the tabloids lost interest when she seemingly retreated from the public eye.

What they saw as reclusiveness was actually nothing more than a self-motivated woman getting on with her life, surrounded by a loyal family and coterie of like-minded musicians.

Musically, Bush’s series of albums resemble a travelogue, taking in a variety of musical forms from English folk, Lionheart, through Australian traditional music, The Dreaming, and a mixture of Irish and Bulgarian influences on The Hounds of Love, The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.

Like her Anglo-Irish contemporaries, she seems both connected to and dislocated from her Irishness. While admitting that she is drawn to the idea of living in Ireland, the whim remains unrealized. “I’ve always felt pulled to Ireland because my mother was Irish,” she says, “but whenever I’ve gone, I’ve never felt very at home.”

Nevertheless, she has found a home for Irish music in her work. Her groundbreaking album The Dreaming incorporated Irish traditional instruments on Night Of The Swallow, which featured Bill Whelan (pipe/strings), Liam O’Flynn (Uillean pipes and penny whistle), Sean Keane (fiddle) and Donal Lunny (bouzouki).

The experiment was continued on the extraordinary Jig Of Life from Hounds Of Love, which was credited to her brother Paddy, whose interest in Irish music had been present since childhood. Released at a time when her record sales had hit an unexpected dip, 1985’s Hounds Of Love established her standing as the most adventurous and accomplished female singer-songwriter working in Europe.

Bush’s Irish leanings reached their apogee on The Sensual World, arguably her most accomplished work to date. Again traditional elements were notable with Celtic harp, mandolin, Uillean pipes and tupan to the fore.

The evocative title track was inspired by Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bush had been playing around with some words which reminded her of the speech and after reading the passage was amazed to discover that the lines scanned perfectly with her music.

“It was extraordinary,” she exclaimed. “I’ve never had anything like that happen before, and it was very exciting.” What seemed a highly accomplished literary adaptation was blocked by Joyce’s literary executors. “I tried several times,” she explained, “but they were just absolutely adamant.”

Instead, she elected to retain the rhythm of the speech and adapt the theme to express the idea of Molly Bloom emerging from the pages of the book to discover the “real” sensual world.

“To reapproach it was quite painful,” she admitted at the time, “especially having to let go of what I thought was obviously a classic piece of literature that I felt worked with contemporary music.”

The Sensual World remains the most successful translation of literature into pop, the culmination of a process begun a decade earlier with Wuthering Heights. Bush did return to the song with her 2011 record Director’s Cut, a record made up of songs from The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes which have been remixed and restructured.

On that occasion she did get permission to use the passage from Ulysses. She said at the time: “When I came to work on this project I thought I would ask for permission again and this time they said yes. It is now re-titled Flower of the Mountain and I am delighted that I have had the chance to fulfill the original concept.

"For some time I have felt that I wanted to revisit tracks from these two albums and that they could benefit from having new life breathed into them. Lots of work had gone into the two original albums and now these songs have another layer of work woven into their fabric. I think of this as a new album.”

Director’s Cut marked three new (or newish) releases from the 56-year-old over the last nine years with 2005’s Aerial breaking a 12-year gap. One of Bush’s most acclaimed albums, Aerial was followed in 2011 by 50 Words For Snow, which drew further acclaim.

It all makes her live return, her first gigs in 35 years, all the more anticipated. Where Bush will go after this is anyone’s guess.

Kate Bush’s residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo continues until October 1. All dates are sold out. This article is an edited version of one from The Irish Post in 1998.