Obsessive secrecy, a 30m fortune and the trauma that drove Kate Bush into hiding

Obsessive secrecy, a 30m fortune and the trauma that drove Kate Bush into hiding

By
Alison Boshoff

PUBLISHED:

01:03 GMT, 3 May 2012

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UPDATED:

01:03 GMT, 3 May 2012


Reclusive: Kate makes a rare public appearance to collect a South Bank Arts award for her album this week

Reclusive: Kate makes a rare public appearance to collect a South Bank Arts award for her album this week

She said that just walking onto the stage made her ‘incredibly nervous’, and sure enough those standing close to her could see she was trembling under the spotlights. Her hands, encased in fingerless gloves, shook as they grasped her award.

Her famously soft and high-pitched voice was hesitant and much lower when she gave her acceptance speech. But perhaps we should not be surprised, since it was musician Kate Bush’s first public appearance in seven years.

On Tuesday, the Wuthering Heights singer, 53, received a South Bank Arts award for her album 50 Words For Snow, beating other nominees Adele and PJ Harvey — and took everyone by surprise by opting to turn up to accept the accolade in person.

The small crowd at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane included Tom Jones, Lenny Henry and artists Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry.

But it’s a fair bet to say none of them expected Kate Bush — all backcombed, jet-black hair and eyeliner — to attend.

She didn’t go to the Brit awards in February, where she was nominated in the Best British Female category, nor did she make a single public appearance to promote her album, which was released at the end of last year.

Interviews were conducted on the phone with writers and radio stations, or, bizarrely, via the internet service Skype — but with the video link switched off.

She refused to appear in the video for her single Deeper Understanding — choosing to have Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane star in it instead. She is also absent from the video for her new single, Misty.

This reticence extended to the cover of her album, which did not feature her image. Publicity material included a striking image of Kate Bush in a snow-covered balaclava, with the small, visible part of her face further enclosed by a fur-trimmed Eskimo hood.

In her seven-year absence, many myths had circulated — that she had mental health problems or she was a compulsive over-eater or she was a recluse.

But this week we saw a charming, if nervous, woman, who had simply chosen to live her life away from the spotlight.

She has kept that long curtain of hair, and is still recognisable as a middle-aged version of the girl who started a musical revolution with Wuthering Heights in 1978.

So what is the story of Kate Bush’s comeback — and why the retreat from the limelight in the first place

Her neighbours in Berkshire say Kate, worth an estimated 30 million, lives so quietly that there are long periods when they are convinced she has moved out.

She remains closeted away behind high fences, with her husband Danny McIntosh, a guitarist she met in 1992 while recording her seventh album, and their son Bertie, 13. She works until late at night in the recording studio in the grounds of her house.

Secretive: The Wuthering Heights singer had recently conducted interviews entirely on the phone, or on Skype, but with the video link switched off

Secretive: The Wuthering Heights singer had recently conducted interviews entirely on the phone, or on Skype, but with the video link switched off

As you might expect, her way of life is eccentric and intense. Visitors tell me there are endless cups of tea and an air of hippyish, but genial chaos.

She told an interviewer last year that she left a large bag of bonemeal — used to fertilise plants — on the lid of her piano for the entirety of the recording of her album. It was put there when she was writing a song, and she became superstitiously attached to its presence.

The album, her first new material since 2005, is typical Kate Bush — a wonderful mixture of floating vocals and intense oddity.

No one can recall her ever going to her
local pub or even saying ‘hello’ to her
neighbours. She has also removed the house name from view to deter nosey
parkers.

The single Misty is sung by a woman to a snowman who arrives in her bedroom for a sexual encounter. She sings longingly about his ‘ice cream lips’ and ‘snowy arms’.

Another is about a pair of time-travelling lovers, and a third about a frozen, long-dead woman emerging from a lake. ‘It’s not an album of pop songs,’ she has conceded.

This sudden burst of artistic success comes at a time when Kate is also enjoying domestic stability.

Her son, Bertie, has grown into a strapping teenager. He is, say friends, taller than his mother, with his father’s curly auburn hair and wide smile. He was seen at the South Bank Awards smiling proudly as his mother took to the stage.

Heyday: Kate Bush, pictured circa 1980, began to retreat from public life in the early 1990s

Heyday: Kate Bush, pictured circa 1980, began to retreat from public life in the early 1990s

And her romance with McIntosh, which started after she separated from her musician lover Del Palmer, is still going strong after 18 years. He takes care of the housework and shopping, and does the school run while she works.

Locals say Bertie goes to a 4,400-a-term private school nearby, which leaves Kate free to find the solitude, quiet and privacy she needs to create her distinctive music.

And it’s hard to overstate just how much she likes this: she recently told lyricist Don Black that her favourite singers were the blackbird and the thrush. (He was astonished: he’d expected some human influences.)

She fiercely protects her privacy: any walkers unlucky enough to mistake her garden path for a towpath may find that she emerges from the house, shrieking, and tells them to get off her private property.

No one can recall her ever going to the local pub, the Fox & Hounds, or even saying ‘hello’ to her neighbours. She has also removed the house name from view to deter nosey parkers.

But friends, as long as they have been invited, will find her welcoming. She will always make time for old pals such as Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour and violinist Nigel Kennedy, and she and Danny go to dinner parties to socialise with other musicians.

One recent visitor to her house was even surprised to be whisked down to her massive 2.5 million Devon holiday home by helicopter for lunch, simply on a whim because she wanted to eat lunch by the sea, and then helicoptered back again.

Her retreat from normal life began in the early Nineties as a delayed reaction to grief. Her guitarist and friend Alan Murphy died of Aids in 1989, just as her sixth album, The Sensual World, was released.

Then, in 1990, a dancer she’d worked closely with, Gary Hurst, also died of Aids. Two years later, her mother Hannah succumbed to cancer.

Around this time, with six successful albums in little over a decade, Kate Bush started to make her seventh, The Red Shoes. It took four years to record, after which she spent a year putting together a conceptual film entitled The Line, The Cross & The Curve.

The 50-minute film was a mistake that sent her into a downward spiral. ‘I shouldn’t have done it,’ she said afterwards. ‘I’m very pleased with four minutes of it, but I’m very disappointed with the rest.’

She was thrown into a ‘state of severe exhaustion’ by its poor reception, and finally, years after the deaths of her mother and close friends, she began to grieve properly.

Withdrawn: Kate, pictured here in 1979 a year after Wuthering Heights, has battled with grief in the years she retreated from public life

Withdrawn: Kate, pictured here in 1979 a year after Wuthering Heights, has battled with grief in the years she retreated from public life

She bought a flat in central London and slept and slept, and watched a lot of daytime TV. She didn’t feel able to write music or sing. ‘Basically, the batteries were completely run out and I needed to re-stimulate again,’ she said in a later interview.

Then, four years after that collapse, her son, Albert Jack, was born in 1998. He changed her life profoundly.

‘Although I hadn’t always wanted children, I had for a long time. People say that magic doesn’t exist, but I look at him, think I gave birth to him and I know it does,’ she says.

He became her first priority, and she
sought to keep everything about him a secret. It was only when singer
Peter Gabriel blurted out ‘Kate’s a mum now’ during a TV interview five
years after Bertie’s birth that his existence was revealed to the wider
world. Kate didn’t release another album until 2005, when she brought
out Aerial, which was critically acclaimed, though she insisted on
minimal promotion for it.

By
that point, however, she had developed another sensitive issue: her
weight. Then 47, she was, understandably, no longer the waif in a
leotard of her early days.

Director
Jimmy Murakami, who shot the video for the album’s single King Of The
Mountain, told her biographer Graeme Thomson: ‘I thought she looked
fabulous, but she kept bringing up her weight. I told her she looked
lovely. You can’t go back to your teenage days, and to me she still
looked very good.’

‘She has spent the past 30 years backing away,’ says Thomson. ‘Her career has been an incremental process of withdrawal.’

No
wonder we are all so fascinated when — just for a moment — we get to
glimpse the woman who has so assiduously withdrawn herself from the
world.