Under The Ivy: The Life & Music of Kate Bush

"The best music biography in perhaps the past decade" - Irish Times

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Aerial: An extract

Towards the end of 2000 Bush had made sufficient progress to begin inviting outside musicians into the studio to add parts to the songs; Peter Erskine was one of the first. Primarily a jazz drummer who had also played with John Martyn and Joni Mitchell, Bush had spotted him on a BBC documentary about English composer Mark Anthony Turnage. Typically, she picked up the phone and made direct contact, and shortly afterwards Erskine was flown to England.

“There was a bit of secrecy attached to everything, in terms of where the drums would be delivered – there was a protocol that they wanted observed,” he says. “The cases should be labelled in a specific manner so it would not be apparent to anyone handling those along the way where they were going or what the project was. They had a car service that would pick me up [from my hotel] and drop me off a specific spot and then I’d get through the security gates, but there was nothing disproportionate. They’re all very well-balanced, an incredible amount of normality. That security apparatus is to maintain some normalcy.”

Erskine was there for three days and played, by his estimation, on seven or eight tracks, although he only appears on three: ‘An Architect’s Dream’, ‘Prologue’ and ‘Nocturn.’ It was a leisurely process – “they just work at a different pace” – which encouraged experimentation, a very much more organic process than Bush’s most recent albums. Erskine even recalls that at first he, bass player John Giblin and Bush performed together as a kind of ad hoc jazz trio. “Kate was playing piano,” he says. “Like, ‘here’s a new song I’m working on…’”

Later, he added his contributions to previously recorded backing tracks. On ‘King Of The Mountain’ he “came up a wacky idea. I put on a beat like the Weather Report track, ‘Nubian Sundance’, this double tempo, free-syncopated, aggressive drumbeat. It’s not the easiest thing to play, and then I added a half-time Ringo-style beat as a counter point. When Del mixed it I said it sounded like [US drummer and member of Presley’s TCB Band] Ron Tutt with Elvis, and she gave me a startled look: ‘Of course, that’s what the song is about - Elvis!’” Erskine hadn’t picked up on the lyrics nor Bush’s idiosyncratic Elvis impersonation. “I had no idea,” he laughs. “Her tune conveyed this subliminally to me! I’m sure at some point they realised that the drum part I put on was an absolute mess, but the nice thing was that they indulged the idea.”

This working process was mirrored throughout the sessions. Musicians would be invited to improvise on a variety of tracks. If it worked, great; if not, no harm done. Someone else would get a shot. Steve Sanger, an old friend of McIntosh’s from his session days, came up from Dorset on several occasions to play drums, bells, shaker and percussion. He added a more conventional pattern to ‘King Of The Mountain’ and Bush also asked him to play along to the rhythm of birdsong on ‘Aerial’, the title track.

The idea had slowly evolved to make Aerial a double album with two distinct sides, a little like Hounds Of Love but on a more ambitious scale (in interviews Bush would refer to it as ‘Great Danes Of Love’ or ‘Irish Wolfhounds Of Love’). The first side would be a collection of seven individual songs, while the second would be a connected, conceptual piece tracing the arc of an entire day through nine interlinked pieces of music, from the afternoon through sunset and night to the following dawn, all soundtracked by the trill of her favourite band: the birds. “It’s almost as if they’re vocalising light,” she said. “And I love the idea that it’s a language we don’t understand.” In Kaluli culture in Papua New Guinea, Bush may or may not have been aware, bird song is believed to be communication from the dead.

“She explained that when this particular birdsong starts that’s when I start playing,” says Sanger. “I did it on an electronic kit, just playing the bass drum. That was a different day! Great food, great fun. It was me and Del the engineer and Kate, and Danny was popping in and out.”

These sessions were punctuated with long periods where very little happened, but when she was working things often coalesced quite quickly, particularly towards the end of the project. Much of the musical decoration for ‘Bertie’, for example, came together in little more than an afternoon. Susanna Pell and Richard Campbell, head-hunted after a performance of St Matthew’s Passion at the Festival Hall, came to the studio to play gamba – a renaissance period viol, and distant cousin of the guitar – alongside classical guitarist Eligio Quinteira.

“My memory was that she had laid down the basic track, I think the day before, which was her vocals and the dulcimer,” says Campbell. “We were overdubbing onto that, playing from the notation that [arranger Bill Dunne] had provided. Eligio did his guitar overdub after we did the gamba track, so he stayed a little bit longer. It was reasonably close to chamber music. We were playing to what we heard through the cans, which gave it a kind of natural freedom.”

‘Bertie’ was a madrigal of devotion to her son, a song that vaulted the barrier between heartfelt and mawkish, though only a churl could fail to be touched by its artless candour and sheer heartbursting expression of love. Just when you thought Bush has exhausted her rapture, she found deeper reserves: “You bring me so much joy,” she sings, “And then you bring me – more joy!” It’s a shamelessly sentimental song, basking in the eternal sunshine of an idealised childhood.

Bush had preserved the atmosphere of familial informality that had permeated Wickham Farm, except now she was the mother figure. Accordionist Chris Hall had been recommended by Joe Boyd after Bush mentioned she wanted the sound of Cajun accordion on ‘How To Be Invisible’. In the end the instrument proved too rich for the song, almost overpowering it, and instead Hall played two-note accordion which – with the aid of advanced sonar equipment – can just about be heard on the final track. “I was there for a couple of hours,” he recalls. “Had a chat, drank some tea and ate pizza, met her family, played with the kid, did some recording and went away. Not [mystical] at all!”

Everyone who worked on the album was struck by all the things people are usually struck by when they first worked with her: her cheerful informality, her genuineness, her distinct lack of ceremony. “I turned up, came in through the gates, parked the car, got the gamba out and walked into the studio,” says Campbell. “Up came this person who said, ‘I’m Kate, I’m making the tea,’ and I confess that I initially thought it was another Kate. And then I suddenly realised: that is Kate Bush.” They ended up trading lines on that perennial middle-class lament: the difficulty of getting a good builder.

There was an endless stream of tea, without which no session could run smoothly. “She was always offering tea,” says Peter Erskine. “The running joke at the session was that Del or John [Giblin] would say, like a British actor’s voice in a movie, ‘Ah, you’re a fine woman, Kate.’ That was the motto, I remember.” Says Susanna Pell, “We arrived and went straight to the studio and within minutes this woman arrived and said, ‘D’you want a cup of tea?’ And that was her. She bumbled off and made a cup of tea. She was just incredibly nice. Very unassuming, she knew what she wanted and had a clear vision but in the nicest possible way. When it was all over she sent us a personal cheque with a very nice note attached, thanking us. It was just a very, very pleasant experience.”

© Graeme Thomson, 2010