Over the years, Kate Bush fans have become accustomed to the gentle pace at which she works. You can’t hurry genius, and when the double album Aerial emerged in all its radiance in 2005, 12 years after its predecessor, The Red Shoes, the world was as surprised as it was grateful. Six years later came Director’s Cut, a reworking of material from The Sensual World (1989) and The Red Shoes – an unusual move that worked as a creative catalyst for Bush and led to a brand-new studio album, 2011’s icily beautiful 50 Words For Snow.
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“I thought it would be so funny if I brought out two albums in one year”
Bush reflected on the circumstances around the recording of the album in an interview with The Quietus. “This has been quite an easy record to make, actually, and it’s been quite a quick process,” she revealed. “What was really nice for me was I did it straight off the back of Director’s Cut, which was a really intense record to make. When I finished it, I went straight into making this, so I was very much still in that focused space; still in that kind of studio mentality. And also, there was a sense of elation that suddenly I was working from scratch and writing songs from scratch, and the freedom that comes with that.”
Bush admitted to a sense of urgency when interviewed by pianist Jamie Cullum for BBC Radio’s The Jazz Show. “I really had to pull my finger out at certain points because otherwise it was gonna have to wait until next winter, because you can’t bring a record like this out in the summer,” she explained, adding that the speed at which she was now working had amused her: “I also thought it was really funny, because people are always going on all the time about how long I take to make my albums, and I thought it would be so funny if I brought two out in one year.”
Speaking to the Irish Independent on the release of 50 Words For Snow, Bush emphasised how important she felt it was to balance her work with family commitments, something that home recording had allowed her to do ever since she built her own studio prior to beginning work on the Hounds Of Love album.
“It’s difficult explaining to myself why some albums take so long,” Bush said, revealing that the actual recording process wasn’t as protracted as it seemed to the outside world. “If you’ve had a five-year gap, people assumed that it took you five years to do an album, which is simply not true. I take a few years to do other things in life… It’s great because I’m able to work at home and have a family life. I couldn’t work in a commercial-studio environment. Most of the time the process is quite elongated for me, so it would end up being quite expensive, too. That’s really why I set up a home studio. I realised I’d have to if I wanted to continue working experimentally.”
“It’s interesting how many people have reacted so powerfully”
Released on 21 November 2011, 50 Words For Snow represented one of Bush’s most daring and experimental albums to date – a collection of long, ruminative and subtle songs with a wintry thread running throughout, which helped it find a place in fans’ hearts as one of the best Christmas albums of all time. The album’s opening track, Snowflake, sets the scene with flurries of meditative piano and sparing, hushed percussion and strings. Written from the perspective of a falling snowflake, it features a vocal from Bush’s then 13-year-old son, Albert McIntosh.
Bush told Jamie Cullum that she had always intended to have Albert sing the song. “When I wrote the song it was something that I wrote specifically for him and for his voice, and I guess there was a very strong parallel in my mind between the idea of this transient little snowflake and the fact that Bertie at this point… still has a really beautiful high, pure voice which soon he will lose… there seems to be this sort of link between the brief time that his voice will be like this and the brevity of the snowflake.
“I think his performance on this is really powerful, and obviously I’m quite biased because I’m his mother,” she continued. “But it’s interesting how many people have reacted so powerfully to his performance, it’s, you know, I think it’s really something.” Bush’s simple, soulful chorus, “The world is so loud/Keep falling/I’ll find you,” offers calm and reassurance in the blizzard.
“I’ve never done another project like it. She’s so unafraid”
The following track, Lake Tahoe, features more guest vocalists, this time two classical singers, Stefan Roberts and Michael Wood, who provide a counterpart to Bush’s warm, earthy tones. She explained her thinking to Cullum: “Well they’re just two friends of ours who just have very beautiful voices but quite unusual… what a lot of people would think of early music. I was trying to set up something that sounded a bit kind of haunting, so they would set up the narrative of the story and then my voice would come in to continue the narrative, and also I quite liked this idea of playing a bit with men who had high voices but my voice would be quite low.”
Bush’s lyrics explore the idea of a woman rising from the icy depths of the titular lake (“You might see a woman down there/They say some days, up she comes, up she rises/As if out of nowhere”). Again, the song has an unhurried beauty, with Jonathan Tunick’s restrained string arrangements and Steve Gadd’s subtle percussion allowing it to grow organically over the course of its 11 spectral minutes.
Gadd had worked with Bush for the first time on Director’s Cut, and the storied drummer (Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan) became a key collaborator on 50 Words For Snow. “Sometimes it was just Kate playing piano and her vocal, and then the two of us together trying to construct a rhythm based on what was there now and what might be there thereafter,” Gadd told Uncut in 2012. “I’ve never done another project like it. She’s so unafraid. She’s all about the art of it. We never really talked about the concept, but I was amazed how she put this record together sonically and visually – not just the songs, but the photographs, images, themes. It’s the whole package with her, and amazing to see.”
“Mystery is all around us, but the way we live our lives now, we’re too busy to be bothered with it”
Gadd’s nuanced playing was an essential element of 50 Words For Snow’s centrepiece, Misty, a gently swinging song which Bush, Gadd and bassist Danny Thompson (Talk Talk, John Martyn, Tim Buckley[https://www.thisisdig.com/artist/tim-buckley/]) intuitively steered through nearly 14 minutes of jazz-influenced exploration. Bush opened up about the musical inspiration behind the track while talking to Jamie Cullum, “I was trying to get almost a kind of Dave Brubeck kind of feel, really, and then of course the song starts to move through these different phases and different shapes… that was possibly the most difficult track to do in terms of piano and then drums. But I’m really pleased with how it’s come out.” Lyrically, Misty is one of Bush’s most striking songs, a story about a girl who, as Bush coyly told The Huffington Post, “builds a snowman, and later the snowman comes to visit her in her bedroom”.
Wild Man was the only single released from 50 Words For Snow. As Bush told The Huffington Post, “I guess in some ways, you could say that it’s the most immediate song on the album… It’s really a song entity for the Yeti – this mysterious creature that no one is sure whether or not it exists. It’s about how precious that mystery is, you know? We have such little mystery in our lives, generally, because of how we live now. I mean, of course, mystery is all around us, but the way we live our lives now, we’re too busy to be bothered with it.”
Bush’s pursuit of everyday magic here typifies how she feels about her music in general. On Wild Man she half-whispers warnings to the mythological creature, backed up by the tremulous vocals of Andy Fairweather Low, a singer Bush praised to The Quietus: “I just love his voice. When I wrote the song I just thought, I’ve got to get Andy to sing on this song because he sounds great.”
“The idea is that there are two lovers, two souls who keep on meeting up in different periods of time”
And the guests kept coming. Snowed In At Wheeler Street was a breathtaking ballad, with a pulsing, ambient backdrop building tension as Bush and her duet partner, Elton John, detail the various ways in which their love has been derailed by circumstance. Typically for Bush, there was a twist, as she told The Quietus: “The idea is that there are two lovers, two souls who keep on meeting up in different periods of time. So they meet in ancient Rome and then they meet again walking through time. But each time something happens to tear them apart.”
Working with such a formative influence as Elton John was a landmark moment for Bush, who had covered John’s song Rocket Man in the early 90s. “He is one of my great musical heroes, and when I wrote the song, I very much had him in mind,” she told The Huffington Post. “At the risk of sounding corny, it was like a dream come true having him come into the studio and sing so beautifully. I think his performance on the song is so fantastic; it’s so emotive. I love him singing in that lower key. I really couldn’t have been happier with what he brought to the track.”
A very different kind of guest vocalist featured on 50 Words For Snow’s title track, a playful song that showcased Bush’s love of language. Amid swirling sound effects, animal noises, doomy bass and tribal drums, Stephen Fry (in character as Dr Joseph Yupik, named after a native tribe of Siberia and Alaska) recounts 50 different synonyms for snow. All the while, Bush counts them off and periodically breaks into a chorus in which she goads the poor doctor on (“Come on, Joe, just 22 to go”).
“The idea was that the words would get progressively more silly, but that they would have been important”
Explaining how she conceived of such a unique song, Bush told The Quietus, “Years ago I think I must have heard this idea that there were 50 words for snow [in the Inuit language]… And I just thought it was such a great idea to have so many words about one thing. It is a myth – although… it may hold true in a different language – but it was just a play on the idea, that if they had that many words for snow, did we? If you start actually thinking about snow in all of its forms, you can imagine that there are an awful lot of words about it. Just in our immediate language, we have words like ‘hail’, ‘slush’, ‘sleet’, ‘settling’… So this was a way to try and take it into a more imaginative world.”
On choosing her collaborator, Bush said, “I really wanted Stephen to read this because I wanted to have someone who had an incredibly beautiful voice but also someone with a real sense of authority when he said things. So the idea was that the words would get progressively more silly, really, but even when they were silly there was this idea that they would have been important, to still carry weight.”
And Bush’s own favourite word for snow? According to interviews at the time, it’s “furloopingjumpala”.
50 Words For Snow ends with Among Angels, a spare and celestially beautiful solo performance that was the first song written for the album. Immediately ranking among the best Kate Bush songs, it’s also the only track from the record to be performed live, during encores for her 22-night Before The Dawn residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in 2014.
Over a decade on from its release, 50 Words For Snow is the last collection of new music we’ve heard from the pioneering singer, songwriter and producer, who remains one of the most influential female musicians of all time. There are still not enough words to describe its beauty.