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Kate Bush is accustomed to strange things. After all, she once wrote a heart-melting song about a love affair between a woman and a snowman. But last week the songwriter unexpectedly topped Spotify’s charts. Her song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” first released in 1985, is topping charts worldwide, and in the U.S. has also broken into the top 10 on Billboard. The reason? It’s featured in the latest season of “Stranger Things’’ on Netflix.
The mysterious musician, whose last public appearance was in 2014, has issued rare statements in response. She’s excited that the song is “being given a whole new lease of life by the young fans who love the show.”
In her native U.K., Ms. Bush is an icon. In 2013, the Queen honored her for services to music. The creative pioneer – cited as an influence by subsequent generations of notable musicians – is widely regarded as occupying the same pantheon as Prince, David Bowie, and Joni Mitchell. Yet, prior to now, Ms. Bush had never had a U.S. Top 10 single. Fans and critics say that it’s a long overdue correction to her low profile in North America. One of music’s most unique innovators is finally getting her due thanks to the TikTok generation.
“In the 21st century, creators often talk about world-building. And Kate Bush is a world builder,” says Ann Powers, NPR Music’s critic and author of the 2020 book, “Kate Bush’s The Dreaming.” “When you discover, through that artist, whole scenes and visions and maps and all-encompassing narratives, well, then that’s going to hook you in. We’re talking about new fans who are raised on things like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. So Kate is the perfect project artist for those generations.”
Ms. Bush’s songs – and indelible music videos – often play like fantastical movies. “Cloudbusting” tells the story of a man arrested by the government for inventing a machine that can produce rain. “Snowed In At Wheeler Street,” a duet with Elton John, imagines two time-traveling lovers meeting at different points in history. Side B of “Hounds of Love” is a conceptual suite about the thoughts of a woman adrift in the ocean after her boat sinks. (Spoiler: She gets rescued.)
Ms. Bush’s prodigious imagination blossomed during childhood. Her Bohemian family lived in a farmhouse, where dense trees secluded their Shangri-La from the busy streets of South East London. Ms. Bush and her two older brothers were enthralled by poetry, mythology, TV and film, and their mother’s beloved Irish folk music. By 13, the self-taught pianist had composed a future hit song, “The Man With the Child in His Eyes.”
“She was encouraged to write, encouraged to perform, encouraged to listen to things,” says Graeme Thomson, author of “Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush.” “There was no sarcasm in her house. People were never belittling or demeaning. It was a very positive place.”
EMI records was skeptical about Ms. Bush’s insistence on releasing an Emily Brontë-inspired composition as her debut single. “Wuthering Heights,” released in 1978, showcases the teenage soprano’s early vocal style. Her theatrical wail cut through the static on radios across Britain. She became the first female artist to have a self-written song top the British charts.
To her record company’s chagrin, their budding star rejected an offer to tour with Fleetwood Mac that would have raised her visibility in the United States. She had no interest in playing a straight-up rock concert. Instead, Ms. Bush mounted her own Tour of Life in the U.K. These days it’s de rigueur for pop stars to build live shows around dance routines. In 1979, Ms. Bush’s ballet choreography was revolutionary. The singer, along with her production team, invented the first wireless headset microphone – fashioned out of coat-hanger wire – so that she wasn’t tethered to a microphone stand. During her 17 costume changes, the audience was entertained by poetry readings and mime performances.
Those were Ms. Bush’s last shows until 2014 when she mounted an even more ambitious 22-show multimedia extravaganza in a London theater. She focused, instead, on producing her own albums, embracing the Fairlight – a synthesizer that could play samples of recorded sounds – before it became ubiquitous in ’80s music.
“You paint in sounds,” explains Mr. Thomson. “You can write without having to conventionally knock out the chords. And you hear that particularly on ‘The Dreaming’ and ‘Hounds of Love.’ Those records are very, very forward-facing. That’s about using technology. … I’m not sure she gets enough credit for that.”
Those influential albums caught the ear of fast-rising young millennial songwriter and producer Anna Schwab, who goes by the moniker Sadie.
“I am inspired by her production,” says Sadie, whose June 21 release, “Nowhere,” has been playlisted by Sirius XM and lauded by music critics at Fader and Stereogum. “One of my favorite songs on ‘Hounds of Love’ Is ‘Watching You Without Me.’ … I think she uses the same patch on her sampler, her synth in ‘Running Up That Hill,’ but they’re very bouncy, like round, fluffy sounds. … I try to recreate it all the time.”
Ms. Powers, from NPR, encourages new listeners to seek out Ms. Bush’s later works such as “50 Words for Snow,” “Aerial,” and “The Red Shoes.” (Fun fact: Prince guests on the latter album.) Those records showcase her more mature, maternal voice and a startling emotional directness – on full display in “Running Up That Hill,” the song that the creative duo known as the Duffer Brothers sought out for their 1980s-set teen horror show, “Stranger Things.”
“She was only interested in [“Stranger Things”] if her music was being used in a creative and interesting way,” says Seán Twomey, host of the “Kate Bush Fan Podcast” and founder of the fan site Kate Bush News.
Ms. Bush’s newfound popularity is ironic, he says, because she has always consciously avoided musical trends.
“She just follows her own artistic muse,” says Mr. Twomey. “That’s why her music just does have this kind of timeless quality.”
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