Can you make a living from your art? Kate Bush says yes, you can.
The seventies. An era of hairy men with guitars, schmoozy crooners, snotty punk rock and shiny disco. If you’d suggested a teenage girl from Kent in a floaty dress was about to top the charts with a self-penned ode to a Brontë novel, people would have laughed so hard they’d have fallen off their platforms.
And yet, in 1978, aged 19, Kate Bush appeared like Cathy’s ghost at the top of the UK charts with Wuthering Heights.
With its unusual subject, searing vocals and now-legendary interpretative dance moves, Wuthering Heights could so easily have been a novelty record or a one-hit-wonder. But Kate has forged a 40-plus year career off the back of it, one that has dived deep into weirdness and soared high through beautiful art pop, never once compromising her vision and yet still managing to be a huge commercial success.
Don’t be fooled by the floaty aesthetic. To walk this tightrope of art and commerce with such conviction and power, in an industry often reluctant to take risks, especially on women, Bush’s creative force deserves reverence.
Here are a few things we can learn from Kate about living a successful creative life:
Invest in your creativity
I can’t imagine many teenagers would spend their record company advance on interpretive dance lessons, but Kate was wise beyond her years. She invested her EMI money in her studies with Bowie’s former dance teacher Lindsay Kemp and classes with mime artist Adam Darius.
This is such a great lesson for anyone who works for themselves in the creative industries. Ringfence some of the money you make to put back into learning — whether that’s your own industry or something complementary. You will only keep growing.
Consume art to create art
The Bush back catalogue is riddled with influences from art and literature. From the obvious In Search of Peter Pan and Wuthering Heights, to Get Out Of My House, inspired by Stephen King’s The Shining, and The Sensual World’s obsession with Ulysses, Kate is a great example of artists drawing from other artists to create something new.
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal” — art cannot be made in a void. One of the best cures for a creative block is to pick up a book, watch a play, lose yourself in somebody else’s world and see what sparks it sets off in your own work.
Kate grew up in a rambling farmhouse in East Wickham, Kent. Without a gang of neighbourhood friends to hang out with and nowhere much to go, it’s no surprise that she needed to create her own worlds to lose herself in.
OK, so we don’t all have an old organ rusting in a barn behind the house to experiment on, but we do have other tools to make art with, and distractions that could be removed. What would happen if we turned off the TV drip for a night and did something creative instead?
Create firm boundaries
So many young stars burn out, but Kate was fortunate enough to have a strong support network and learned to protect her interests and energy early on. EMI wanted to release the more commercial-sounding James and the Cold Gun as the lead single from her debut album The Kick Inside, but Bush stuck to her guns and insisted on Wuthering Heights. It went on to be a massive hit.
She also set up her own publishing company, Kate Bush Music, and her own management company around the time of her second album, Lionheart, in 1979, when she was only 20 years old.
Working in creative industries can mean your work isn’t always controlled or paid for by people who understand it. Do what you can to protect your interests and trust your instincts. However much we may want to people-please, a boundary set is rarely one regretted.
Keep showing up for the work
Teenage Kate demoed over 200 songs before releasing her first album, The Kick Inside. She’s well-known for creating often and choosing only the best work to show to the world. It’s mind-boggling to think of all the songs she must have lurking in the archives, unheard by her fans.
Sometimes when we sit down to create, the work that never sees the light of day might feel like a failure. But actually, that stuff is an important part of the process. To get to something magical, we need to make the rest. We need to write the 187 songs that didn’t make it onto The Kick Inside to write the 13 that did.
The important thing is to keep showing up, and seeing what happens.
Finally, take as long as you need to get it right
From 1994 until 2005, Bush almost completely dropped out of the public eye. The media painted her as a Miss Haversham-esque recluse, wafting around a country pile, burning sage and making owl noises.
The reality was much more pedestrian. During this time, Kate had her son Bertie, won a few prestigious awards, played at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and wrote and recorded her eighth studio album Aerial. I’m sure she wafted around as well, but it seems like a pretty fair use of time if you’re not totally bound to the capitalist treadmill.
If you need to concentrate on being a parent or carer for a few years, go off and do a different job, or even just rest the muse for a bit, it doesn’t take away your creative self. If a book takes one person two weeks to write, and it takes you six years, it doesn’t matter. Different writer, different book.
If we can learn anything at all from Kate’s career, it’s that it’s your creative life, so you do it your way.
Now let’s waft…
This is article number 41 of 52 on UK number one singles by me, Penny Brazier. I even took a year off in the middle. Kate would have approved.
If you like writing for fun and want to do it more often, I highly recommend checking out the Write 52 project. Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Hell, you might even be working on your novel instead.