VIBE spoke with Neneh Cherry from her home in Stockholm on Valentine’s Day. She had just returned from London and the next day, she was headed right back to shoot the music video for “Out of the Black” featuring Robyn from her new album Blank Project. “It’s been this way for a few weeks now,” the jet-lagged pop star and mother of three laughs, sounding remarkably vibrant about the post-release marketing cycle that comes with a new album, her first in nearly two decades. It’s an experience she’s had a lifetime to adjust to.
By the time she was in her late teens, the stepdaughter of legendary jazz trumpeter Don Cherry had left New York for London, been a pirate radio DJ, roommates with Ari Up, cofounded female post-punk band the Slits, and formed Rig, Pig & Panic, a no-wave experimental group. Then, in 1988, Neneh exploded onto international pop charts with “Buffalo Stance” from Raw Like Sushi her debut LP. Predating MIA by a couple of decades, she performed the female power rap/dance anthem on TV’s Top of the Pops while several months pregnant.
Long associated with Bristol, England’s trip hop scene, Cherry helped jumpstart Massive Attack, and included Portishead’s Geoff Barrow on her 1992 sophomore album Homebrew which also featured Jazzmatazz’s Guru and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. Homebrew’s lead single, “Buddy X”, remixed by Biggie Smalls, allegedly took a veiled jab at Lenny Kravitz for cheating on Lisa Bonet. Though Cherry’s solo output slowed in the 1990s, her collaborations continued, including covering Cole Porter’s “Under My Skin” for the AIDS awareness compilation Red Hot + Blue, and appearing on songs by everyone from The The and Pulp to Youssou N’Dour.
In 2012 murmurs of a comeback gained momentum when she released The Cherry Thing EP. Recorded with experimental jazz group The Thing, the EP features a very Cherry collection of Stooges, Suicide, MF Doom, Ornette Coleman, and Don Cherry covers. In 2013, she hooked up with electronic wizard Four Tet, and along with live dance duo RocketNumberNine produced Blank Project, her first full album since 1996’s Man. Dark, rambunctious and sensuous, Blank Project fuses Four Tet’s psychedelic production, RocketNumberNine’s free-form funk, and Cherry’s deeply personal stream of consciousness lyrics. (The opening track is dedicated to her mother, artist Moki Cherry who passed away in 2009.) The experience left one of music’s most inspirational voices feeling revitalized; and this can only be a good thing. Blank Project is out now on Smalltown Supersound.
VIBE: How are you getting back into the swing of things? You’ve always stayed busy but it’s been a while since your last solo album.
Neneh Cherry: I’ve been exploring stuff, enjoying working out of the center stage, a little bit to the side, collaborating more – all the time moving toward this record. I could feel how I wanted this record to be – free, open. Talking about this record and doing some gigs, I feel like I can hold it. It’s representative of where I am now.
You’ve always done your own thing, and when you let you your freak flag fly, amazing things happen. How did your ‘time off’ influence this album?
It was amazing. All the people I worked with [Four Tet, RocketNumberNine, husband/producer Cameron “Booga Bear” McVey], all the right elements were there, and we happened to find them all of the time. The chemistry is as important as what you make. It’s how you make the music. There has to be a natural kind of connection with the people that I’m working with to make me feel free to bring what I have to offer.
With RocketNumberNine, they brought the sound. We had written the songs, and we had an idea in our head, but they had it there ready-made, these two guys from the East End of London, this crazy weird dance music they were playing live.
And Kieran, I just have so much love and admiration for him, I can only say good things about him. He has so much integrity. He reminds me of people that I grew up around because he’s all about the music, he doesn’t play the game or make compromises. He’s into the raw material. In this case, he wanted his input of course, but he was also interested in capturing what it was doing in its natural form and then playing around with that. I felt open, like I could just let it happen around me.
“Buffalo Stance” became a hit after acid/electro artist Bomb the Bass reworked it. You were involved with Massive Attack when they started. You have a long history of working with electronic music as well as Hip Hop, punk, and jazz. What’s your reaction to the question ‘Why is Neneh working in electronic music?”
I think, “Good!” I’ve always been allergic to obviousness. I love the presence and the spirit and the drive of electronic music. I think that’s how Kieran’s production is very uncompromising, in a way. I’ve never felt confined by militant barriers that people put up in music. I think in a way that’s why I ended up living in London. It’s always been very innovative. When I first moved to England in the early ‘80s and went to my first reggae sound system I was tripping! I’d never heard anything like that. Incredible!
Some of my best friends, the craziest people I know are from Bristol. This Bristol sound, everyone was just being who they were. The people there have always been very ‘Fuck you, we’re going to do our own thing here”, which means that it just grows off into its own thing. Then again, maybe it’s the magic mushrooms down there in the West country.
Bottom line: I’ve never felt very interested in fitting into something. When I’ve tried, it’s felt totally contrived and never worked. There was never any discussion that this record wouldn’t be driven by electronics with the energy of punk.
How does the DIY vibe of today compare with the DIY vibe of the ’80s?
There are some people who are in this and do what they do because they want to sell a lot of records, they want to be celebrities, they want to be stars – and a lot of people do that amazingly. But there’s a whole other world of music that’s super important, that has had to evolve on its own because it has no support from record companies. I like this vibe that anybody can do it. I come from a tribe where I felt like I’m going to do what I do and get by anyway.
I used to go to this club in London called the Language Lab where people used to get up and get on the mic and rap. I used to go there and dance, and I used to go and rap there and get paid 5 pounds. Anyone that got on the mic got a fiver. ‘Great, I can buy milk tomorrow!’ A lot of the people I knew, we did what we did because we had to. I still feel that way. I have to do this or I’ll go crazy, Ill go under. But I also have to do it in the right way. It’s not just about running along on the conveyer belt, going “product, product, product!”
As a mother and artist, what are your thoughts on the industry after all these years?
I’m not interested in sitting around waving my finger around, saying ‘I think this good, this is bad.’ I have a lot of admiration for women. There’s some women’s work that stimulates me, hits me more in a special spot. When I see women standing up there – and they are holding it, in the spirit, and they are feeling it – that makes me really happy.
You’ve worked with so many different people, you’ve really influenced how people think about music and its possibilities.
When we went to record the album there was something very intimate about it. I just felt that I wanted Kieran to know that I really trusted him, that I wanted him to kind of lead me in a way. Not to tell me what to do, but more ‘if you feel or hear anything when we’re working, you must always tell me.’ I was able to become like a blank sheet and let the music pass through me without too much interference from my weird little brain cells. Having the sense that Kieran’s here because he wants to be here, that was a pretty big deal. Being able to surrender enough and let it all unfold, it’s been the best medicine. There’s always room to learn.
In the spirit of learning, any advice for people navigating this business?
Be there. Hold it. Own it. Take it. Control it. Like my dad used to say to me, ‘Don’t let them change you’ (whoever they/them are). Stay on your path and do it – and learn.
What’s next for you?
Some gigs in England, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin – you know, that round. I’m really hoping I get to the states soon! I want to cut a rap track, not that I’m an emcee, but just for fun. I’m toying with the idea.
Any other projects?
This is enough for now. I feel like I’ve found the key. That’s what’s been great about this album, this experience. I feel like I’ve been let out, I’ve been let out into the next part of my life and my creativity. I’ve got this. I want to run with it.
Photo Credit: Kim Hiorthoy