I‘ve been on the phone to Neneh Cherry for nearly an hour before realising that I haven’t brought up gold discs, Manchild or Buffalo Stance.
Generally, when 80s pop stars go ‘underground’, they’re on the student bar novelty circuit or sniffing around reality shows. Neneh Cherry’s underground, though, is a world of techno clubs, arthouse cinema, hip-hop, free jazz and glitchy electronica. When she brings up her brash pop hits it’s only to say how she’s reworked them to fit in her sparse, darker setlist — she’s not dining out on chart folklore.
In an era of manic pop culture compression, Neneh’s well-worn ‘best bits’ on a talking heads clip show would be her singing Buffalo Stance while seven months pregnant on Top of the Pops in 1988, or the moody monochrome Seven Seconds video. But if you hit the Beatyard festival in Dun Laoghaire this weekend expecting an I ♥ the 90s throwback show, you haven’t been doing your homework.
“I watch the people coming into gigs, the ones coming in to hear Seven Seconds, often they’re like, ‘What the hell?’ It doesn’t fit into the box in their head,” she says.
Neneh’s on the phone from her home in London, after moving from her native Sweden last year. After 10 years in Stockholm she says “it wasn’t readjusting because I can move around in London blindfolded… it’s always felt like home. It’s always been an important part of my life, I would have found it quite upsetting coming back here and feeling like I didn’t belong.”
These important parts involve Cherry as a freewheeling cog in various emergent scenes in London — securing her stamp on the UK’s pop culture timeline. She may be Swedish, and spent her early teens in New York, but she’s been nicked as a UK pop and club hero ever since she left home and landed in London at 14, in the late 70s.
A decade before Buffalo Stance broke, she was squatting around London as an honorary member of all-girl punk renegades The Slits, formed Rip Rig + Panic with ex-members of The Pop Group and dived head-first into the UK reggae soundsystem scene, playing early rap records on pirate station Dread Broadcasting Corporation. Massive Attack’s iconic debut album Blue Lines was recorded at Cherry’s home, bankrolled by her chart royalties. She even melted down one of her 1990 BRIT awards into jewellery, giving a piece to Jazzie B of Soul II Soul, simply saying that “he should’ve got one”.
Against this wildly experimental backdrop, her 2014 album Blank Project makes perfect sense, a full-circle affair. It’s a sparse, percussive electronic head charge, in the company of duo Rocketnumbernine and producer Four Tet, with remixes by Ricardo Villalobos and Loco Dice among others. Her most introspective album yet, the clattering percussion and dubby bass pulses still defer to her voice, still as distinctive as any of the greats.
“Rob and Ben [brothers Page], they’re such a beautiful force to make music with,” she says. “The way they play together and improvise is very telepathic, they have structure but they listen to each other while they’re playing and just go with the flow. Me and Cam [her husband and songwriter/producer Cameron McVey] had written the songs and we were sending them stems and building it in an abstract random way. That sound, that awkwardness, is quite a big part of what makes Blank Project what it is. I’m interested in stuff that’s maybe more jazz, more punk.”
Cherry’s last Dublin gig was in Twisted Pepper in early 2014, with Rocketnumbernine’s churning low end really testing the techno club’s speakers, and she says she’ll never grow out of clubland’s netherworld.
“I’m still a sucker for a dark, loud club, I love it. I think it brings it all home,” she says. “And I’m in love with the chaos of that confined space, the ruggedness and raunchiness of it. Festivals are another thing, you get up there for an hour and you’re getting people floating past. I like the possibility of captivating new people.
“It’s important to have a different approach for different things, though. Last year when we played at Sonar I got on the stage thinking, ‘I’m at a festival’, and I think I may have ended up fucking up the gig. It was in a dark room and I should’ve thought of it more like a theatrical way.
“But this randomness of live music, it’s what makes it feel alive. Before I’m going on, I feel like I’m about to step off a ledge, I’m in free-fall, no matter how many times. It’s like everything, things are never the same. You know, you can be together with someone and you go to bed 1,000 times and sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not so great, [laughs]. I love this vulnerability, instead of a synchronised, choreographed show. No disrespect to to people who do that beautifully — I mean, I would’ve loved to have seen Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas with Dean Martin.”
This sense of freedom, of not being tethered to a script, stems from jazz being in her backbone, “like when I hear Coltrane it makes me feel cradled”. Neneh was raised in Stockholm and New York by her artist mother Monika and her stepfather, the pioneering jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who toured and recorded with greats like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. One of her earliest memories is sitting on Miles Davis’s lap, with Miles in a pair of snakeskin trousers. “Jazz has always been there,” she says.
With a break of 16 years between her previous album Man, Neneh released The Cherry Thing in 2012 — a collaboration with Norwegian/Swedish free jazz Trio The Thing, named after a Don Cherry song. It’s an album that includes free-spirited wailing covers of proto-punks like Suicide and The Stooges, Ornette Coleman and a take on rapper MF Doom’s dense and surreal rhymes.
She says The Thing was “so vital”, adding: “I don’t think that we’d be talking to each other right now if we hadn’t come together and made that Thing album, in a way it made everything possible. After the Man album, I didn’t really feel motivated to keep going down that path that was very much caught up in pop. I’m not saying my music now hasn’t got pop stuff in it, it has lots of pop idiosyncrasies, but that particular area didn’t push me.
“Sometimes you just have to go more with your instincts. The brain often gets in the way, the mind starts going, ‘What is that, what are you trying to do? What does that mean?’ I like opening up the channels to get to that ‘thing’ without thinking too much. The Thing album took me to a place that I was at maybe when I was with Rip Rig + Panic. I ended up accessing a part of myself that was somewhere in my consciousness that I wasn’t really conscious of.”
The cover of Madvillain’s Accordion tapped into another constant in Cherry’s art — even if it hit hip-hop at an oblique angle, with her confrontational catty whispers and wails swallowing up MF Doom whole. She says hip-hop is “vital and still part of everything”, and was adamant about reinterpreting a rap track with The Thing.
“We started looking more left-field and rugged stuff, and just landed at MF Doom while watching the Accordion video, it had that ‘thing’, there was a possibility. We just printed out the lyrics and we had an afternoon, four hours. We’d done two of the tracks and it was the last thing we were gonna do and they just started playing for a minute. I was taking in the sound of what they were doing, just looking at the lyrics and then just kinda did it. It was just one take, we never did it again.
“I suppose I’d been listening over the years to the forefathers of hip-hop and rap, like the Last Poets, Watts Prophets, Nikki Giovanni who’s an amazing poet. I was always drawing from them, going, ‘Look I can’t take this piece and just rap out, I’m gonna have to speak some rap, some spoken word, I think that was where my head was at. And Doom, he’s a master.”
Just as she refers to rap’s direct ascendants, most of Cherry’s early inspirations and musical comfort blankets are only a few degrees of separation away from hip-hop, with funk and psychedelic soul striking an early chord. She recalls: “The first record I remember choosing to listen to was when we were living in Vermont in upstate New York and my dad was teaching in university. We had this funny brick bungalow and my mother put a swing in the middle of the living room. I really remember being on that swing and listening to Sly and the Family Stone, Stand! and all that. Family Affair was on that album too. The other record was Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, for obvious reasons, because I have was a kid, they were kids. I carried on with Stevie Wonder, a LOT of Stevie Wonder… Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life, Parliament, Funkadelic, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson.
“Later on I landed at the Clash, Public Image and then along came Funky Four Plus One… then oh God, I remember I got given a mixtape that was straight outta Corona, Queens, real rough-neck rap. It was the first hip-hop that I held in my hand and I would play it incessantly. It was so crusty with playing over and over. Also, Vicious Rap by Tanya Winley. In between that were The Slits and X-Ray Spex. There’s something about the women, it resonates, something deeper, I was thinking, ‘Yeah do it! I wanna be like them!’”
In the take no prisoners DIY post-punk years, Cherry gravitated towards The Slits, the dubby punk crew led by Ari Up — one of the era’s great underground icons. With her family in the States, the teen Neneh joined the fold, saying: “We really became sisters, all of us. Particularly me and Ari as we were sharing a house. We had a little squatted house in Battersea and we were inseparable. Ari, Tess [Pollitt] and Viv [Albertine], they were really into making little families.”
By the time Neneh arrived on the scene, The Slits had already released their debut album Cut, revered as a post-punk touchstone, with its scrapey angular guitar, reggae rhythms and overall sense of mischief as opposed to all-out anarchy — see Shoplifting and their highly-strung cover of Heard It Through the Grapevine.
“It’s funny because I was listening to The Slits the other day and it was so avant-garde! There’s something about how they were doing that fearlessness, that search for change, of not wanting to repeat a single thing. I was kind of just there but I suppose I also learned so much — that’s where I started to build my own life. We taught each other so much. I feel Ari inside of me a lot when I’m singing or performing, sometimes I step back and realise she was a big teacher… we had amazing adventures in the years we were hanging out.”
When pushed for stories of Ari, Neneh bursts out laughing, as if that well is overflowing with tales that can only be described as scrapes, capers and antics. She thinks for a second or two and says: “Oh God… one day Ari got some money from somewhere and we were like, ‘Ah let’s just go to New York and stay in my loft. We were just hanging around with these 12 Tribes guys out in Brooklyn and we went to a ska dance on the beach and lost all our money gambling on the street, really stupid stuff. It was some card game, you’re looking for the red, whatever it was, ‘where’s the red, where’s the red?’ I used to watch the guys doing it out the window when I was a kid, like watching people get beat after they let you win a couple of times. For some stupid reason me and Ari got consumed by it and started playing and lost like 60 bucks in 30 seconds.
“Then we were going into the subway station and this guy came down the stairs and said, ‘Oh I just saw you lose your cash’. He was probably part of the same crew, but he was like, ‘Do you wanna rob a shop? We can hold up a store, you can just go in and asked for diapers and I’ll come in and take the money’. We were just like, what is happening?
“Two days later we were out on Bushwick. Now bushwick now is super trendy but back in the day it was pretty roughneck. We were sitting on the stairs of a house we were hanging out in, and the guy just drove past in a brand new Cadillac. It was so weird! We’d seen him on Fifth Avenue hustling, we’d just come out of the bank changing our last money. So anyway, there’s one example for you!”
Ari Up sadly passed in 2010, but not before a final few tours that hit Dublin a few times, with her chaotic force undimmed. Neneh says she caught The Slits around this period, adding: “It was totally full of kids at 18 or 19 who were into a new wave of punk and knew the Slits. Maybe they didn’t really know, but at least they were there. That’s the thing with The Slits, isn’t it? It’s still so relevant.”
In a recent feature in Mojo, Neneh wrote: “I’ve always felt that we owe so much to Billie Holiday and the great blues queens. They were real pioneer feminists who paved the road for us.” Neneh’s two daughters Mabel and Tyson have both started releasing leftfield pop music, and she admits that while she still has older role models like Mary J Blige (“I have such a weak thing for her”) and Patti Smith (simply “fucking amazing”), she’s inspired as much by younger generations.
“I look at Mabel and Tyson and the women they hang out with, they’re very beautiful headstrong feminist young women,” she says. I think it’s an interesting time. Sometimes with young women the stories don’t have the chance to dig deep enough. There’s too much focus on making success instead of telling a story. Having said that, there are tonnes and tonnes of women who wanna go up against this stereotype shit.”
As another example of Cherry not playing to type, she’s just acted in her first film, Stockholm My Love, by Belfast director Mark Cousins. An artist who’s always searching for inspirational collaborators, she says Cousins is “deeply intellectual, his brain is something spectacular… but he’s also ‘there’, he’s got so much heart too. With all the brain activity there’s so much heart and passion in what he does.
She adds: “Somehow he got a hold of my email address, and he sent me an email that just said, ‘Hi I’m Mark Cousins, blah blah blah, here’s 22 reasons why I think you should be in my film’. By the time I’d finished and gone through these 22 reasons, it was just, ‘YES’. They were just beautifully convincing, and he just strums his words gorgeously. He made me feel within those 22 reasons that I could do it.
“I’d never been in a film. Sometimes I’d think it would be an interesting thing to do, but acting? What, remembering lines? I can barely remember my own fucking lyrics! But one of the reasons he gave was it’s gonna be a film with a lot of walking and not talking, so I was like, I walk a lot… I’m in!
“The general gist of the film is, I’ve hit someone with my car a year before, and I’m an architect on my way to do a lecture and the time has come to face this thing, so I walk to Stockholm over 24 hours. The first few days we were just working with a tiny little handheld camera that he has. Then everything sort of flew over the days and by the end of it it was quite a big cruise, it was amazing. I just felt like I could sit in the palm of his hand in a way, and just be led… being able to surrender enough to be open, and to give rather than take over, is easier with someone who’s guiding you through it, making it possible.”
Neneh was recently inducted into Sweden’s Music Hall of Fame alongside electro-pop star Robyn, who shares a mic with Neneh on Blank Project’s Out of the Black. When we bring it up she jumps in saying: “Robyn! There’s another headstrong woman for you, she’s just amazing.”
So after the induction, and even performing Seven Seconds in front of Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf XVI at the Polar Music Prize in 2013, does she feel she’s becoming part of the establishment?
“Ah don’t say that! I like it though, I snuck in, who’d have thought it?”
Original version in Irish Daily Star