Neneh Cherry – the woman responsible for possibly one of the best pop songs ever crafted – is sitting opposite us, sipping tea and sporting a face-splitting smile. Garbed head to toe in black, with curls piled high on her head, it’s hard to believe 16 years has passed since the release of her last solo album. Far from taking a break, the past decade has provided Cherry with bountiful opportunities to express herself; from teaming up with husband Cameron McVey and daughter on trip-hop outfit cirKus, to guesting on Gorillaz ‘Kids With Guns’, the Swedish-born singer has been keeping herself busy.
Now Cherry is back with a bang, promoting her most recent project. Never one to toe the line, Cherry’s joint venture with Scandinavian free-jazz trio The Thing (named after a Don Cherry song) is a notable divergence from her most celebrated fare – yet on closer inspection, this fusion of experimental jazz and pop-hued vox makes perfect sense.
Raised on the free harmonics associated with stepfather Don’s particular brand of jazz, Cherry displayed a a musical precocity early on, playing with experi-punk band The Slits when she was just 16, before going on to co-form post-punk outfit Rip, Rig & Panic. Mainstream success followed with debut album Raw Like Sushi, which spawned 80s dancefloor classic ‘Buffalo Stance’. Cherry went on to release two further solo LPs, cementing her standing as a dynamic, innovative artist – seamlessly segueing between hip-pop party tracks to high-profile collaborations (’7 Seconds’, her duet with French artist Youssou N’Dour was a massive success, reaching top 10 positions across the majority of Europe).
This recent collaboration with The Thing once again calls upon Cherry’s groundbreaking sensibilities. The Cherry Thing, the resulting album, comprises eight covers, featuring tracks from artists as diverse as MF Doom, Martina Topley-Bird and Ornette Coleman. We caught up with Ms. Cherry to talk jazz, illegal downloads and a changing industry.
The Line of Best Fit: How are you enjoying being back in London?
Neneh Cherry: Every time I come back, I’m only here for a few days at a time, and I don’t really have time to see all the people I want to.
I stayed with my eldest daughter last night, that was nice. When you’ve lived somewhere as long as I lived [in London], I don’t have to adapt – as soon as I’m here I go into auto-pilot. You gotta love London. I’ve got all my deepest friendships here, my ‘hand-made family’.
Neneh Cherry and The Thing is quite a departure from what you’re known best for – what has the reception been like to the new material?
N: Great actually! For me it’s not really a departure; it’s more like an arrival. An arrival at something I really needed to do. It feels natural because of where I come from, the music I was brought up with, and even the early stuff I was doing with Rip, Rig & Panic – that energy born from organised chaos, from stepping away from the things you’re expected to do, has always been the most obvious thing for me.
So far the reaction has been great, but obviously I’m only hearing from people who are reacting well! I’m not hearing from the people who find it disturbing. But hopefully we’re going to burst some cherries; people who don’t think they understand the sounds we’re making will go “wow, I’m really into this”. I hope.
How did the collaboration come about?
N: Well, Cameron [McVey, AKA 'Booga Bear' and Cherry's husband] who produced the album with Robert Harder, had seen The Thing perform in Stockholm. The guys came back and they were blown away. Basically they were like, “you should do something with them” – they could just see it happening.
This friend of ours, Connie Lindstrom, has been a huge cheerleader for the project and kind of an executive producer on the record. He was one of the first people to set up a small label in Stockholm, and the first Thing record came out through that – he’s been a real force of nature.
I got to a place when I was really ready to get back to work, and it just felt like the right thing to do.
And obviously there’s the connection with Don’s music.
N: They’re so outspoken about the influence of Don’s music so of course they wanted to do this. We got together a year and a half ago at Harder’s studios in Acton and picked some tunes we were going to try.
We started with ‘Too Tough To Die’, Martina’s (Topley-Bird) track, and just did one take – I hadn’t even really caught up with myself, but Cam was like “that’s it, we don’t need another take”. The rest of the guys were ready to do the next track. I was like “really? What the fuck just happened?”
[Laughs] It felt like it was meant to happen. I felt almost instantly like a plug had been pulled out – they’re such amazing musicians anyway, but the commitment and energy they put into what they’re playing is so compulsive. We weren’t thinking about what we were doing – it was almost like becoming an instrument, you know?
You’ve been raised on jazz and it could be argued that this very improvised, almost punk, breaking down of structures has always been a part of your music. How did you approach recording? With a concrete plan? Or just an idea?
N: Obviously the guys were spending time together, so they were processing what they were going to do sound-wise beforehand. There was a lot of emailing back and forward because there’s no lack of great songs to cover out there.
From the beginning it was quite clear what kind of attitude the pieces needed to have. It’s not that they had to be hard or tough, but they needed to feel quite instant. To me, music has no borders – you have a particular sound, but the idea of turning something on its head helped us choose the tracks we did. It was the guys who came up with the Suicide track idea.
Which is an inspired choice – and one you might not initially think would work.
N: [Laughs] I love the repetitive nature of it. It’s like a mantra, you know?