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 , 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 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?”
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: I love the repetitive nature of it. It’s like a mantra, you know?
How does Neneh Cherry and The Thing work live? The Thing haven’t really worked with a vocalist before and they pack a real punch in the flesh. Were you afraid you’d get lost in the mix?
N: Well actually, our first ever gig was acoustic. But not by choice! There was a power cut and the whole of Stockholm just went out. It was like some higher energy (without sounding off my head) just went ‘”this is how you’re going to do it”.
Connie went out and lit as many candles as he could in the bar. There was something very vital about that first gig because I think The Thing can be really loud; such a power house. It was obviously my first time so I was trying to figure out how to fit in – and actually it turned out great because we could hear everything. We were all listening to each other; we moved from that ‘drop a pin on the floor’ quiet, to letting it roar loudly. We’ve only played two shows, and by the time we played the second one (which was all plugged in) we were all tuned in to one another. I felt a little disembodied after the gig!
Of all the things we’ve done, we’ve simply met at the soundcheck and then just played. It will be interesting in the summer when we get on a bit of a roll with each other. It’ll be like “listen, feel it, go”.
How’s your solo project going?
N: It’s going really well. I think doing this collaboration first was a good thing. I started writing and recording before we recorded The Cherry Thing, but I think I just needed to open up.
After doing this album, my other stuff is starting to make more sense. It’s like remembering who you are. After the last album I didn’t really want it or feel it – or I didn’t really know what I wanted. I needed to get off the treadmill. It’s a great thing to feel like I’m starting again. I have that good enthusiasm, hunger, and desperate need to do it – and unless you feel that, what’s the fucking point?
I suppose I’ve never been very good at churning it out. I’ve never wanted to be ‘famous’, needed to be a celebrity or repeat myself, you know? It’s a trip, it’s a journey, it’s a process – somehow I feel I’m in the right time and place.
Hopefully the energy I’ve felt from this album will be similar, but the sound itself is more like ‘my’ sound turned on its head. We were doing a lot of things that were mid-range, mid-tempo, and beatsy. It felt a little pedestrian so we went back to it – I’m so shit at knowing what to call it! Hopefully it will be the shit.
You have an interesting perspective on the industry – having worked in underground, burgeoning scenes, achieving mainstream success, leaving to concentrate on family, then returning. What’s changed this time round?
N: The old school music industry has died on its ass. 10 years ago it was so “I want to be a celebrity, I just want to be on telly!” I thought “where is the fucking anarchy in all this? Where are all the little bands of people who just want to play together?” Not just putting a group together because they look right, you know?
And I suppose that’s always been there, but now what feels really healthy and organic, is that what goes around comes around, and we’re back at the DIY joint: the school of thought that if you have an idea, you can take that idea, find some other people around you who are thinking the same way, and make something happen. That’s how it should be, and I think it’s the grain of life – everybody should have access to creative outlets.
It really needed to happen. There were too many people with fat payrolls and executives with expenses. When I look at Joakim (Haugland) who runs Smalltown Supersound, and we were talking about the album, it was so nice to deal with someone who was just a fan of music running a record company – not a businessman running a corporation.
I was signed to Virgin for years and had a great relationship with the people I worked with but I’ve been there and done that. Now, creatively, I feel really inspired by the people around me, the people I’m working with and the music. I want to turn that inspiration into creativity, and be able to do the things we want to do without having to fight with too many people about it. That makes me happy.
It’s really basic shit – but you realise when you get to be as old as I am, the things you want out of life are simple and small.
You recently posted a link on Twitter about artists for an ethical Internet. Do you think the digitisation of music is in fact its downfall?
N: That’s quite a big question! Eminem is all, “I’m going to go out and kick people who illegally download music” and it’s like, times have changed. We have to rethink how we do things. I think that kind of ownership of music is… You know, I don’t feel ownership over my own music anyway.
I’m privileged because I’ve been able to live from doing the things I do, which is great. I know other people who make music and have day jobs who love that too. I think the industry was incredibly naïve to think illegal downloads weren’t going to happen. I’m not abiding it, but I’m one of those people who thinks the more the merrier and we just need to find the right way of doing it.
The internet means anyone and everyone can put their music out, and a lot of people choose to put their music out there to get heard whether they’re getting paid or not.
In the past, you’d get caught up in sending your demos out to record companies and if someone didn’t pick it up and listen to it, or if you weren’t in the right place at the right time, nothing might happen to you. A lot of people got lost and disappeared. I mean, imagine all the great talent that never got heard. Now it’s like “fuck you” – if you want to do something you can.
It’s a difficult one and a deep argument – I think a lot of people are willing to pay something for music, and I think it’s just about figuring out how to make that balanced.
The Cherry Thing is out now.