Music is everywhere and all across the Neneh Cherry story. Music, culture, the arts. Music flows through her – and so many of her family members. Music is at the core of her marriage, her life – and so when last year’s return record, Blank Project broke something of a silence it seemed truly remarkable. The music was wonderful anyway – in and of itself. But nothing, as Chuck Klosterman was so fond to tell us, is ever in and of itself. Wrapped up in the album was the death and subsequent grieving of her mother. Also in there was the desire to reconnect, spiritually, musically – a journey that saw its first significant footsteps with a record released not actually that long ago, 2012’s collaboration with Swedish/Norwegian trio The Thin. That album, The Cherry Thing, consists of covers, though to call them just covers is to undersell the extreme reimaginings of songs that come from the disparate corners of hip-hop and jazz and noise-rock and seminal proto-punk moments.
It was, Cherry tells me down the line from West London, “the start of this new record. The Cherry Thing Project was definitely a blueprint, though this new record is its own thing entirely”.
The return to the spotlight, to receiving glowing column inches and the desire to tour again has meant that “it’s all been pretty wonderful really”. Cherry says “2014 was an incredible year, there’s no other way to describe it really, I just feel happy and blessed and there were nerves, sure, absolutely, but we pushed ourselves to make a great record. And it’s there now and people have been very receptive and appreciative and it’s wonderful really. Just magic”.
She was born Neneh Karlsson, her mother was a Swedish artist. Her father an African musician, the son of a chief. She took the surname of her stepfather Don Cherry. He continued the musical education started by her birth father. Don Cherry introduced not only the music of Ornette Coleman and some of the other great jazz musicians he played with; in some cases he introduced the people. “It was hard”, Cherry says, “not to be amazed by it all, you would think. But it was just our life, the way we grew up. We were all intrigued by the music. My mother played us music from the earliest time”.
There are too many highlights to mention in Neneh Cherry’s childhood and musical career – not only the debut album Raw Like Sushi and its breakthrough single, Buffalo Stance. Then to that duet with Senegalese singing sensation Youssou N’Dour (7 Seconds) and on through lesser selling but experimental, often brilliant albums…because around all of that happening she was a key player – even if from the side-line – in the trip-hop sound. She helped to bankroll – and musically arrange – Massive Attack. Their debut album, Blue Lines, was co-produced by Booga Bear, also known as Cameron McVey, by then Cherry’s husband and musical partner. The enduring love of her life and key collaborator in her musical projects. Blue Lines was recorded, in part, at the couple’s home studio. Neneh Cherry is one of the backing vocalists on the record.
Before that though and before her own debut solo album she was a member of Rip Rig + Panic, a British post-punk band named after one of the albums by Roland Kirk, a contemporary of her stepfather’s.
Speaking of contemporaries of her stepfather, the young Neneh Cherry was once bounced on the knee of Miles Davis.
Her siblings make music too. They are violinists and jazz musicians and record producers – you remember the work by her half-brother, Eagle-Eye Cherry (his Save Tonight a big hit back in 1997).
So this music that’s now finding its way back out through Neneh Cherry has, in a sense, always been there. She was born into it.
But she also took time out to be a mother, to make art “outside of the public eye” and to keep a little of the music for herself.
As mentioned, the wheels started to turn again with the record she made with The Thing. Cherry believes that “directly informs” The Blank Project. “There was something liberating, in a sense, about recording covers, but there’s also a lot of responsibility – you can muck it up, and then you’re ruining a song you didn’t write”. But she believes the Cherry Thing project enabled her to make The Blank Project.
There’s a feeling of a return to roots across the last two musical projects. She mentions that both The Thing and current band, RocketNumberNine (a London-based live electronica duo, comprised of brothers Tom and Ben Page and named after a Sun Ra track) “have taken me back to when I was listening to The Slits so intently, working with my first – proper – band Rip Rig + Panic; it’s not punk as such but there’s some feeling of a punk energy”.
Always shunning the rap label – despite being an accomplished MC, an influence in particular on female MCs – Cherry describes herself as a singer, someone interested in music, rapping being just one way to deliver a song. Similarly she’s not interested in being tied to any one genre, acknowledging roots in jazz, punk and hip-hop and explaining further that as is the case in all of those genres, “it’s about dipping toes in the water, then swimming around, making your sound from a variety of feels and sources”. She was always attracted to punk and noise within music, to the energy that comes from that anger and intensity. It’s no surprise she then found elements of that in hip-hop.
The Cherry Thing project was Neneh’s “rebuilding” and now, post-Blank Project she’s excited to be able to communicate a range of her music. The new album is a focus, given it’s being performed in much the same way as the music was composed – “RocketNumberNine is incredible to work with, these two guys are playing live electronica, creating on the spot. We made the record in just a few days, it was quite important I think to set that goal. To see what we could do. And so it’s a blast to now take these songs out to various stages around the world”.
She’s sure they’ll work together again – readying an EP and then hopeful for another full album. No 18 year gap between records with her name on the spine this time.
Crucial also to The Blank Project’s sound – and to the vision of the project – was producer Keiran Hebden (better known as Four Tet). Cherry says he’s “a wizard” and is bashful at the thought that her earlier work would be among Hebden’s influences.
“He’s good at knowing when to stand back and observe, he hears the things that aren’t happening”.
The other critical element of this latest project, as with any of her past musical projects, is that enduring strength in Cherry’s life, her husband.
“Cam is this incredible force – he’s so intuitive and his energy really is what made this happen. He has this ability to just carry on through anything and to inspire and motivate, and if there was ever a time when I didn’t feel like it he knew how to make what he was feeling seem infectious”.
She’s excited to be visiting New Zealand – saying that “some of the older material does get served up in the show too, we do it differently of course, because of the line-up, so it’s been fun revisiting that material, reshaping it, hearing it differently”.
“Well, thank you”. She sounds almost choked up. “That one was most definitely a right place/right time thing; you don’t always think too much about songs after – but that one certainly seemed special. Even at the time. Right at the moment. I remember that. And to have been part of something that’s been used – so positively – for some great reasons and causes and then to have people all around the world come and talk to you about the song, what it means to them, well it is pretty incredible. Overwhelming in a sense. But amazing, most definitely. To be part of anything that last is incredible – and that’s something that’s going to live on, that song. It really will”.
To be in to win a double-pass to the show leave a comment below, name your favourite Neneh Cherry song and tell me why you’d like to see the gig.