Neneh Cherry | Nataal
“Sorry I’m a bit vague today,” says Neneh Cherry, sipping a hot lemon and ginger drink and nursing a nasty cold. We’re on set in west London for the Nataal photoshoot and, even though she’s had a fever all night, this resolute professional has arrived on time and ready to work. And needless to say, she is anything but vague.
Vague is not a word that describes Neneh Cherry. Iconoclastic. Visionary. Radical. Enduring. Contemplative. Loyal. Bloody lovely. These are all more apt adjectives for someone who has continued to push boundaries, bridge genres and quake dancefloors for more than 30 years, and who continues to challenge her fans with her current album, Broken Politics.
Our conversation, like her fifth studio album, cuts to the real talk straight away. I get the impression that she knows no other way. As its title suggests, the record finds Cherry in a defiant spirit as she laments the fractured political and social climate facing us all today. There are tracks tackling gun violence and global conflicts (‘Shot Gun Shack’), women’s rights (‘Soldier’) and disinformation (‘Faster Than The Truth’). Meanwhile the lead single ‘Kong’ ruminates on the refugee crisis as a legacy of colonialism. This one started out as a song she wrote for Massive Attack, but it took on special meaning after her 2016 trip to the Calais Jungle where she volunteered at the Refugee Community Kitchen.
“It was a deep experience. I’m not going to say I felt like going there and helping out was important. I just wanted to put some energy into doing something that needed to be done – cooking 18,000 meals a day,” she recalls. “On the last day of the trip, I went to serve the food and visit the place. It was this small world where people were making their lives. I looked into their eyes and saw their smiles, and also some of their heartbreak, feeling like their road that had led to nowhere. All of these people had sacrificed so much to get 20 minutes away from England, two hours away from Paris, down the road from Brussels, and no one wanted to know. Then they just flatten the whole thing and where is everybody? And so ‘Kong’ is definitely a response, a needing to talk about it, a needing to shed some beauty on it.”
The whole album is an expression of Cherry’s will to assert the right to be heard, to be present and to embrace personal activism. She’s not a prophet with all the answers, but she does appreciate the ability of music to empower. “Sometimes when I’m looking at what’s happening on a daily basis, I feel completely overwhelmed. It can leave me speechless. You can be left thinking, ‘what’s the fucking point?’” she says. “But I don’t like to feel like that because there is a point. Having some kind of hope is a point. There is a point in us listening to each other, trying to talk to each other, you know. And I guess the natural place where that starts to happen for me is in that joint, that area where I go creatively where I digest, and process, and just try to express some of the things that are going on around us every day.”
Having written the songs with her husband and long-time collaborator Cameron McVey, they went to Woodstock to record at Creative Music Studio, which is owned by legendary vibraphonist Karl Berger. “He played a lot with my stepdad [jazz musician Don Cherry] over the years and his studio has had lots of people passing through it who are linked to my family. As my parents are both gone, coming here gave me a feeling of coming home. It was really soothing and connected me to them on another level.”
On production duty was Kieren Hebden (Four Tet), who also produced Cherry’s 2014 album Blank Project, and helped to connect the dots both to that release and to much of her music to date. Its sparse sonic landscape creates a meditative and disconcerting bed for Cherry’s sometimes croaky, other times delicate vocals to land upon, where they tangle with resonant jazz and trip hop frequencies and all manner of world music instrumentation. “I was holding the whole journey with me, both in sound and expression, and little points to all of the different albums have just been allowed to simmer through. It’s quite nice having that roundedness in a way.”
Always surrounded by friends and family on her musical path, what she calls her “tribe”, Cherry is a rolling stone in every sense, and can’t help but attract new and exhilarating collaborators into her “nomadic threads”. While Wolfgang Tillmans shot the album cover, she’s worked with emerging London filmmakers for her two lead videos – Jenn Nkiru for ‘Kong’ and Akinola Davis Jr for the blistering ‘Natural Skin Deep’. Both of their work also speaks to Cherry’s own sense of building community through creativity, which galvanises and amplifies voices.
“I think, thank god for the younger generations for wanting to take charge and make a difference,” she says, reflecting on the dynamism of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. “Every person is political, and there are different levels of activism, but a huge part of transcending and giving power to each other is collective thought. We are not taking from each other, we’re not in competition, we’re making each other stronger as a united force.”
Cherry was brought up on this collectivist thinking. Her early years were spent in rural Sweden with her mother, the visual artist Moki Karlsson, and Don Cherry, and their home had something of a commune spirit. Her birth father was the Sierra Leonean percussionist Ahmadu Jah, who passed away last year and with whom she also had a meaningful bond. The Cherry family, including her step brother Eagle Eye, lived between Sweden and New York, and she dropped out of school as a teenager to move to London, where she squatted with Ari Up from The Slits and sang in Rip Rig & Panic, among other raucous bands. This marinated her in the city’s reggae, post-punk and early rap scenes.
Cherry rose to rapid fame in 1988 with the instant pop anthem ‘Buffalo Stance’, followed by the BRIT award-winning album Raw Like Sushi, which also featured the worldwide smash ‘Manchild’. In the classic, Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed video, the camera swings rhythmically from side to side to reveal a hyper-real beach scene within which she’s rapping while holding her new born baby Tyler (previously – and famously – spotted in her belly on Top Of The Pops), and her hair wrapped in a bath towel.
By this point the singer came to embody Buffalo, the style movement spearheaded by Ray Petri – alongside the likes of Jamie Morgan, Barry Kamen, Judy Blame and Mark Lebon – that defined an era, and has lived on to influence fashion and photography ever since. Think MA-1 flight jackets and cycling shorts with a smattering of Yohji Yamamoto or Jean-Paul Gaultier; pork pie hats with kilts and Doctor Marten boots; ‘killer’ Jamaican tailoring meeting London rude-girl chains. Think Buffalo. Think Cherry, who helped to take the look mainstream.
She continued to work closely with Blame until his untimely death from cancer last year. “It’s been very surreal in many ways. His absence is huge. The hole is huge. At first there was the deep confusion of the person not being there. It’s only hitting me now – a year later – that he’s gone,” she says of the larger-than-life stylist and jeweller. As we talk, Cherry’s own stylist Karlie, who was once Blame’s assistant, is busy laying out many of his archive pieces, which express his unmistakable DIY aesthetic and mash up of high and low materials. His signature safety pins and buttons cluster next to plastic dinosaurs and faux pearls in statement neckpieces waiting to be worn.
“It’s been such a privilege to be able to work in the way that we’ve worked over the years, so I guess I carry that with me in my heart,” she says. “It takes a while to process before you can elevate the new relationship to a place where you can feel them around you and in you. Now I look at the pieces and can see their genius on another level. They’re beautiful works of art and it always feels like the icing on the cake when I put one on.”
Blame and Cherry have continued to inspire successive generations, so impactful and inclusive was their work together. She is admittedly flattered that her creative output has influenced so many in the fashion and music worlds, but she’s not interested in resting on her laurels, even if those laurels include achievements such as the 1994 single, ‘7 Seconds’ with Youssou N’Dour, which went Top 3 in 14 countries, being nominated for two Grammys, and sharing songs with everyone from Michael Stipe and Gorillaz to Cher and Blood Orange.
“I like the idea that maybe I have influenced people, but in my own dimension I try to just look forward to whatever it is I’m doing next rather than thinking about how something I did 30 years ago has affected people. It’s part of who I am and I carry it with me,” she says. “There is a space for celebrating a certain part of the story. Judy and I were talking a lot before he passed about how it would be quite cool to draw some of that history into the visuals we were going to work with now. But both him and I were allergic to drowning ourselves in nostalgia. It’s pointless when you still have things to say.”
Cherry is also no doubt kept on her toes by the youngest of her three daughters, Mabel, who is currently following in her footsteps with her infectious breed of insouciant pop and has recently slayed the UK charts with her song ‘Don’t Call Me Up’. “I’m always going to try to have her back when she needs support, but I don’t want to stifle her with my fear. It’s an important balance and I can trust fully that she’s doing what she needs to do,” she says. “You can claim the business is different these days, but the routines are the same and it’s fucking draining. I can put my hand on my heart and say she deserves to be where she is. She’s really worked hard and I’m ridiculously proud.”
Would she say that it’s easier for women artists now than when she started out?
“I don’t think it’s easier. I really don’t. It’s the same shit, different day. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of people pushing for change, and there are amazing women who are able to project themselves, and to be and look and do the things that they want. But there is still a very stereotypical area where women are sexualised. We are presented with imagery that is not a celebration of the woman, that is bordering on pornography and isn’t real. That control of our image is something we have to claim back. Not even back – just claim! It’s a journey, isn’t it?”
Photography: Lucie Rox
Publication: Nataal magazine