Neneh Cherry looks supremely relaxed. We meet in the Spitalfields offices of her PR company, the light, airy space with its neutral colours offering a personable, friendly vibe. East London is something of a home from home for her. Whilst she is now based in Stockholm, she also has family over here. It must therefore be an ideal location to work – refreshing but also familiar.
“I’m here for promo, but also for some recording,” she explains. Is the recording for a new solo album, something that seems to have been on the cards for quite some time? “I’ve stopped and started a bit on this, it hasn’t been the right time or place. I seriously started on it about six months ago.” Can she reveal any more details at this stage? I’ve been working with Cameron (McVey) and Paul Simm. We’re going to farm some of the music out to a few different people I think. Obviously I’ve been doing The Cherry Thing at the same time.
The Cherry Thing, the primary reason for our conversation, is a collaborative album made with Norwegian riot jazz act The Thing. It is a wonderfully bold and unexpected move for a major pop artist, yet throughout our conversation, Neneh is keen to emphasise its continuity with the rest of her career, asserting her credentials as an artist for whom a certain degree of bravery and experimentation is vital, something that runs right back to her days of spontaneity and immediacy in Rip Rig + Panic. Cherry certainly seems at least partially immune to the ageing process – still appearing youthful and fresh. It’s easy to believe that energy and urgency are still qualities well within her grasp.
She has an articulate and perhaps fatalistic outlook on the project: “It’s like a meteor crash that needed to happen. The Thing have been around since about 2000 and, obviously named themselves after one of my Dad’s tracks (Neneh’s stepfather is Don Cherry, the legendary avant garde jazz trumpeter and composer). Id been checking them out for a while and I just loved their sound.” So how did the Cherry connection turn into an actual, working collaboration? “I have a friend in Stockholm – Connie Lindstrom – he’s a massive music fan and a big fan of my Dad’s music and runs different clubs in Stockholm. When Cameron and I moved the family over to Stockholm, Connie became kind of a lifeline. He was running a very leftfield club at that point called The Owl. Two and a half years ago, when I got to the point when I felt it was my time to do it, we started on an idea of having a little production house for various projects we were doing. Cameron has seen The Thing and just felt we had to do something, and Connie brought us together. They were interested, too, of course, that was an important element.”
From there, Cherry convened with The Thing in London a year and a half ago, recording three tracks in the same number of takes. Well, thats jazz, isn’t it? It must have been a long way from the more intensive studio approach of her solo albums – how did she find the radical, spontaneous approach? She is particularly emphatic in her response: “I think it was kind of life saving actually. I’d maybe got a bit lost in the studio approach and lost some confidence. I didn’t lose direction as such, but maybe lost some of the core – I’d become a bit self-conscious about singing. With this, I felt myself coming back and felt reborn because its where I’m from. I guess I can easily say this now, having done The Cherry Thing – but I’m at my best in this free space, when I’m improvising.”
What role did the band play in all this? Whilst there isn’t much in the way of conventional jazz vocal improvising on the album (it is, perhaps mercifully, free from extended scat solos), there is certainly a real elasticity and interaction. “The Thing are a powerhouse! It’s so muscular and its raw. They’re so committed. There’s no fucking around with these guys – they’re just THERE.” That surely could have been intimidating? “Well, I was nervous. I mean, they’re a band, they do lots of other things and they’re fucking amazing musicians and here I am – what can I bring to this? Are they going to be really disappointed? What if it’s really weird? But in the end, it wasn’t going to work unless we were all there and in the moment.” Having so much radical music around when she was young must have helped: “Yes, there were lots of people around me with a certain degree of fearlessness and that has certainly inspired me.” Also, the challenge could surely not have been one way – it must have been a bit unusual for The Thing to suddenly be working with songs: “I think that’s why we’ve chosen some of the songs we have. Although they do have structures, within the forms, things can be moved around. It wasn’t like ‘here comes the chorus! here comes the chorus!’ There was always space for freestyling.”
“I’d become a bit self-conscious about singing.” – Neneh Cherry
Cherry is right that the song selection is a key component of the record’s success. The Cherry Thing avoids any temptation to deconstruct traditional jazz standards, or even to create some modern standards by picking familiar, more contemporary pop songs. “Its not about being conventional – it’s about doing it together,” she explains. “It was about going to different areas to find the material – someone else can do the obvious. Having said that, to turn that on its head, in the end there was something obvious about the choices – they were all songs that just worked.”
Some pieces (Ornette Coleman’s What Reason and Don Cherry‘s Golden Heart) seem like honest choices given Neneh’s musical heritage. What may seem like an outlandish musical choice – MF Doom‘s Accordion for example – perfectly fits the urgent, free flowing exchange of ideas. There are two originals – Cherry’s own Cashback, which has a raw, unrestrained, punky quality and Mats Gustafsson’s Sudden Movement is mysterious, abstract and intense. Neneh sounds thoroughly at home phrasing alongside Gustafsson’s saxophone. A particularly significant choice is Dream Baby Dream, the Suicide song that seems to have attracted plenty of love in unexpected places in recent years, with Bruce Springsteen having performed it during his solo concerts. Neneh Cherry and The Thing stay quite respectful to the original in some ways, but theres little of the monotonous menace that comes from Alan Vega. This version has more freedom. “To me, it’s really like a mantra, and it’s quite hopeful. Our version has an innocence I think. We’re not being ironic with it at all.”
Given Cherry’s history of being in the right place at the right time for being at the vanguard (arriving in London in time for the post-punk thrill of The Slits and Rip Rig + Panic, forging the pop/rap crossover with Buffalo Stance, being part of the trip hop scene working with Tricky and Geoff Barrow), there may possibly be an entire new audience for this adventurous hybrid. “Most people that know me wont say that Im always there at the right time. I’m always late! Maybe finally we can say thats a good thing! It was almost coincidence that I was there – we could get into some deep theory kind of conversation – its about trusting your instincts. This is something that, as I get older, I get better at. If I’m not there fully, its a pointless exercise. Some things are just meant to happen. Sometimes that part of my life that is out of my control frightens me. But as you go on, you make choices.”
A certain degree of experience and success must facilitate particular choices of course. Could she have made this kind of album 15 years ago? “No,” she says clearly, before pausing to consider the question a little more. “Well I could always have done it anyway whatever the industry thought but I don’t think I would have done. I did make the body of an album with Tricky which never quite got finished. It didn’t sound like The Cherry Thing – but it certainly felt like it.”
It is not, of course, the first time Cherry has made a risky choice when working with others. Was she surprised by the massive success of 7 Seconds, her 1994 collaboration with Youssou N’Dour, particularly given the unwillingness of the mainstream music media in the UK and US to embrace music from around the world? “I guess I’m often surprised, because you never know. But that track seemed to have a certain magic… perhaps thats a naff word… a special air about it. It traveled all over the place. I mean, 17 weeks at Number 1 in France! Isn’t that amazing? America was actually the only place where they wouldn’t go for it. They wanted us to do a version with Youssou singing in English. I mean, please!” Is she still in touch with Youssou? “It’s quite funny, actually,” she reminisces. “He was doing a concert near my home in Stockholm a couple of years ago, and I was sitting at home wondering whether I should go or not. I ended up arriving just minutes before they played 7 Seconds, and he didn’t know I was there until I got on stage. Usually, one of the backing singers would take my part!” What does she think of his recent move into politics? “I think he’s been traveling on a diplomatic passport for some time now, so he’s actually been involved with politics in Senegal for a while. It’s a natural move for him, I think.”
“Practicing is so important – you cant really open up unless you really know your shit.” – Neneh Cherry on the path to success.
This all reinforces the notion of just how important collaboration has been throughout her career, whether it be with her regular producer and partner Cameron McVey, or with other performers of international stature. Has she ever been tempted to work entirely alone? “I sit at home on my bed and write. Sometimes it has to be like that and sometimes to go all the way into whatever it is Im trying to say, I have to be alone.” She sighs and briefly pretends to be a demanding diva: “I have to be alone!” At this stage in her career, she seems to have reached a stage where she can adopt an informed perspective: “I can look at my own creativity and see that I’ve got away with a lot. I’m now in a place where I enjoy working on my voice a bit more. I think that graft is really important and for that stuff I have to be alone. But, beyond that, you don’t own music – you make music. People have always played music – it’s what we’ve done when we’re not working. You make babies to it, you dance your ass off, you survive. It is a collaborative thing, making music.”
Perhaps practicing and writing are often necessarily isolated, introverted activities, but the actual making of music is a social activity. Neneh clearly now views practice as extremely important: “Practicing is so important – you can’t really open up unless you really know your shit. My Dad, Ornette, Charlie Haden, Archie Shepp, they practiced for hours and hours and hours every day. Ornette knew the blues – but he had his own version of that blues. Those guys were such pioneers. They worked hard.” It’s sage advice for any budding improvising musician.
Cherry has clearly worked hard in recent years – perhaps more than UK audiences might realise. Her band project, CirKus, never quite received the publicity afforded to her solo albums here. “We were just about to launch the second album here but I had to put the brakes on. I wasn’t feeling too well because I’d just lost my Mum soon before. I wish that I had just let them go and do it. CirKus was like a collective in a way – not everyone had to be there all of the time. Both of those albums are great albums and they should be heard.” It’s an interesting and honest admission, and it’s not the first time Cherry has had to bounce back from health problems. She seems to have handled these setbacks adroitly, always returning stronger. “Thank you! I don’t know what to say to that! I mean, I want to live. I’ve always wanted to carry on, to do better, to be alive and, shit, I’ve brought a bunch of people into the world. I have to take care of them. I’m not going to sit here and say I’ve been the most amazing perfect mother, but life is a bunch of twists and turns and ups and downs – somewhere along the way, hopefully you’ve learnt enough for it to become a little bit simpler. My family is the world to me – the inner sanctum and love of the family gives me immense amounts of strength and energy.”
It’s refreshing to hear an artist talk so openly about family and domestic life being a source of drive and encouragement. The misleading and depressing cliche that artistic inspiration has to come from personal turmoil and suffering still lingers on in many places. “All you need to do is look out the window if you need to get the blues, something’s gonna give it to you! Hopefully we can have some joy somewhere.” Perhaps that is what really emerges most clearly from The Cherry Thing – a real sense of the joy and happiness that can be found in interactive music making.
Neneh Cherry & The Thing’s album The Cherry Thing is out on 18 June 2012 through Smalltown Supersound.