Neneh Cherry: Blank Slate

Robert Ham

By Robert Ham

on 02.25.14 in Interviews

Anyone looking for a thumbnail summary of the life of Neneh Cherry should start with the sound of her voice. Even over the phone, it has the same ebullience that memorably bounded through her massively successful 1988 single “Buffalo Stance.” As she talks, she unconsciously slides across a trio of accents; the lilt of her Swedish childhood gives way to a punchier sound from her years in London, before landing on the kind of bluntness characteristic of the city where she’s sitting when I get her on the phone: 2nd Avenue in New York.

There’s edginess, too, as if her voice can hardly keep up with the words racing through her brain. “I’m really excited to be here,” she says, breathlessly recounting her return to the Big Apple. “I’m finally feeling a little bit of my equilibrium coming back. I had some breakfast this morning and I could feel my heart really start beating at the thought of being back. I almost had a heart attack at the table!”

That rollercoaster of accents is not just a tour of Cherry’s personal history, it’s shorthand for her entire career. Cherry has spent the better part of 35 years weaving her way through the music world, stopping to embrace one sonic idea before quickly loosening her grip and moving on to the next. The result has been a thrillingly eclectic discography: the manic world beat experimentalism of her first band Rip Rig + Panic gave way to the cheeky-yet-wise hip-hop and soul of her early solo efforts; her 2012 album with the woozy free-jazz outfit The Thing nodded toward her current album, Blank Project, a rhythm-driven collaboration with Four Tet and electro-space rock duo RocketNumberNine.

You can find a flicker of that spark if you dig around on YouTube for the footage of Cherry performing with her stepfather, jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, on Italian TV back in 1976. Just 12 years old at the time, Cherry appears toward the end of the set and quickly joins in the chanting and drum-banging of the adults. She’s gangly and a bit awkward, but there’s an unmistakable glint of joy in her eyes.

“It was an amazing gift at times,” Cherry says of her childhood, “but when I was growing up, I didn’t ‘get’ that. I used to long for a ‘normal’ family and a ‘normal’ car and a ‘normal’ dog, not a Tibetan temple dog. More and more now I constantly recognize the things I’ve been handed down. My parents’ creativity and music was like food to me.”

There were other benefits to her somewhat unorthodox upbringing as well. Cherry dropped out of school at 14 with the blessing of her parents; and it was her stepfather who inadvertently helped her find her musical voice.

In 1978, Don was invited by the Slits to perform as opening act on their UK tour, so he brought his 15-year-old stepdaughter along for the ride. Neneh became fast friends with Ari Up, the Slits’ charismatic frontwoman, eventually serving as the band’s backup singer and eventually moving to London to live in a squat with Up and former X-Ray Spex saxophonist Lora Logic (who would go on to form the delightfully scabrous post-punk outfit Essential Logic.)

“We were really in kind of a sisterhood,” Cherry says, “It was like I had really found my family. I don’t know what would have happened if hadn’t ended up there.”

Neneh Cherry

Though she eventually headed back to New York for a stretch, she was quickly coaxed back the UK with the open invite to join Rip Rig + Panic, the new project led by Bruce Smith and Gareth Sayer, who had been members of the harrowing curdled-funk outfit the Pop Group.

“She had bright orange hair at the time,” Sayer remembers. “She looked a lot more punky than people would think. And she had a bit of this New York attitude. But obviously she was a natural talent — a complete sort of star, really. I would write songs in these completely demented keys, and she seemed to be able to manage it all.”

To compare the footage of Cherry from 1976 to what’s available online from her days with Rip Rig + Panic is to see how quickly and completely she came into her own. Gone are the graceless movements of her pre-teen years. She’s in complete control, bending and contorting her body in African-inspired dance. That confidence is matched in her voice — a powerful, slightly twangy alto that pops out of the mix like a flame.

The band dissolved after just two years. Five years later, Sayer was in a New York studio when producer Michael Johnson came by, raving about this hot new young rapper and her single “Buffalo Stance.”

“He said, ‘Have you ever heard of this girl Neneh Cherry before?’” Sayer remembers, laughing. “I said, ‘I’ve made four albums with her!’ They were pushing her as this young out-of-nowhere talent. That was a bit weird for me.”

In a way, that marketing logic made sense. Both “Buffalo Stance” and the album it came from, Raw Like Sushi, were far afield from anything Cherry had done to that point, trading the manic, dub-fueled freakouts of Rip Rig + Panic for streamlined hop-hop and R&B. The reinvention worked: “Buffalo Stance” hit No. 3 on both the UK singles chart as well as the Billboard Top 100.

“It was kind of crazy, but I felt like I rode with it,” Cherry says. “When I look at it now, I feel like ‘Buffalo Stance’ is one of my kids, or a nice old friend. I did it at a gig the other day and it was nice to see everyone singing along. But after Raw Like Sushi was out, I was definitely feeling like I was ready to move on to the next thing.”

She released a pair of albums in the ’90s: 1992′s Homebrew and 1997′s Man — and logged a handful of oddball collaborations, some of them natural (Peter Gabriel; Gorillaz) some of them less so (with Live’s Ed Kowalczyk on the soundtrack to the wisely-forgotten 1988 indie rom-com Playing by Heart.)

Now, Cherry’s penchant for both collaboration and sonic exploration has culminated in one of her finest achievements. Recorded in a quick five-day burst, the 10 songs on Blank Project feel like a glorious mélange of the various sounds and styles that Cherry has accumulated in her long career, and both Four Tet and RocketNumberNine make for natural sonic foils.

In a way, the album almost feels like a retrospective: The early trip-hop experiments of Homebrew drive new tracks like “Spit Three Times” and “Everything”; the chaotic experimentalism of Rip Rig + Panic informs the minimalist grooves and swinging diction of “Cynical” and “Dossier.” Cherry’s voice is on fine display throughout, curling like smoke around the tight-knit noir of opener “Across the Water” and hopscotching feverishly across the title track.

“I must say, doing this record, I feel like I’ve gone full circle with my songs and my music,” she says. “The way they were executed, it’s quite raw and unpredictable. It’s not about being perfect and overproduced. It feels natural.”

When discussing the lyrics on Blank Project, though, Cherry’s normally rapid-fire voice noticeably slows. It’s no wonder: Much of the album wrestles with the notion of getting older, from little details like gaining weight and staying in touch with loved ones to trying to stay afloat financially. Her impending 50th birthday played a small part in this, but the strongest influence on the album’s contemplative tone was the death of Cherry’s mother Moki in 2009.

“I was completely frozen for about a year,” she remembers. “But after that, I felt like I had to start drawing from it, using the shock and sadness and making into something creative rather than wandering around deaf, dumb, and blind. I started to heal my way through that stuff, and songwriting and music is how I digest it.”

Unsurprisingly, Cherry is already looking beyond Blank Project and the run of tour dates that she and RocketNumberNine will embark on throughout 2014. Her goal now, she says, is to ride the wave of DIY culture that is helping to democratize the music industry in a ways that she couldn’t have imagined during her punk days.

“That’s the cool thing about the Internet. You can just put things out on your SoundCloud and it doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Now is the time for me to be standing by this album, and I’m very proud of it. But I’m ready to carry on and do many more. It’s time, I think.”