Interview: Neneh Cherry

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This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland), under the headline LATEST ALBUM A MAGICAL JOURNEY WITH THE ENCHANTING MS CHERRY…

The intrepid journalist is always alert. Ears are primed for revelations; emotions swapped for stoicism; unblinking eyes are ever-seeking, ever-scanning, never admiring. But if that journalist’s youth was defined by Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance (“wearing padded bras, sucking beer through straws”), then all objectivity is floored when Cherry is on the phone. It will become a challenge to focus on the task in hand – to maintain composure and converse – rather than, say, fanatically screaming. And while transcribing the ensuing discourse, said correspondent may find herself re-playing Cherry’s warm farewell – “Take care, my darling!” – countless times.

Cherry has been a singing, rapping, boundary-trashing tour-de-force for over three decades. She was a fleeting member of The Slits; joined ex-members of The Pop Group to form jazz-punk insurgents Rip, Rig and Panic; and was later infamously spotted “hanging with The Wild Bunch”, Bristol’s counter-cultural 80s crew, which counted her partner Cameron McVey and Massive Attack among its number. (The band would later record their seminal Blue Lines album in McVey and Cherry’s home, and credit her with galvanising them into making the record in the first place).

If Cherry’s solo calling card, Buffalo Stance, and its attendant album, Raw Like Sushi (1989), ushered hip-hop into the pop mainstream, then her 1994 duet with Youssou N’Dour pulled another blinder: 7 Seconds brought a whole new language (Senegalese Wolof) into the UK charts. In 2014, she released Blank Project, her first solo album in 18 years, but she’s never been far from our hearts, thanks to several excellent collaborations, not least 2012’s alliance with Swedish jazz noiseniks The Thing.

Although billed as a solo LP, Blank Project was recorded in cahoots with electronic alchemist Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet), and fraternal tech-duo RocketNumberNine, the latter of whom will back Cherry at a very rare Glasgow date next week. It’s an aptly-titled record: a futuristic vista of avant-pop, beat poetry, free-jazz and minimalist electronica that variously utilises silence as an instrument, salvation, weapon, and conduit for personal loss. As ever in Cherry’s realm, it breaks new ground while furthering her motley pop continuum: once, Buffalo Stance’s brassy opening lines echoed Rip Rig and Panic’s Keep The Sharks From Your Heart; now Blank Project’s gentle opener, Across The Water, conjures her 1989 hit, Manchild.

“Yeah, for better or worse, you can’t escape yourself,” Cherry offers, with a cackle and a cough. “You can push the boat out, and try to challenge yourself, or say something in a different way, but there is a thread – it’s all connected. Sometimes it’s conscious, and sometimes it’s not. It’s been really interesting on Blank Project, because I’ve almost come full circle – it feels like I’m working in a similar way to how I started, with Rip, Rig and Panic,” she says. “I think I was able to put myself into a more spontaneous head-space for Blank Project because of how we did things back then. I love how these things come around.”

Blank Project’s roots lie in her previous endeavours, too: she teamed up with RocketNumberNine after The Thing (themselves named after a track by her stepfather, Don Cherry) were unavailable to perform with her at an awards ceremony. And she’d been eyeing up Kieran Hebden’s uncanny production chops for years.“Kieran’s a kind of wholesome minimalist,” Cherry says. “He’s got a very clarified way of looking at things – he’s super-intellectual and concise, but he’s also really soulful, and he has this ability to keep his eye on the heart of the matter. He’s pragmatic and calm and I think that helped really disarm us; helped us just receive the vibes, and be in the moment, so we could improvise. And that was really important,” she continues, “because we only had five days recording together. But, you know, that was enough. Let less be more. It means the record has this bareness, but it’s also quite rough-neck.

“And the chemistry is so important,” Cherry continues. “It’s about the people, and the energy, and that combination,” she states. “It’s science, isn’t it?” Maybe. Some of us think it is magic. “Oh yeah, once you’ve got the science, then the magic can happen…”

Blank Project is a magical album – from the haunted melancholy of Out of the Black (a duet with fellow Swedish pop radical Robyn), through the dystopian space-pop of Cynical, to the disembodied opening track, Across The Water – a song which distils and introduces the album, despite having been the last song written, and even then, it happened “by accident”. It is hard to imagine the record without it. “Yeah, it’s really interesting to think about that, it’s like organised chaos,” she says. “When we eventually did that track, it was shouting out to be at the beginning, but there’s no way we could have known that at the start.”

The accidental lives of a song are fascinating, and they’re not easy to predict. Buffalo Stance is a case in point: it was originally the b-side to a 1986 single by Morgan-McVey, (the McVey, of course, being Cameron), which was then entitled Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch, and featured Cherry as guest MC. And that would have been the end of that, had Tim Simenon from Bomb The Bass not fallen for the song, and reworked it as 20th Century pop classic. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” says Cherry. “Imagine, if Tim hadn’t heard it, or hadn’t felt compelled to re-make it. It was never in my head that I’d ever go back and re-record that song. And yet somehow it became the leader in the pack.” As if by magic.

Neneh Cherry (backed by RocketNumberNine) plays Glasgow SWG3 on January 30.

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