Neneh Cherry: ‘All that awkward stuff became a force’

Neneh Cherry is on her first UK tour in five years – and it starts in Leeds next week. She spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Friday, 8th February 2019, 8:00 am
Updated Friday, 8th February 2019, 2:47 pm

Having started her year Down Under, in the middle of an Australian summer heatwave, Neneh Cherry is now trying to acclimatise to a shivering cold London.

“We got out the airport in Adelaide and it was 38 degrees,” she says. “It was interesting there. There seems to be a lot happening culturally, just now there’s quite a few festivals. We played an amazing festival in Tasmania called Mona Foma. Now I’m back. I haven’t been home for it feels like forever so I’m just tuning into my domestic life.”

Next on the agenda is “some intensive rehearsal time” before her first UK tour in five years, which starts next week in Leeds.

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Neneh Cherry. Picture: Wolfgang Tillmans

It comes on the back of Broken Politics, her fifth solo album in a career that stretches more than 30 years. It’s a record in which the 54-year-old singer looks at the sorry state of the world and resolves to do something about it. She says there were a series of events that hardened her resolve.

“We made the album fairly near to the sorry victory of Mr Trump, so there was that,” she says. “There was Brexit, there was the whole issue of migration and displaced people, which was overwhelming, so I guess they were three big factors, but then there were lots of other things I feel on a different level of being in a time and seeing the world being put under a lot of pressure and going deeper and deeper into a pretty dark place.

“It’s not just me, but I feel like I’m caught 24-7 listening to people lying, the world leaders and world politics. I don’t really believe anybody any more, then I’m probably referring to media, like television and radio and reading material, which is where we get most of our information from, so the album, I guess, is a reaction.

“I write a lot with Cameron [McVey], my husband. I think the songs and lyrics throughout the years have had a direct effect from what’s happening around me at different stages in my life, being whatever age I was – looking at Raw Like Sushi I was 25. I’ve been a slightly different headspace so the way I’ve processed whatever it is that’s been going on around has probably come out in a different way. This time I felt I wanted to be more literal, taking some of the subject matter I’ve felt touched and overwhelmed by and making them into songs.

Neneh Cherry. Picture: Wolfgang Tillmans

“Even if it’s a big subject matter I think the songs refer back to a really personal place. When I’m writing I need to take the subject matter back to a human form of an everyday place, a story of someone in a place, if that makes sense.”

The album contains a couple of specific free-jazz references, from an Ornette Coleman sample in the song Natural Skin Deep to a vibraphone contribution by the veteran musician Karl Berger, who worked with the singer’s stepfather Don Cherry in the 60s and 70s.

“It was definitely a big reconnect,” Cherry says. “Karl Berger was very much around when I was growing up, he was kind of a part of the family unit. Don and Karl had first worked together in something like 1960, really early on in Paris when Don was working with Gato Barbieri and Steve Lacy and people like that. Karl and his wife moved to the States, following Don and my mother Moki and little bit, from Germany, and then he started the Creative Music School which was a project which kind of mirrored what my parents were doing in Sweden, which was a retired schoolhouse that I grew up in.

“There was definitely something consciously on a deeper level that was important, the reconnection of being in Karl Berger’s space. The studio where we made the album was in his house and he played on Synchronised Devotion on the same vibraphone that he played with my stepdad when they first got together, it’s more than 50 years old. So that was deep and I think it set a nice tone for the album, being in that creative space and also just the walls there are oozing with this great music that’s been made within the space.

“It’s just like where I feel I am in my life. I feel the threads that have brought me to where I am now are kind of joining. I feel really conscious of how my heritage has affected me. I’m quite thankful in a different way than maybe I did 25 years ago of the effect of the world I grew up in and the journey that I’ve been on. When I was in my teens and my twenties I’m sure that I worried about stuff but I just got into things enough to find my tribe and my people, coming here to London, and one thing led to another. Now I can see what the whole journey has given me, so it was definitely a full circle being around Karl who was so close to Don and my mother. I know that Kieran [Hebden], who produced the album, tapped sonically into that music and sound that maybe they were making many moons ago.”

Cherry was just 14 when she arrived in London from Sweden. The punk squatting scene was its height and through it she was able to make connections with bands such as The Slits and The Pop Group. Cherry says she “definitely looked up” to Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt and Viv Albertine. “I was fascinated by their music and what they were doing but I don’t know that I felt completely at home. I felt so green, I was so young, so it took a little while but then they really let me in and made me a part of the family.

“It was really Ari and I that connected at first and then I got to know Viv and Tessa better and we grew into a family. It felt really free and I felt really here pretty soon and I think I just found the missing pieces, whatever they were.”

After a spell in The Slits, Cherry formed the band Rip Rig + Panic with The Pop Group members Gareth Sagar and Bruce Smith (the latter of whom she married and had a daughter, Naima). Looking back on those formative stages of her career, she notes: “To me, different things are important in different ways. But I think they were some of the most important connections or experiences of my life. In The Slits I was more of a floating member of the band, I played a bit of percussion and danced a lot with Ari, but in Rip Rig I was given space and it was pretty spirited. Rip Rip + Panic it was like one of the bands when we hit it we would fly but we could also be bloody awful,” she laughs. “It wasn’t for want of trying, I think we gave everything. Gareth and Sean [Oliver], they’d obviously been in other bands and they had a different experience in music. I just tapped into something that I guess I carried around, I didn’t know that I had it, but I think it got into my backbone from how I grew up, all the music that I chose to listen to but also the music that was going on in the environment that I was growing up around, I had all this stuff just lying there.

“I think I learned the importance of being yourself, collaborating, trying to go to new places, trying to look at things from a different place, improvising and I feel like that stuff that happened in Rip Rig + Panic I carry that with me all the way through to where I stand now.”

Around the turn of the 80s Cherry also DJ-ed for the reggae and hip-hop pirate radio station the Dread Broadcasting Corporation; in 1986 she met her future husband McVey. The singer recognises that her massively successful first solo album, Raw Like Sushi, was the sum of the wide variety of influences that were swirling around her life up to that point.

“It was definitely a combination of things. Coming out of Rip Rig + Panic which was a melting pot of free-jazz and funk and punk, whatever you want to call it all, and then spending quite a lot of time in clubs and dancing, listening to hip-hop and DJ-ing; having grown up in New York as well as in Sweden and carrying that with me here; sound system culture – that was a big thing for me, going to my first sound systems with Ari and spending a lot of time in the shebeen, round the corner from where I live here in Ladbroke Grove, that this guy Weasel ran, me and Ari used to go there several days a week. So I feel like it was a mixture of the music that I’d made when I was a part of the bands, the music that I’d grown up with and then the music that was part of the street culture from New York and London, there was a mixture of the hip-hop, the reggae. And also being part of an era where there was an atmosphere of free expression and being nonconformist, having independent thoughts.

“Then Raw Like Sushi I’d met Cameron and he queried why I wasn’t writing songs. The second band I was in, after Rip Rig + Panic, [Float Up CP], everybody was starting to go their separate ways and Cam said ‘Maybe you should try writing’, so I started writing for the first time. I guess in my late teens I’d written a bit of poetry and played a bit of bass but it hadn’t really amounted to anything much, but I started writing and we kept going, Cam and I, working towards something that I guess was going to become an album, which it did eventually.

“Then Buffalo Stance was a bit of a funny accident. It had been on the B-side of a Morgan-McVey record, Cam and Jamie Morgan’s project, as a clubby version. Nellee Hooper and DJ Minor produced it. And then Tim Simenon of Bomb The Bass wanted to re-cut it. So in the middle of us making what was to become Raw Like Sushi we did this re-cut of Buffalo Stance, which set the code. But I feel like the things that led to that happening sometimes it’s hard to say specifically what it was. It was just like being at a junction and having all these weird little threads with me and the people that I was working with, the family that I was a part of – [the stylist] Judy Blame – the various people that I was in the studio with.

“I think also feeling quite awkward a lot of the time. I got here and found my feet. As much as I was happy where I grew up in Sweden, I was also feeling a little bit on the outside because my family was different, there weren’t really a lot of other people of colour that were around where I was growing up. It was a good place to grow up but it was also quite challenging, then we’d go and spend time in New York and I could absorb myself in black culture, it was like everything could be turned inside out when we got to New York, but I still felt like I wasn’t really fully from there and people would be like ‘Oh you’re Swedish or what are you?’ Then I came to London and I guess all of those little pieces didn’t really matter. All that awkward stuff became a force.”

As well as Naima, Cherry has two younger daughters, Tyson and Mabel, both singers, with McVey, and a stepson, Marlon. Latterly she has talked of the joys of being a grandparent. “I’m a really proud grandmother,” she says with relish. “People go ‘Oh my God, don’t tell anyone you’re a grandma’ and I’m like ‘I’m going to tell everyone’. I want everyone to know, I love it. He’s going to be 15 soon, my grandson, and it’s cool. I still feel like a young person, it’s really nice being where I am and having a 15-year-old grandchild. It’s a good thing.”

Neneh Cherry plays at Leeds University Stylus on February 12.