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Neneh Cherry
Neneh Cherry

“What you are as an individual is a really big part of being in a collaboration.”

Neneh Cherry and RocketNumberNine will perform at the Perth International Arts Festival’s Chevron Festival Gardens on Saturday, February 28, and Sunday, March 1. BOB GORDON speaks with the influential singer/songwriter.

Neneh Cherry has always lived something of a nomadic existence.

Her childhood days were spent in family homes in Hässleholm, Sweden,  and New Hampshire, where her stepfather, jazz musician Don Cherry, taught at Dartmouth College. Trips to New York were a constant.

By the time she was 14, Cherry moved of her own volition to London, hooking into a music scene spearheaded by the likes of The Slits and X-Ray Spex. She soon joined post punk band, Rip Rig + Panic, who morphed into Float Up CP, but it was as a solo artist that she broke through internationally with her 1989 debut, Raw Like Sushi, and its big hit single, Buffalo Stance, a song that still sounds like a breath of fresh air. When a seven-months-pregnant Cherry performed the song on Top Of The Pops it created quite the controversy.

The years, from 1989 to 1996, saw Cherry release two more albums, Homebrew (1992) and Man (1996) and a global 1994 hit with Youssou N’Dour, 7 Seconds.

With it came the international lifestyle of a sophisticated pop star. She also started The Cherry Bear Organisation, which backed and oversaw the rise of Massive Attack and Portishead. After the Man album, however, Cherry retreated from public life and the attendant fame to focus on family (she had, after all, won a Brit Award in 1990 only to have it melted down and turned into jewellery). During this time she and her husband, Cameron McVey, and their children lived in Spain, New York and London, before settling back in Cherry’s birthplace, Stockholm.

Cherry, however, made a concentrated return to her career in 2014, releasing her first solo album in 18 years, Blank Project. Geographically, things have again taken a turn.

“Today I am at home in my living room in London,” she says, cheerily down the phoneline. “I’ve just permanently moved back here; I’ve been living in Sweden for 10 years. I’d been commuting a lot in the last few years, since I’ve started working again with the solo album. So I’m reacclimatising after living in Stockholm… here in London town.”

While London seems to make sense purely as a business base, Cherry says there are myriad more reasons for the move.

“Well you know, kind of, probably, yes. The foundations of what I do seem to be here. I always come back to London. Cameron and I find that our people are here. Our tribe’s here. We have a phonebook that works here but it’s kind of deeper than that. We find the people to be more connected to us here.

“I think Cameron came back about two years ago. We’ve got a production company again like we used to in the old days around that Massive Attack time and post-Raw Like Sushi. We’ve got a similar thing going on now, we’ve revamped Cherry Bear (Organisation). Cameron is very ‘London’ and he functions in a certain way and he couldn’t find his feet, creatively, with his work in Stockholm.  So he came back.

“And the work thing aside, now we’re here for the first time the family has sort of gathered, because two of our kids have been here, and my grandson. And then my youngest daughter and I were still in Stockholm, so it kind of makes sense on a lot of levels.

“I s’pose I’m renowned for being quite slow… you know, it’s been 18 years since the last solo record and stuff. I feel like, really inspired by what I’m doing now and having a sense of urgency. I mean, we’re kind of starting on another album. So it feels good, like taking away many of the plates that are up in the air that don’t need to be there and keep things simple so it’s easier to just focus on the things on hand that we want to happen.”

Even so, for Cherry this means stepping back into a world where recording begets touring which begets publicity demands and interviews. Comebacks often don’t equate with what an artist asked for upon return.

“I think because of how this record is, and where it is, most of everything I’ve been doing is actually pretty cool and great because the feedback from the album’s been really good,” she qualifies.

“It’s been a kind of joy to work with it. I mean, without trying to be pretentious, it’s a record that’s obviously not going right to the mainstream at all. So I guess in comparison with what some people are doing – and even compared to some of my old schedules – it hasn’t been completely off the hook. It’s actually been quite manageable and quite fun. I’ve met a lot of cool people.

“Of course, there are aspects to it… there’s good and bad in everything. But right where this is and where the home for this record is, it’s a place I feel very comfortable. So we’ve been doing a lot of festivals, myself and (Blank Project collaborators) RocketNumberNine. I’ve been on interesting stages with a lot of cool musicians and stuff, so it feels very right.

“And then the part with interviews, well it’s not always easy, and it’s hard when I feel I can’t give of myself properly… sometimes for some reason your brain isn’t working so well. But the good thing about it is that it’s kind of therapeutic. I always feel that when I’m making stuff – recording or writing – that part is kind of the easy bit, to a certain extent, because I feel it’s very much about it happening. In the creative process I don’t analyse, ‘well what is this about?’ So in the aftermath of doing interviews I think you end up having to think about what things mean or why you’ve done them and that’s quite good… in a way (laughs).”

Part of this comfort can be attributed to The Cherry Thing, a collaborative album that Cherry made with Scandinavian jazz trio, The Thing, which was released in 2012. It’s an album that influenced what Blank Project would become?

“I think that it was like such an important thing to make that record,” Cherry says. “I think Blank Project wouldn’t really have happened in the way that it did if The Cherry Thing record hadn’t been made. It kind of opened me up. I hadn’t really recorded in that way since Rip Rig + Panic. I was about 15 when  I joined Rip, Rig And Panic and I just stood in a room with a microphone with the guys just playing and we didn’t really know what was gonna happen or it was going. We just kind of started (laughs).

“It was like a really powerful release and relief, but it was also really scary. We had songs; we’d picked songs, but we wanted to do songs that we loved and songs that suited us and songs that were almost contradicting. It ejected me out into space which was really important and then, with Blank Project, there was no doubt in the fact that it was a really relevant way to continue working, to keep it live, to keep it a little bit improvised and a bit raw. The solo record, of course, was always going to be fuelled by electronics, rather than the sound of the Thing record, which is more of a jazz set up.”

Written in the wake of her mother’s passing, Blank Project seems to echo the way in which Cherry was brought up. Wherever the family lived it was an open house, with creative people going back and forth. As a toddler, Cherry was rocked on none other than Miles Davis’ knee. So while the album is ‘solo’ it was co-written by Cherry’s husband McVey, as well as UK writer/producer, Paul Simm. There’s also insight and contributions from producer, Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), RocketNumberNine, Robyn and The Child Of Lov (Dutch musician, Cole Williams, who died shortly after the album was completed).

It seems that an open house – and with an open nature – continues to be the way Cherry likes to live and work.

“I think so,” she ponders. “I mean, we weren’t even going to make it a solo record, it was going to be a Neneh Cherry/RocketNumberNine collaboration. A lot of thought went into it with a lot of the people who were around, the ‘Think Tank’ were feeling that it had some personal thread that made it a solo record. We worked as though it were a joint thing, but I think I’ve always worked like that. You can collaborate in different ways and of course with me having written the songs and being the lead singer you put yourself out there. But I think I try and do that with everything I do (laughs). I can’t really help it. It’s just the same as being there.

“So yes, there’s a lot of similarities that come with the way that I was brought up. I’m kind of recognising that more and more and appreciating having those things. But I think all of it is part of a collaborative effort – if you don’t nurture yourself and take care of your bits then you can’t actively function in that collaboration. What you are as an individual is a really big part of being in a collaboration.”

Further to the open house approach to the album is its intimate production and overall sound. Cherry and co. sound like they are in the room with you, lending a warm gravitas to the listening experience. Fittingly, home is where and what you make it.

“It’s interesting you say that because I think that transcends,” she notes. “It’s how it felt when we were doing it and it’s what we were trying to capture. So much of what makes this record, whatever words we want to use to describe what it’s made up of, is letting those things be there. That’s what Kieran was really interested in and of course he’s added production, quirks and values that are his, that are Kieran’s little gold dust on there, that was capturing where we were and those moments.

“For us, myself and RocketNumberNine, it was a kind of letting go so that we could just be there. It’s great that you feel like we’re there when you hear it, because that’s the whole point of it.”

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