Her 30-year musical legacy echoes through contempory culture. Now Neneh Cherry is returning to the fold with the Four Tet-produced Blank Project
Neneh Cherry is excited. When Crack calls up the idiosyncratic stepdaughter of jazz luminary Don Cherry in the run-up to the release of Blank Project – her first solo album in 17 years – her ebullience is hardly surprising. It’s “absolutely snowingballing” outside, she tells us from the comfort of her couch in Stockholm. “But it’s totally fine, it’s not a complaint.
It was 25 years ago this May that Raw Like Sushi was put out to pasture. That debut album launched Cherry’s club-friendly US hit Buffalo Stance, a track she famously performed on Top of the Pops whilst eight months pregnant with her first daughter. Front-loaded with confrontational rhythms and rhymes, the record sauntered through the peripheries of the mainstream, heckled hip-hop’s materialistic caricatures and reminded narcissistic junk fondlers that boasting about “the size of your dick” with only attract Phoney Ladies. This inaugural hip-hop excursion has since made its repercussions felt – inadvertently or not – in the works of contemporary female artists such as MIA, Azaelia Banks, Nicki Minaj, Angel Haze et al. You know the types: un-fuck-with-able firebrands with rabble-rousing agendas and subversive attitudes. All children of the Cherry.
Blank Project sees her move away from the wildly experimental jazz wanderings of 2011’s The Cherry Thing – a collaborative covers album with Swedish trio The Thing – to working with Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, who was hired to oversee production duties, along with instrumentation from London-based duo RocketNumberNine. The LP’s eponymous lead track has a tunnelling, paranoid and propulsive feel to it, with a sharp tongued Cherry on a typically confrontational tip.
Cherry’s not resting on her laurels though, it’s not often she goes the whole hog with a new hook up. “To make a solo album, I think you’ve got to feel like it’s validated,” she says. “I guess I needed to vent 17 years of accumulated shit out of my system somehow.” It’s in this stifled eruption of musical ideas that we find a charismatic, experimental, forward-thinking musician with an infinitely cool proclivity for adolescent abandon that belies not just her age, but her generation, genre and gender.
After 17 years of solo album radio silence, what compelled you to write songs again?
I started writing the songs on Blank Project about three years ago, some are a bit newer, but it just felt like I’d finally got to a place where I had that edge to start the next part of the trip. I’ve not been stuck for 17 years, I’ve hopefully been on some kind of growth trajectory all the way through.
Raw Like Sushi came out when I was 25, so by the time (1996 solo album) Man was done, it felt like a natural break to try some other stuff and reinvent myself. I was kind of tired of myself. Life’s so short and so precious, I had to feel like I’m not just doing this to fill up empty space with empty words. A record is a forum to sort things out, take a step back to look at the good the bad and the ugly, the funny and the ironic, a place to laugh at myself, or even just cry a bit.
In between Man and Blank Project, how did you cross paths with The Thing and how does this collaboration tie in with your stepfather, Don Cherry?
When I came back to Stockholm after living in London for a whole bunch of years, I was aware that [The Thing] had named the band for one of my dad’s song titles, so my good friend Connie Lindstrom introduced us. They’d always very loudly voiced how big of an influence [my dad] was. They just have this energy that really feeds me, it’s raw and I suppose we’re from the same generation. When my mum passed away four years ago, I knew that I was vitally desperate to do something, so I hooked up with The Thing. It wasn’t about sitting down and writing a bunch of songs, it just felt right to do cover versions and make that a meeting point. It was a saving grace for me; it just catapulted me out of that really dark place.
You hooked up with Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet and electronic duo RocketNumberNine for the recording of Blank Project. How would you describe their stylistic contributions?
Blank Project couldn’t have a better pilot, Kieran is kind of a magic person. I think stylistically you can feel and hear Kieran in the record. You can even feel his breath, he’s definitely in there. He’s not a manipulative person at all, he was totally candid. We had five days to record these ten tracks, and the concept was to record it live to ensure the process was as natural as possible.
What can you tell us about your collaboration with Robyn, who appears on the track Out of the Black?
We had a really nice day recording that track together, I think I’m slightly in love with her, she’s a little diamond, that girl. Out of the Black was actually one of the tracks I was struggling with, and Kieran suggested we should get Robyn to lend her vocals to it. It was a tune that was screaming for something. It was missing her, basically.
What’s your take on women in the contemporary music landscape?
I would like to classify myself as someone who’s always been really proud of women, stimulated by them and dependent on their influence. Especially women that really hit hard. I think it’s easy to sit back and diss – and I have done – a lot of the obvious things you can diss in the mainstream picture. That’s the easy, obvious thing to do. Screw that. I really like MIA, Patti Smith, actually I love Beyonce, I think she’s amazing. I wish I had some of her fucking energy. I think Martina Topley- Bird is amazing as well; she’s a kind of genius. But we are overly dependent on a few vital women, and I think we have to create more space.
How far engrained a problem do you think misogyny and bigotry are in the context of hip-hop?
I think it sucks. I think the over- sexualisation or even the total desexualisation of women fucking sucks. You get guys standing around in ten layers of clothes smoking cigars and the chicks are walking around in bikinis saturated in oil. OK, is that really how you’re going to sell records? There is a rage and there is a different blood of people coming through, that’s why I like MCs like Joey Badass, that’s why when you hear MIA, people respect her message. People are saying, ‘that’s enough already’ and it creates a rage and then all of a sudden there’s a voice of people who are saying perverse things.
I feel we’re at one of those places now. There’s a predominant voice, even in hip- hop, that’s hopefully going to run this old fashioned nonsense off the road. It’s really boring and it’s not even that hot or sexy. Actually, it’s not even dangerous.
How do you differentiate between female artists that blur the lines between risqué freedom of expression and feminism? Is the ‘sex sells’ mantra still a predominant mindset?
I differentiate between the two because of the way that artist makes me feel. If an artist makes me feel like I want to lie on the floor, or scream, or have sex, then I embrace whatever emotion I feel first. If that artist makes me feel something then that’s surely a good thing. I think some people choose to go a certain way because they want to be famous; they make these compromises because they’re convinced that’s what’s going to get them to a particular place. We all want to make a living out of what we do and make a name for ourselves, but I think it’s down to where you make your compromises. But it’s not my place to criticise people or preach what’s better or worse. I don’t think that’s helping anybody.
How would you compare the role of a current female MC to that of your 16-year-old self, performing with feminist punk game-changers The Slits?
The language they speak and the sounds they use have all changed, but I think fundamentally we’re voicing the same things. When I hear a 16-year-old now it cuts straight into my heart, because I understand it. It’s not my job to sound like a 16-year-old, but I understand it and I can relate to it. I have a 17-year-old daughter who’s making music, and I can relate to it because I’ve been there and I’m watching her in that same headspace.
All of her female friends call themselves feminists, and that’s really cool. But at the same time, you never stop learning and observing, and that just makes me think, ‘what the fuck, I still feel unqualified’.
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Blank Project is released on 24 February via Smalltown Supersound. Catch Neneh Cherry and RocketNumberNine at Bristol’s The Love Inn on Monday, 24 February ahead of their appearance at Love Saves The Day, Bristol, 24-25 May
Words: Joshua Nevett
Photo: Kim Hiorthoy