Neneh Cherry is back for another bite
It’s been 18 years since Neneh Cherry last released music under her own name, but new album ‘Blank Project’ sees her back out in front. She tells Jim Carroll about the art of collaboration and why she still feels ‘unfinished’
Chances are you’re thinking ‘Neneh Cherry, where the hell have you been, girl?’ To many, she remains forever in a Buffalo Stance or cooing 7 Seconds with Youssou N’Dour, a snapshot from a cool, sassy pop other-world.
But just because it’s 18 years since Cherry last released a solo album doesn’t mean she hasn’t been making music during this time. She sang on songs with Gorillaz, Groove Armada, Pulp, Peter Gabriel, Timo Maas, Kleerup and others. She recorded the boisterous and rambunctious Cherry Thing album with Nordic free jazz buccaneers The Thing in 2012. She kept busy.
Blank Project joins up the dots and seeks to make sense of where Cherry finds herself now. A solo album produced with collaborators, it sounds melancholic, wise and graceful, the mark of a woman who has found her equilibrium.
The first songs were written around three years ago when Cherry was mourning the death of her mother. “It was a year after my mum died and I was in a pretty dark, numb, traumatised place. When it comes time to write, I’ve always gone to my bed or stood around in the kitchen doing other stuff. As a person with a family, a lot of things have had to come together in a multi-tasking process for me.
“This time around, the first things came about when I was on my bed unpeeling with my old Casio that I wrote Manchild on. I felt I had to go back to something really familiar.”
After that first solo writing period, Cherry brought in the collaborators. These included Kieran “Four Tet” Hebden, Rocketnumbernine, Robyn, Cameron McVey (“my long, long, long-time person of multi-tasking in work, life, babies, all of it”), the late Child of Lov, Sean Savage from PANES and Paul Simm.
“All of my solo records to me have been collaborations,” she explains. “But here, the people I was working with were harnessing me so I could catapult out to a place that I needed to get to. Over the years, I’d collaborated on a lot of stuff but I kept finding that I was getting stuck some times because I was over-thinking and it would get in the way. I tried to take a position where I was a vehicle for the words and feelings and not spending too much time purifying them.”
The new album was recorded in Hebden’s studio in Woodstock. “We recorded in Woodstock because Kieran lives there part of the year, not because we were after some Woodstock vibe or holy grail. He had a free week and wanted to be near his family so we went there and did the album in a week.
“It was cool, with the studio in the converted chapel of this old church in the woods. We’d sit on the porch in the early morning, totally jet-lagged, taking selfies and feeling like we were inside a Neil Young album cover and looking at bear prints in the snow. I was shitting myself over that. Our room was across the lawn from the church so I had to run across the lawn, across bear prints, to get to my room. I totally died every time I went across, picturing myself being ravaged by these grizzlies.”
The bears didn’t get her and Cherry lived to tell the tale on what she calls her most personal record to date. “There was a real intensity to the writing and I felt I was getting more air into me as things went on. The record we ended up with is quite minimalistic and raw and wide open so, on an emotional level, it’s the most personal record I’ve made because it’s been with me for so long.
“But I don’t think I could have done it without the people around me like Cam, Paul, Kieran and Rocketnumbernine. I wouldn’t have reached the place I needed to get to without them. They provided the tools I needed. The human mind has a tendency to overthink and manipulate stuff constantly so Kieran’s confidence made it so easy to surrender. There were no ifs or buts with him.”
Cherry believes making The Cherry Thing album first also played a huge part in her new creativity. “Before that, I was very stuck, very emotionally constipated. When I went in the studio with Mats, Inebrigt and Paal, the choice to make a record with them was deliberate. I was working on a solo record as well, but to do something which could be immediate really set me free.”
Seeing as The Thing initially formed to play compositions by her stepfather Don Cherry, she felt the pairing was “spinal” and provided a vivid connection to her past.
“It had so much to do with where I come from and my heritage that I felt I was visiting my childhood, Rip, Rig + Panic and the whole journey with these free jazz punk musicians and it all made sense. It was instinctive and I just jumped and trusted them and let it happen. I remembered a lot of things about myself and how I function best and why I love music and where I belong.”
During the making of the two albums, Cherry also thought a lot about where she was in life. “I still feel unfinished and life feels unresolved°,” she says. “I’m about to turn 50 and I’ve obviously learned quite a lot along the way and I wouldn’t want to be 20 again, but I also don’t feel any different.
“I still feel as awkward and weird and ridiculous as I did when I was a lot younger. I mean, I could be turning the Rubik cube of my life, my family, my upbringing and bringing up my own kids in different ways for the rest of my days. But you have to do things rather than think things over. It’s about execution rather than analysis.”
She looks back with a sense of wonder at the young woman who made Buffalo Stance and the Raw Like Sushi debut album. “I got by on my wits back then. Whether they were good or bad wits, I don’t know. I’m sure I was a bit of a twit. When you’re younger, you are more cheeky. You take things in your stride. In retrospect, as you get older, you can take space and be more in your vulnerabilities and be more openly fragile. It becomes more interesting in a way.
“But when you’re 25, you’re fearless and you don’t show any of that. Raw Like Sushi was the synopsis of who I was up to 25, a collection of weird guys and strange meetings and being tongue-in-cheek. It was an attitude which was part of that time”
Cherry quickly moved on from there in terms of the music she was making. “I love doing Buffalo Stance at gigs when it’s the right time and place, but back then after all that, I didn’t feel right jumping up and down and coming up with witty things to sing. I felt I’d be a caricature of myself if I was going to keep on doing that. It would be disingenuous.
“I felt very conscious that there was a vibe around me after Buffalo Stance which had become very pop in a way. I felt a bit wary of feeling a bit cliched in myself and so Massive Attack coming to write and demo for Blue Lines with Cameron in our house was really healing. I needed to deepen a few notches and hearing Massive Attack helped to do that.”
Indeed, you could easily draw a through line from Massive Attack’s Blue Lines to Blank Project via The Cherry Thing . Cherry says that makes complete sense to her.
“This album is raw and powerful and deep. There’s a real vitality and spirit to it because it’s a little loose around the edges, but the emotions are coming from a very real, very genuine place. It’s funny; you can meander on and on and on but you often find that you return to what you did first because that has the vibe you were after. I really feel like I’ve come home again with this album.”
The Blank Project is out now