Q&A: Neneh Cherry is 'never really worried about being trendy'
Twenty-six years ago, Neneh Cherry turned the pop world on its ear with her single “Buffalo Stance,” which whipped pop, R&B, punk, and two genres—hip-hop and dance music—that at the time had just started to emerge as distinct musical movements into an addictively danceable froth. The song made it almost all the way to No. 1 on the Hot 100, thanks to its infinitely catchy chorus—a sneak diss at a materialistic ex—but mainstream listeners didn’t know exactly what to do with Cherry’s experimental ways and protean identity. She followed up her debut, Raw Like Sushi (which “Buffalo Stance” made into an unlikely hit) with an album where she collaborated with both Michael Stipe and the Notorious B.I.G., and a confused public quickly bailed.
Cherry maintained an underground following, though, and they stuck around while she spent over a decade in semi-retirement. In 2012, she re-emerged with an energetic collaboration with the Scandinavian free jazz combo The Thing, and earlier this year she released Blank Project, recorded alongside the British electronic duo RocketNumberNine and dance music experimentalist Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet), that felt like a quieter, more mature continuation of the work she did at the beginning of her career. At the same time, that early work has become more influential than ever as a generation of young artists have rediscovered Raw‘s brilliant genre-blindness and made it their own.
Over the weekend, Cherry performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and afterward EW sat down with her to talk about her legacy, her comeback, and the process that drives it all.
EW: Hey, so how was your show yesterday?
NENEH CHERRY: What should I say? It kind of started quite well, and then there were technical things, and I sort of lost my momentum a little bit, I think maybe partly because even though probably I had put it somewhere in my subconscious, it was quite a big deal to play here. It was a bit like playing to my village, you know what I mean? But I think in retrospect, it was fine. I think it wasn’t one of our best gigs, so we were all a bit deflated when we got offstage.
I thought it sounded great from where I was standing.
Thank you. It was nice walking around afterwards, just hearing people saying they liked it. Sometimes you’re your worst enemy, you know what I mean? And the worst judge in a way, because things happen that no one else really notices, you know. And I think I’ve just tried to get to that thing where … I mean, it’s such a random thing, playing live music. No matter how many times you rehearse something, go through something, when you’re actually there in the moment, it’s going to be what it is. And somehow, the better you know something, the less likely you’ll completely lose the plot, but there is that kind of weird thing. I never feel like I completely own it.
It’s like chaos theory. When you’re playing live, stuff’s gonna go in different directions than you expect. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good.
Exactly, and I think that is ultimately the beauty of it, is that chaos theory, that element that’s always going to be there, that’s kind of chaos. Like standing and stepping out into thin air. Am I gonna coast, fly, drop? Is wind going to come and swoop me up and give me a somersault, or dangle me down onto the ground?
You’ve had an interesting run of collaborators. What do you look for in them? It seems like you work with a niche group of people, and I was wondering what guides you.
I think ultimately it’s who they are, and what they do. And at times with certain things that I suppose I hear, it gives me a feeling of wanting to be with them for awhile, to want to do something, to try to find a mate, to make something happen. And I think that there’s a force within the concept of collaborations that is the engine room that moves me or the thing that you do together with these particular people.
I’ve always worked with my partner, my husband, Cameron, since Raw Like Sushi, and in a way, I feel very free with what I do, but he also has an amazing insight in having intuitions that tend to be right a lot of the time, about where we should go next. I think I can be, not passive, but I’m very in love with what I’m do, but I’m not hysterically ambitious. And he’s a Leo, a very forceful guy. So I think that first, I’ve started with some little lyrics just sitting on my bed, in a kind of awkward way, and then together we make the songs, which is what we did with this album, Blank Project. And then we take it to new people, like a baby, to give it legs and arms, and stuff. And I think that’s really important.
But I do feel like I’m in a partnership, because I’m not one of those people where they can look at myself and go, “Oh, this is what I should do next.” I don’t have that kind of sense of myself. I have a sense of myself when I’m doing it, and I think this album, and the album before this one, actually, with The Thing, The Cherry Thing, that was kind of like the beginning. I don’t think I would have made Blank Project if I hadn’t made Cherry Thing. I think that was a real rebirth in a way, and a remembrance of how I like to make music best, the most. Like being in a more chaotic place, maybe. Like a place of making and being creative where the mistakes can be left in. And Kieran was really cool like that, because he was interested in all of it, the perfections and the imperfections, and just wanting to enhance them with his touch but without taking anything away.
You see a lot of especially female artists mixing pop and hip hop, the blend you were making back then. A lot of people didn’t know what to do with it, or where to file it…
In America, it seems it was an issue, more than any other places. Anyway, carry on.
Well it seems like now people are really catching on, and it seems you’ve been a really big influence on a lot of artists who are coming up right now. Do you feel that way?
I think I’m always just as surprised, in a nice way, when I’m asked something like this, or when someone say that I’ve been an influence. It’s funny, it’s cool, I feel it, I honor it, but I think then, as much as now, myself and the people that I made Raw Like Sushi with, we were just in our now. All of us maybe in a fairly haphazard way, being part of a community of people where it wasn’t so full of any kind of boundaries. There were people coming out of the post-punk thing, there was this sort of warehouse party thing, like old soul, and it was kind of random. The school of random DJ’s–you’d play hip-hop, and Earth Wind and Fire, or Jocelyn Brown.
Punks playing with reggae bands, stuff like that.
Yeah, exactly. And dreads joining punk bands! And I think that, Raw Like Sushi was in the aftermath of all of that. We didn’t really start to consider… there was a strong visual and a message in it, but we just kind of did it. It was a celebration of nobody giving a shit, so much. Just more being and taking a little bit from all of the bits of myself.
And I think I’ve grown up in a mixed environment, and maybe a lot of the time I haven’t really belonged anywhere in the way I’ve dreamt of belonging to, you know, living on the street and playing to all the kids on the street, growing up together. I suppose Raw Like Sushi was a place where all of those things could come together. But I did, I kind of started to feel a little bit like a fraud after a few years, because I think I became slightly entrapped by my image, and people were sort of going, “Oh yeah, she’s this cool urban kind of street-wise woman.” There was a strong element from all of that, but it’s not really who I am, and I don’t really feel that cool most of the time.
I’ve definitely remembered who I am with this latest body of work, and I’ve been missing it. When you’re longing for something and you can see it, it’s there on the horizon, but you don’t quite know how to access it. And so here we are, and it’s making me really happy to be here feeling like I don’t have to worry about being trendy anymore. I’m 50. And I’m not ever really worried about being trendy.
We could go around in London and find all the cool kids to make the music, but there was something about it that just felt disingenuous, doing it that way. And that’s why I felt RocketNumberNine became the engine room that served such an essential part [of Blank Project]. Because I wanted it to be an electronic record. We wanted it to have a live feeling, but not sounding necessarily like a guitar or a live instrumentation, as you would associate with live music.
You took a pretty long break away from music, but now you’re putting out a couple of records and putting on shows in America. Are you going to keep rolling with this? Do you have a plan, or is it what happens, happens?
I suppose I’m a little bit “what happens, happens.” But I do feel like I’m inside something that I want to see through, that I’m on a roll. If I hadn’t come back and done this, I don’t think that when it was my time to hopefully lay down and peacefully pass out and die, I’d feel complete. So I feel like I’m inside a story that needs to be told. I want to make more music with RocketNumberNine, I’d like to do some more work with Kieran. I just think now, it’s interesting, because life seems to have these weird little eras, you go and you get to this threshold, and you’re released into a new era of your life, and I feel like I’m in that.