ROCK CANDY CATCHES UP WITH MUSIC ICON NENEH CHERRY ON THE EVE OF HER AUSTRALIAN TOUR SET TO INCLUDE AN APPEARANCE AT THE FORTHCOMING PERTH INTERNATIONAL ART FESTIVAL.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Neneh Cherry answers the telephone at her London home with a casual ‘Hi, this is Neneh’. I had expected to be calling the number of her record company who might then patch me through to the artist’s private line.
What’s more surprisingly casual is Neneh’s ‘Hi darling’ of a greeting. But it’s that very down-home ethos that has kept Cherry in music journos’ good books for the better part of two-and-a-half decades. That, and a unique vocal talent that easily traverses genres. You name it: soul (Inna City Mama), pop (Heart), rap (Buffalo Stance), rock (Trout with REM’s Michael Stipe), neo-jazz (I Got You Under My Skin), even spoken word, Neneh Cherry has done it all.
While she may not be the most prolific deliverer of music – only four albums in 25 years, nonetheless each Cherry record is a unique work of art. Her latest LP, Blank Project, is a collaboration with synth-drum duo Rocket Number Nine, and was defined by Rolling Stone magazine as “music that beats its own path, brilliantly”.
Sparse in its actual musicality, but carefully structured in its vocal sonics, Blank Project has an eerie vibe about it, to the point that even Neneh admits it’s a fairly odd album.
“It’s definitely a leftfield record,” admits the artist, “but people, especially critics, just seem to get it. Even I think it’s not the easiest record in the world to get your head around.”
Indeed there’s a certain darkness to a lot of the tracks, which admittedly stems from Neneh coming to terms with the passing of her mother.
“I had gotten to the point where I started to feel this longing, craving, itchy feeling” she says of the desire to record darker material.
“There’s a consciousness that you’re making something that you want to share with people. Where I am now in my life, I feel I need to be making music that has a bit of playfulness to it, for sure, but also to make songs that have a certain sense of urgency.”
You can practically hear the italics in her delivery of that last word.
“Put it this way, you might need to listen to this record more than once to digest it.”
Going against the grain is nothing new for Neneh Cherry. She was one of only a handful of women on the hip-hop / trip-hop scenes of the late 1980s, and had to put up with a lot of machismo bullshit, perhaps not so much from her peers, but certainly from suited executive types. Of her presence in a male-heavy industry, says Neneh: “I think the women that were on the scene, like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte and Roxanne Shante, I just think they were just the coolest chicks. I looked up to them so much. But I’ve also had a lot of male friends.
“As a female, I think I’ve been able to hold my own and to feel unfazed by the guys around me. And as I woman, I’ve always felt I could hold these guys down; this was not a problem.”
Neneh says even dressing like one of the boys – remember this is the gal who made the ‘buffalo’ look popular – provided “a certain feeling of empowerment”.
“We used to go out dancing and DJ-ing and one thing that used to make us feel strong was simply wearing hats and trainers. I think it was us taking on things that were perceived as being quite boyish and using them to our benefit.
“A lot of my male friends – the guys in Massive Attack and other musicians I know in London – they’re all good blokes. Really nice guys coming from really good places. A lot of that sexist guy shit, you know that was never really the kind of guys they were.”
If not from her colleagues, Neneh did cop flak from the heterosexist press, one of the more bizarre triggers being that she performed pregnant on Brit music program Top Of The Pops.
“It was not something you were supposed to do. Even now people get [given] shit when they sit down and breastfeed in a public place… as if they were doing something shameful.
“At the end of the day, with all the crazy fucking hype around tits – in both men’s and women’s magazines – I mean, breasts are great but they are meant to feed our kids first and foremost [laughs].”
After the conservative media backlash, did she regret appearing on stage pregnant?
“I was never not going to go on Top Of The Pops. Nor would I do something silly like have myself filmed from just above the belly. I was really proud of the fact that I was pregnant. In a weird sort of way, I thought it was kind of important for me to bring that along.
“But it ended up being this big thing; I didn’t plan for that, nor did I get what the big fucking deal was, but it felt important to carry that with me.”
That’s the thing about Neneh Cherry. She’s deep and defiant in attitude but she doesn’t get too caught up with fighting convention physically. She’d rather do it through her songs.
“Isn’t that what lyrics are for? I love the magic of words – the different ways of saying things. You can slightly alter them and they’ll cut just the right way. Of course the words need to fit in with what I’m trying to say.
“For example, when I was writing a song for this record Spit Three Times I was initially thinking about throwing salt over my shoulder but it sounded ridiculous trying to sing that, so I changed it to spit three times. Spit just fit pretty good.”
And on the subject of superstitions, she says: “I just find them fascinating – you know, like you’re not supposed to put your hat on the table, or you’re not supposed to put your shoes on the bed. It’s funny because if certain superstitions are not a part of your culture and you don’t know about them… [here she trails off with that trademark cackle].”
I tell Neneh about how whenever I hear ambulance sirens, I feel compelled to do signs of the cross, not once but eight times.
“Wow, I didn’t know that one, but it’s just as well or I’d be doing just-as-crazy things. Here [in the UK], we have this thing where if you see a magpie, it’s bad luck. But if you see two magpies, it’s okay; it’s lucky. So I’m always, like, walking down the street and trying to spot and salute these friggin’ magpies…”
There’s a dark, spooky song in there somewhere, I’m sure.
‘BLANK PROJECT’ IS OUT THROUGH SMALLTOWN SUPERSOUND. A DOUBLE DELUXE CD EDITION OF THE ALBUM IS ALSO AVAILABLE FEATURING REMIXES BY RICARDO VILLALOBOS, JOE GODDARD, COOLY G AND MORE.