At some point between Leyton and Walthamstow, London starts to disintegrate. Tightly packed rows of shops and houses suddenly stop and in their place are unattended scrap heaps and disquieting industrial estates. It’s here, at the back of an empty car park, behind the sun-faded cans of Polish Lager and the obligatory discarded children’s play set, you’ll find the studio where the Grammy-nominated, Brit-winning singer Neneh Cherry is rehearsing the songs from her forthcoming album Blank Project. Recorded alongside the Chingford-based duo RocketNumberNine (aka brothers Thomas & Benjamin Page, known for their idiosyncratic electronica without a click track) and with production from Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, the post-rock producer celebrated for his electronic psychedelic experimentation, it’s Neneh’s first solo record in 17 years.
All of which sounds a bit lofty, yet in this muggy rehearsal room it’s right down to earth. Cherry, wearing a Motley Crue t-shirt stitched into an NHS gown, performs the new material bouncing around with a kinetic urgency. Her sometimes-spoken, sometimes-screeching, soul-flooded vocals are raw and disarming. In terms of energy at least, there is little to separate her from the teenager who tore up the UK and further afield with her scruffy, revolutionary post-punk group Rip Rig + Panic.
But while her demeanor might not have changed, musically this is a departure from anything she has done before. An initial listen to Blank Project reveals widescreen sparseness; loose drums and a few synthesizers are the only accompaniment to Neneh’s wildly poetic vocals. The space created by this minimal aesthetic leaves room for occasional pistes and flurries of rapid, throbbing, thunderous instrumentation. Elements of beat poetry, avant-electronica and beautiful vocal melodies combine to make pop music that sounds like nothing else you could call pop music. It’s a record that uses simple ideas to create something entirely original.
When there’s a break in the rehearsal, Neneh and I escape to the balcony to share a cigarette and talk about this next stage of her career. Why is she making her first solo record in almost two decades?
The answer isn’t simple. Just over four years ago, Neneh’s mother, the Swedish artist Moki Cherry, passed away. Neneh had always been independent – she left home before she was 16 and has often lived in different countries to her family. But, when her mother passed, she reveals; “suddenly I felt like I was out of control – a grown woman in this tongue-tied frozen state. I started to catastrophise everything. As soon as someone walked out the door I’d think something awful was going to happen to them.”
She spent a year introverted and unsure, but slowly started writing again by way of therapy; at first just snatched ideas in notebooks, hidden under her bed lest anyone would see them. Gradually, she brought them to her husband and long-time collaborator, Cameron Mcvey, and they began working them into skeletal songs. “It took me a long time, but I started to appreciate the quirky randomness of life and that was liberating.”
Despite the personal tragedy she was dealing with, the songs she wrote were far from introverted. “Obviously I draw from my own life experience, but I almost feel like I’m creating a place with each song that has a different life force. Sometimes I picture myself, maybe on the street in New York or somewhere under a bridge in Hackney. On the song ‘Everything’ there’s a line about stepping on wet paper which is one of my biggest phobias, getting toilet paper stuck to my shoe. I sing about a ‘crack smoking hussy’ and that’s about coming out of Hackney Downs station and going to my daughter’s house when it’s grey and claustrophobic and you can see the underworld. I’ve always tried to look at things, observe things, but in the darkest moments, see the funny side. There are always two sides to any story.”
Part of this process of musical regeneration led to Neneh’s 2012 collaboration with Swedish free-jazz-noise collective The Thing. The Cherry Thing, was a record of new versions of songs by The Stoooges, MF Doom and Ornette Coleman. Throughout that record, Neneh continued to write and at the start of this year (2013) she came to this room in Walthamstow to work with RocketNumberNine.
“We were just recording what we were playing on an iPhone and sending it off to Kieran, I think we all thought he’d take it to quite a different place once he got hold of it. I thought I wouldn’t really own it, that he’d add loads of stuff and build from the basics. But when we got in the studio with him, he just wanted to take stuff away rather than add stuff, strip it bare.”
The four musicians worked together in a country house, recording and mixing two songs a day. “It was a liberating experience, not endlessly trying to fiddle with the music, not re-recording hundreds of times. These days it’s easy to create any effect or sound on a computer, it’s much harder to get the rawness I think we’ve achieved.”
In between tokes on her rollie, Neneh giggles and beams. She talks about her music with gravitas, but also warmth, and it’s easy to trace the connection between her personal struggles over the past year and the music that’s emerged from them. Every now again she even drops a “You know what I mean!” and inadvertently recalls her biggest hit’s (Buffalo Stance) biggest catchphrase.
Her stories from her early years are astonishing. She spent her childhood living 50/50 between a loft in New York and in an old school house in the forest in the south of Sweden with her mother and stepfather, the legendary jazz musician Don Cherry. As a toddler, she would crawl around on stage while Don toured the world. She’s been lifted up on to Miles Davis’ lap, Allen Ginsberg regularly passed through their home in an evening and, as she got older, she could pop in on Arthur Russell, Talking Heads and The Modern Lovers who all lived in the same loft complex in Long Island City New York. At 14, she started taking trips to Harlem with Ari Up of the Slits at a time when few would venture so far uptown.
Soon after, she left home and moved to London, and spent the next 20 years inside the crucial developments in British subculture. As post-punk became the musical location of 80s Britain’s artistic and political resistance, she helped form Rip, Rig + Panic, the anarchic multi-ethnic multi-genre band. Neneh was one of the first to bring hip-hop culture to a British audience, with “Buffalo Stance” and the album Raw Like Sushi. Although at points her career has had brushes with the mainstream, Neneh has remained staunchly counter-culture. When she won her Brit Award for Raw Like Sushi, she got the legendary style maven Judy Blame to melt it down and make it into jewelry.
In the 90s, Neneh’s then London family home became a studio, record label, management company and ground zero for emerging British music, much of it emanating from the UK city of Bristol. Massive Attack were often burrowed away in her spare bedroom (aptly named ‘The Poo Room’). She called her house and company “The Cherry Bear Organisation” and ended up providing financial and management support to many new acts. “I was pregnant at the time, we set up an office in our house, the studio was in the bedroom. This was our way of planting our own seed. Growth happens through the people that you work with.”
It’s just a coincidence that Massive Attack like Neneh, performed at the 2013 Manchester International Festival with the debut of their piece about the way in which popular culture mimics itself, so that the same icons and sounds are recycled over and over, only nudged along by Amazon recommendations of similarity: “if you liked that then you’ll love this.” This is a meaningful perspective through which to view Neneh’s career, and this latest move: always arriving at moments in musical history when there is an opportunity to subvert ideas of popular culture – from post-punk’s adherence to mixed-race line-ups and anti-government stances, to UK rap’s refusal of the conventions of pop, trip-hop’s connection with the politicized elements of rave culture and on, through her 1996 album, which included the mammoth “7 Seconds” single with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, when she brought elements of the Senegalese language, Wolof, to mainstream Western audiences for the first time.
Now she is subverting once again and although this record is musically bold Neneh sees the stasis she’s challenging is not musical or societal but rather her own. “When I look at how things have happened in my life, I’m really grateful; it was like a crazy domino effect, one thing kind of spilled over to the next, the way all these different people were cross collaborating with each other. Now, I’m just here kind of in myself. That’s the nice thing about having made the trip, I can be more conscious of what it is I want to do or don’t want to do. That’s quite a liberating vibe, where you can just say, I know what I want to do right now and I’m just going to go and do that.”