Interview: Neneh Cherry on Punk, Jazz and Working With Four Tet

The street smart music icon talks about her unique upbringing, as well as her new Four Tet-produced solo album.

Few artists can claim to be international quite like Neneh Cherry. Born in Stockholm and raised by her mother and jazz musician and folk music excavator Don Cherry, Neneh Cherry has spent her life weaving together the cultural influences of her intercontinental homelands. In London in the early ’80s, she was in post-punk groups The Slits, Rip Rig and Panic, and The New Age Steppers, before starting a solo career that lead to the international chart buster “Buffalo Stance” and the LP Raw Like Sushi.

After transatlantic success, she galvanised Massive Attack on their debut Blue Lines, and followed up her own LP with a string of hits, notably her duet with Youssou N’Dour, “7 Seconds,” before turning towards more jazz and down-beat stylings with the groups CirKus, and later The Thing. Neneh’s also a frequent collaborator with London-based multi-instrumentalist brothers Ben and Tom Page, AKA rocketnumbernine, who provide the foundations for her album Blank Project: a forward-looking exploration of rolling jazz rhythms, visceral electronics and Neneh’s soulfully husky vocals.

In this edited and condensed excerpt from her recent interview with RBMA Radio, Neneh talks about her unique upbringing that saw her split time between Sweden and New York, as well as her new solo album, Blank Project, which was produced by RBMA studio team member Four Tet.

You spent some time in New York, some time in Sweden, and that definitely must have influenced your mindset. Can you give us a little insight into your upbringing? Do you think the spirit of your stepfather Don Cherry has informed your musical path?

I was born in Sweden. My family made a base in Sweden, we still have a family home there in southern Sweden, in the countryside. We traveled a lot and on a regular basis we would go and live in New York, so I kind of grew up between Sweden and New York. It was like two total contrasts.

For a lot of the people that I grew up around, music was not just something that you got up and played. It was life.

I’m really thankful, of course, that I’ve had these contrasts in my upbringing. I think that to have just been running around in the woods would have been okay, but to all of a sudden be on the Lower East Side, or living in the Chelsea Hotel, where we quite often used to stay when we first arrived... Me and my brother would just switch on the TV and just be completely absorbed by American culture. I would run around the hotel, I’d hang out with the bellboys and go and visit Tom Waits’s room.

Looking at my family, my mother was an incredible woman. She was an artist and when her and Don, my stepdad, got together, they started working together. Don, of course, had his path in jazz, but I think when he came to Europe he became very fascinated by a much bigger world of music. He met Turkish musicians in Sweden and, of course, got into the whole African thing. They were very much on a journey together. I think that for them – and a lot of the people that I grew up around – music was not just something that you got up and played. It was life.

Credit: Kim Hiorthøy

When you started out, was it just normal for you to fuse different styles?

I’ve always felt like a member within a world of music. Something that I’ve taken with me from my upbringing, was a kind of borderless philosophy. It was more about making your own sound and taking influences and ideas in a fearless way, which is more of a punk-y mentality, making it your own. I think that that was very much something that my parents were supportive of. Being around Don and other musicians that he chose to work with, quite often I can hear him saying, “Yeah, that’s really fine, you have a lot of technique, but just feel yourself. Just play that one note, just hang on that. Don’t overcomplicate it.”

Tina Weymouth from The Talking Heads gave me a bass, a little red Fender.

Discovering punk was a really important thing in my own journey. I think that compared to my brother Eagle-Eye, who was always really musical, I wasn’t really musical in that way. I probably express myself more through dance and listening to records. When I got into the punk thing I wanted to play the bass. In 1977 we moved into a loft, my family, in Long Island City. The Talking Heads and Ernie Brooks from the Modern Lovers lived in the same building. Arthur Russell used to sit and work. That was quite a crazy building. Tina Weymouth from The Talking Heads gave me a bass, a little red Fender. I had a friend that lived in the same building, she played the drums and we sounded awful, but it didn’t matter. We started writing our own lyrics and making little weird songs.

The freedom that existed in punk and then also in hip-hop was very much about ... In no way is it unmusical, but it was a way, I think, for kids to get into borrowing from sounds and records that they’d grown up with. I had a really interesting conversation with Baby Bam from The Jungle Brothers about how he started. Basically he’d been grounded. He was stuck in his house and he heard Run-D.M.C. on the radio and he was like, “Oh shit, I can do this. I know this. I can do this.” He had two cassette players, so he was taping things from the radio and then he would tape what he had taped onto another tape machine. Eventually, he had a beat and then he started writing rhymes, and the rest is history.

Do you see a strong connection between jazz and punk?

For me, there is a very strong connection between jazz and punk and hip hop. I think bebop in particular, like free jazz, is very revolutionary. When I look at my stepdad and his peers, they were rebels, they were hardcore guys. People used to get up and leave when they used to play. I think that I really very much relate to that spirit.

I see a very deep thread that runs through it. It was deep for me, meeting Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith, guys from The Pop Group. Sean Oliver. They were all into Sun Ra and my dad’s album Brown Rice. I was like, “Wow, these are the guys that I’m really into, and they’re listening to that music.” It made me reevaluate, maybe. Of course I had that stuff with me. I didn’t really know that it was there, but it was in my backbone. I suppose, from doing The Cherry Thing, I’m starting to become aware that I have a lot of jazz, that I am quite jazz, but it’s interesting to actually tap into it more and more, to recognize it, or to appreciate what that means.

Let’s talk about the new record. What was it that initially drew you to Kieran Hebden [AKA Four Tet] to produce this record? Do you think you have a similar musical attitude?

I think Kieran is very jazz, interestingly enough. He’s a musician who is very limitless. I’d been into his music for a lot longer than I’ve known him. To me, there was just something instinctively in his sound and in his delivery and in his choice of sound that I always found very appealing.

It was actually through The Thing that I met him, because Mats Gustafsson had worked with Kieran and Steve Reid before. He did a mix of “Dream Baby Dream,” and it was when he came to see us play that I think he maybe felt like he wanted to work together. I definitely wanted to work with him. I’m just a good old-fashioned fan really.

Working with someone, or collaborating, it’s something that is very grounded in chemistry. I think I’m quite an instinctual person. My range, my singing, is very much driven from feeling and intuition. I haven’t got an amazing voice that has this huge scope. It’s about something else. With Kieran I just felt a very... kind of an admiration, but I also felt like I could completely trust him. It was a real honor that he wanted to work on the record.

You mentioned being in the studio in Woodstock with him. It was a converted church, I believe. Do you think the studio itself had an impact on the sound?

Tom, the drummer from Rocketnumbernine, had a kind of parasol over him, and I had something that was almost bordering on a Bedouin tent.

Of course it did. There was the studio, which was more like just a normal traditional studio, but the live room was in what was the church. There were the stained glass windows, the ceiling was a steeple kind of thing. Kieran built us in to these individual little booths. Tom, the drummer from Rocketnumbernine, had a kind of parasol over him, and I had something that was almost bordering on a Bedouin tent. There was a partition with a rug over the top to harness the sound. The mood of the room and, of course, the natural acoustics played a big part in it. Kieran was quite specific in how he wanted it to sound, so he very effectively made the sound around us.

Did the record feel cathartic because you were working with so many, what turned out to be, close friends?

I think so. I think that it’s cathartic on many levels because I think that the chemistry of the people who are part of this record, and the unification of all of us, has made it possible. Also, I felt like I could unpeel in a way. It was really with the support of all of the people around that I could maybe go into a place that I don’t know that I’ve really been in before.

After we’d recorded the album I was almost scared of it.

Kieran was interested in doing it all in a very simple way, and that was kind of what it needed. Actually, after we’d recorded the album I was almost scared of it. I couldn’t really listen to it for a while because I heard lots of things that were mistakes to me, but as I’ve taken distance from it, it’s the mistakes – or the allowance of them – that is maybe the beauty of the record. When I would come into the studio and go to Kieran, “Oh god, that sounds really weird. I sang that really badly,” he would go, “Okay, let’s listen.” Then he’d go, “No, it’s fine.” Because of how I feel about him I was like, “Well, if he thinks it’s all right I’m not going to have a fucking argument with him about it. If Kieran thinks it’s okay, then it’s okay.” In retrospect, he was right.

Image credit: Kim Hiorthøy

By Red Bull Music Academy on March 19, 2014