We’ve Got A File On You: Neneh Cherry
Today, genre fluidity is a pretty much a given in pop music. But Neneh Cherry was light years ahead of her time when she released her 1989 debut album, Raw Like Sushi, which featured lead single “Buffalo Stance,” a Grammy-nominated feminist proclamation melding hip-hop, electronica, and dance. At the time, Cherry earned immediate comparisons to Madonna and Prince, and legions of artists would become inspired by how she tinkered with pop framework: from trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack to fellow Swede Robyn to Lorde, Sia, and M.I.A.
A few of those artists appear on Cherry’s forthcoming career-spanning tribute album, The Versions. Out Friday, it features updated takes on classic songs like the aforementioned “Buffalo Stance” (Robyn featuring Mapei), “Manchild” (Sia), “Woman” (ANOHNI), “Heart” (Sudan Archives), and more.
More than three decades after she first set out on a solo career, the Stockholm-born performer has never been particularly interested in the type of stratospheric fame that came with her Raw Like Sushi era. But she is a natural boundary-breaker, a truth-teller, and a real artist’s artist. Her mother Monika “Moki” Karlsson was a painter and textile artist. Her birth father was musician Ahmadu Jah. When her parents separated, Karlsson married jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who raised Neneh from birth along with half-brother Eagle-Eye Cherry (of “Save Tonight” fame), violinist Jan Cherry, Christian Cherry, and jazz artist David Ornette Cherry.
Art was a way of life for the Cherry family; Neneh and Eagle-Eye would frequently join in performances with their father. Through Don, Neneh met Ari Up and post-punk greats the Slits as a teenager, and she’d go on to perform with them — and fellow London scenesters Rip Rig + Panic — in the early ’80s.
As a solo artist, Cherry caught a wave of mainstream success via Raw Like Sushi and “Buffalo Stance,” but pop star life — and its inherent superficialities — didn’t suit her. She released two follow-up projects in the ’90s (1992’s Homebrew and 1996’s Man) before focusing on collaborative projects with friends and family: In 2006, she formed CirKus with husband Cameron McVey, and in 2011, she collaborated with experimental jazz collective the Thing, releasing 2012’s critically praised The Cherry Thing. Eventually, she’d come back to solo music, releasing 2014’s Blank Project and 2018’s Broken Politics.
Ahead of The Versions, Cherry sat down with me over Zoom to talk about her latest project and parse through her considerable career, which includes a day in the studio with a then-relatively unknown Biggie Smalls.
The Versions (2022)
At this point in your life, why did you decide to do a career-spanning project? And what did the artist selection process look like?
NENEH CHERRY: It’s just been the best gift. I feel like it’s really lifted me. I think I’ve always been kind of allergic to getting trapped in my own past, do you know what I mean? Once I’ve wrapped up and done one project, I’m always channeling the next thing. I think where I am in my life, over the last 10 years, it has been quite an interesting journey. I feel absolutely and completely unfinished. But I [also] feel like it’s respectfully an important time in your life to honor what you’ve passed through and what you’ve been. The idea for this record was born with the reissue of Raw like Sushi.
There was the [30th anniversary] package of music with remixes and what became quite a fat collection of tracks and music of that era. Honey Dijon did a remix of “Buddy X,” which of course wasn’t actually on Raw Like Sushi, but on Homebrew. That was the first thing that we did where it’s like, well, it’s nice to bring this out with something new. Honey is a serious inspiration and such an important woman who — I haven’t even spent that much time with her — but I feel very connected and close. She’s a guide.
So anyway, that was the little seedling. Then that led us to get a couple people to revisit some of the tracks from Raw Like Sushi. The first person we reached out to was Robyn. I think that was a no-brainer. We’re very close. She talks about that record a lot, how it was for her when she discovered it as a pre-teenager. Then pretty quickly the initial concept dissolved because the various people that we asked started asking about wanting to do other tracks, not just stuff from Raw Like Sushi, so it organically became as it was meant to be.
What has been really beautiful is that most of the women that I’ve reached out to have responded positively and wanted to do it. So for me, it’s a very beautiful way of celebrating what has been, but throwing it into the future and giving it new voices. I’ve always felt like this is music that obviously is a big part of me, but I’ve never felt like I own it. Quite often I’m like, “Wow, that’s amazing that we did that in that time,” and then you do a gig or I hear a song randomly on the street out of context and you just feel like, “Oh wow, that’s amazing. I had a really intimate thing making that [song], and then it’s just thrown out and it comes back at you in funny ways. This re-imagination of the music is beautiful because quite a few of the artists, the women, are from the next generation, and I love that. I love this process of giving these songs a continuation and a new life. To me, it was a lot more interesting than doing a greatest hits. Anyway, I didn’t even have that many hits! [Laughs.]
Performing With Stepfather Don Cherry and Brother Eagle-Eye Cherry As A Teen (1976)
So, I didn’t come from a particularly artistic family. And I’ve always been fascinated with people who do. Can you describe the dynamic, growing up surrounded by musicians and artists? What are your earliest childhood memories of making music together?
CHERRY: Music was forever present. When people ask me what was it like growing up in a musical family, I’m always like, “Well you could conjure up these really wack images of everyone sitting around the piano, singing together and it being a bit over-the-top.” I think now and again, I’m going to come back to where I am now and the reflections that I’ve needed to make looking back at my childhood. When you’re there, it’s your home, it’s the world that you belong to where you come from, but it’s hard to decipher exactly what that means. I think with the distance that I have now, even though I’m really close to my family and I’m very much there, I realize how beautiful it was.
Even when we were in our hardest times — because it wasn’t always easy — there wasn’t a togetherness. My parents made a very serious and beautiful commitment to creativity and trying to live in the world with their visions, and we were very much a part of that. Our childhood was respected, but also what they were doing [for work] was actively happening around us as we were being a family. Seeing people who were not [working] from nine to five, but really living their lives with their instruments or with the pen quite often didn’t make anybody enough money.
My parents were also making music together for a while — we took part in that and they would try to bring us in. Quite often when they were playing shows and they went through a whole period, my dad of wanting to sit down and play, there’d be a carpet on the stage. I mean, we would sit on the stage and sometimes we would sing or I would make jokes and imitate. There wasn’t this, “Okay, we’re going to line all the kids up and show off their musical abilities.”
So definitely not the Von Trapp Family Singers.
CHERRY: No, it was not a Von Trapp Cherry Trapp.
Did you take anything away from your upbringing as it relates to raising your own kids and supporting their artistic visions? I know your daughter Mabel is a singer.
CHERRY: When I look at my kids, I just want them to find and be with their happiness. You can’t wake up and be happy every day. For me, that’s all I want, and of course I’ve tried to do my best. I’ve tried to bring them up in an environment where my three daughters would hopefully feel that they could do anything that they set out to do. And if they couldn’t figure it out, they would figure out a way of figuring it out. I’ve always just felt that as a family, hopefully they would always feel that I have their back and that they could come to me however, whenever.
I know there is a thing sometimes when you grow up in a more Bohemian environment or artsy community where it might send you completely in the other direction. I definitely had a point when I was pretty young where I fantasized about being a nurse and living in a brick house somewhere and being super normal. Sometimes I used to get totally hysterical with my mother’s way of doing stuff. Then of course, when I left home — I came to live in London when I was 16 — I had all this stuff from the world that I had grown up in, that I hadn’t really been taught, but it had been passed on with my mother.
Playing With Ari Up And The Slits (1981)
How did you originally connect with Ari Up? I recall you two were flatmates and good friends.
CHERRY: We met on a Slits tour. My dad was there, actually. There were three bands and he was one of the bands. The Slits were on a musical journey and had discovered jazz. They’d really got into Don’s music and Sun Ra and Coltrane. So I came along on the trip. I was a little punk brat by then. I was like 15 and Ari and I bonded towards the end of that tour. I think I was ridiculously shy in a way. I felt so little, watching the Slits onstage every night, and they were just so cool. And Ari was such a wild character. It’s funny because I did an interview with Don Letts — he was going out with Tessa [Pollitt], the bass player at the time, and Tessa is also still my great friend. They were like, “We all thought you were so interesting!” I had an Afro that was dyed bright red. I was just thinking, “Oh my God, I had no idea.”
Anyway, Ari and I, towards the end of the tour found each other and pretty much bonded a little bit like when little kids find each other. When you’ve been looking at each other and checking each other out and then not saying anything. Then finally we started talking and we just couldn’t stop. I think I went to her house after the tour was done a couple days later, then I went back to Sweden for a while. Then I went back and stayed at her house. Pretty much after that, we were inseparable. Whatever clothes I had with me, I put into her wardrobe, and we just shared everything. Ari at that time in her life had gone in deep into reggae sound system culture and was really a part of that community in South London. There were several sound systems that she followed. So, of course, as we were hanging out all the time, I started going with her to some of these spaces in South London.
That has been a huge influence, but also an incredible experience because I never knew about reggae music. I knew what it was, but I’d never been to a sound system clash or heard a bass coming through these huge homemade speakers. And everyone was just in there, in the dark, like it was deep and wild and also very empowering. I think it really helped me bring myself into my culture and [became] an important part of my womanhood and my roots. I’d been in Africa the year before and Ari and I just went in deep and started wearing head ties. It was great because Ari was so involved in that whole thing, it also brought certain aspects of my experience in Africa into my reality that I was still processing. I felt our relationship and her interest in where I’d been and wanting to know everything really plugged me into also a deeper level of what I’d been through there. Because I went there for three months with my father. I became a woman there, even though I was still a little brat.
Performing Pregnant On Top Of The Pops (1988)
I just want to start by saying that when female artists perform pregnant today — I’m thinking of M.I.A. at the 2009 Grammys or even comedian Ali Wong — it’s generally thought to be impressive. Like, wow, look at what they just did! But that’s not exactly how your pregnant performance went down on Top Of The Pops. What do you recall the response as being? Did anyone try to talk you out of doing that?
CHERRY: By the time I did Top Of The Pops, I’d already done a few things around and about and I was obviously pregnant doing so. Top Of The Pops was the most-watched TV show — everyone would watch it at seven o’clock on a Thursday night. I come from a tribe of rebels. It was such a weird vibe when you think of how it was in the record business: if you were even together with someone, keep it a bit on the low down. There should be this air around a woman that you are available for a person’s fantasy. If you’re pregnant, or if you make too much of a thing about even being married or having a family, it takes away the fuckin’ mystique. And you’re just like, “Well, fuck you. That’s not what I’m here to talk about. So create some new fantasies, do you know what I mean? Let’s change the pictures.”
Even though Tyson wasn’t a planned baby — but she was obviously meant to come — it just ended up being a blessing for me. Because we were going to try to tread in a different space with the music and the visuals. Having the baby there — you couldn’t miss it. It also became this saving grace. I felt it was a kind of protection from the superficial trenches. It was a beautiful thing.
I feel blessed because women come to me quite often and say, “Oh my God, when I saw you, that was really amazing and I’ll never forget it.” [But] whilst I was there doing it, I wasn’t thinking about what it was going to do or “we’re doing it to outrage.” This is how we roll. I’m fuckin’ knocked up! I’m going to do my song and then I’m going to maybe go out and dance, and then I’m going to go home and take care of my other kids.
I think it speaks to a shift in what we want our celebrities to be. Today, we crave authenticity above all else, even if that “authenticity” is still somehow contrived.
CHERRY: It was like about, I think, broadening the margin. There’s a whole other world out there if you’re not in the mainstream where you can do all kinds of shit. You can be a performance artist and you can rock fuckin’ naked if you want to and cover yourself in pink paint, whatever. In that mainstream lane, the women are over sexualized in a really boring way. it’s very tacky. it was very unimaginative. When I started writing songs with my husband Cameron, we would literally go to meetings — we didn’t have tapes to give to people. He would get his little keyboard out and I would sing a song. These A&R guys would get really embarrassed. Like, [they] didn’t know what to do or where to look. Then they’d ask the same question: “Well, who do you see yourself as?” There were like three or four women of color, Black women. They’d go, “Is it more Whitney Houston or Janet Jackson?” And no disrespect to those women, but I’m not going to fit in any of those fuckin’ boxes, actually, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
Everything that was happening at that time — hip-hop culture, the club world, fashion, where things were going and evolving — was pushing change. It was coming from a much more handmade, homemade DIY. There was a roughness to it. A self-made creativity. That’s what I think of myself and the creative team that I’ve been blessed to be with. We just wanted to take all of that with us. We were like, “Well, we’re just going to push the walls out a little bit and we’re going to get in there.”
US Late-Night Debut On Arsenio Hall (1993)
Considering when “Buffalo Stance” came out, it’s funny that it took like five years for you to perform it on a US late-night program. Did that seem odd at the time?
CHERRY: I guess we were actually promoting another album, I can’t even remember what the album was. All I can say about coming to America: I grew up partly in New York. New York is a huge part of who I am. Coming to the States, arriving in LA to go to Virgin Records to then start going around to radio stations all around the country, it was absolutely weird. And there was this sheen to everything. I was doing things like literally phoning up radio DJs. And then the promo guy would be like, “Talk to him about his new car!” It was this total blag the whole time to say something to win this guy over. And it was all men, it was all just a wall of fuckin’ guys.
It was just so weird. Everything was just quite surreal. By then Tyson was born. My friend Tessa — the bass player from the Slits — came with us to be the nanny. She was looking after Tyson. My friend Dick Jewell, who’s an artist and a filmmaker, was with us filming everything, because we started filming everything from day one. It did become a documentary in the end. Judy Blame was there. It was just like, we were fully armed. We came in as a family. When we’d finish work at the end of the day, we would all just pile in together and kind of laugh it off. Just heal ourselves. But it was very absurd. It was that thing where you could feel how easy it would to be consumed by this surreal existence. I have to say, we held it down and we had a lot of fun. And it was also amazing. I think that there was a part of me that went into all of it with a little bit of my tongue and my cheek. I didn’t fully take it too seriously. This feeling of, “This is happening now, so enjoy it. It isn’t necessarily going to be like this forever.”
It sounds like you had a really strong support network. That’s such a vital thing to have if you’re heading into the fame meat grinder.
CHERRY: It’s the only way. Because it is absurd to all of the sudden have people that don’t know you — that have this adulation. And you know who you are. You know it’s about a body of work or something that people got excited about. At the same time, those people don’t actually know you. I think that for a lot of people, it becomes a weird thing because it pulls you into a place where you might start thinking that you need to be the person that those people think that you are. It takes you away from your normality. Of course it’s easy to get sucked into this universe. When I got back [after] that period of promoting Raw Like Sushi, I had to just literally go to bed. I was done, I was absolutely not unhappy not depressed or anything, but just empty. I watched Mabel, my youngest daughter, go there after she had a lot of success very quickly.
Recording With Biggie Smalls (1993)
When you were in the studio recording the “Buddy X” remix with Biggie, was there a sense at the time that this rapper from Brooklyn was going to become, well, Notorious?
CHERRY: It was a special day. And it was a funny day, it was quirky. He was just coming up. He was signed, I guess, to Puffy’s label. A friend of mine was working at Bad Boy.
So, the remix was in progress and Falcon & Fabian were coming to New York. And he was like, “Listen, there’s this guy who’s just wicked, Biggie Smalls. He’s so hot. Let’s try and get him.” And he said yes. Basically, me and Cam had decamped from London to New York. We were renting a house in Fort Greene. We’d also imported our car, our Volvo, to the States. So we had this black station wagon Volvo. We drove over to Fort Greene and picked him up. And he was standing on the street with his homie wearing full camouflage, it was just so funny. He got in the car, and I think he couldn’t really figure us out. I was sitting in the back. I guess I got in the back and Cameron was driving. And [Biggie] was just like, “Who is this weird English white guy driving the car?”
And he was still a teenager, right? He must have been 17 or 18 or something like that. Anyway, it was beautiful because we were driving into Manhattan to go to the studio that we were using, and Cameron had on a cassette in the car, Massive Attack’s new music that they were working on after Blue Lines. It was just backing tracks. We were listening to them in the car, [Biggie] was smoking a blunt and he just started freestyling. He was freestyling all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan on these Massive Attack tracks that never came out. And then that was it, never to be heard again.
Then we got into the building to go in the elevator to go to the studio. I don’t know what the weight limit was in the elevator. He was like, “Yo, this is going to be too heavy.” And we were like, “No, come on, get in.” And basically the elevator got stuck. So it was me and Biggie and this guy delivering Chinese food. Then the elevator bumped and jumped and I was freaking out because I’m really scared of elevators. And finally, we landed on the right floor. And when the door opened, there was Q-Tip. And I was just like, “Oh my God, I’m so happy to see you.”
I don’t know, I could feel that [Biggie] felt a little bit out of his depth, believe it or not. He didn’t really know what we were into, so he was just a little bit cagey. I was just trying to prompt him and ease him up. So, by the time he went in to do his verse, I feel like we’d hit it off and he was starting to warm up a little bit. And then he went in and it was just one take. He threw it right out there and everyone in the room… You know when you hear something and you just know this is great. Nobody needed to tell him or ask him to do anything again.
Performing As An Adult With Eagle-Eye Cherry (2000)
I have to admit, I didn’t realize you and Eagle-Eye were related back when I was a kid and “Save Tonight” was on the radio. How has your relationship evolved as adult siblings, as fellow musicians?
CHERRY: It’s so precious. We have absolute trust for each other. If I’m having a hard time making a decision about something that I’ve been asked to do, maybe as simple as that, or if I should commit to something or not, Eagle-Eye is very much a person that I would talk to help me weigh something out. Because he knows me so well, but also because he’s a very logical person and I’m a very instinctual person. He’ll ask the right questions and not just roll the dice out, but turn the Rubik’s Cube from a place of deeper understanding.
First and foremost, we are siblings and we are family. But we also connect that into what we’re doing. Sometimes when he’s been in a difficult place or when I’m in a difficult place or when you’re just really tired.. When he says that to me, I know what he means. I know what that tiredness is and vice-versa. Also, if I’ve done something that he really likes or that he thinks is great, his compliment means more than anybody else’s.
I have other brothers and sisters, but Eagle-Eye and I really grew up together in the same environment. He knows my truth. And that’s something that I share with him and nobody else. Sometimes I know that there are things that we have yet to talk about, because there’s a thing that you share and then you protect each other from. Sometimes some of the harder things, you are scared to enter them together. You feel like, “God, if we open that door, are we ever going to come out of that place?”
Recording “Kids With Guns” With Gorillaz (2006)
When you went to record with Gorillaz, where were you in your career? During this period of time, you seemed to be in a very collaborative place.
CHERRY: I was definitely in an in-between place. I’d ended up not making a solo record for so long. It was 16 years before I made a record called The Cherry Thing with the Thing. Those collaborative things were very much part of the treading stones.
We had a studio at the time. Cammy and the kids were living in Camden and we had a studio in an area of London called Primrose Hill. And two of the kids that were around at the time doing programming and working in the studio, one of them is Damon’s cousin or nephew or something. He moved on to go work for Damon, and it was actually through him [that the collaboration came about]. I don’t know if he had said to Damon that maybe he should see if I wanted to do a track. But he brought a tape with some different tracks — or a CD or whatever we were listening to in those days. Probably a CD.
And yes, I did know Damon a little bit from just out and around. I feel like we’d always liked each other. I feel like somewhere, some night randomly, we’d said, “Oh, we should do a track,” or something. And then I guess I went to the studio and I sang on a few different things. Danger Mouse was there. And then I didn’t really hear anything for a while. We just had a really nice chilled afternoon. I improvised a bit, sang a few parts, we ate some dates with lime on them, and just bantered and had a laugh. And then maybe a month or two or three or whatever, two months later, they’d built a track out of the different things that we’d done.
I wouldn’t say that a lot of what I did ended up on the track. I’m basically singing in the chorus and then there’s a little freestyle thing at the end. But I’m so glad that I was a part of it. And the shows that I went out and did, on that first round, we did one week in Manchester and then we did a week at the Apollo in New York. It was just wild. It was such a breath of fresh air and a crazy time. Just that thing that he manages to put together, make it work in such a seamless way. To be a part of that was a trip.
On the first round, Ike Turner was there. Shaun Ryder, De La Soul, Booty Brown. It was amazing. Martina Topley-Bird and I did some shows on the second round when Mick Jones and Paul Simonon were there. It was amazing. I loved the fact that I was able to become a part of that family too. I could have been really out of my depth or something, because it was a lot of people and it could have been overwhelming. But I found my space and I’ll never forget those days. Playing at the Apollo was absolutely amazing, and being there for a week was really special. Just every night, we were just dancing and having parties. And one of those nights after the Apollo, my mother was there and she was dancing with Kate Moss. I was like, “Wow, look, there’s my mom dancing with Kate. This is so wild.”
And then I did some other things. I did couple songs with Groove Armada. My husband Cam started a collective called CirKus, which I was also a part of. I think there was something in me, until I was ready to make solo music, that needed to be more in a band environment. I wanted to not have to carry the whole thing. and that was definitely the head space that I was in. I don’t know that I was lost, but it was just that thing of just needing to come at it from a different way.
The Cherry Thing (2012)
What do you think it was that made you want to approach music from a solo place again?
CHERRY: Well, I think the dialogue. There’s something that I can only really say that come out through the process of writing or performing. Even if the words are saying one thing, I know that I’m processing my life at the same time just in the moment through the different energy, depending on what the song is. That was always with me. I knew that I had all these songs dangling around my head, needing to come together. I think I started to overload. I started to feel a bit restrained because there was an aspect of my being that was on hold. And then my mother died. That was incredibly difficult and a huge shock. I had PTSD. I guess in a way I probably still do, to a certain degree. A couple years after she died, the opportunity to work with the Thing and to make that record came. And Cameron was amazing, because he was like, “You should work with these guys.”
It’s very connected to the music that I come from, and it was absolutely liberating. It was a life-saving moment. When we went to the first session, we did three songs. We did a MF Doom track, “Accordion.” We did a Martina Topley-Bird track. I almost got an instant migraine afterwards because it was such a deep relief. That led me back in. I was so harnessed by the musicians, and it was very natural what we did. It allowed me to let go and to spread my wings and just fly.
I think sometimes when you’ve waited a really long time to do something, you overthink it. It becomes stuck up in your head rather than thinking from your heart and soul. I think I remembered who I am again. And then after that I made two records with Kieran Hebden.
He’s such a big part of this journey, getting me to where I am now. He loved The Cherry Thing record. I think that that’s the pinnacle, the reason how we started working with each other. He did a remix for “Dream Baby Dream,” and then we started talking about recording a record. And then RocketNumberNine, he had a connection to them, and so we did that record. And then we carried on with Broken Politics. In a very gentle way, he had this decisive vision of how to carry on with where to go. He’s a complex, very deep human and a deep thinking guy. But he also has a very simple way of approaching things, which is very disarming.
I hope that we’ll continue. I feel like we aren’t done yet. Of course our friendship continues. But that thing of how he connected the dots through all of the things that we’ve just been talking about. He brought that into what we were making there and then. That is as important as it is to look forward and look ahead at the things that you haven’t done yet without overthinking them too much.
Acting In Stockholm, My Love (2016)
If and when you’ve been approached to do something outside of music, perhaps appearing in a film or on TV, what piques your interest? What gets you interested in acting or being on TV?
CHERRY: I’d been offered a few film parts before. One of them actually went quite a long way, but there was a part of me that didn’t believe that it could actually happen. I didn’t really think that I could do it. When [director] Mark Cousins sent me an email, which is the film that I did end up doing, his email was just so amazing. He was just like, “Look, here are 13 reasons why I think you should be in my film. Just read them and then give me a call.” The great thing about that film was he wanted me to be in a city that I’m born in, to walk around it. I’d spent two years walking around [Stockholm] after my mother died. And he didn’t really want me to speak — [he just wanted me] to make some music for it.
I was just about to move away from there to come and live back in London. I was like, “Oh, this could be my love letter to this city and the time I’ve had there.” And I really, really, really liked him.
I’m wary of doing things just for the sake of it. So, when someone says, “Oh, you should be in this reality show, it’ll be really great for your socials. You’ll get loads of…” I’d be like, “Well, if I don’t like anyone or like anything about it, it scares the shit out of me.” So, I think doing things just for the… Doing it just for the… What is it?
CHERRY: Yeah. I just think that’s not enough. You have to do shit because you mean it, right? To say that something that might read and seem tacky might not be something good to do, but I think I am a bit wary of things that feel like they’re too obvious or something. I just know that maybe I’m not that good at doing things if I’m not present. I’m not professional in that way. Some people are very good at rolling through things and doing things well in a very slick way, but I’m not that person. It just looks ridiculous.
The Versions is out 6/10 on EMI.