Neneh Cherry has had four top-ten hits, collaborated with everyone from Peter Gabriel to Gorillaz, and performed on Top of the Pops while seven months pregnant. But on January 9 she’s finally going to do something she’s never done before: play a solo show in New York City.
The multicultural, Swedish-born singer-songwriter explains she actually did perform in this dirty town back in the late 1970s. As a teen, she sang backing vocals for a ska band called The Nails at a club called Tramps (she thinks).
“Probably the first gig I ever did,” she tells the Voice by phone from her home in London. “[And] the first band I was ever in. Kind of.”
Cherry says she never meant to let thirty-five years go by between engagements, but Friday’s headlining show at Highline Ballroom should prove an auspicious return to the city she’s lived in as both a child and a “so-called grown-up” and names as a major influence on her eclectic, genre-bending music. “At times I’ve struggled with the feeling of being a little bit on the outside,” she says, “and I think in New York I’ve had a very powerful sense, sometimes, of feeling like I belong…many of my components were made up of things I’ve seen and life I’ve led in New York.”
Raised in Sweden and New York City in an intensely creative environment — her mother, Monica “Moki” Cherry, was a Swedish textile designer; stepfather Don Cherry was a celebrated African American jazz musician — Neneh Cherry counts music among her native languages. Members of both the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads even lived in her Long Island City apartment complex. At sixteen she left her family’s loft for London, where she began finding her voice in the city’s emerging post-punk, reggae, and hip-hop scenes. She had formative stints in the Slits and Rip Rig & Panic and DJ’d on pirate radio station the Dread Broadcasting Corporation.
Cherry was just twenty-four in 1988 when she scored an international and Billboard number three hit with her smash “Buffalo Stance,” a happy accident for an artist who had little commercial ambition. “With Raw Like Sushi [Cherry’s 1989 debut album that contained “Buffalo Stance”] we were really just committed to doing what we felt was right and not watering it down,” she recalls, referring to herself and collaborators including her co-producer and now husband, Cameron McVey. “Not bending over to fit in to what someone in a record company thought it should look like.” That young people are still bumping the song nearly twenty-seven years later is “a surprise,” she says, albeit “a big, big, lovely bonus.”
Decades later, it’s not hard to see how prescient Cherry’s vision was; from her freeform genre-blending and fly Nineties style to her progressive gender politics, it seems she prefigured every non-depressing aspect of today’s zeitgeist. While some figures from the punk era fear change, she applauds the role the internet has played in making “segregated areas in music start to disappear” and name-checks FKA Twigs and St. Vincent as artists continuing to carry the banner of “quirky, interesting” sounds. Today, she refuses to stand still — in both her listening habits and her own musical development.
Cherry says she’s inspired by how artists today have ushered a new brand of feminism into pop culture. “It’s definitely on people’s tongues and it’s definitely been an active conversation and feeling and emotion,” she says. A recent demonstration for Sweden’s rising Feminist Initiative party, which she attended with her eighteen-year-old daughter, left her in tears. And yet she cringes to see us grappling with some of the same issues that she did back in the Eighties. She recalls recently watching a contemporary music video that featured a kidnapped girlfriend in white lingerie waiting to be rescued and another with numerous scantily clad women who were “literally in cages.” “How can we, us — women in the year 2014 — even be letting that happen?” she wonders. “We need to take charge of our shit!”
Cherry, an outspoken progressive, has also been tracking with dread the “right-wing storm blowing over Europe.” She laments the shrinking of material support for artists where right-wing movements are making gains, but attempts to find a silver lining in everything. “Being alive, in a way, is always political, I feel,” she says. “Even if you’re not choosing to make political choices, you are affected. And I think the things that happen around you — if you’re a creative person, the shit that goes on around will maybe stimulate you to voice certain things, or the anger or the hurt of something will be good fodder for the things you make.”
This is an interesting thought to keep in mind while listening to Cherry’s most recent solo record, Blank Project, released in February 2014 as a follow-up to 2012’s free-jazz collaboration The Cherry Thing. By all accounts, Blank Project is an intensely personal album. It’s her second solo effort after an eighteen-year “gap” during which she worked on a plethora of projects — obscure jazz records, Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, even a cooking show on BBC Two. Blank Project was created in collaboration with McVey and London electronic duo RocketNumberNine and was produced by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden. Its ten tracks of stark, minimalist arrangements foreground Cherry’s soulful voice and ruminative lyrics. The death of her mother in 2009 looms large, even when not specifically referenced, as on album opener “Across the Water.” At the same time, that and certain free-floating anxieties (like the lyric “my fear is for my daughters”) feel quite social in nature.
“I suppose the songs are a way for me to kind of figure out where I’m at, what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling in regard to myself and the bigger picture,” Cherry says. “I was trying to get into this mindset of not being too analytical, but just letting the words fall out and trying to write them as poetry…but to not get too indulgent in my story, because I think my story is important, but we all have stories.”
Cherry’s open-ended metaphors serve this purpose well; the sense of dread described alternately as “an old friend or an enemy” and “the black dog in the corner” on the brooding “Spit Three Times” could be many things to many people. Cherry says this kind of “dialogue” — with herself, her collaborators, and her listeners — is essential to the record’s journey. “I think that as much as I’m figuring stuff out through my lyrics as I go along, I’m also working out life,” she explains. “And I think that’s a thing you want to share with people. That’s kind of the message of the songs. It’s like, ‘I don’t really have the answers, I don’t know who does. Sometimes I do for a minute, but maybe we can find them for a while together.’ ”
Which brings us back to her current tour, which will feature the same musicians from the album (minus fellow Swede Robyn, who guests on languid club-thumper “Out of the Black”). “I think that’s why playing live is really important and can be really powerful,” Cherry says. “Because we can have these very definite kinds of meetings with audiences and the music where everything makes sense all of a sudden, for a while, in a room. It’s like, ‘Oh, now I know why I’m doing this.’ ”