Neneh Cherry is a music phenomenon, having started out in punk bands such as Rip Rag & Panic and the seminal Slits, before gaining worldwide chart success in the ’90s with albums such as Raw Like Sushi and Man. Most recognisable through her smash hit ‘Buffalo Stance’, Cherry has now teamed up with Norwegian jazz trio The Thing for her next project, a soon-t0-be-released fusion album named The Cherry Thing. After we spoke to The Thing, we caught up with one of our fave women in music to talk about the collaboration, her past musical ventures and food, of course!
What is it about the jazz genre that appeals to you so much? What makes you want to collaborate with The Thing?
For me, jazz is about self expression – in particular, self-expression with the people that you’re with at the time you’re collaborating. There is a great sensitivity about jazz that means you have to listen to each other, because it has a core form but then it also leaves space for you to improvise in your own right. The improvisation really starts to work, for me, when you’re really hearing the other people that you’re with. I think if parts are totally pre-planned, it can be repetitive, it’s not for me.
Me and The Thing have a mutual friend in Stockholm, a guy called Connie Lindstrom, who has the enthusiasm of a seven year old combined with the wisdom of a 90 year old – a mad spirit! He has lots of great ideas and he’s a big music fan. He runs this club in Stockholm called Strand – he’s a booking agent there. Connie put me and The Thing together. For him there were no qualms about it, never like it wasn’t going to work. There was natural attraction, because they’re into my dad’s music; but obviously I am another entity, and they hadn’t really worked with another vocalist before. It was one of those funny accidents that was just meant to happen.
When I got together with The Thing, I just really felt embraced by them as musicians. Obviously they’ve been playing together for years so they play together as if they’re blindfolded. The power, the spirit and energy of what they were doing made me feel instantly welcomed and totally free. With the first three songs we recorded, we didn’t know each other and obviously I was really nervous, but they cushioned me perfectly. They’re really powerful, 3 of them as individuals, but also together. It’s a very contagious sort of energy, and yet we’ve only done two gigs together so far.
Jazz is an attitude, and I don’t really see that in its pure form that it has a particular sound. The attitude, though, stretches right through punk to hip hop. It’s the way you say it, it’s the way you do it, rather than exactly what it is by definition.
Do you think a recorded album can be a true representation of jazz music, when its nature is essentially improvisatory?
Yeah, I think there the best jazz records have been recorded in a live format and so what you’re hearing is being played live, it’s not a bunch of overdubs. For examples, look back at the older jazz records like Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane; the way that they were mic’ed up in the studio was pretty acoustic and that’s similar to what we tried to do with The Thing, especially with the first three tracks when we recorded at a studio in Acton. The guy who engineered and co-produced the album, Robert Harder, has recorded a lot of live music and mic’ed us all up together in the same room. We were basically standing next to each other. When continuing to record the album, the initial stuff had a lot of bleeding, a lot of the drums were in my vocals and you couldn’t do anything to change it, which was great in a way! It was what it was.
So in answer to your question, after going off on a tangent, you can definitely capture great spirit in particular on vinyl – so more so in the sixties and seventies, maybe, than later records. Jazz can be captured on record, but it is definitely a genre of music that , figuratively speaking, flies when you hear it and see it live. I think we got to a time when everything was very quantised and overindulgent in the studio sense; music definitely benefits from people taking it all out of that environment of just re-producing it live. There’s also something, a quality that you can never really get back, that happens sometimes when play something for the first time.
You’ve moved from genre to genre throughout the years, starting with The Slits, then with your own original chart music, and now you’re playing with a jazz trio. Are there any key elements that string projects that you’ve done together?
To me they’re all really connected. The outcome of what you hear is different, but for me it’s all about where you are and where you stand in the moment, the commitment and the element of ‘this is it, we are here now, this is real.’ Like I was saying before, there are so many kinds of boundaries and barriers between all these different kind of styles of music, and for me it’s all connected. I think it’s more of a reflection of where I am in myself at a particular point in time. You can’t really do the same thing twice. You develop your art, you work at your craft, and you try and get better at what you do.
Getting together with The Thing is like going back to my roots, not going back, but going forward into my roots – it’s an exploration. The spirit of Rip Rig & Panic feels really familiar with what I’m doing with The Thing – it’s free-form, mish mash of a lot of things. The music I made with The Thing, to me, is a really powerful sort of anarchy, so very punk.
Also, you take a bit of each project with you. The Slits was a massive learning curve at the time, and when I look back now I suppose I just know that those experiencess, as with Rip Rig & Panic, made me who I am today, and I’m really thankful for that..
You’ve moved a lot around over the years. As well as moving from genre to genre, you’ve moved from country to country. Does the environment of where you’re living at a certain time affect the music you make? For example, the culture and the context?
I think it does on a small scale, in a very personal way. I live in Stockholm most of the time, and it’s a lot quieter than London, but I don’t necessarily think Stockholm makes me a quieter person. It’s like the concept of moving countries; you can’t move to a country and become somebody else, you always bring your shit with you. So that’s how it is.
I got to a point about fourteen years ago when I just knew that I wasn’t so committed to being a pop star and that I wasn’t really designed for that kind of treadmill. I kind of side stepped. To me the journey of music is a trip and you’ve got to be able to travel with it and grow with it. I feel like with where I am now, I’m just starting in a way, even though I have a whole story behind me. It’s a really great feeling to feel like that. In a way when I started working with Mats and Paal from The Thing, I felt myself being reborn – it was kind of like hatching out of a weird sort of egg!
Jazz is such a niche genre in itself; it’s quite hard to listen to. Do you think it’s infiltrated into the mainstream much?
I think jazz is in everything. It’s easy to sit here and go ‘that’s jazz music, that isn’t’ but like I said earlier, the attitude of jazz is basically in all music whether you go backwards or forwards or sideways. The Thing are quite young guys, so their music has an element that’s quite rocky and quite punky – they’re taking the free jazz thing and putting it into a different environment. So maybe even people who are not necessarily into jazz might really check for what we’re doing! What we’re doing is trying to knock down a lot of the boundaries and the barriers, and we’re just kind of doing it without asking too many questions. I think that’s a good thing.
There are just far too many genres and subgenres in music that I can’t keep up. There’s too many ‘post-‘ this and ‘post-that’, and I just think it either it makes you want to dance or not!
Do you pay much attention to new music?
I pay lots of attention to new music- it’s my world, I love it. I think it’s really exciting right now there’s a lot of great music around. Kieran Hebden of Four Tet is going to mix ‘Dream Baby Dream’ – I think that him and Mats Gustafson. I’m a bit of an old punk rocker and I don’t really pay too much attention to how things have to be – I think, let’s just try it and if it works then let’s do it.
I see a time ahead of us where music is going to get more and more exciting. Pretty much anyone can put their tunes out on the internet. The problem is making money obviously, but you have to go out and play live, like all musicians do. I feel that (maybe I’m wrong, but hopefully I’m right), we’re coming back into an ‘up yours’ kind of place. I mean, anyone can make an album on a laptop, and you can sit on an aeroplane and do a remix basically. Anyone can get into music, it’s just how you do it and what you do with it.
Also, daring to step out of your comfort zone is important. I suppose that’s what kind of creeped me out 14 years ago – I felt like I reached that place. ‘If I stay on this figurative treadmill and repeat myself 50 times, maybe I’ll end up being really successful.’ I think that’s why a lot of people question why I did what I did – stepping down from the pop market.
PN: You were talking about the changing music industry going back a bit. How have you adapted to the changing market and changing audience over the years that you’ve been a musician or have you felt like you don’t have to adapt?
I think the problem is if you start adapting, then you’re getting rid of a part of yourself. But you can always choose how you want to wrap something up and how you want to present it to the world.
Personally, I can’t be anyone else no matter what I do. I find it more interesting to do things that make me happy, and the people that find that interesting get into it – I’d rather hang out with them than trying to please people that maybe I could never make happy. I think it’s a privilege just to be able to go out and do gigs and if a few hundred people turn up or fifty. The work I’ve done in the past means I have a little springboard; it’s not like I’m totally coming out the blue. This new project is something else; even though I can carry with me some of the spirit of ‘Buffalo Stance’, I can’t do it again. It would just be tacky if I was to put a record out that I would really like to be as big as ‘Buffalo Stance’ – it just doesn’t work like that! I’m proud of where I’ve come from and the fact that I’m still standing here.
Heritage is interesting for me, especially experiencing my heritage through musicians like Mats and Paal and Ingebrigt. To me I feel like I’ve known them my whole life and I really understand who they are and what they’re saying with their music. In a way I took another journey with my own music so it’s kind interesting to get pulled back into this inner sanctum of sound that is a big part of my upbringing and core experience. I think I needed something like this. I’ve always been kind of rebellious in the sense that I’ve had to find things out for myself; I had to go the other way around, to start exploring music that wasn’t part of my heritage, but now is the time for this.
The Thing are such amazing musicians. The drummer Paul just sets me on fire! And Ingebrigt, the bass player, he missed one note in one tune and Mats said that in the 10-12 years they had played together he had never slipped once. You couldn’t sample that shit. I mean you could, but you don’t need to with him. It’s soulful, too, and that’s the medicine I need right now.
One thing that I’m really into is women in music; reading women’s writing and listening to female musicians and all about feminism. You said that when you were making Man, feeling empowered as a woman and being able to express that was important to you. I feel now women’s empowerment has kind of been taken to the extreme – people like Rihanna and Katy Perry over-sexualising themselves. Would you agree with that?
I do agree with that, I do! I’ve spoken out about this in a few interviews and I don’t want to sound like a miserable old biddy but I think that some women have misunderstood the sense of empowerment. I think that’s a shame. Sexuality is beautiful thing, sensuality is a beautiful thing, but this over sexualisation to me becomes pretty unsexy because it lacks power. People are trying to shock because it’s got to a point where everything’s been done before. Give me PJ Harvey any day!
One last question – you’re really into food, right? If you had a dying meal, what would be your starter, main course and pudding?
Today, if I was going to have my last supper, I’d really want a ceviche to start. It’s marinated fish with lime and coriander but you don’t cook it. You get it in Mexico and Peru; they make different styles. Actually in Jamie Oliver’s restaurant it was pretty amazing, which was a version with scallops and had pomegranates on it. I could go for like a homemade Peruvian ceviche on a day like today.
Then for my main course, looking out the window, I would want a stew, a really heartfelt one – a stew that would make me want to cry! Really soft, tender meat and root vegetables- one where you know there isn’t a thousand ingredients in it but it just tastes good.
I’m not a big pudding person. Today, I’d just want a really nice plate of fruit, maybe with an elderflower sorbet, berries and a bit of melon.
The Cherry Thing is out through Smalltown Supersound on 19th June.