Neneh Cherry Comes in from the Cold [INTERVIEW]

Here she is, R-A-W

It’s the Saturday before Christmas and, as the song says, the weather outside is frightful. Luckily, Neneh Cherry radiates enough warmth and good vibes to make even the nastiest of winter days bearable. Perhaps best known for her 1989 debut Raw Like Sushi (which contained the smash “Buffalo Stance”), and “7 Seconds,” her 1994 duet with Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, the 49-year old Cherry is a true original whose work spans genres from avant-jazz to trip-hop.

Blank Project is Cherry’s fourth solo album, and her first since 1996’s gorgeous Man (which was never made available in the U.S. of A.). Working with long time collaborator (and husband) Cameron McVey—the couple have three daughters: 31-year old Naima, 25-year-old Tyson and 18-year-old Mabel—4 Tet, and fellow Swede Robyn, Blank Project is soulful, punky, energized, reflective and melancholic.

In short, her latest is a collection of forward-moving songs that are at the heart of who Neneh Cherry is as a woman and musician.

Stream Blank Project in its entirety at NPR.

EBONY: Blank Project has several references to motherhood and the relationship between parent and child. You’ve never been a confessional singer-songwriter, but obviously it’s difficult not to have some of your personal life bleed into the work.

Neneh Cherry: I don’t live my life through my kids, nor do I expect them to live theirs through mine. But of course, they’re everything. When I’m away from them, if the phone rings at an irregular hour, I sit up and I’m awake. It’s in everything. I know when I had Naima, I was 18 and thought that I was probably a lot more grounded and older than I was. I can’t look back and remember anything else. It completely changes your footing in the world.

EBONY: Your mother, the artist Moki Cherry, passed in 2009. On the Blank Project opening track “Across the Water,” you address her death with the lines, “Let me make it plain, since my mother’s gone it always seems to rain.” That’s really powerful stuff.

NC: I was just at place with her where we were becoming nearer in age. She had me at 21 and died when she was 66. I was fortysomething. We were talking to each other in a different way. I could listen, and I’m really grateful that we had that. But I was still realizing stuff and then she died. And I went into a black hole. I wasn’t “there” for at least a year. 

Neneh Cherry, ‘Blank Project’

Neneh Cherry, ‘Blank Project’

I think that I was shocked that I was in a state of trauma that extended beyond the thing that had happened. When you lose a parent, you realize how vital they are to the foundation of your life. It’s impossible to understand what it means until that curtain is pulled. You’re an orphan. But then I think that life is kind of remarkable, and the thing that causes the biggest pain can also bring amazing energy. So now I think it’s become sort of a driving force rather than a force that’s pining me to the wall.

EBONY: Why so long in between your solo albums?

NC: I don’t really have the answer to the question. Because I didn’t have a time where I said, “I’m not doing anything; I’m not doing music.” But I was clearly going through a thing in my life where I couldn’t keep running on a treadmill. I had to repossess my life—not become a joke to myself. I had to stop and breathe.

EBONY: You were born in Sweden and have lived on and off in London over the years. But a good chunk of your adolescence was spent in a loft in a pre-gentrified Long Island. What does New York City mean to you?

NC: I think [it’s] a place I always come to in my head when I’m not writing. I’m probably catching something that isn’t really here anymore. When I came last time, I was walking around down on Broadway and all of a sudden… It was the first time I had been back here since my mother died, and I wasn’t prepared. We landed at the airport, we were driving into town, and all of sudden I said, “I’m not going home.” Because every time I arrived in New York was gauged by where the loft was. It’s on the other side of Manhattan, coming in from Newark. If it’s JFK (airport), it’s before Manhattan. I could reach out and sort of stroke it.

EBONY: Part of what makes you such an interesting artist is that you don’t fit into some neat slot. But you’re still judged by certain standards. Is it too naïve to ask to what degree do you think race has played in your career?

NC: The race is your face. Obviously, I come from a mixed background. Who I am and how I look and being Black. Whether I wanted to deal with it [or not], it’s always been there. I was born in Sweden, and in the days when you could leave the pram outside [to play], my mother left me outside of a post office. And she came out, and there was a woman looking [at me] saying, “What do they eat?” This is in the ’60s. And my mother said, “Bananas, of course.” Because she was very quick.

[Race] is kind of a difficult question. I went to Africa when I was 15 with my biological father [musician Amadou Jah]. And the experience of visiting a place where I really have roots and being in a Black nation was incredible and gave me confidence and an understanding of where I came from.

We live in a world where we’re forced into kind of segregated thought and fitting into tribes. When Raw Like Sushi came out in the U.S., I wasn’t considered to be Black enough. They didn’t really know where to put me. The music wasn’t “Black Black” sounding. It wasn’t R&B, it wasn’t straight up hip-hop, although obviously in that dimension and world.

But I suppose that moving back to Sweden was kind of important, because it was almost like I was more aware, more comfortable with my African side, my Black side, because I had sort of explored it more than my Swedish side. And by that I don’t mean White Swedish but Swedish. There was a part of me that kind of rejected that world I think, because I wasn’t accepted fully in Sweden or I felt very conscious of being different. I really absorbed myself in Black culture…. Now I feel like I hold it all. I am who I am.

Amy Linden is a pop culture writer and educator whose work has appeared in Vibe, The New York Times, XXL and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @notfornothin59.