We Spoke To Neneh Cherry About Working With Four Tet
Neneh Cherry was – and still is - cooler than most people on Earth. By the time she became an international star at 25, she had frequented Tribeca post-punk nightspots like The Mudd Club, did backing vocals for all-female punks The Slits, DJed on DBC pirate radio, performed on an episode of The Young Ones, ran with influential stylist Ray Petri and his ‘Buffalo’ movement.
Even now, Cherry retains an aura of boho cool. One could imagine Cherry kicking back and easily living off regular royalty cheques from 'Buffalo Stance' sound-tracking Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals, but as she reminds us, she’s been busy: raising a family, forming bands with partner Cameron McVey, doing mixes for Pacha and Parisian club Panik, recording with jazz duo RocketNumberNine, and a certain Mr Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet.
Last April, Cherry uploaded a Hebden-produced track to Soundcloud entitled ‘Nina’. It took you aback; a clattering percussionist workout that found the pop veteran trading poetry readings with Afrika Baby Bam, of Nineties hip-hop duo the Jungle Brothers. To the uninitiated, working with Hebden could seem like a huge deviation for someone of Cherry’s stature, but by looking at her nearly 25 year solo career, the portrait of an artist with a driving interest in electronic music appears.
We spoke to her about deciding to release Blank Project - her first solo album in nearly two decades - recording an album in five days, and seeing MF Doom without his mask on. Like we said, she is cooler than most.
THUMP: What are you up to at the moment?
Neneh Cherry: I am just walking across my flat to lock myself into my kind of… spare bedroom-stroke-office to try and get some peace and quiet and to, um, make my brain work. I’m drinking a bit of ice tea.
Neneh Cherry: Yeah! It’s not really ice, it’s like, cold tea. Tastes quite good.
So, is it a bit of home time before everything really kicks into motion with this album?
Neneh Cherry:Well, I’m quite busy already, actually. I’m leaving to go to London tomorrow morning - I’m in Stockholm – and I’ve been working all day, so a precious few hours of home time. Once we’re done I’m gonna pack a bag, but hang out with my daughter and kick back. I usually try to really quickly get into home time – insane, insanity hours to get into some track suit trousers and let it hang out for a while. Chill. I think I’ve always been like that. I do the work thing, and get as quickly as I can into some other bit of normal shit.
I saw your recent W Magazine shoot -
Neneh Cherry: Oh, did you?
- The one where you’re wearing the Buffalo t-shirt, that was super dope. You know that’s the original Buffalo t-shirt?
Neneh Cherry: That was Ray Petri’s t-shirt.
I was going to ask if there was a vault of them.
Neneh Cherry:It was Ray’s. Judy Blame styled that picture and it was kind of funny, because we’d done a whole shoot with different outfits and make-up… and that vibe, with the Christopher Shannon jacket and the Buffalo t-shirt, was kind of like an afterthought. I didn’t even know that Judy had that t-shirt. It’s funny: quite often, I find that type of thing happens when you think you’re done, and you do something with the bit of time that’s left. The first track on Blank Project (‘Hands Across the Water’), that was the last thing we recorded for the album. We were thinking we were done and then - “No, we’ve gotta do this track”, and it ended up being the song that was meant to start the record.
So it was one of these spontaneous things that happened?
Neneh Cherry: Yeah! We’d kind of done what we set out to do and actually. It was Cameron [McVey, long-time partner and collaborator] – of course, he’s the best pushy person I know. He was like, “Don’t let it go. Just do that track.” We’d done the last track on the album, ‘Everything’, and Kieran was mixing each track as we recorded them, which was really interesting. I’d never worked with anyone who’s done that before.
While it was all fresh, he’d mix and master it, so we went in to the live room with Tom and Ben from RocketNumberNine, and laid down the song. The song isn’t one of the tracks that we put together, me and RocketNumberNine. It was a track that Cam and I had written on with a backing track from Kieran [Hebden]. We worked it out in the studio and literally just, at nine o’clock at night, when we were saying “Oh, we’re kind of done, let’s just do this.”
I think you hear the improvisational manner in ‘Everything’, where it blips in and out and switching speeds a lot, we hear you laughing. How did that process start? ‘Nina’, the track you put up on your Soundcloud last year, seems like a precursor, but feels less loose.
Neneh Cherry: Well, it was just a different thing. ‘Nina’ was a track by Kieran. I’d met with Kieran around the time that record with The Cherry Thing came out.
Was this for the remix album, The Cherry Thing Remixes? [Hebden remixed that album’s Suicide cover, ‘Dream Baby Dream’.]
It was just before the – actually, I don’t think he’d done the remix. Basically, we talked about working together and he sent me some backing tracks, one of which became 'Nina'. It was a nice sunny day in Stockholm and he turned up… Baby Bam from the Jungle Brothers was here to see a woman. I bumped into him on a plane from London. It was so random. After so many years, he kind of just, came back into my life.
We were using my brother’s studio – me, Cameron and Paul Simm, who’s written a lot on the album - and we just went in. Baby Bam was freestyling, and I did my bits around him. I forgot about that track, and we sent it to Kieran. So we were in Woodstock in New York recording the album, He was like “Have you heard? I’ve mixed it, it’s kind of cool.” He then sent it to Gilles Peterson, who played it out. So that was a separate thing, basically. The vibe of the way things happened with RocketNumberNine was much more live-based. To me, the album became real when they came into the picture. We had the songs but they just bought the party to the joint, if you know what I mean? The connection comes through Kieran.
Were you familiar with them before the Roseland / Metropolis 12” they put out with Hebden?
Neneh Cherry: No. I just discovered them fairly late on. I completely fell in love with them. Myself, Cameron and Paul - the people that were dealing with the writing part of the album – as well as Robert Harder, who produced The Cherry Thing album... We’d been talking about how the album really needed to be recorded live. To come away from making a studio record with the newest freshest sounds, or the newest freshest producers.
The real vitality and spirit was coming from it being a little loose around the edges. A little bit raw and a little – dare I say it – experimental. I think that it was really important for it to be driven by electronics. RocketNumberNine, they come as they are. They play it beautifully loud, and hard, and real. They were like the missing piece to the puzzle.
We did a gig for Gilles Peterson at Koko for the Worldwide Awards, then we did another for Gilles in a snowboarding kind of thing [in Kuklos] - and then we were just on the go. We kept giving them the songs without any of the pre-production; just the raw material, the lyrics to the songs, so it would be RocketNumberNine with the songs. Not them being depleted by anything else.
There’s a bluntness in what they do. To me, it gives the songs the essence they were already begging for. We’d rehearsed loads before we went up for these five days with Kieran, so we were able to do what we had to do without stumbling over too many blocks. Most of the songs were done in two or three takes, then we’d choose a take that we like –and it would usually be apparent which one had the vibe. Sometimes, that was it. ‘Everything’ and ‘422’ we did in one take, I think.
You and Kieran could have plausibly done this online, sending takes back and forth. Did you feel your working relationship was a reaction against that type of technologically-aided process?
Neneh Cherry: Yeah. I think that, being what it was, being in its raw material with meeting RocketNumberNine, was… so not about doing that bouncing things around through cyberspace. It’s so much about approaching it in an old school way. Like, setting up in a room, getting the sound and playing the tracks. It’s driven by a futuristic vibe, but in the way that it needed to be done. It was never a thought that we were going to do it in any other way. It was more like “…when is Kieran going to have time?” Where, when, how? What week-long window appeared, it was meant to be that way. There was five days. There was no more time.
Neneh Cherry: And I think that Kieran - I can’t really speak for him, obviously – but I think that he didn’t want to record the album in just any way. For me, it’s a real honour that he wanted to make the record at all. He definitely just does things that he wants to do; capturing it in its true form, in the time and space, you know? It’s quite funny, because it was really like a classic setting. The studio is a church that had been converted in the Seventies. It was very Crosby Stills & Nash, with the porch that we’d sit out on every morning and look at the trees. We would go out to eat something, come back and get on with it. The usual static that everyone brings in from our lives with phones and the hustle and bustle, that wasn’t really there.
Is five days easily the shortest time it’s taken you to make a record?
Neneh Cherry: Yeah. Well, with Rip Rig + Panic, the first band I was in, the first album and maybe the second, we might have recorded most of it in a day. Certainly not with the other records, though. Those definitely consumed time in a different way. I think doing something like this you have to surrender - in a good way - to yourself. It’s very easy to fight that, but I felt completely carried and harnessed by Ben and Tom from RocketNumberNine and what we were doing together, but also total faith in Kieran.
There were things that I thought probably were complete shit, and I would come in and query. He would go, “Let’s listen, no, it’s fine, let it be.” It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him, but it definitely scared the shit out of me to go back and listen to it, because all I was hearing was the flaws. Because it’s all there. It’s not a polished, clean cut body of work. Everything that happened is there, it’s left to exist. I didn’t even listen to the album for a month afterwards…
Was it weird going back to it afterwards?
Neneh Cherry: That was another thing of surrendering. When we went in to make the album, we were going into it as a collaboration – and it is a collaboration - that ended up being my solo record. I think that everyone felt in retrospect that it was very personal, but of course it’s a collaboration. And we weren't sure how or what we were going to call it. Is it going to be Neneh Cherry and RocketNumberNine? Which, to me, it is, but something happened in that harness that they put around me where I felt like I could totally open myself up. That’s what made it more personal. I am proud of this record, if you can say that without being egocentric.
Does it feel like it’s been a long time since you had a record released as a pure solo effort?
Neneh Cherry: You know, I’ve always felt that, because I know how things have come together, that everything is about a series of collaborations. Unless you’ve got the right people there at the right time and in the right place, none of it would have happened. Raw Like Sushi, Homebrew, any of it. And that doesn’t feel like a long time! That’s the weird thing with time, it’s relative. I had my youngest daughter Mabel right around the time when Man came out [in 1996] and if she wasn’t about to turn eighteen, I would just think it was seven or eight years ago.
I suppose that’s because there’s a thread that runs through all of it. It isn’t like I’ve been on hold for seventeen years – I’ve been doing lots. I’ve been working, and I chose to do a lot of stuff that was collaborative. Cam, a guy called Matt Karmil and I had this project called CirKus that we did for a while, which was really cool. Being part of a band again was really interesting.
CirKus did this really interesting mix for the Panik club in Paris—
Neneh Cherry: That’s right! Yeah yeah yeah.
You also did a solo mix for a Pacha compilation around that time as well. Did collaboration free you up to play about like this?
Neneh Cherry: Yeah, definitely. I think that it’s really important. It was a way of opening up. It was a really important part of growing, you know what I mean? You have to evolve. There’s obviously a part of what you do that’s always repeating itself, but I think it’s easy to get into a comfort zone. Just doing things that weren’t so much where I was in the spotlight or drawing so much attention to myself has been quite volatile. But then it just became time after a while – I’m ready now to go for the solo thing, to make this record. The Thing record came first and then this one, and it was almost like I could feel my elbows were itching. It was time, if I didn’t do this now, I was possibly going to go mad.
In the interview you did with Pitchfork, you stated that nostalgia wasn’t something you necessarily wanted to revisit, wasn’t something you want to be accustomed to.
Neneh Cherry: No. I think - I think we all have good and bad memories. I have a lot of things I like to remember and then I have things that, like, wake me up in the middle of the night and completely freak me out. I just have to go look, I can’t change that shit. I’ve just got to let it go and move on. I can’t repeat or recreate something that’s already been. Not so much a reinvention, but more like moving on. I suppose it’s just started to make much more sense for me to do things in a more simple way than ten years ago. Going back to a raw form that’s quite punky - but without nostalgia on top of that, thank you.
Looking back on your career thus far, your approach mostly seemed ahead of its time. You criss-cross with genre, and on this record and you were mixing together a bunch of different club sounds on Raw Like Sushi… Do you ever feel like there’s not enough dues given to you to have mixed things up so early?
Neneh Cherry: No. I… I don’t really think like that. Sometimes it’s kind of annoying to not just be one thing: "Oh, I’m just gonna do hip-hop, oh I’m just gonna do"… Now, I feel like I’ve just come into my element. Working with the right people and making the right sounds. I don’t really feel like I’m due more than I’ve got.
That’s a healthy way to look at it.
Neneh Cherry: Y’know? And I think I’ve had more than I ever thought anyway. Thank you, but I’m not done yet. I’m still learning so much! And that’s the best thing - the great thing. I feel like I’m in the space where I can really learn because I’m far less self-conscious about my flaws. I think I can take in and project it back out in a much better way. When I was working with The Thing, it just catapulted me out into the force of the sound, and the freedom to experiment and play, which I think we really did with each other. To find that again with RocketNumberNine in a pretty free-form place, it’s teaching me a lot. Good nourishment.
Do you know if DOOM ever heard the ‘Accordion’ cover you guys did?
Neneh Cherry: I think he did! I saw him…
With the mask or without?
Neneh Cherry: I saw both. But I think he heard it. I’m pretty sure that he got it. I should make sure I get it to him.
What did Madlib think about it? On the Pacha and Panik mixes? You really were already championing that LA beat scene. Is that something you’d be interested in working within?
Neneh Cherry: You know, I would love to do something with Madlib. I’d like to take him to my house in Sweden and get him to sample my record collection that I grew up with, and make a record from that. My daughter Naima, she’s like, "That would be amazing". We’ve got a pretty serious record collection, from my dad and all through the eras. So… I’d have to see if I could ever make that happen. It’s a dream, but dreams sometimes come true.
After this album, what’s next?
Neneh Cherry: I think I'll just see what happens. I’m going to try to hunt down Kieran to do a rap track. This was something we were talking about doing, but it was just another of those things; time, place and all of that. Then, we were going to play a lot of gigs and stuff. We’re playing at the end of February in London and then Paris and Berlin, and we’re supposed to do a bunch of festivals in the summer.
So is the rap thing with Kieran going to be a solo thing or…?
Neneh Cherry: Ah, it’s not really official. It’s just an idea so let’s see if it takes shape. It’s just something we’ve talked about wanting to do, so we’ll see if we can make it happen. See what it is.
You could pick up on the chopped 'n' screwed vocals that you do on ‘Blank Project’ for that.
Neneh Cherry: That’s a funny thing, because we had another version of that track that we weren’t happy with. We were just fucking about while rehearsing and Ben sampled my vocal, pitched it, and it made the song.
Do you see yourself doing any more DJ stuff?
Neneh Cherry: I think I’m DJing next week in London! I feel like I should do it more, because I have that thing now where I just panic and think about it too much. If I’m in my house playing records, it’s fine. So I just need to let go of that because I enjoy it. It’s really inspiring to play records. It’s good exercise, in a way.
How different is it to DJ from when you were on DBC [Dread Broadcasting Corporation, usually credited as Britain’s first radio station for black music]?
Neneh Cherry: DBC! I used to play a hip-hop record into a Sun Ra record into Kool and the Gang ‘Jungle Boogie’ or just - randomly play Coltrane, or old reggae. It was pretty raucous and technically it was probably a shambles, but we played some good music! I prefer to DJ now when I’m not responsible for keeping a few hundred people on the dance floor. I prefer to just play in a room and if people start dancing, that’s great, but you’re not responsible for people’s weekend. I can’t handle that!
Like, you’re not going to play trap beats just to get everyone back on the floor.
Neneh Cherry: No, no.
Neneh Cherry - Blank Project is out on February 23rd via Smalltown Supersound
You can follow Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on Twitter here: @danielmondon