NENEH CHERRY

Q (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs: Alex Lake

“I don’t be­lieve in ageism.” It’s just as well, re­ally, be­cause the pop/hip-hop sur­vivor is more rel­e­vant now than ever.

The step­daugh­ter of avant-garde trum­peter Don Cherry, Neneh Cherry cer­tainly has more jazz in her veins than most. But she also has more hip-hop, pop and fash­ion than many, too. Sylvia Pat­ter­son is in­vited round Cherry’s West Lon­don ex-coun­cil house for tea and med­i­ta­tion.

In Lon­don’s West­bourne Park, green space with high brick walls, there’s a stun­ning graf­fiti-art ex­hi­bi­tion: b-boy char­ac­ters, a perky Pink Pan­ther and the huge, kalei­do­scopic bub­ble-words: LOVE PEACE UNITY AND HAV­ING FUN. Dot­ted through­out these pos­i­tive vibes, there’s now the jar­ring, freshly-painted slo­gan: Jus­tice For Gren­fell. We’re around the cor­ner from Neneh Cherry’s home, 10 min­utes’ walk away from the Gren­fell Tower hor­ror, smoke from which she could smell last sum­mer in her own gar­den. “One of the heav­i­est days I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced,” sighs Cherry, who vol­un­teered at the nearby Ack­lam Vil­lage venue, set up as com­mu­nity hub in the days af­ter­wards. “And the coun­cil are try­ing to take it back, sur­prise,” she withers. “Oh, they’ll put a lit­tle shop­ping cen­tre there or some­thing. Just what we need. More shit.” She wan­ders through the com­mu­nity she loves, wav­ing hel­los to lo­cals, round to the canal where barges rest on wa­ter so al­gae-toxic green it looks like a me­an­der­ing lawn. Cherry, in a caramel in­dus­trial boiler suit, places her white trainered feet on the lip of the canal, pre­tends she’s div­ing in, per­haps a metaphor for liv­ing-on-the-edge. “Oh at 54, I’m so edgy,” she scoffs. “Still edgy… and rel­e­vant. I am try­ing to cel­e­brate my age. A new state of mind, try­ing to fit into my Big Mama Thorn­ton shoes…”

Like Wil­lie Mae “Big Mama” Thorn­ton, the Alabama blues singer who recorded Hound Dog in 1952 four years be­fore Elvis, Neneh Cherry is a born fron­tier spirit. At 54 she’s as stylish, mis­chievous and in­fec­tiously warm as she was in 1992, when Q first en­coun­tered the spring-haired, hoop-ear­ringed, trainer-wear­ing jolly-child-of-the-uni­verse. She was in New York, pro­mot­ing her sec­ond al­bum Home­brew with her hus­band and col­lab­o­ra­tor Cameron McVey (who ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced Mas­sive At­tack’s Blue Lines), the pair bur­dened by their edgy rel­e­vance, hid­ing un­der the du­vet in Q’s ho­tel suite, gig­gling, wasted, on-the-run from end­less US promo. Twenty-six years later, though, some things have pro­foundly changed. “I’m some­body’s grand­mother,” she cack­les, biff­ing Q’s arm, her first daugh­ter Naima (from her first brief mar­riage) now a young mother her­self. McVey, too, had a child from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship, Mar­lon, be­fore the pair be­came par­ents to Tyson, once the seven-month preg­nancy bump Cherry cel­e­brated in Ly­cra on Top Of The Pops in ’88 with the scratchy pop-rap in­no­va­tor Buf­falo Stance (from her also era-defin­ing de­but Raw Like Sushi). Then came third daugh­ter Ma­bel, now a 22- year-old R&B pop star who sup­ported Harry Styles through­out Euro­pean sta­di­ums in early 2018 (Ma­bel’s hit song Fin­ders Keep­ers was

co-writ­ten with Mar­lon). She de­scribes her youngest daugh­ter the way you could de­scribe Neneh Cherry her­self, “very soul­ful, fig­ur­ing it all out with a lot of heart and a lot of balls”.

We re­con­vene to the Cherry-McVey home where there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of their mu­si­cal achieve­ments, no trace of Cherry’s Britwin­ning, Ivor Novello and Grammy-nom­i­nated tri­umphs. These two prom­i­nent left-field mu­si­cal forces are liv­ing, in­stead, the free­wheel­ing, ram­shackle, bo-ho dream. It’s a mod­est, nar­row, three storey ex-coun­cil house, also home to Ma­bel and Cherry’s sis­ter Amanda, her make-up artist to­day, the pair con­vers­ing oc­ca­sion­ally in their na­tive Swedish. “It’s a fam­ily busi­ness,” nods Cherry. “That’s how I sur­vive, that’s how we’ve sur­vived. And main­tained some so-called san­ity. Cam and I met around Raw Like Sushi and we al­ways took in peo­ple around us, with us. Col­lab­o­ra­tion is del­i­cate, fam­i­lies don’t al­ways get on but fun­da­men­tally there’s trust, com­fort, a con­nec­tion at the core. It’s not mind­less. Well, some­times it’s mind­less!” We’re in the chaotic kitchen/diner which com­prises al­most all the ground floor, once a tiny kitchen and liv­ing room, re­built into an open-plan rec­tan­gle with no back wall, re­placed with two glass doors wide open to a small, square gar­den sur­rounded by ivy. The kitchen units run along one side, the iron­ing board is up, fairy-lights droop over the op­po­site wall where ca­bles spill from newly-wired plug sock­ets sit­u­ated half way up, framed pho­tos hang at wonky an­gles in­ter­spersed with gaf­fer-taped fam­ily snaps. The white kitchen door is daubed in grey smudges, pos­si­bly hand­prints from not only the four adults liv­ing here but the tem­po­rary “ex­tras” they’re al­ways tak­ing in. A lengthy wooden ta­ble hosts make-up, can­dles and mugs, the tiled floor strewn with an empty Sports Di­rect shop­ping bag and a large green bucket filled with Tup­per­ware and pots (do­ing the job of a cup­board). “And it’s a bro­ken bucket,” hoots Cherry, cheer­fully. They’ve lived here for four years since mov­ing from Swe­den and many art-works re­main in stor­age. “It’s the usual work-in-progress,” she says, a huge smile ex­pos­ing a Gypsy-gold tooth.

“Artists have just been wanking around in re­al­ity telly land. We need pos­i­tive anger. That’s the gift we get from the dark.”

Cherry’s ac­cent re­mains a charis­matic hy­brid of New York/ Lon­don, the Swe­den-born, partly-New York-raised life­long no­mad who’s spo­rad­i­cally lived be­tween Swe­den, New York, Spain and Lon­don, her home to­day “the bunker”, from where she and McVey go trav­el­ling (also the busi­ness hub for their No­mad Pro­duc­tions com­pany). They also own a much big­ger house in Cam­den, rented out, pre­fer­ring both the West Lon­don com­mu­nity at­mos­phere and this mod­est dwelling, the least pop starry home Q has ever seen. “Less is more,” she de­cides, now seated un­der the sun­shine at a white lat­ticed-iron gar­den ta­ble (with wob­bly legs) in a T-shirt which reads POWER FULL WOMAN. “Stuff doesn’t give you emo­tional bliss,” she car­ries on, be­ing not only what she calls a “punk grandma” but a free­dom-search­ing hippy. “I’m a typ­i­cal Pisces, sen­si­tive, a dreamer, af­fected by my en­vi­ron­ments. I love life, but I’m very slow. I can just hoomp-de-hoomp de-doop-de-doo around and be quite con­tent.” Bro­ken Pol­i­tics is her fifth, ex­cep­tional solo al­bum, co-writ­ten with McVey and pro­duced by Four Tet (Kieran Heb­den), a sen­si­tive, dreamy, dubby, trip-hoppy sound­scape af­fected by the world en­vi­ron­ment to­day. Wood­wind flut­ters, African rhythms stir, steel drums seem­ingly spi­ral in outer space. She swears she doesn’t smoke weed any more, “but Cam does”. In a tur­bu­lent, speedy world, per­haps slow­ness is The An­swer. “Well, if I’m stressed and pan­icked I just freeze,” she muses, “so I’m faster when I’m slower, if you see what I mean.” That’s a very jazz thing to say. “I am quite jazz.”

Neneh Cherry is very jazz: there were 18 years of mostly child-rear­ing be­tween her third al­bum Man (’ 96) and her fourth Blank Project ( 2014), though she col­lab­o­rated in 2012 with Nor­we­gian/ Swedish jazz trio The Thing, and in 2013 with Rock­etNum­berNine (the Lon­don duo named af­ter a song from psy­che­delic jazz mad­man Sun Ra). Her step­dad, who died in 1995, is all jazz, the US trum­peter Don Cherry who raised Neneh with her Swedish artist mum Moki, who died in 2009 (her bi­o­log­i­cal dad, Ah­madu Jah, was the son of a Sierra Leone chief ). Bro­ken Pol­i­tics was writ­ten at home and recorded at the New York Wood­stock stu­dio of jazz pi­anist and old fam­ily friend Karl Berger, Don Cherry’s late ’ 60s- era band­mate. Over din­ner in Wood­stock, Berger told sto­ries of her par­ents and on one new track, Syn­chro­nised De­vo­tion, played the same vi­bra­phone he’d played along­side Don Cherry when Neneh was a tod­dler. “It felt like con­nect­ing all the dots of my life,” she says, now nib­bling from a bowl of sliced ap­ple and wal­nuts. “Threads go­ing all the way back to my birth place. I felt like I found my wings, like be­ing in or­bit. It felt like… ar­rival, like I’m in my time now.” In an era where so­cial con­science in mu­si­cians is sud­denly al­most com­pul­sory, Neneh Cherry has been right­eous for­ever. In ’ 82, aged 18, she re­leased Stop The War, a protest song against the Falk­lands War. In ’ 94, her anti-racism duet with Yous­sou N’Dour, 7 Sec­onds, was a melan­choly global colos­sus. Bro­ken Pol­i­tics is less protest, more sonic balm, her mis­sion to “create some­thing beau­ti­ful” post- 2016’ s rip in the ex­is­ten­tial fab­ric. The sin­gle Kong, writ­ten with Mas­sive At­tack’s 3D, is seen through the eyes of Calais refugees with the hyp­notic cho­rus, “Bite my head off, still my world will al­ways be/ A lit­tle risk worth tak­ing”. “Artists have just been wanking around in re­al­ity telly land,” she an­nounces, with some dis­dain. “We need pos­i­tive anger. That’s the gift we get from the dark.” She de­plores to­day’s po­lit­i­cal class. “They’re all use­less, it’s bully-ism, a freak show, ac­tu­ally,” she snorts. “With no so­lu­tions! Trump, Brexit, Theresa May, dread­ful peo­ple ev­ery­where with ab­so­lutely no em­pa­thy for other peo­ple. We’re di­vid­ing, liv­ing in fear of one an­other, racism is over the radar, all these dis­placed peo­ple. If your back’s up against the wall, no money, no one’s look­ing af­ter you, you’re told a bunch of lies, you just wanna fight, ba­si­cally. And we’re liv­ing in a bankers’ hell. We have the riches, if we ran things dif­fer­ently, to fix things for a lot of life.” If the world was run on her val­ues, of fam­ily, com­mu­nity, open­ness and shar­ing, per­haps there’d be some mean­ing­ful evo­lu­tion. Her non-ex­is­tent wall says it all. “We’re try­ing to bring out in,” she nods, rue­fully. “With open arms, as much as we can. With all these crazy forces that are out there bol­lock­ing you.”

“I’m not gonna be in the mid­dle lane where Ma­bel is. So I feel a sense of free­dom. And some of the best-dressed peo­ple are grannies. At 80 I’ll be wear­ing train­ers, bling and a twin set.”

Sud­denly, Amanda shouts from the kitchen. The strip of pan­elling be­low the kitchen units has come un­stuck, smacked onto the tiled floor. “That fuck­ing thing again,” yelps Cherry. “We had mice. Oh, noth­ing works, ev­ery­thing’s a façade and be­hind it ev­ery­thing’s fall­ing apart!”

Neneh Cherry first moved to Lon­don aged 16, ar­riv­ing into the post­punk at­mos­phere of po­lit­i­cal chaos and cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties. Don Cherry had toured with pi­o­neer­ing reg­gae-punks The Slits which led her to their teenage singer Ari Up and her mother, Nora, John Ly­don’s life­long part­ner. She moved into a squat in Bat­tersea with Ari Up. “Nora helped us break in,” cack­les Cherry. She briefly joined The Slits, then Bris­tol’s trum­pet­ing jazz troupe Rip, Rig + Panic, be­fore be­com­ing a cen­tral fig­ure on the DIY Lon­don scene where she met flam­boy­ant stylist vi­sion­ary Judy Blame (who’d go on to style Boy George and Björk). Their part­ner­ship made both their names, the col­lab­o­ra­tive force be­hind the “Buf­falo” look which de­fined Neneh Cherry in 1988: out­size hats, dol­lar-sign medal­lions, enor­mous sta­teof-the-art train­ers. To­day, piled on her iron­ing board, are two Judy Blame neck­pieces made from black fab­ric, safety pins, but­tons and a cham­pagne bot­tle wire cage. He’d been due to cre­atively over­see Bro­ken Pol­i­tics when he died in Fe­bru­ary this year, aged 58, from can­cer. He was, says Cherry, the “god­mother” to her kids. “With­out Judy, with­out Cameron, with­out my cre­ative re­la­tion­ships, there would be none of this.” In the days lead­ing up to Blame’s death, the Cherry-McVey fam­ily and as­so­ci­ates gath­ered in his flat (in­clud­ing the world’s most cel­e­brated milliner, Philip Treacy), shar­ing their fun­ni­est sto­ries. On Valen­tine’s Day, told by pal­lia­tive care nurses his death was im­mi­nent, phone calls were made. “So we were all there, a tribe, with can­dles, in­cense and mu­sic,” she re­calls. “And the stub­born old goat lived for an­other five days. And we just stayed. That’s an­other thing about re­al­ity, sud­denly there isn’t all the time in the world to fuck about with. And that’s com­ing from a slow per­son!” Cherry’s 50s so far have been a “com­ing to terms” with life. The first two years were emo­tion­ally hard, see­ing her kids grow up and away, “the core of my life”, and the menopause, “which I didn’t know fuck shit about and not know­ing made me feel ashamed as a woman: we don’t talk about it be­cause it’s not sexy.” She felt lost. “A bunch of un­re­solved stuff put me to the wall,” she ad­mits. “And be­low that wall was a lid and be­low that lid was loads of… shit. That needed to come out. From a young age I’ve pro­grammed my­self to be a sur­vivor. So I’m find­ing ways of not be­ing over­shad­owed by… re­dun­dancy.”

This year, Neneh Cherry is as pro­duc­tive, edgy and cul­tur­ally timely as she’s ever been, now a pi­o­neer for vet­eran wom­an­hood, too. “There is ageism, but I just don’t be­lieve in it,” she de­cides. “Some­times I wake up and look like shit and feel re­ally old but… it passes. So fuck it, I’m kind of old but that’s… kind of cool! I don’t need to pre­tend I’m 25. I’m not gonna be in the mid­dle lane where Ma­bel is. So I feel a sense of free­dom. And some of the best-dressed peo­ple are grannies. At 80 I’ll be wear­ing train­ers, bling and a twin set. Don’t worry, it’s hap­pen­ing!” Her only pur­pose now is to keep forg­ing an in­de­pen­dent liv­ing, as she’s al­ways done. “I’m not mak­ing an amaz­ing liv­ing right now,” she notes, in her breezily hon­est way. “But it’s about hav­ing free­dom and choice, right? Ul­ti­mately, we don’t think about bank notes when we do what we do. Which is maybe quite ob­vi­ous!” It’s a few days be­fore this year’s Not­ting Hill Car­ni­val and her next task to­day is to “clean up my yard”. She’s host­ing her an­nual party for around 50 peo­ple, over sev­eral gen­er­a­tions, wel­com­ing any “ex­tras”, cook­ing with her chef friend Andi Oliver, im­mersed in her beloved com­mu­nity. It won’t be a party-til-dawn af­fair. “Oh, those days are gone,” she as­sures, gold tooth flash­ing in the fad­ing sum­mer sun. “Mid­night, Big Mama gets them out.” There will be love, peace, unity and hav­ing fun, no doubt. At least most of the time: the way it is with a real fam­ily.

Cherry pics: (clock­wise from above) Neneh in Rip, Rig + Panic, 1981; 1988 sin­gle Buf­falo Stance; per­form­ing with hus­band Cameron McVey in 1993.

Neneh Cherry: al­ways hang­ing in a Buf­falo stance, Lon­don, 2018.

“I feel a sense of free­dom.” Neneh Cherry lets it all go, West­bourne Park, Not­ting Hill, Lon­don, Au­gust 2018.

We are fam­ily: with daugh­ter Ma­bel, Lon­don, 2017.

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