exclusive interview: neneh cherry opens up about keeping art spontaneous on her latest record ‘blank project’

May 9, 2014

Since debuting as a teenager as the singer of post-punk pioneers Rip Rig + Panic, Neneh Cherry has always been at the cutting edge. Her solo debut Raw Like Sushi remains ahead of its time 25 years later for its mix of punk energy, hip-hop production, and social criticism. It’s been 17 years since her last solo album, Man, but Neneh returned this past year with the Four Tet-produced Blank Project. Raw, minimal, and powerful, Blank Project is Neneh Cherry’s most personal work to date.

Interview by Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

There’s been a lot of focus on the fact that this is your first solo album in 17 years, but it’s not like life stops between albums. What have you been up to since your last solo album?

A lot of costume dramas and tea! [laughs] I wish I could say that I’d done a degree in art history or something. But I suppose the quickest way of looking at what I’ve been doing is getting to where I am now. It kind of took the route of getting myself into a place where I chose to maybe not be in the driver’s seat; to take a bit more of a step out into a place where I was collaborating more, and therefore maybe not holding the responsibility of being the person in the center. I had a band with Cameron, my husband, and a guy called Karmil called CirKus. We made two albums. I suppose what I’d discovered when it came to making Blank Project and The Cherry Thing record was that I was able to kind of detach and attach myself in a really different way. I think that I was able to sit and share space and work spontaneously together with other people in a really different way. I’ve been the kind of writer that needed to go and lock myself away, and I got kind of tired of that. And a lot of people feel that it’s maybe a really personal record—Blank Project—so in a funny way you could say that it’s personal, but it was done in a maybe less lonely way. Because I really sat in the room and wrote the lyrics and made the songs together with Cameron, my husband and longtime partner, and other people like Paul Simm. It was a more spontaneous kind of journey in a stream of consciousness kind of way. When I finished promoting Man, my last solo album 17 years ago, I’d been going at it—music, work, having a family—at full throttle since I was 16. So it was time to take a left turn.

Click here to watch if you’re on a mobile device

How has the process of putting the machine back together been? Are you finding it daunting or is it more like putting on an old pair of shoes or something?

It’s both. It’s a bit like once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, you might be a bit wiggly at the beginning but you get on and ride it. I have to admit that I woke up a month ago and I was like “OK. I kind of remember why I’ve chosen not to do this for a while.” I think I did a day of 19 interviews. And then leaving home, you know? I’ve got my youngest daughter still here and living at home, she’s 18, so probably not much longer. But that knot in my stomach and the anxiety of leaving home is kind of hard, but once I’m out the door and at the airport, I tend to be fine. It’s a mixture. If I stand here and really put my hand in my heart, I also know that maybe I would have been an impossible person to spend time with or I would have been a little sad in myself. It’s been with me, and I think I was just holding the album until I came to the right time and place to do it and make it. To hopefully make the kind of record that I felt I needed to make. And that I think is part of a big journey of the self. As much as it is an album, a body of work, it was about letting go; releasing. I was never done. Like you said I’ve been doing a lot of things. So it was never like I’d retired and I’m coming back. That concept of a “come-back” has always slightly revolted me.

One of the things that I like about the album is that it sounds very punk and fearless without sounding like punk rock. Did it remind you at all of your experience recording with Rip Rig + Panic in the 80’s?

It did. I think that was maybe one of the reasons why I found it easier to just be transported away; to just let go of the constant manipulating that your brain is doing. It was deeply familiar. There was something about the experience of how we did it. And we had the songs as rehearsed as we could without being dogmatic about it. We just went in the studio and tried to be as relaxed as we could so we could give it our vibe. And I think that it was really reminiscent of working with Rip Rig + Panic. The Slits was very different for me, because I was more of a family member of the Slits. But with Rip Rig, it has some pretty strong connections to this. And I remember that first recording that we did, “Go Go Go,” which was the first Rip Rig single that I sang on. It was one of the first times that I went in the studio and I really had no idea what the hell I was doing. And I remember being there, standing in front of the mic and just thinking “OK. I’ve just got to go for it and listen to the music and feel it rather than think.” And that’s kind of what I tried to do when we were recording Blank Project; to actually be inside the songs rather than thinking about what’s coming next.

How was that different than working with The Thing?

I think working with The Thing made it possible to make Blank Project. I don’t think I would have been in the zone that I was in if I hadn’t done The Thing. It really set me free, you know? I’d been in a pretty spooky place after my mother died—she died 4 years ago—and I desperately needed to be ejected out of that darkness. And The Thing made that happen. It was primal, that kind of thing on a deeper level where you’re releasing stuff almost like a holy ghost. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s like an exorcism. There are so many moods in The Thing, but there’s a sound that they make that—even in their most tender moments—is sort of fearless. And I’ve always been addicted to being driven by that energy in music. And that’s what’s punky about RocketNumberNine. There’s a raw grain, and even when it’s quiet and soft, there’s a grain of raw energy. And they’re ultimately pretty fearless in how they play and sound. Tom and Ben are brothers so they also have this weird tension between them constantly that I think is really interesting. They’re really telepathic, they’re really set in, tight, but they’ve also got that brotherly tension.

They’re disagreeing over a chord progression and then all of a sudden it turns into who stole whose Legos in 1994.

Yeah. And I kind of get that. So I immediately felt at home with them. It’s punky. It’s a mentality and a spirit. And it’s also very jazz. And I suppose that’s a really big part of who I am and where I come from. And that’s what I’ve realized doing The Thing first. In the same way that I did Rip Rig + Panic all those years ago, it was like in my bloodline; deep intuition which made it possible. I can’t really analyze or say exactly what it is, but I know it like an old rhythm.

Do you still follow the punk scene at all?

I don’t know. It depends on what you call the “punk scene.” I don’t follow specifically the “punk scene,” but I think the spirit of punk is a never ending thing. But I don’t necessarily focus on just the specifics of what that means if that makes any sense. I think to me, “punk” is big. A lot of things belong in the spirit of punk. Sometimes I think that the over-nostalgic punk thing feels like we can’t really re-create what happened in 1977.

I’ve always found it so interesting that there are bands who work tirelessly to sound like they came out of ’77 or ’82, when what they’re inspired by is the authenticity, and they’re not being authentic.

I think we’re all inspired by things. And to be inspired by something is necessary to make something. It’s not down to invention, or something that’s never happened. It’s about having something absorb you and then turning it around and making it your own. And hip-hop had the same effect on me. It makes you want to do something. That kind of do-it-yourself thing. Like “Oh wow! I can do this. I recognize this.” But that re-emulation when you’re trying to do something that’s already be done, that’s like a really frustrating one dimensional loop. It’s kind of dangerous in a way.

Click here to watch if you’re on a mobile device

Is that something that you’re clocking as you’re playing shows? Like “Oh god, I don’t want to play ‘Buffalo Stance’ for the 9,000th time tonight.”

To me it really depends on the context, and how they’re being done. I really like doing “Buffalo Stance,” and I really love doing “Manchild” and as long as I’m doing other things, then it’s just part of the line. It’s part of who I am and part of the reason that I’m here. As long as I can feel like the music that’s being made here and now has a value. My nightmare would be to be in a place where I’m just living on—or living through—old music. We’ve been doing a version of “Buffalo Stance.” I just toured for a couple of weeks with RocketNumberNine when the album came out. And we’ve been doing a new version as an encore, and it was great. Those songs are not problems, they’re assets. They’re songs that I can still go back to and have fun with and learn something from. But I think they have to be brought into the now, rather than trying to use them or abuse them.

Do you find new things in those old songs when you’re performing them?

Well it’s funny because it’s a bit like reading an old diary or something. I remember those feelings, and if I didn’t have them—those songs, those pages in the diary—then I wouldn’t remember. But it also comes with me. I feel like they still have a place in the future. But “Buffalo Stance,” I was 25 when I wrote “Buffalo Stance.” Raw Like Sushi was a kind of synopsis of the things I’d been going through between 15 and 25. And how I feel now, and how I write now, of course it’s connected, but I wouldn’t say it in the same way. The journey of creativity is that you take that stuff and it’s there and you have it with you, but I feel like I’m interested in the challenges; treading new ground, and having the guts to evolve stuff. I remember my dad used to talk a lot about why he liked playing with younger musicians compared to playing with just his so-called peers. That has a place, obviously, but he was conscious of how easy it was to repeat; to do the same thing because it worked the first time around. When he worked with less developed, or maybe more naive musicians, it was actually a way of exploring new territory for him. I think with each project that I do finding the chemistry, the right people, and putting all those pieces together is such a big part of how the outcome of the work is going to be at the end of it. I suppose that the songs have always come first. Starting Blank Project was definitely about assembling the lyrics and the songs, and trying to empty out as much of the accumulated crap that I had in my mind and my heart. But Ben and Tom in RocketNumberNine and Kieran [Four Tet] were just as much a vital part of the puzzle. Without them it wouldn’t have happened.

When you’re playing with younger musicians who don’t necessarily have the same hangups as you, they’re going to be willing to take chances you might not take.

Exactly. Cameron and I have a production company now called Nomad, and we’ve got a bunch of things going on with this collective of artists and DJs and stuff. And there’s this one guy Oscar Scheller who’s really talented and he’s like 24. He’s working on an album, and he’s gone through a cycle of starting in his bedroom with his little machines, to going and working in a studio, to going and taking everything back to his bedroom and retreating it and stripping it back. And I learn so much from him. We DJ together sometimes. I’m a person who’s a bit older, and I actually like in myself getting older, but I also know that as I get older I have a tendency to over think things, and that doesn’t really work for me either. It just gets in the way. And I don’t mean that I’m not a thinker; I think thinking is great. But sometimes your intuition or your instinct, the stuff that you follow with your spirit that you don’t think about so much, actually becomes the best things that you do. I’m not obsessed with age, but definitely for me working with people who are in a different place in their life story is a good thing for me.

There’s a real vitality to Blank Project that sounds like everyone was sort of inspiring each other.

We were. We were inspired by each other, and we felt very connected. Kieran was a really brilliant kind of ringleader in a natural way. He’s not a pushy guy—he’s a very gentle soul—but he’s also deliberately stubborn in a way that I really like. It was a huge honor that he wanted to make the record, because I don’t think that he does things that he doesn’t want to do. Kieran does what he does and he does it his way, but with an incredible insight and sensitivity to what he’s working on. He chooses to work on something because he’s interested in it. He’s a pretty soulful person, but he’s also a very academic person in an interesting way. I felt that I could surrender in the best possible way, and I don’t mean giving up, I mean surrendering the shit that might get in the way. Trusting his opinions or the way that he felt that we should drive this album. It was in the moment pretty much. And that’s what happens when you record an album in that way pretty quickly in a live format. You’re actually connecting to the things that are happening there and then. You’re not going back and changing them and chopping them and fine-tuning them later. Of course there’s a lot of Kieran in the production, which is amazing.

When you’re recording things in 5 days, you don’t really have time to over-think what you’re doing. You barely have time to record the notes.

Well, there was nothing stressed about it, because of where we were and being away from the daily grind of our own lives. We were out in a live-in studio outside of Woodstock and it was pretty quiet. We’d get up in the morning jet-lagged and sit on the veranda. It was early spring so there were no leaves on the trees, but the sun was peaking through. We’d go in the studio and without any torture or stress, did what we set out to do. To the point where we even had time to do an extra track at the end, which ended up being the first track on the album. “Hands Across The Water.”

So you didn’t plan on recording that?

No. It wasn’t on the list of things. Cameron had a sort of bee in his bonnet about that track like “look we’ve done all the other stuff. It’s Friday, it’s only 9 o’clock. Let’s do it.” And it was the definitive start to the record. And it’s weird because I’ve been there before. You think you’re done and you go in without preconceptions and you end up doing something important.

Well it’s what you said before about letting go.

Exactly. You’re not trying to get something from it. It’s just like “OK. Let’s see what happens.”

Photo by Kim Hiorthoy