WITH HER ASSERTIVE, MULTI-CULTI MUSIC AND MASHED-UP STREET STYLE, NENEH CHERRY MADE AN M.I.A. POSSIBLE. TWO DECADES LATER, THE ICONIC SINGER’S STILL LOOKING GOOD, LOOKING GOOD IN EVERY WAY
Neneh Cherry’s 1988 debut album Raw Like Sushi introduced a dance–hip-hop sound so global and groundbreaking that we still feel its reverberations today. Her style wasn’t bad either. Dressed more often than not in biker shorts, bomber jackets, and oversized gold jewelry, the Stockholm-born singer and step-daughter of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry gave rise to the Buffalo style, a mid ’80s fashion phenomenon cooked up by Scottish stylist Ray Petri. It mixed designer and vintage clothing with skateboard and hip-hop culture, and, yes, M.I.A. and Santogold owe much of their look to it.Two decades later, Neneh Cherry is still making music, both on her own and with CirKus, the electro-rock band she started with her husband, Cameron McVey. Here, she talks with her friend and former stylist Judy Blame about their Buffalo days, the changes to the music business, and why Grandma isn’t a bad name for the new record. JUDY BLAME So what have you been doing, then, Neneh?
NENEH CHERRY Just trying to get back into the grind. JB What about your solo record? Last time we spoke, you said you were working on one.
NC Yes, I have been. I kind of just got to a point in the middle of last year where I felt genuinely ready to make my own record. So I’m in the dimension. I’m recording songs, writing songs, and really enjoying it. I think it’s been ten or eleven years since Man. I think that the journey I’ve taken, for some reason, has been more about collaborations, especially with CirKus. JB But that’s always been the point of your work.
NC Yeah, we’ve always worked like that, haven’t we? It’s always been kind of like a cottage industry in a weird sort of way. JB It was always about teamwork. We always used people who had similar ideas, like [Jean-Baptiste] Mondino or Juergen Teller—people who could fit into the unit and deliver what we needed. Even clothing-wise, we always used Azzedine [Alaïa] and Jean-Paul [Gaultier] because we really got on well with them. NC There were always those people who got it, and then obviously
you feel safe with someone who gets it. It’s also what they add to it, their interpretation. For instance, when we were working with Mondino, we kind of thought through the ideas, didn’t we? We did the Manchild cover, and then, at the end of the shoot, Mondino had this sort of Buffalo idea to wrap my hands up in bandages, like I had just come out of the ring or was just going in. We were going to go twelve rounds. JB I think we were just going in.
NC Yeah, we were just going in the ring, getting ready, still looking slick and sharp. I just remember all of us being there and looking at the contact sheets.
JB I’ve still got them. And the, I think, seventy-four rolls of film. NC Have you? Wicked. I remember that scene with such clarity. Everything back then was about being at the right place at the right time. I remember when Ray Petri got sick and we were kind of on our way, and he was like, “Look, I’m not going to be able to do this, but I want you to do it with Judy.” I just remember being like, Judy Blame? How fucking off-the-wall from Ray, being as classic as he was. I just remember I always got on really well with you. I’d see you near Cavendish Street, down in James Le Bon’s place, and you were working with Chris Nemeth, and it just seemed like such a funny suggestion. And then I remember you coming down Mortimer Road and you’d done these sketches and it was really funny looking at them because I couldn’t possibly wrap my brain around the process of defining what I am. But I remember looking at the drawings and feeling really strongly like Oh yeah, that’s me. And I remember you with a hair tie or the big chunky earrings and the trainers and it just felt really right. JB That was what we were doing then. We were mixing up a lot of different cultures, weren’t we? My favorite concept was for the Under My Skin video. It was just so exciting, and so pure, in fact.
NC There was also something very direct about that song, in terms of energy, both lyrically and visually.
JB The reason it worked was because we weren’t really putting on an image, we were just perfecting one.
NC That’s kind of what I was remembering when we were just talking about picking through those images. Being at that table, looking over the shots we’d done with Mondino and the things that were so easy to define, the things that mattered, the sound and the pictures and what we stood for.
JB The thing is, we were never really trained for anything. I never went to college to study jewelry or fashion. We were quite instinctive about what we wanted to do. And because I’m not classically trained in anything, I’m a bit shameless about the way I put it all together. No one ever told me how to do it. I think we have that in common.
NC Yes, I think we definitely do. JB I think it’s hilarious that now I’m working with this whole new generation of kids who grew up listening to us. I actually feel more creative now than I did as a teenager.
NC Completely. In a weird sort of way, I almost feel younger than I did when I was a teenager, but at the same time, I don’t really want to be eighteen again. I’m going to be forty-five this year. Over Christmas, I was saying, Fuck it, the working title for this new project is just going to be Grandma. I mean, shit, I’m not interested in jumping up and down and pretending I’m eighteen. I want to celebrate what I am. At least I can be a hot grandma. And Flynn, who’s my grandson, said, “Yeah, you can be a hot grandma who never melts.” [Laughs]
JB Can my credit be Old Queen?
NC Yeah, Old Queen and Grandma. Come on, let’s go! But you know, I’m really happy, and I’m really proud. I’ve had people say to me, “You mustn’t tell anyone that you’re a grandmother.” And I’m thinking, Fuck no, I’m going to tell everyone I’m a grandmother! It’s just going to make me look better! [Laughs] JB Well, I feel a bit like the ghost of British fashion at the moment. All the young ones are coming up, and they’re all referencing images that we made years ago. It’s kind of cute working with a whole new set of people again.
NC Well, it’s really important. And that’s kind of what we do when we’re making music. It’s like, Ok, I’ve had this ongoing thing with Cameron for a million years, but we’re always working with kids and sort of learning from them. It’s just the way you do it. I feel that what I have to offer is as relevant as what the kid who’s coming to play drums with us, who’s, like, nineteen, has. We’ve got a lot to say to each other. People ask me all the time, “What have you been doing all these years? Why haven’t you done something?” And I’m like, Well, actually, I’ve been doing lots of stuff. I suppose in our world a ten-year span just sort of flies by horribly fast. I feel like the Spice Girls changed the entire music industry. JB The whole process changed. It’s no longer based on talent, it’s based on formula. In fact, I’ll say it myself, the image has become more important than the music.
NC Well, I think it’s because of the celebrity-crazed era that we’re coming through and hopefully coming out of. No disrespect, but I really don’t give a shit whether Britney Spears is wearing knickers
or not or where she goes out at night. I don’t want to sound like a moany old queen, but I definitely felt like when Tricky and I had recorded all those tunes that I was really proud of, and I went into Virgin and played it to their people, there were no dollar signs flashing in their eyes and therefore there was no place for it. I got quite upset, and it probably knocked a bit of my confidence. It was a really cool body of work that kind of just went to waste. But the good thing right now is that there are lots of other ways to get new music out. The Internet is kind of amazing like that. JB People can communicate from all over the world.
NC Anyone can put their music out there, and that’s knocked the wind out of the record industry’s sails.
JB I think it’s going to make people want to go live more.
NC Yeah, definitely, because it’s getting pretty hard selling
records. It’s going to be about going out and playing, and that’s been the really great thing with CirKus. I mean, we just started out playing tiny little places, and it’s just grown. It’s really great in a very simple way, to be able to just stand up there and belt some tunes out. It’s healing for the soul, it’s good for the mind. It’s nice to ride on the bus. [Laughs]
NC We’re like nomads, definitely. Gypsies.