"They all have a fearless energy...”

I’ve never been so prepared for an interview.

Aside from the meticulous research (an idiot-proof trot through a press release, various Wikipedia pages and a smattering of YouTube clips), I’ve got my best jacket on (smart, but not overly officious) and have applied noticeably more hair product than usual (hiding any hint of a receding hairline). I’ve even partaken in a dab of aftershave. I’ve run through a mental list of how not to act like a fan-boy – no cooing, no flirting, no teenage giggling and absolutely no asking for autographs or photographs (I fail on that last one). I’m counting down the minutes until I’ll be meeting Neneh bloody Cherry.

That’s Neneh Cherry. The very same Neneh Cherry who, after her post-punk years in The Slits and Rip, Rig And Panic, invented the very notion of ‘girl power’ on her 1989 solo album ‘Raw Like Sushi’. It’s the Neneh Cherry who gave us classic singles such as ‘Buffalo Stance’ and ‘Manchild’ and a stunning version of Cole Porter’s ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, which raised AIDS awareness in 1990. This is the woman who sang ‘7 Seconds’ with Youssou N’Dour, a track that went to Numero Uno in more countries than Clash can name, before bankrolling Massive Attack on their seminal ‘Blue Lines’ album.

Today, however, she’s sat across a desk from me discussing the extraordinary album from her new collaboration. And I mean extraordinary. ‘The Cherry Thing’ is unlike anything else I will hear in 2012. Neneh has teamed up with a Swedish free-jazz trio – The Thing – to record a set of searing cover versions by artists as eclectic as Martina Topley Bird, The Stooges, Suicide and MF Doom. Each track is a mind-blowing barrage of caustic saxophone, gut-churning double-bass and Cherry’s sweet vocal. ‘The Cherry Thing’ is utterly startling.

But this project is more than just a glorious meeting of minds. The Thing are named after a song by Don Cherry, the legendary jazz trumpeter who died in 1995. And Don was Neneh’s stepfather. The album contains a version of Don’s ‘Golden Heart’ and a track by his long-time collaborator Ornette Coleman. ‘The Cherry Thing’ is, in part, a return to the soundtrack of Neneh Cherry’s childhood. “I wanted to go full circle,” she tells me. “It felt really important. I couldn’t even listen to Don’s music for a long time after he died without my heart breaking. It’s the sound of my life story, my puzzle. So, when I would hear my Dad’s music, it would have the affect of a lullaby – something that you’ve grown up with. I always want to almost wrap myself up and lie down. In some way, I think it would have been strange to have done all this and not played a Don piece.”

In the flesh, Neneh is doing nothing to reduce my simmering adoration. Cherry is warm, affable and refreshingly down-to-earth. “I find doing interviews quite interesting,” she says and I note the use of the word ‘quite’. Born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and Sierra Leonean father, she is 48 years-young but looks more like 35 (don’t worry, I resist the temptation to tell her this). When I remind her of the famous ‘Top Of The Pops’ performance of ‘Buffalo Stance’ – in which she danced around while seven months pregnant with her daughter Tyson – she laughs and tells me she, in truth, “overdid it” and spent the next day crawling around the floor.
However, as much as I’d like to reminisce, Neneh has an album to promote. I ask her how she met The Thing. “I was given a CD by them in about the year 2000 by my friend [jazz club owner] Conny Lindström,” she reveals. “I remember listening to the music and being blown away. Then, they played in Stockholm a couple of times after I went back to live there, and [husband and record producer] Cameron [McVey] went to see them. He came back and said ‘there is something about these guys; you should do something with them somehow, sometime, somewhere’. So, ten years later, it was time to gather up the pieces and do the thing with The Thing.”

Neneh Cherry & The Thing - Accordion

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These days, it takes something pretty special to entice Neneh Cherry back into limelight. She actively withdrew from her solo career in the mid-Nineties and has since chosen her collaborative forays with great care. She featured on ‘Demon Day’s by Gorillaz in 2005 and has also popped up on albums by Pulp, Peter Gabriel and Groove Armada. But even with that bulging CV, nothing prepared Cherry for working with The Thing. “I was really scared and nervous,” she admits recalling the first time she sang with the Swedish jazz freaks. “It was the silence before the noise; those seconds when we were counting down. We chose to do Martina [Topley Bird]’s song ‘Too Tough To Die’ first, I think because there was something quite about it that was quite familiar but quite forceful. As we were counting down, I could feel my heart pounding in my body.”

The Thing’s style of jazz is a dark mix of intense improvisation. Much of ‘The Cherry Thing’ is wild and brutally energised. I’m intrigued at how Neneh approached that very first session. “Well, I had been listening to Martina’s tune and practising. I had an idea what I was doing, because I don’t think I was ready - due to being nervous - to really improvise. But, I plunged in and took a dive. I just rode with them – it felt like they carried me through. I thought that the first take was an okay start and they said ‘that’s it, let’s do another song’. Once we started I was carried away by it. The next piece we did was Nico’s ‘Wrap Up Your Troubles In Dreams’ and that was just me and Paal [Nilssen-Love] the drummer starting together and that was more improvised. The last piece we did was MF Doom’s ‘Accordion’ and that was just a total freestyle. I knew then, that this was meant to be.”

‘The Cherry Thing’ also includes a couple of original songs, the best being Neneh’s glorious ‘Cash Back’ (“I had that song already, it was one of the first things I had written in my ‘loneliness’, when I was feeling like I really needed to write and work,” she reveals), while a version of Suicide’s proto-punk anthem ‘Dream Baby Dream’ is utterly jaw-dropping. There is a sense that the jazz histrionics and Neneh’s punk roots share a sonic lineage. “The point of execution is close,” Neneh says. “I can say that about hip-hop as well. They all have a fearless energy.”

It looks like 2012 will be a bumper year for Neneh Cherry fans. There is talk of a ‘conventional’ solo album in the pipeline, her first since 1996’s ‘Man’. Understandably, she is a little coy about the details of her new work, but tells me just enough. “Sound wise, it is not a repetition of what I have done before, but obviously it is more beats-orientated and more electronic,” she reveals. “I have tried to go a little more uptempo than usual. I have quite a lot of songs now and I am going to be farming them out to a few different people to finish off the album. I’m enjoying it, but I don’t want to call it anything. We’ll see what it becomes.”

Back in 1989, Neneh’s urban-pop anthem ‘Buffalo Stance’ became a statement of defiance in the face of misogynism. Fast forward 23 years, and she is equally forthcoming on the subject of the current crop of female artists. “Where we are right now, in 2012 we are coming out of a slightly turgid, over-sexualised era for women,” she tells me with a sadness in her voice. “There needs to be more female producers, more programmers and more bands with women playing instruments in them. Someone like Santigold is great and the other woman I really love at the moment is Azealia Banks – she’s cool. I also like the fact that there is a place for timeless music like Patti Smith and PJ Harvey - women who are an inspiration to all of us and still so vital.”

As her publicist gives me the dreaded two-minute warning to signify my time with Neneh is coming to an end, the fan-boy within seizes his moment. I ask Neneh why it is that virtually everyone in the history of mankind loves ‘Buffalo Stance’. She laughs – I guess she’s been asked this before. “To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell you. It’s just one of those songs that made itself. I have to credit Tim Simonen. It was originally on the flipside of a single by Morgan-McVey called ‘Looking Good Diving’ and that original version, which was called ‘Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch’, was with DJ Mil’o from Massive Attack. Tim found it and wanted to recut it, so we just did it without to much thought. It was just right time, right place and it captured an energy that was in that era and defined something that was going on.”

And there you have it, 30 years into her career Neneh Cherry is still capturing energy and continues to make truly astounding records. I get my picture with her and slope back to the tube station, tripped out on a lifetime of fan-boy adoration.

Words by John Freeman

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'The Cherry Thing' is out now.

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