“There are a lot of really, really great things about now. There's rebellion in the air.” The former part of this statement from Neneh Cherry might be surprising, given her latest album is called ‘Broken Politics’, tracing her anger with the current state of the world, from the plight of refugees to corruption and greed.
The latter, however, isn’t surprising. Raised between New York and her parents’ Swedish semi-commune in the 1970s, before dropping out of school at 14 and going on to live in West London’s punk squats, Neneh is a woman with rebellion in her bones.
“My parents and all the musicians I grew up around were definitely rebels. Music was very much a part of that,” she reflects. “I feel like I’m more and more aware of their impact on me. They were advocates of finding your own voice and your own creative journey. I’ve felt really awkward a lot of times in my life, and really weird, but I guess when I met people like Rip Rig + Panic, The Slits or Judy [Blame – close friend and punk designer, who helped create the iconic ‘Raw Like Sushi’ cover], I realised it’s okay to be weird.”
“At the same time as feeling awkward and slightly slanted,” she continues, “it’s also at times been incredibly strength-giving. Even when you’re just fucking dancing together – a total saving grace for me. I used to go out to literally just take my shoes off and dance…that freedom when you step out and away from the weirdness of being you.”
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On ‘Broken Politics’ we hear this “you”: Neneh’s clear, bold voice flanked by delicate, stripped back production from regular collaborator Kieran Hebden, AKA Four Tet. The gentle piano of trip-hop tinged ‘Kong’ - made with old friend, Massive Attack’s 3D – for example, belies the track’s dark message, inspired by the plight of refugees in the Calais camps, where Neneh volunteered.
‘Faster Than the Truth’ – with its with yawning reverb and soft snare rolls – explores female struggle and spirit, the low-slung vibes of ‘Shotgun Shack’ tackle gun violence, and the defiant chorus of ‘Fallen Leaves’ proclaims: “Just because I’m down / Don’t step all over me.” Fighting the good fight is true to Neneh’s form – in 1982, for example, she performed on protest song ‘Stop the War’, which railed against the Falklands War – but the contrast between an angry subject and a more subtle sound is new.
“I adore contradictions like that,” she says of the juxtaposition between her words and Hebden’s production. “It was a response and a reaction from us, to take the songs somewhere beautiful and gentle. It didn’t need to be full of aggression or anger.”
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It’s about carrying my heritage with me…
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Hebden “sonically digested” her ideas, she says, describing what sounds almost like a collage process. Neneh would send vocals for him to craft how he saw fit, sometimes just from her iPhone. It was surprisingly revelatory: “He gave the album a soundscape that I felt sounded like me…and I don’t know if I could have actually made that. It was like I was peeling.”
Recording was deeply personal too. Neneh, Hebden and her longtime partner and collaborator Cameron McVey decamped to Creative Music Studio, which was founded by jazz pianist Karl Berger, a band member of Neneh’s stepfather – legendary trumpeter, Don Cherry – in the 1960s, and a friend of her mother’s. “It was really connecting,” Neneh says. “All the music they made was in the space there, present in the airwaves. I felt a sense of security and clear, conscious connection.”
This wasn’t about looking to the past though: “It’s about carrying my heritage with me. My childhood, my parents, the world I grew up in, my dad’s music. Rather than looking back it’s bringing it to the forefront, to now, while looking ahead. Lineage and heritage is about carrying on. I felt that quite strongly while we were in the studio.”
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And while ‘Broken Politics’ is highly critical of the present, Neneh’s mindful not to fall into nostalgia for the past, which she calls “a trap”. Instead she uses anger to propel forward: “Politically complicated situations, they’ve usually fuelled interesting movements in music and art. That’s the revolt.”
Trump’s election, for example, inspired more women and people of colour to run for office (many winning) in the recent US midterms the day before we meet. “The fact that there are all these driven women in positions of power, that’s really important and hopeful,” she says. “You can’t hold the truth down anymore. We can’t have our heads in the sand; we’ve got to make changes.”
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I reconnected with a lot of myself and to my feeling of where I am in the world…
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For Neneh, taking her head out of the sand means making music. She talks about corporate and political greed (“all these fucking assholes”) as having zero empathy or regard for life; this is the broken politics her record addresses, not as an answer but as a coping mechanism. “I’m not going to sit here and say the songs are solutions to these problems – they’re not. They’re almost medicinal. Having to say something, even to myself, is therapeutic. Just taking the things out of sitting and eating away at your heart and soul.”
It sounds like this worked. “I’d been in quite a shitty numb place, quite spiritually detached from myself,” she says of the time before ‘Broken Politics’. “I was longing and yearning for writing. When I did, I reconnected with a lot of myself and to my feeling of where I am in the world. So it’s been, and still is, quite an important part of my life right now.”
Politics may be broken, but Neneh Cherry’s spirit holds strong.
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'Broken Politics' is out now.
Words: Emma Finamore
Photography: Dan Boulton
Fashion: Karlie Shelley
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