M meets: Neneh Cherry

Pioneering pop punk hip-hopper Neneh Cherry has got together with Nordic free jazz trio The Thing, to release a collaborative album  called The Cherry Thing.

Neneh’s musical approach was undoubtedly forged by growing up on the road with her Swedish artist mother Moki and her step-father, jazz trumpet great Don Cherry.

After becoming a member of punk band The Slits, Neneh became the voice of Rip, Rig and Panic before exploding into the pop charts as a solo artist with Buffalo Stance, Manchild and Inna City Mamma. More international hits followed, including Woman and 7 Seconds with Youssou N’Dour. Collaborations with Tricky, Gorillaz and her own collective, cirKus, followed.

The Cherry Thing are:
Neneh Cherry – voice
Mats Gustafsson  – saxophones
Ingebrigt Håker Flaten – double bass, electric bass
Paal Nilssen-Love – drums

M spoke to Neneh to find out more about her work with The Thing.

What drew you to the collaboration with The Thing and how did you kick the project off?
My old friend Conny Linström( the World’s biggest Don Cherry fan), my husband Cameron(aka Booga Bear) and I started a left field production house & label called Holy Madness & Conny took Cameron to see a The Thing show and they both came away bubbling with the idea for me to sing with them. A year later we had an album.

Where did you work – did that influence the song choices or the way you worked?
We did the first three tracks in Harder Sound studios in London with our German engineer Robert Harder (who Cameron works with a lot) and that was a blast: Three tunes, three first takes, no rehearsal. Cameron and Conny were very strict about only allowing one take per tune and no practice! Then about a year later (The Thing have very full diaries!) we went into the legendary Stockholm studio called Atlantis and cut another nine tracks in the same fashion as the first three and then we chose eight to be on the album.

The original influence for me on the choice of songs was 1: the connection to all of us working on the record (there had to be a connecting thread), and 2: It was vital for me that I felt that I could give something of myself to whichever songs we chose. I’m not one of those singers who can sit easily on any song. I have to feel it or I’m sunk.

As for the way of working: Mr Bear takes no prisoners. No-one is allowed to slip into their usual ‘safe’ patterns or working practices. His game is to constantly pull the rug out from under folks and have them on the back foot while yet somehow making them feel totally secure and excited with the musical possibilities that therefore open up. It’s full on and by the end of each day one is exhausted but it’s a fantastic process.

How did you all work together, did you arrive at the songs by jamming them out or would one of you bring a tune to the session and say ‘let’s do this’?
‘Let’s do this”. That is Cameron’s favourite phrase in the World.No doubt!

It seems there has always been a jazz element to your music but what inspired you to put that aspect of yourself centre-stage with this collaboration?
It’s in my blood. Jazz is what i grew up with and I’m on a bit of a journey combing through my musical past meets my musical future so it felt like jazz held a major key to where I should go next.

How do you tend to work as a songwriter and what inspires you to write?
I sit on my bed and sweat blood. It’s a deep yet beautiful process. It’s my therapy. I am inspired by everything that I see or read about good or bad and I try to feel the subject rather than intellectualise it. I don’t always finish a song in one hit. I might ‘pick’ at it for ages ’til I feel I’ve cracked it. I try to get Cameron to help me put things in order but more and more he’s telling me that I should get as much out from within myself before he steps up. He right of course but it’s tough sometimes.

Have you directly taken an ideal or way of working from any of the musicians in your family, if so what is it?
Well my dad definitely shaped my musical approach but God knows how I could put just how into words. He was free and light yet deadly serious. His huge and diverse record collection was with us 24/7 when I was a child and is still with us now.

How did you approach the cover versions on the Cherry Thing album, is interpreting other artist’s songs easy for you or can it be a struggle?
We just exploded into each tune with a little discussion, some mic and instrument choices conversations and a lot of blind faith.

What would you say are the three most important elements of a great song?
In the words of Mats Gustafsson: ‘All love and fire’.

You can trace the links between jazz, punk and hip-hop through your career – what attracted you to those genres?
I grew up on jazz, became a punk while listening to hip-hop: A fatal attraction.

What’s your approach to performing The Cherry Thing material live, will it be improvisational or fairly faithful to the recordings?
No way! We don’t rehearse! It’s free jazz baby!!!! Totally f**king freeeeeee!!!!…

The album The Cherry Thing will be released on 18 June through Smalltown Supersound.