Recording artist Neneh Cherry represents a fascinating enigma in the annals of pop. Just as her music can’t be pinned to any particular genre, her cultural identity is equally diffuse, with the singer-songwriter having lived and worked everywhere from her native Sweden — where she trades time between a converted rural schoolhouse and Stockholm, where she’s now based — to London and New York.
Despite achieving instant fame with the release of her debut album, 1989’s “Raw Like Sushi,” with its hit single and MTV staple “Buffalo Stance” endearing her to a rapt American audience, she has never toured the States as a solo artist. And at the height of her influence — achieved with her third album “Man,” featuring the single “7 Seconds,” a collaboration with Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour — she seemingly disappeared into the ether, at least to her followers on this side of the Atlantic.
Now, 17 years later, Cherry is about to release her follow-up solo effort, “Blank Project,” via indie label Smalltown Supersound on Feb. 25. In a career that continues to defy expectations, this is her most stripped-down statement yet, recorded with duo RocketNumberNine, brothers Thomas and Benjamin Page, and produced by U.K. electronica maestro Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet.
Opening track “Across the Water” establishes the album’s mostly percussive/synth foundation, with Cherry’s vocals alternating, as they always have, between singing, spoken word and unadulterated rap. The title tune, with its throbbing bass line and Tom Page’s propulsive, snare-heavy drums, signals the album’s world-weary yet reinvogorated ethos, with its push-me/pull-you take on relationships. “Leave me alone but don’t leave me lonely,” goes one verse, revisiting the complicated themes of romance and marriage that lay at the heart of her 1992 masterpiece, “Homebrew.”
“It’s about blue and black and red and love and hate, maybe the things in life that we like to think we can control but we can’t,” Cherry tells Variety about the record’s overarching themes. “Friends and neighbors who know me feel that it’s a very personal record. I don’t think I went out of my way to spill my guts. But I was coming out of a pretty profound place, because my mother had died, and I was trying to figure out how to laugh and cry again, and how to hold the black side of life in balance with the light.”
She describes the concept and sound as “pretty raw, and I think that’s the beauty of it. I don’t necessarily think that it’s to everyone’s palate or that everyone’s going to get it or that it’s going to make everybody happy, but hopefully it’ll make some people happy.”
As for the long gap between solo projects, the oft-summoned John Lennon lyric, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” could be just as easily applied here.
“I’ve been making music since I was 16, so when ‘Raw Like Sushi’ came out I had been going on 10 years,” she says as a way of explaining that a break in the action was inevitable. Also, during the course of her three solo LPs, she gave birth to three daughters.
After “Man,” she took a much-needed break and then went back in the studio and recorded an album’s worth of material. “It was a bit like a flat body of work at the end of the day,” she says. “But I needed to do it.”
This never-released music was just one of several creative endeavors that kept Cherry busy, including Cirkus, a band her Brit husband and longtime collaborator, producer Cameron McVey (aka Booga Bear), formed that included their daughter Tyson and which released two albums in France between 2006 and 2009; and experimental group the Thing, inspired by the free jazz of her late stepfather, Don Cherry, one of Ornette Coleman’s key collaborators. The resulting LP, “The Cherry Thing,” was released by Smalltown Supersound in 2012.
One could view the avant garde nature of “Blank Project” as a return to Cherry’s roots, beginning with her association with Brit punk band the Slits and continuing with Rip Rig + Panic, an early ’80s post-punk/free jazz hybrid named after a 1965 album by reed master Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
“A lot of the stuff that I was doing around the beginning of the ’80s, energy-wise, is really similar to what I’m doing now,” says Cherry. “I’ve come to understand that I really thrive in a musical environment that is a little more rough around the edges.”
Cherry’s pedigree couldn’t be more stimulating. Step dad Don, who died in 1995, was a kind of poster boy for modern music’s outer limits; her Swedish mother, Moki, earned her rep as a painter and textile artist. Her passing in 2009 left Neneh in a state of emotional and musical paralysis.
Growing up around artistic luminaries and alternating between homes in Switzerland and New York, Cherry has led a nomadic existence (the production company she and her husband launched is called, appropriately enough, Nomad). And the artistic collective that she and McVey formed in the ’80s, the Cherry Bear Organization, nurtured such trendsetters as Massive Attack and Portishead.
This kind of groupthink was just the creative balm she needed after what she calls the “ ‘Raw Like Sushi’ twister.” “After promoting ‘Raw Like Sushi’ I was really tired of myself,” she says. “So the best medicine was having Massive Attack around and the sounds that they were making. And it was a huge influence on the record I made after, ‘Home Brew.’
“All of the records that I’ve made were always collective efforts. The music and the style is because of the chemistry and the right people being there at the right time.”
Of “Blank Project,” she describes the Page brothers as having “a brotherly, almost telepathic communication. It’s kind of Neanderthal and magical and I love being in the middle of it.”
With Tom’s drums and electronic triggers and Ben’s wall of sequencers and synthesizers revealing plenty of blank canvas in the sonic mix, the aim was to keep things simple; or, as Cherry describes it, under-produced rather the over-produced.
The whole album was recorded live in five days at Dreamland Recording Studios just outside Woodstock, N.Y., with little to no overdubs.
Cherry says the music captures “the sound we were all making when we were there right then in the moment.”
She likens RocketNumberNine and Four Tet’s contributions to “good medicine; it injected the material with the life force, energy and purity that it needed.”
Cherry claims that she’ll tour in support of the album early this year, and will even make it out to the West Coast, where she travelled with the Slits all those years ago. But she’s never been one to crave the spotlight. “I don’t think I’m so motivated by success, by that I don’t mean I don’t like success (laughs) because I’d be lying,” she says. “Obviously it’s great when you put your blood and your energy into something and people appreciate it. But I don’t think that’s why I do it.”
› Raw Like Sushi (Circa/Virgin)
Cherry’s break-out solo debut, making her an instant MTV sensation with the hit “Buffalo Stance” and establishing a strong creative bond with producer/partner/husband Cameron McVey, aka Booga Bear; also featured Top 10 hit “Kisses on the Wind.”
› Homebrew (Circa/Virgin)
Moving away from her sexy diva image, Cherry deals with adult relationships, young motherhood and the ghetto in this tour de force, with contributions from Jonny Dollar, Gangstarr and Michael Stipe, and a cover photo by Jean Baptiste Mondino.
› Man (Circa/Virgin)
McVey and Dollar reteam on Cherry’s radical break away from the mainstream, with her Grammy-nominated “7 Seconds” single teaming her with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and underscoring Cherry’s pan-continental sensibility. Her cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” is a standout.
› Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)
Cherry goes deep indie, and unapologetically embraces her avant-garde roots, delivering her most spare and raw album to date after a long but not unfruitful absence as a solo artist. Recorded with RocketNumberNine and produced by Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet.