Neneh Cherry interview: ‘The music industry can be very toxic. It’s not for humans with heart and soul’

Neneh Cherry today - Rii Schroer
Neneh Cherry today - Rii Schroer

Neneh Cherry is having her picture taken. “Sometimes I think how did I get here? How can I be heading for 60?” the veteran pop star admits to me in the centre of a small hubbub of activity, as a make-up artist, photographer and various assistants mill about the crowded living room of a small but beautifully decorated terraced house in west London.

At 58, Cherry looks fantastic, dressed in a bold clash of colours and textures, staring deep into the camera as if she could see through to its soul. “The Western world is completely obsessed with a kind of alien manufactured version of youth and beauty. It makes me allergic, this sort of ageist, sexist s---. Am I going to come this far and not honour who I am, and embrace my broken eyes and my body heading south? I’m still me, I’m still here. It’s different but no less valid. D’you know what I mean?”

I do know what she means, still it is nice to hear her say the phrase in her very distinctive blend of American accented cockney with a touch of Swedish precision. Cherry has a complex background, the daughter of a Swedish artist and African musician, whose stepfather was the brilliant American free jazz trumpeter and composer Don Cherry. She lived in Sweden and America, before decamping to London in 1979 aged 15, where she became involved in the post-punk scene, briefly joining iconic female band the Slits and experimental jazz ensemble Rip Rig + Panic.

After four decades in music, Cherry still exudes the same qualities of bravura individual style and empathetic female power that helped catapult her to fame with her ground-breaking hip-hop pop crossover debut solo single Buffalo Stance in 1988. “I never sat down and thought, ‘Oh great, I’m going to rap and sing’,” she says, as the shoot ends and we relocate to a beautifully appointed modern kitchen, where she puts a kettle on and offers me tea. Even as the photo crew take their leave, the house remains busy with family members and friends coming and going. “It was really a collective thing, a mixed community of people expressing pride in where we came from.”

Cherry’s 1989 debut album Raw Like Sushi was a revelation, gleefully collaging influences in a way that presages contemporary pop’s disregard for genre and helped shape the 1990s British dance and trip hop scenes. Cherry is at pains to describe it as a group effort, involving her producer husband “and life collaborator” Cameron McVey, various stylists, photographers, filmmakers, trip hop pioneers Nellee Hooper and Tim Simenon and two future members of Massive Attack (whose revered 1991 debut album Blue Lines Cherry helped fund). But Cherry herself was front and centre as singer and songwriter.

Neneh Cherry in 1989 - Getty
Neneh Cherry in 1989 - Getty

A new album, The Versions, is out on Friday, featuring covers of some of Cherry’s most significant songs by contemporary female artists, including Swedish superstar Robyn, Aussie pop powerhouse Sia, UK neo-soul singer Greentea Peng and transgender artist Anohni performing soulful anthem Woman.

Robyn has surprisingly slowed down the exuberant Buffalo Stance. “Swedish pop music has something extra,” suggests Cherry, “because they’re very good at copying things and kind of making it better. But the tonality has an essence of melancholia. Old Swedish lullabies and folk songs are full of spiritually piercing sounds that will literally break your heart. It’s something that’s always resonated with me, that even if you’re doing music that’s very hard or poppy, just to lean towards more blue notes gives it some depth.”

Sia has delivered a dynamically modern update of Cherry’s Manchild, a touching appraisal of toxic masculinity which, Cherry notes, “may be more relevant now than it’s ever been, unfortunately. I was trying to sympathise with the weird aspects of male gesturing. Underneath, we’re all human, we’re all dealing with emotion, and a sad song makes you feel things you might not like to think about.”

One song, Sassy (from 1992’s Homebrew) is performed by Cherry’s daughter Tyson, the pronounced bump Cherry was carrying when she made her 1980s Top of the Pops debut. “Listening to that made me cry,” Cherry admits.

Neneh Cherry today - Rii Schroer
Neneh Cherry today - Rii Schroer

Versions is a female-led project by intent. “The world is still incredibly male-driven, but I think the currency is changing. There’s so many great women making amazing music and coming from a very strong place, and we change things as we go along. On the other side, there is still an absolute overkill in the currency of women’s sexuality, visually. It’s frightening, all botox and bikini-waxing, you’re just like, ‘Help me, Lord!’” Since the late 1990s, Cherry’s output has been sporadic and veered far from the mainstream. “I probably ended up following my path, rather than the path some people thought I should follow,” she says. Her role as the mother of three daughters has been central to her career choices. “The essence of family is in the middle: the home space, the grounding space. That always came first.”

She doesn’t think the music business is a particularly healthy environment. “The pressures are huge. It can be very toxic, very competitive, very cutthroat. People compromise their souls for success, and if you get it, you can lose yourself. It’s a kind of thin-ice place. It’s not for humans with heart and soul, do you know what I mean? And we’re all fragile.”

And yet all of Cherry’s children make music, and youngest daughter Mabel has gone on to major pop success at 26, with a Brit Award and a dozen top 20 singles. Indeed, it is Mabel’s house where the interview is taking place, Cherry and McVey living close by in a former council house (“we move in simple ways,” she says), dividing their time mainly between London and Stockholm.

“Obviously you want your kids to do the things that make them happy and fulfil them. I’m proud of them, and I honour what they are doing. But, of course, I have the fear of God in me sometimes. Because it’s hard. I think with my relationship with music, if you choose to be out in the periphery, you can keep going and growing. But right in the centre line, where Mabel is, it’s a f----- animal’s den, it’s always like a 100-metre dash. So I worry as a mother but I also feel you have to remember what your dreams are. The music industry is like heaven and hell, all in one place. If I was to give them any advice, it’s don’t change who you are for anyone. Own it as much as you can.”

‘The Versions’ is out on Friday (EMI)