Neneh Cherry lives her life like it’s on shuffle. As a child, she hopped between Sweden, New York and London with her family—her stepfather is jazz legend Don Cherry—before making her musical debut at the tender age of 16 as a backup singer with fiery punk pioneers The Slits. In the ’80s she moved on to post-punk with her group Rip Rig and Panic, and by decade’s end she was topping charts with her solo hip-hop record, Raw Like Sushi, which spawned the mega-hit “Buffalo Stance” with its timeless credo: Looking good’s a state of mind. Dalliances with trip-hop and electronica carried her through the ’90s and now, entering the fourth decade of her career, it’s almost impossible to think of a genre Cherry hasn’t explored and twisted into her own distinctive shape. Free jazz, you say? She’s got that covered, too.
Cherry’s latest effort, The Cherry Thing, is an album of covers she recorded with the Scandinavian avant-garde jazz trio The Thing, who also know a little something about genre-hopping, having worked with artists like Thurston Moore and Four Tet. “They have such force and definition when they play, and as soon as we kicked off, it was just one of those great collisions,” Cherry says, via Skype from a friend’s studio in London, where she’s now working on her next album. “It was like a good car crash.”
The tracks on The Cherry Thing are characteristically genre agnostic, though Cherry says, “It’s quite punk rock, the place where it’s coming from.” There’s a raw, thumping take on The Stooges’ “Dirt” (“I had to fight a bit to get that one on the record,” she laughs, “But I won!”) and a wildly cool arrangement of MF Doom’s “Accordian,” over which Cherry wails the line, Got more lyrics than a church got oh lords! with the exuberant charisma of a street prophetess. The most personal moment on the record, though, is the group’s performance of Don Cherry’s composition “Golden Heart.” “I felt very honored how [The Thing] would always say they were inspired by my dad’s music,” she says. “That was a very deep thing for me. [Working with them] felt like an important part of a full circle I needed to make in my life and my music.”
And that circle keeps turning: later this year, Cherry will release her first solo album in over 15 years—a project she says she wouldn’t have tackled had recording The Cherry Thing not reminded her how revitalizing studio time can be. “It’s all go now,” she says. “Handbrake off.” Just don’t ask her where it’ll be shelved at the record store. “I don’t really think about music in terms of style. Hip-hop, be-bop, punk rock—to me it’s all coming from the same place.”
Stream: Neneh Cherry and The Thing, The Cherry Thing