Neneh Cherry is full of lessons. From her late-’80s hit “Buffalo Stance” to her 2014 record Blank Project, the Swedish musician’s legendary, genre-bending career has cemented her status as an icon of a generation, and beyond. And yet, she says, “I’m a 54-year-old woman. Occasionally, I feel ancient. Mostly, I feel pretty unfinished. I’m still figuring out a lot of stuff.” When we speak on a recent August day, Neneh is in London, where she’s been prepping her Notting Hill home for the festivities of the city’s annual Carnival. “It’s like Christmas,” she says, describing their tradition: a scenario where “hundreds” of her friends, family and acquaintances gather for food, drinks, and a comfy, safe place to use the toilet after the parade shuts down.
It’s not difficult to imagine the communal energy at Neneh’s house. She speaks colorfully about the humanistic themes that anchor her forthcoming album, Broken Politics, weaving together images of global turmoil and displacement with tales of solidarity and belonging. It’s clear that community and collaboration are a foundation, not only in her life but also in her work. Her collaborators, the musicians Kieren Hebden, aka FourTet, and Massive Attack collaborator Cameron McVey (who’s also her husband), played key roles on the album. It’s a free-flowing and expansive collection of songs that finds Neneh singing and, at times, rapping over delicate harp and kalimba melodies, retrofuturistic synths, and pounding hand drums. Over the phone, Neneh shares what she’s learned over the years about humanity, synergy, and the importance of exchange — and what she’s still learning today about slowing down and finding stillness.
I really enjoyed listening to the album. Why did you call it Broken Politics?
There’s a great amount of disillusionment, but also I think global drama — a very real drama — and it’s very disturbing. People are having a rather serious wake-up call. ‘Mainstream’ politics are pretty broken. I don’t see that there’s a lot being done for the cause of humanity, for love, or for any good reasons. [On] one of the songs on the album where the lyric “broken politics” comes up, I was taking a sensory journey back into being 20 or 21 [and] being at a dance, being in a place where I’m listening to music together with other people, like in a shebeen or in a club or at a party, where you just can be in the dark and feel this immense togetherness. Where everything — just for a few minutes, maybe inside one song — makes sense and gives you the strength to go out and contain your anger a little bit better and focus it. Broken Politics I guess is a summary of how I feel too many things have been run around us. As much as anybody else, I don’t know what the answers are.
The song that you just referenced, “Synchronised Devotion,” I wanted to ask about specifically.
I grew up between New York and Sweden. Sometimes I go into a building and it smells of other places that I’ve been [or] lived in. You just have this kind of, Ah, yeah. Right. And you hear music. And you’re like, Oh yeah, someone’s frying chicken. There’s a reference in the song to hair grease, like Dax or Afro Sheen. I was just trying to make that journey through my own set of pictures. I had one of those trips today when I was just sitting and listening to Songs In The Key of Life by Stevie Wonder and I was literally crying in my breakfast.
I can really relate to that. Who worked on the album with you?
There’s two people who have played a huge part in the making of this record: Kieren Hebden, also known as FourTet, and Cameron McVey, who I also happen to be married to. We’ve been on this long-winded creative partnership journey. The album is definitely very much about a collective spirit. I feel very privileged to have a relationship with Cameron that’s been going on for nearly 30 years. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy all the time. The fact that we’re so close sometimes drives me nuts. But it makes it natural and the things that are tough about it make me work harder. Sometimes it takes me to place that I can’t go [to] in my own space. It helps me access stuff that I might battle with.
It’s an interesting thing, collaboration. I always need to also have time where I go inside, alone, to clear my head and be with my thoughts and get stuff out. We usually try to take each other to a space where we’re unguarded. Particularly when we were writing this album, we managed to get into a really quiet place where it was just the two of us. Normally there’s a few people in the studio. We had this really beautiful writing period just before going to record with Kieren.
When we got together with Kieren, we had 14 songs and we ended up recording 11 of those songs. In the same way that I’ve got this story with Cameron, which is obviously a long journey, with Kieren I feel very close to him. I really trust him and I think he has an understanding of who I am and where I’m going. I come with my pieces and he comes with his. He’s a natural intellectual and incredibly musical. So he thinks but he’s also very instinctual. The record very much sounds the way that it does because of his production. He was working on his own album at the time, so he also brought a sound with him that was a part of the sound that he was living in when he was making his own album.
“Before you go into work, the brain is always trying to trip up like, <i>You’re gonna be shit. What if nothing comes out? All the songs are going to be awful</i>.”
What you were thinking about sonically? This record sounds pretty different from Blank Project and your earlier work.
I’m a strong believer that one thing leads to another. I don’t think that Broken Politics would happen without Blank Project. I feel like sonically in this record is opening a new door, but it’s also quite complete because I feel like I have all my pieces with me. The second album that I made, Home Brew, was... I’d kind of reached a peaceful place when I was working on that record.
Maybe I can parallel it to this one a little bit. Before you go into work, the brain is always trying to trip up like, You’re gonna be shit. What if nothing comes out? All the songs are going to be awful. You have these internal battles and then you sit down and it’s this process of hopefully being exercised enough to both let go and apply yourself fully. We definitely talked about the fact that we wanted to make a record that was more reflective or soulful, in a way. Slower, you know?
There are some instruments on “Falling Leaves, “Deep Vein Thrombosis,” and “Slow Release” that sound like traditional instruments?
They are traditional instruments but they’re loops of traditional instruments. They’re kalimbas, harp... Another really important person on this record is Karl Berger, and he plays the vibraphone on “Synchronised Devotion.” He’s a really close friend of my family’s. We worked between here and his studio in Woodstock. That was kind of an amazing full circle. He played that same vibraphone with my dad 50 years ago. It’s deep. Parts of the record were made at his studio. It’s a beautiful place, and it’s part of the womb that I come from.
Even though I’m a freak and a very awkward person, and just like anyone else that just goes up and down, I still feel proud to be where I am and proud of the journey that I’ve made. I feel like Kieren was conscious [of] pulling in the heritage and the threads that are part of the journey. A song like “Deep Vein Thrombosis” reminds me of my house when I was a kid with the kalimba.
When you’ve lived a little while, you start to feel like, Oh yeah, the threads are less fragmented around me. I kind of hate nostalgia, but it’s important to be conscious. You can’t erase your history. I’m not interested in that. It’s like plastic surgery. Getting rid of the souvenirs of the story. Your wrinkles are what make you beautiful. I’ve had three kids, you know, I’ve got some stretch marks. They’re the souvenirs for my kids.
You interpolate The Last Poets’ “Blessed Are Those Who Struggle” — “Blessed are those who struggle/ Oppression is worse than the grave/ Better to die for a noble cause/ Than to live and die a slave” — on the “Poem Daddy” interlude. What were you thinking about when you chose to interpolate those lines?
It’s a mantra for me. I sung it with my kids. I grew up listening to The Last Poets with my family. Almost any gig I do, anytime I don’t know what to do or what to say, I’ve recited those words. I’ve just had them with me in my pocket for a long time. They’re such powerful words. When I’m on stage and I say them, the reaction from the audience is always a reaction. The words are so deep and direct. They resonate in such a particular way. I met with The Last Poets recently. I felt very starstruck and shy and in awe. They’re so strong and uncompromising. They’ve seen so much and are still more relevant than ever. I kind of hate the word “relevant,” but you know? What they carry and what they say just makes you so conscious of how little has changed, actually.
“I kind of hate nostalgia, but it’s important to be conscious. You can’t erase your history.”
What is the role, if any, that you see your music and particularly this album playing?
That’s a difficult thing to answer because I haven’t decided what role I think the album should play. I felt that the context of the record felt really important, to use the space that we’re using, sonically — the frequency of the record — to transcend a feeling of consciousness. The record is sort of digesting the world as it is right now, from our perspective. I’m always going to be reticent to say, “This record is really important.” I can’t think about things like that. It’s a body of work that I feel, and I think Kieren feels, and Cameron too, that we’re really proud of. We want people to hear it. For the first time in a while, I’m happy to listen to it.
The video [for “Kong”], Jenn Nkiru made and we talked a lot about the meaning of “Kong” and the era that we’re in. Since 2016, the human mass exodus, the displaced people of the world, migration, and all of that has really escalated. We wanted to make something that was both paying tribute to cultural diversity and recognizing the fact that we forget that people are moving away from lives and loves and places — not places they want to leave at all. The Big Daddy that is the Western world has always [planted] itself in the middle as the center of the world. Like, “Yay, come here. Everybody wants to be here. It’s the center of the world!” The Fat Man Western world has probably provoked most of the warzones and disasters on that level that are going on. [They’ve] been fed by some bad monies and men from over here, which we take no fucking responsibility for.
With this song, “Kong,” we also wanted to make something beautiful. There’s no doubt that we’re in a worldwide crisis, but we need beauty. We need sound and song and dance and art and love and laughter and Carnival and cooking food together and breaking bread and making toasts and making love. People will always continue to do this, somehow. Even in the most dire situations.
Your daughter Mabel is also a popular artist. I was curious if you were thinking about what this album could mean for younger artists, their audiences, or those who are just starting to get to know you through her?
I think the beauty of music is that it can be timeless, and it can be ageless. I feel really lucky because I have lots of friends that are in their 20s and 30s, and friends of my daughters and stuff that have been in touch, and that really like “Kong” — the single and the video. The sound and the dialogue and the topic of what I think this record is about, I think that people of all sorts of ages should be able to grasp it. I don’t know if I’m good at answering questions like this. The cool thing with the internet is that anybody and everybody can access stuff. I hope that what I’m doing is in a place where people of all ages can have a look. If you like it and you can take something from it, then that makes me really happy.
Yeah, like it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
I’m not interested in telling people what to do and think. I’m not interested in being like, “Yo, this is me. I want you to think I’m really cool.” I’m here. I’m not going to change that much, right now. I’ve always been compelled to do what I do, and to try and do that to the best that I can. I guess that’s uncompromising. A lot of us, regardless of age and sex, are fighting the same battles. So, I’ve always been interested — sonically and in the spirit of what the words and the songs are transcending — to keep it borderless. I’m appalled by ageism and sexism and racism. With the people that I work with, I think we’re always trying to just roll over all of those things to bring out new ideas and feelings. Or, share ideas and feelings with other people.
You said in a previous interview that “every event in your life is like stringing beads onto a necklace which takes you onto the next bead and the next until you find yourself in a remarkable place!” When is the last time you found yourself in a remarkable place in your life?
I had quite a remarkable experience sitting on my steps of the house that I grew up in about a year ago on a summer’s evening. I’d just arrived. I felt a very strong sense of both of my parents being around me. I felt very privileged and I felt very much that they had my back. I felt really in tune with an understanding of what they were trying to give me and my brother, Eagle-Eye, when they raised us. I was like, “I get it. Thank you.” They really made a pretty amazing world. It wasn’t that it was perfect, of course, because life has a funny way of being life, but I so understood what they’re intentions were. We were allowed to grow up and be part of a creative environment that I can really feel, in a different way, how beautiful that is now.