At home with Neneh Cherry
October 1992: Three years after her debut album, Neneh Cherry is back in the pop arena. But first she invited us to her retreat in rural Sweden to talk about life, love, family – and home.
As the ’80s turned to the ’90s, there was no better (adoptive) British pop star than Neneh Cherry.
In December 1988 she’d famously performed her song Buffalo Stance on Top of the Pops while heavily pregnant with daughter Tyson. Her debut album, Raw Like Sushi, went on to sell more than two-and-a-half million copies worldwide, turning Cherry from what she described as “your basic ragga-street-Afro-Swedish chick” into, according to ace FACE writer Ekow Eshun, “a pan-global pop star”.
In summer 1992 Eshun travelled to the Cherry family homestead in the middle of nowhere in Sweden. There, Cherry and her producer husband Cameron McVey had been hard at work on the follow-up album, while also juggling a happy domestic situation involving multiple children, relatives and chickens. Famed photographer Jean Baptiste Mondino was also on hand to capture Cherry at work, rest and play, just before the almighty international promotional machine cranked into life again.
This was an intimate portrayal of a Black (adoptive) British trailblazer, readying to take on the world once more.
These days, some readers might know Cherry better as the mum of Tyson’s younger sister, Brit Award-winning singer Mabel. But back in ’92, THE FACE was privileged to join Neneh as she prepared to unveil an album she described as being “about how we are as people and the way we’ve decided to live our lives”. It was also about killer tunes like Money Love, Buddy X and Trout.
As Eshun revealed in his fantastic profile, Cherry had also decided on the album title Homebrew, ditching her earlier preferred working title. Would Feminist Slag have endured so well? We’re not sure.
Natural obstacles litter the 150-mile road from the southern Swedish port of Helsingborg to Neneh Cherry’s house in the tiny hamlet of Hässleholm. Even before the drive, there’s the short-hop plane ride from London to Copenhagen and a choppy ferry crossing. Then one, two hours hard travelling – avoiding languorous Nordic motorists lulled into somnambulance by the gentle, cradling motion of their Volvos, and the squalls that hover over stretches of road, waiting to burst heavy clouds of rain on passing travellers – and then the moose.
As the journey draws on, the signs start to appear: “Warning Moose Crossing!” Surely they can’t be serious? But, some 12 hours later, Neneh’s husband, Cameron McVey, leans into the car to say goodbye and cautions: “Watch out, ’cause we do get elk round here.”
All of this is a far cry from the usual routine of the celebrity interview. Typically, there’s a flight to New York, LA or some exclusive Bahamian retreat. Or, an increasingly popular option, for that carefully-studied-careless-informality, the tête-à-tête in some downtown coffee bar. In the land where the moose roam free, few such codes of practice apply.
Here, on the outskirts of Hässleholm, the quintessential small-town-where-nothing happens, is the house where Neneh Cherry spent at least some of her roving, migrant childhood – her home, for want of a better word. She’s returned this spring, to spend the summer with her husband, children, close friends and assorted family members including her Swedish mother, Moki, “because you gotta have the nerve to throw things around a bit, to decentralise and get some fresh air – and God knows there’s enough of that around here”.
During their stay Neneh, Cameron and production partner Johnny Dollar have finished cooking up Homebrew, the follow-up to her number-crunching debut, Raw Like Sushi, which sold two-and-a-half million copies worldwide and turned Neneh from “your basic ragga-street-Afro-Swedish chick”, into a pan-global pop star.
Since then, cameras have captured her in a variety of moods, phases, faces.
Flash! Singing Buffalo Stance on television, eight months pregnant with baby Tyson, yet full of attitude and undimmed radiance. Flash! Years earlier, scowling from the cover of I Am Cold, an album by west London beat-boho-jazz-punk tribe Rip Rig And Panic. Flash! A sexy, forceful, beautiful presence, who crossed couture with clubwear, and commanded high-fashion magazine photo spreads. Flash! The Eighties career woman who had it all: looks, glamour, fast-track, moneyed lifestyle, husband, children.
But now, as the car curves to a halt in front of the house, anticipation builds. Three years on, what to make of the original inner city mama, out here in the sticks? Or, to paraphrase her own, mock Cockney yell on Buffalo Stance, Neneh Cherry: “What is sheee liiiike?”
From somewhere out of sight a cockerel crows. Old bicycles and a long-disused pram are scattered across the muddy front yard. Around the back, there’s a child-size swing, customised from a car tyre; a garage, inside which a vintage, first-edition Mini Cooper gently turns to rust; and – for want of an indoor toilet – a wooden outhouse.
Rising from this homely disorder is “the Cherry House” – according to the directions supplied, “a big, old, red hippie building”. Light projects from its large, wood-frame windows, offering a selective view of the rooms inside: big, busy, open-plan spaces, filled with primary-coloured art pieces, children’s paintings tacked to the walls; sculptures, nick-nacks, anything, everything.
“Hi, how ya doin’?” Then there’s Neneh herself. Flip-flopping off the porch in battered Air Jordans, wearing voluminously baggy, clown-size trousers, a white body, and over that a faded green Adidas track top Her hair is knotted into careless plaits, she’s got no make-up on, and she looks great Yet, hardly like a pop star. Not, at least, of the sort who’ve emerged in the time since Raw Like Sushi: singers like Lisa Stansfield, Betty Boo, Cathy Dennis, Kylie and Dannii – all of whom are peddling an ersatz glamour drawn from adolescent fantasies of sophistication, untouchable otherness, phoney celebrity.
“A lot of misery comes from being pressured by the label of ‘pop star’. It doesn’t have to mean you run around with your collar up and a coat over your head. So I’ve never based myself on any of that, because it’s really just a myth,” says Neneh. Scrawled on a wall behind her are various titles from the Homebrew album: Twisted, Buddy X, Trout.
Until the record’s recent completion, the room served as a home recording studio for Neneh, Cameron and Dollar. Now it’s reverted to its original purpose – a dining room, dominated by a long, dark wood table, at which Neneh is sitting, absent-mindedly twisting a plait. “Pop,” she continues, “is just about making something that comes across in a simple way. Which is what I do with my records.”
Still, although Buffalo Stance, Manchild et al remain startlingly effective examples of that form – near-perfect equations of sweet melody, catchy hook and insistent beat – her success is based just as much on personality, her own star quality. A crucial factor, after all, in a business where the bland die young.
Unknown outside the London club scene before Buffalo Stance, Neneh engaged the interest, fascination and finally affection of an enormous, crossover audience. Men thought she was sexy. So did women – but more, they admired her: for being pregnant with Tyson while her first record climbed the charts; for cradling her two-month infant through Manchild; then for celebrating all of that on Inner City Mamma, a song dedicated to the strength of working mothers.
It was a stance which set Neneh apart with a rare stamp of honesty and courage in an industry dominated by artifice.
“Having the bump out the front was so obviously the right thing at the right time. It meant I wouldn’t be perceived as another girl singer – and I could set the look and feel and energy of what I was about.”
For a while, the working title of Homebrew was Feminist Slag, to signify that feminism needn’t come at the cost of “being able to let your sexuality really express itself”. But, really, there was no need for such an obvious device. Neneh Cherry, circa ’89, had already been there, done that.
When she was 15, Neneh says, she knew she wanted kids, and “it was going to be a good thing for me to have them young”. Her decision was made on “kinda like a mass exodus trip” from New York with her natural father, Ahmadu Jah (a Sierra Leonean percussionist who lives in Stockholm), and his family, to West Africa.
The experience was a defining period in her life, one which “really gave me a lotta confidence, and helped me come to terms with my womanhood”. Landing in Nigeria, en route to Sierra Leone and struck, initially, by the intense heat and strange, overpowering odours, Neneh felt frightened and alienated.
“It was like a world I’d never been in, that was looking at me as being different – but also part of. First night we got there, we hitched a ride with these Lagos ragga kids in a VW bus. This guy sitting behind me started playing with my hair and touching me up. Normally in New York, I woulda told the muthafucka to get off my tip, y’know? But there, something about it was unnerving, yet fascinating. I couldn’t believe it was happening. That night I cried so much – I never felt so far away from anything I knew and I’d never missed my mother so much in my life. I cried and cried and I memorised my passport number, ’cause I thought, if I lose everything, at least I’ll still be able to get home.
“Then as the weeks went by, I got filled with this sense of pride. The guys would chat me up, y’know, like: [imitating an African accent] ‘I want you to be my wife’, and I found it all really flattering. It was the first time in my life I wanted to carry myself as a woman, not like a weird, kinda little ragamuffin girl.”
A candle flickers on the table in front of Neneh. Storm clouds scud past the windows, and, by turns, the room is washed in clear, bright light then pitched into shade as steel grey cumulus obscure the sun. When gloom descends, the candle’s flame sets into relief Neneh’s African features – her strong, expressive mouth and dark, oval eyes.
“In Africa,” she continues, “it was the first time I was confronted by these women that were fearless with each other. They do a lot of the day-to-day running of society, and they’re rough. Women would be coming up to me, putting their hands on my tits and going: ‘Oh, you’re big enough to have babies now.’ I saw women dealing with having kids and working at the same time, and the kids were happy because of the closeness with their mother. They’d got babies on their back, and they’d be swinging them up over their hips. It was all so provocative and sexy and proud that I just felt: ‘God. I wanna feel like that about myself!’”
She breaks off. “Wanna see something cute?” Tyson is in the kitchen, cradling an apparently tame, softly clucking rooster to her chest. “It’s my mother’s pet,” she grins. “A neighbour gave us two, but one was really noisy and feisty, so it had to pass away. We broke its neck and ate it, but everyone was really upset for days, especially my mother.”
Last seen as a baby in the Manchild video, Tyson, now three, is Neneh’s daughter by Cameron McVey. By vulgar, racial accounting, she is primarily white and “one quarter” black, and neither her cherubic, pink cheeks or pouty lips suggest much of her mother’s African ethnicity.
“There was definitely a point in my life where I wanted black kids,” says Neneh. “And then, when it didn’t turn out like that, I was like: ‘What the heck?’ If you love someone and wanna be with them, that’s got to come first.”
In New York, Lumumba Carson of black nationalist rap group X‑Clan criticised her for “contributing to the extinction of the black race”. “I had to tell him where I was coming from and what I was about,” she frowns, upper lip curling in disdain.
Naima, Tyson’s nine-year-old sister, is Neneh’s child from a previous relationship with Bruce Smith of Rip Rig And Panic. She met members of the group – graduates of west London’s enduring boho culture – when she accompanied her step father, jazz musician Don Cherry, on a UK tour. Having dropped out of school in Sweden and returned from Africa to do little but hang out in New York, she leapt at their invitation to move to London and join the group in 1980. Two years later, at 18, she found herself pregnant by Smith.
“I kinda knew it was gonna happen sooner or later, and I really wanted that sense of responsibility, the discipline of it. After Africa I felt I could deal with it. Now,” reflects Neneh, “Naima and I are really like partners – she trusted me to give her strength and security, and I gained a life in my life. That’s been a complete life-saver a lot of the time. Having her gave me strength. I don’t mean that in a ‘strong woman’ sense, but a drive, an immense determination to carry on with my work.”
The child herself of a fractured relationship, Neneh was raised by her mother and stepfather Cherry, whom Moki (now an artist who works for most of the year in New York) met soon after Neneh was born. Like many other jazz musicians in the Sixties, Cherry was drawn to Sweden by the country’s mix of liberal legislation and open-minded society. Their marriage, however, became the impulse for a network of fiendishly tangled family relations.
Neneh grew up with her brother Eagle-Eye – currently a struggling actor in New York – and shared father Ahmadu Jah with a half-brother and half-sister, Cherno and Tityo (Tityo lives in Stockholm and is signed to Arista records as a singer).
Since then, Jah has had another three children, while Neneh has step-brothers and sisters in LA from an earlier relationship of Cherry’s. There is also Christian – another of Don’s children, who lives in Copenhagen and was born, by another woman, after the musician’s marriage to Moki.
“It’s a complicated set-up,” sighs Neneh. “But what used to make me a bit uptight was people looking at us like some wild, eccentric set-up. I happen to get on with most of them and, even if there’s things we don’t necessarily love about each other, we just let it be.”
For Don Cherry, the beat principle of continuous, dynamic movement – always searching, reaching for the new – was as much a physical imperative as it was a philosophical one. And when he toured in America or Europe, the whole family went too.
“On the road, there was a real sense of release and freedom, that made it really fun,” recalls Neneh. Yet although Don’s nomadic drive propelled the family across the globe, Neneh insists that “the whole thing was rooted and grounded around us as a family. Even though we were always moving around, we’d always be on the same tip. We’d go to bed at the same time and my mom would carry cooking pots into hotels and cook – stink out the whole place with curry. We’d set up home wherever we were.”
“JUMP, JUMP… KRIS KROSS makin’ ya jump, jump… uh huh uh huh!”
Assorted members of the Cherry clan have formed a “jump ring”. Tyson is hopping in the air; holding her hand is Charlene, the child-minder; next to her is Pajah, Neneh’s Sierra Leonean cousin; and Neneh herself is bouncing up and down, taking Tyson and bobbing the girl in her arms to the beat of the bass: “Daddy Mac’s makin’ ya jump jump, Mac Daddy’s makin’’ ya jump, jump… check it ouuttt!”
“We have a whole lotta fun out here,” laughs Neneh, breaking out of the circle. “We eat dinner, then jam some tunes on the record deck and have a bit of a dance. In June, it wasn’t getting dark till midnight, and we’d be sitting about talking, not realising what time it was, and going to bed at four in the morning when it was starting to get light again.”
After sojourning in New York, Stockholm and Turkey, the Cherry family first moved into the house 20 years ago. It was autumn, cold and windy, and the building, a former school house miles from the nearest town, seemed, to eight-year-old Neneh, to be isolated, inhospitable, lonely. She wanted to leave as soon as she arrived, run to her grandparents in Stockholm, away from the faint echo of whole classes reciting their multiplication tables.
“The first time it came to life was New Year’s Eve, when lots of my parent’s friends came down from Stockholm. Everyone was up all night and there were all these fireworks going off outside…”
Afterwards, the house was always bright with colour: vibrant red walls, peacock blue and lilac ceilings, pink and pastel green window frames, natural blonde wood floors. And with her best friend, Bodil, Neneh would explore a “really cool, imaginary world. We’d go barefoot in the fields and play fairies, and horses and keepers: the horse would have to step in as many cow shits as possible and the keeper would have to clean it up from between their toes. It was like an Alice In Wonderland world.”
“Making a record is a bit like having a kid,” says Neneh, later in the kitchen, cooking up a soul food dinner of rice, chicken and black-eye peas. “It’s very traumatic and difficult, but when it’s over, it’s very rewarding, you can stand back and say: I did that, it’s mine.”
The result of 18 months’ work in London and at the Cherry House, Homebrew is a more mature, less attitudinous record than the first. That one was associated with the English dance explosion, but none of the tracks on this are dance records and they don’t pretend to be.
In contrast to Raw Like Sushi, Homebrew’s collaborators are mainly American. Its opening track, the self-assertive rap Sassy, for instance, is a pairing with Guru and DJ Premier of Gang Starr, who went on to contribute a second track. “There was a really good vibe between us, it was a real case of mutual respect.”
On the album’s cover, Neneh, looking relaxed and happy, poses beside a pram in the yard outside the Cherry House. A far cry from her “strong woman with positive aggression” image, the photo looks more like a family snapshot. “I was very torn about whether to use that picture, ’cause it could be seen as too sensitive. But then, why does every photo of me have to be spread legs, arms crossed, strong woman? That whole thing was getting to be a real cliché last time.”
Homebrew is an intimate, lyrical, at times moving record. Neneh sings, rather than raps, most tracks. On the pro-sex education number Trout, she duets with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. “Michael’s a brilliant lyricist, he can talk about things that matter without it being obvious, so when we got together there was no way we were going to do a creamy, greasy duet. And even though Trout has a message, it’s not done in a tedious, obvious way – it doesn’t hammer you over the head.”
Collaboration is, in part, the key to Homebrew. Beside the big-name featured artists from America, other, no less vital, support has come from Britain. Such as the group Trout, aka album producers Cameron McVey and Johnny Dollar, who composed the music for the song of that name, and then decided to continue working together as recording artists. And Portishead – an unsigned Bristol outfit that are protégés of Neneh and Cameron – whose frontman Geoff Barrow wrote Someday.
“It would be really cool if everybody was up there in the photos,” says Neneh, “but the slightly tacky side of the pop star stuff is that it’s all focused on one person.”
But, in the end, Homebrew is her record. It’s she who’s the focus of the frenzied promotional campaign of press interviews, TV appearances and live PAs that will begin this month with the release of the single Money Love – a gloriously busy, impossible-to ignore, “wall of sound”-type production, built around a blazing fuzz-guitar riff.
And should all efforts fail to entice the public, it’s Neneh who’ll need to “go on a long holiday and bury my head in the sand”. That’s an unlikely outcome, though. A mixture of the assertive, reflective and poignant, Homebrew endures repeated playing, and proves to be that rarest of commercial releases – a non-disposable pop record.
“Really,” she says, “the album is about how we are as people and the way we’ve decided to live our lives.” A life which Neneh now shares with Cameron McVey. Although already married – “in the spiritual sense, maan” – the couple officially wed two years ago, at Willesden registry office, round the corner from their northwest London home.
“That was dope, man!” she grins. “I wore a dress by Azzedine Alaïa; Tyson and Naima were bridesmaids. It was just, like, so beautiful I even bawled – all the way down the aisle,” she laughs. “It was a way of giving thanks to all the good things that had happened, like the album and the fact that, even though I see Cam every day, I still wake up in the morning and go: ‘Wicked! I wanna jump on his face!’”
Three years on from the first album, Neneh admits that “the till bells are ringing empty. We’re running on loans and stuff now.” Much of the record’s royalties have been invested in the couple’s production company Cherry Bear, which now employs three staff and runs a studio out of their terraced house in London. Massive Attack, signed as clients to the company, worked on their Blue Lines album there, and Portishead are currently in residence.
“The album made quite a lot in royalties, but it’s not like anyone’s bagging vast amounts of money,” says Neneh. “We’ve invested our money back into a system others can come through, which is a way for us to stay fresh and help people we believe in.”
Work, love, lifestyle – “they all connect”, says Neneh, sitting at the head of the dining room table. Around her, talking, laughing, enjoying the soul food she’s prepared, is the assembled Cherry House tribe: Cameron, Tyson, Charlene, Moki (who’s fiftyish with cropped, silver-grey hair and tortoise-shell glasses), Eric (“the man about the house who keeps the place vibesy”) and, returning late from a day in Copenhagen, Naima, a nine year-old with blonde, wavy hair whose quite startling beauty is offset by glasses and a long-limbed, pre-adolescent gawkiness.
The death, in recent years, of two of the couple’s close friends – stylist Ray Petri, from Aids, and Bristol-based musician Sean Oliver of sickle cell anaemia, “put a thin-line aspect, an urgency into our life. It meant we didn’t want to take life with a pinch of salt in the same way anymore.”
They now aim to maintain “a basic ragga approach to life – putting your fingers up to a lot of institutions and just going: ‘This is what we wanna do – fuck you.”’ Practically, that means recording in Sweden rather than claustrophobic, recession-hit Britain.
Neneh Cherry, daughter of a restless soul, has always dreamt of a place called home, “that happy little space where I can be free”. Returning to the Cherry House, she discovered what, deep down, she always knew anyway: that “home is always with you, it doesn’t matter if you’re moving about. And especially with children, family, it’s where the heart is.”
A belief on which her album is based A distillation of her own wandering life in New York, London, Sierra Leone and Stockholm, Homebrew is a record that comes straight from the heart of Neneh Cherry.
Editors’ note: to preserve the authenticity of the original text, we have not capitalised“Black”