Neneh Cherry is allergic to nostalgia

An artist and cultural icon whose influence spans genres and generations like few others, Neneh Cherry is determined to keep moving forward. She speaks to us about feeling hardcore, acknowledging how much work there remains to be done and her new women-led collection of reimagined classics

Few people have had a cultural impact like Neneh Cherry. The Swedish-born, UK-based artist started her musical career in The Slits, and went on to gain global recognition as a solo artist with her 1988 single ‘Buffalo Stance’, which she famously performed on Top of The Pops whilst seven months pregnant. Always irreverent, unpredictable and supremely stylish, she has released five studio albums, collaborated with Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack, Michael Stipe, Lenny Kravitz, Geoff Barrow and Four Tet, and recently starred in a campaign for Italian fashion house Bottega Veneta. After re-issuing her debut album Raw Like Sushi in 2020, Cherry began work on The Versions, a project which sees some of her best-loved songs reimagined by other musicians. Robyn, Sia, Kelsey Lu, ANOHNI, Jamila Woods, Sudan Archives, Seinabo Sey, Greentea Peng, Honey Dijon and Cherry’s daughter TYSON have all contributed. This eclectic lineup represents the breadth of genres which Cherry’s back catalogue spans, and how wide her influence has spread. 

I met Neneh Cherry at the home she shares with her husband (and longtime collaborator), the producer Cameron McVey, to discuss her reaction to the cover tracks, the importance of creative innovation, and unapologetic femininity in the music industry. Sat in her garden with her two greyhounds Imani and Tahini curled under her feet, Cherry is warm, funny and thoughtful – utterly at ease with herself but by no means an egotist. She’d much rather talk about the women who have contributed to The Versions, and how invigorating and nourishing the project has been for her.

Jessica Wrigglesworth: I’ve been listening loads to The Versions – they’re so good! Are you excited for everyone to hear them?

Neneh Cherry: They’re like gifts! Each one is a different present. For me it was about the actual women, asking the different people that I love, and of course just wanting them to do it because of who they are. Then hearing what they’ve done, it’s just mind-blowing.

JW: It must be so special hearing these things that you put out in the world coming back to you in a different form. When did you first have the idea?

NC: When the Raw Like Sushi reissue came out [in 2020], we – me, Cameron, and Robin [Pasricha, Cherry’s manager] – were thinking, “What else would be a fun, creative thing to do, rather than a so-called greatest hits record?” I’ve always loved remixes and the idea of re-doing things, so I guess the first idea was like, getting one song re-done. I think the first thing that came up was ‘Buffalo Stance’ and that maybe Robyn would do it and from there it was like a penny dropped. I’ve said a million times I’m kind of allergic to nostalgia. There’s a room where if you stay in it too long, it can almost start to feel a bit karaoke, you’re just re-using old matter because you can. I can never quite get my head around the fact that even now younger generations would say, “Oh, ‘Buffalo Stance’ is a really cool tune”. I’m always like, “Oh, wow, really?” So I think there’s also been a focus with the whole project to work with the new crew that are out there.

JW: Did the list of artists come together organically? Did you already know that you wanted it to be all women when you started or did that just happen?

NC: I think that that was one of the definite threads, to make it a female-identifying, women-led project, it felt right. And then we just made a wish list, and sent it out to the allocated creatures in the universe. Pretty much everybody, which I couldn’t really believe, wanted to do it. 

JW: Were there any tracks that particularly surprised you when they came back, or made you see the song in a different light?

NC: ANOHNI’s version of ‘Woman’, to me, was how I’ve always dreamt that the song should be. There’s an aspect of it that I find quite… maybe slightly pompous? And I’ve always had a bit of a battle with it, and when I’ve done it live, I’ve tried to reinvent it, or break it down and make it a bit more rugged. And ANOHNI’s version has that, it’s got more kind of Nina Simone blood and guts. And I love Seinabo [Sey]’s ‘Kisses on the Wind’. 

I think actually it’s the songs that maybe I didn’t like so much at the time that surprised me most. I had a bit of a weird relationship with ‘Kisses on the Wind’ because I never thought it should be a single and in America, it became a single because the label wanted more pop hits. In Europe, we put out ‘Manchild’ which was like the perfect kind of contradicting balance to ‘Buffalo Stance’. It’s not that I don’t like ‘Kisses on the Wind’ but I never quite believed it at the time as a single, it always felt like a bit of a sell-out. So I think Seinabo’s reinvention makes it a much more interesting and kind of deeper song in a way, maybe because it was a bit more throwaway. 

But also I like Greentea Peng’s ‘Buddy X’! and ‘Sassy’! Tyson’s ‘Sassy’. Sia doing ‘Manchild’, Kelsey Lu, Jamila Woods, Honey Dijon, Sudan Archives. It sounds stupid, but actually, each one of them and I think a really cool part of the whole journey is that each one has come at different times. It wasn’t like, “Here you go, this is the full package” – they’ve all just kind of plopped in. 

JW: What was your relationship with the artists when they were doing the covers, were people in touch with you about it? Or did you leave them to it and just wait for the tracks to arrive in your inbox?

NC: I had some conversations, not many. And I didn’t really want to, the point wasn’t that I should influence them in any way. Robyn had some questions about ‘Buffalo Stance.’ I love her because she’s absolutely from the heart, and there’s always an injection of her full self inside her songs which to me is why she’s a great songwriter. 

Within that, there’s also a lot of thought, so she needed to talk through certain things. The same thing with ANOHNI. My only real instruction was just to do with it as you feel – you don’t owe it anything, if you just wanted to use one word, or half a sentence that’s fine. Because that’s the magic of music, we all interpret and hear things differently depending on what our life story is; a tune might represent a place you’ve been, or something that you’re thinking about. So I wanted to leave it open, a blank sheet. 

JW: Has it led to any further collaborations, are you writing any new stuff at the moment?

NC: I haven’t started writing new stuff yet, but this has also been really inspiring, so I feel ready to go. If I look at the whole of The Versions, I feel like I’ve reconnected to the songs, and also that I’ve reconnected or connected with each of the individual women, in a very special way. I’ve thought a lot about seeing everybody individually, and it could be fun to get everybody together, to gather the whole posse and do something. But I think [The Versions] pulls at some very beautiful threads internally for me, in a [particular] time in my life. I mean, by no means do I feel like I’m done, but also, I can’t deny it, I’ve passed through a lot of things. It would be weird if I didn’t sit back and reflect on a certain amount of that journey, and where it’s taken me and what that means, so I think it’s a really great time to harness, to pull these things in and have something like this happen. It brings new life to it, it kind of brings [the music] out in front rather than behind.

JW: There’s so much about female energy and femininity within the songs themselves, as well as the fact that you chose to use all-women in this project. How much has changed, do you think, especially as a mother to two female musicians [TYSON and Mabel], for women in the music industry? 

NC: I mean of course, things have changed. If you look at festival lineups, way too often there’s still a male dominance, but I think that if you look at the underbelly of change, so much has yet to come. But we’re doing it, I feel like we’re actually talking about what needs to be changed, and I think that as a woman and as a kind of elder to a lot of other women, I’m so proud and touched by the female community in their determination and the intention to not take any more shit. But there is this kind of mass thing that weighs on all of us, not just in music. Every fucking shop window I walk past, I look at the size of my bum. I have this thing in the front of my head where it’s like, “Fuck it, I am who I am”, but I still struggle with feeling insecure about my body, and also going on a kind of personal riot against those feelings because I fucking hate them. 

JW: There’s this soft power thing that seems to be a running thread in your work – it’s being unapologetic and not feeling like you have to make any excuses, but doing it in a way that’s very gentle at the same time, not stepping on anyone’s toes or having an ego but just doing what you came to do.

NC: Yes, and doing it in the way that you do it. And of course the women that have been before us, that fought for change, that had to roll into higher places to be taken seriously, had to maybe be hardcore in a different way, and I’m not saying that that wasn’t important but I think we’re coming to a place of genuinity. It’s so important for us to be inside ourselves, to feel that you’re worthy – because each and every individual is unique, and your way matters. I haven’t had a day in my life where I didn’t feel awkward

JW: I would never have expected that!

NC: We’re all sensitive – it just depends on how you process your sensitivity. Just being human, it’s quirky, it’s weird. I have moments where I think I’m fucking hardcore and I feel great, you come home from a holiday and you’re like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got it now”, and then two days later, you wake up and you feel weird. But I think that’s ok. We’re coming to a place where it’s ok to feel a bit weird, or to have a day where you don’t feel that good at talking to someone. And as weird as the world is right now, I’m also super interested and intrigued by all the amazing work that’s coming. There are so many important conversations about women, race, gender, and it’s a fragile thing – we’re having the conversations but we have to remember to also listen, because we have to hear the fine tuning to be able to reach what you were saying – to be gentle and powerful at the same time.

Photography by Iñigo Viñas for INDIE Magazine