From Raw Sushi to Broken Politics
IN THIS PHOTO: Neneh Cherry (circa 2018)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The Brilliance and Endurance of Neneh Cherry
BECAUSE this year ends with a ‘9’...
PHOTO CREDIT: Olivia Rose for i-D
we are looking back at the albums of 1969, 1979; 1989, 1999 and 2009 that will all celebrate big anniversaries. Maybe The Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969) is the biggest album that will get a lot of focus come September. The same, too, can be said for years ending in a ‘4’ – there are some awesome albums we will mark and will be introduced to a new generation. Whilst I am pumped to see which albums are coming up to their anniversaries, one record I will celebrate is Neneh Cherry’s Raw Like Sushi. Her debut album was released on 5th June, 1989 and was a revelation from the Swedish-born songwriter. It remains one of the most confident and original debut albums ever released and introduced the world to this fantastic, vital and genius artist. Even looking back now, Raw Like Sushi sounds completely fresh and you pick up new elements and revelations.
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
1989 was a great year for music: epic releases from Beastie Boys (Paul’s Boutique), De La Soul (3 Feet High and Rising) and Madonna (Like a Prayer) made it a year to remember! Among the best records of that year was Cherry’s Raw Like Sushi. It is one of those albums that bursts with colour and the best of 1980s Pop but Cherry was looking forward and producing this much more complex, intriguing and challenging type of music. Whether looking at models posing for snaps on Buffalo Stance or slamming men who need to do some growing up (Manchild); it is a masterful album filled with gems. The debut is packed with great songs and, at a time when Pop is rather limited and not daring enough, many could do worse than checking out Neneh Cherry’s Raw Like Sushi.
I was six when it came out but I do recall the video for Buffalo Stance and being amazed by this bright, quirky and seductive vision. Cherry, as an artist, was charming and cheeky; she was far smarter and inventive than her peers and, as a songwriter, taking Dance and Pop in new directions! I mention Neneh Cherry because tomorrow she appears on Lauren Laverne’s breakfast show (from 7:30) on BBC Radio 6 Music. There is much to discuss – which I shall come to – but the fact her debut is coming up for its thirtieth anniversary is a wonderful thing. The reviews speak for themselves! Pitchfork, when reviewing Raw Like Sushi last year, had this to say:
“It’s very much a maternal record, too; two decades before M.I.A.went onstage at the Grammys while on the verge of giving birth, Cherry triumphantly mimed “Buffalo Stance” on the UK chart show “Top of the Pops” while clad in maternity Lycra and a bronze bustier-blazer combo. At its best moments, Raw Like Sushi mixes its nurturing spirit with an audacious optimism, a hopeful foresight that mirrors Cherry’s vision of a genre-agnostic pop landscape.
“Manchild,” the second track on the album, is probably the best example of Raw Like Sushi’s widescreen view; it reunites Cherry with Wild Bunch member Robert “3D” Del Naja, who by then had formed trip-hop collective Massive Attack. Anyone expecting something like “Buffalo Stance II” to be Sushi’s second single was probably surprised. Its shape-shifting, woozy synths, which floated in and out of keys, led and were led by Cherry’s soulful yet pointed vocal. She’s acting as the prodding yet sympathetic sage to a flailing other, rapping about “R-E-S-P-E and C-T” while chords quiver and hover...
Audacity was what made Raw Like Sushi such a thrilling album three decades ago, and it’s also a big part of why today it looms large, both as an example of musical possibility and as a totem of womanhood. The front of Raw Like Sushi shows Cherry in full-on Buffalo stance, her arms crossed, her gaze set, her pout square. Its back cover, however, shows Cherry in flight and lost in the music, her curls midair, her arms splayed—realizing the joy in pure possibility, and dancing along with it as fast as she can.
I was a fan of Cherry from her debut and, as a curious young music lover, snapped up all of her albums. Cherry took a few years to follow up her epic debut and, in 1992, the music scene had evolved and she had developed as a songwriter. Not a stranger to evocative and striking album covers – look at the raw and striking image on Raw Like Sushi – on Homebrew, Cherry is seen standing next to a pram, playing with her hair. I like the title because it suggests a home-made beer but, in the context of motherhood and new responsibilities – Cherry has several children but her daughter, Tyson, was born in 1989 – it clever wordplay that makes you smile! There was also a sense of Cherry, on Homebrew, returning to her Swedish roots and producing a more mature – but no less thrilling – album.
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
Although Homebrew is stuffed with producers, it is Cherry’s direction and exceptional command that pulls you in and defines the album. Cherry and her producer husband Cameron ‘Booga Bear’ McVey – who co-wrote and produced Raw Like Sushi – were together again for Homebrew but, if anything, her sophomore album is more inventive and cross-pollinating. Man, her third album, arrived in 1996 (Cherry gave birth to her daughter, Mabel, in the same year) and was another incredible offering. The first single, 7 Seconds, was released two years before the album came out and is the legendary duet with Youssou N’Dour. Other great tracks on Man, including Woman and Hornbeam, push Cherry’s talent even further and proved she was one of the finest artists in the world – she still is, obviously.
I was heavily into Neneh Cherry’s work by this stage and was falling for this exceptional and rare talent. Cherry would not release another album until 2014. Following this eighteen year break, she returned to us and I breathed a sigh of relief - as many others did! Unlike her earliest albums, Blank Project is a more mature and emotional listen. Cherry wrote the material as a way to mourn her mother – who died in 2009. The sound is sparser and, whilst it took a while to adjust, it sounded like a natural evolution. Naked and Weightless rank alongside the most potent and arresting songs Cherry had produced until this point and I love the album. It is distinctly Neneh Cherry but her working with a barer and stripped sound.
AllMusic, when reviewing Blank Project in 2014, had this to note:
“The title track then propels the album into the first of several stark pieces that involve the Pages' hurtling drums and protrusive synthesizers. Their work suits baleful and agitated words that have sharpness even when Cherry delivers them with sweetness. Nervous energy -- taut and circular drum patterns, sing-songy vocal projections, raw barbs -- rarely recedes. When it does, as on "Spit Three Times" and "422," the results are just as penetrating. In the former, Cherry casually flicks "You're addicted to me/Leave me alone" and then, seconds later, trails off with "I'm addicted to you." The latter is one of the bleakest and most moving moments in Cherry's career, if only for "Thoughts that curl up your toes/All the bullshit that gets up your nose." Friend Robyn joins in on "Out of the Black," but the mood hardly lifts, with imagery of tied hands, mourners, and wolf packs over steady drums and tremulous synthesizers. From front to back, Blank Project is riveting uneasy listening”.
Broken Politics arrived in October last year and confirmed Neneh Cherry was back with us for good – I hope these past two albums mark a permanent return! Recorded in Woodstock, Broken Politics keeps the sound relatively sparse but it is a bolder offering than Blank Project. Whereas Blank Project drew inspiring from the passing of her mother, a few of Broken Politics’ lyrics were motivated by the funeral of her biological father, Ahmadu Jah, in Sierra Leonne.
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
Cherry confirmed that there was a lot of darkness hanging over the album; she felt anger but also managed to find some positivity. As Broken Politics would suggest, activism and making sense of the world in which we live is high in the mix. Cherry definitely reflects on anger and feeling isolated but there is that energy that promotes expression and improvement. Produced by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden; Broken Politics is a remarkable work and proves that, twenty-nine years after her debut, the masterful Cherry has lost none of her magic. I wonder what will come next but, when it came to Broken Politics, critics were lining up to give praise. The Guardian’s Laura Snapes was stunned by the album:
“Poignancy has accumulated at 54 – an age her voice carries beautifully. “Don’t live for nostalgia, but the impact of everything resonates,” she sings on Synchonised Devotion. Cherry still has “an allergy to my realness, like my own self-worth”, she sings on Natural Skin Deep – a simmering, almost angry outlier – but refuses to give into it: “Don’t have anywhere to go / Nowhere to hide / All of me is now.” Cherry’s sage perspective weaves through these tender, bristling tracks, and elevates Broken Politics from being simply a beautiful record to a revelatory one. “Just because I’m down, don’t step all over me,” she warns on Fallen Leaves, and promises to remain open to risk and common sense: an admirably holistic approach to a shattered world”.
So, what comes next for Cherry? Although it has only been a year since Broken Politics came out (less, actually) she is keeping busy and loving life. In this interview with The Guardian last week, Cherry talked about expressed her love of being a grandma:
“I’m called “mormor”, the Swedish word for grandma. The other day we went to visit my mormor in Stockholm, my mum’s mum, who’s 95. Four generations of us were there. She has dementia, so it was difficult trying to explain whose mormor was who”.
She also talked about her marriage to Cameron McVey:
“Cam [McVey] and I have been married for 28 years. We’re partners, companions, lovers. When we met, it felt like we’d been looking for each other. As much as we drive each other crazy sometimes, that click makes for something really great”.
I will end by sourcing from an interview Neneh Cherry conducted with The Independent when she was promoting Broken Politics back in October. The writer, Jon Pareles, perfectly drilled down to the golden nugget of Cherry’s music:
“Serious thoughts, a buoyant spirit and a disregard for genre boundaries have defined Cherry’s music since she emerged on her own in the 1980s. She is the daughter of a drummer from Sierra Leone, Amadou Jah, and a Swedish painter, Monika (Moki) Karlsson, who married Don Cherry soon after she was born. The family had a bohemian life, performing and making visual art, living in Sweden and in the United States”.
Cherry talked about her early days and how she managed to succeed and create the albums she wanted to…
“I definitely knew which compromises I did not want to make,” she says. “What I found slightly daunting after the success of ‘Raw Like Sushi’ was this feeling where you end up in a little bit of a cage,” she added. “There were definitely restrictions and a funny feeling, a worry about becoming competitive rather than taking risks. Or not just taking risks, but just growing.”
When talking about Broken Politics and its mix of the natural and technological, Cherry discussed the process and how the sounds blended:
“The music is made for real, even if it’s loops and coming from a computer,” Cherry says. “To me there are definitely sounds and a feeling in some of the tracks that remind me of the music that was made in the room, some of the music that brought me to where I’m sitting at now – the music that my parents made and the music I grew up around. It’s interesting, using the idea of organic music but making it in the way we’re making music – the way we carry the torch”.
I am excited to see what Cherry discusses with Lauren Laverne tomorrow morning because, as an artist and innovator, there is nobody like her! Her songs – from her debut to her latest album – are phenomenal and so much more stirring and memorable than, well...pretty much everything out there. I hope we see many more years of Neneh Cherry majesty because, to me, she is one of the finest songwriters ever. To end this piece, I am ending with, what I think, is the ultimate collection...
IN THIS PHOTO: Neneh Cherry and band performing in Australia earlier this month/PHOTO CREDIT: @misscherrylala
OF Neneh Cherry diamonds.