It’s a miserable day for a house-hunting expedition, thanks to an early December rainstorm. By dusk, the sidewalks of Manhattan are flooded with filthy gray water and strewed with discarded umbrellas. Traffic is snarled, and dozens of frustrated drivers leaning on their horns form an incessant, angry chorus that seems to drown out all other sound.
Business, however, is business, and singer Neneh Cherry is sloshing quickly up Broadway with her husband, songwriting partner and coproducer, Cameron “Booga Bear” McVey, late for a five o’clock appointment with a Brooklyn real-estate agent. There is a brief moment of “uh-oh” when they descend into the subway and the long line at the token booth comes into view, but McVey produces a couple of tokens from his pocket and passes them around Scout-leader style, eliciting a grateful smile from Cherry. “You are always so prepared,” she tells him as she pushes through the turnstile.
Most pop stars would stand out like neon on a subway platform, but Cherry, despite the Day-Glo orange raincoat she is wearing, blends right in with the home-bound nine-to-fivers — surprising, considering that the object of all the nonattention is a woman whose renowned beauty has been beamed out nationwide via heavy rotation on MTV. But it isn’t so surprising given Cherry’s background. The fact that she has the ability to make herself invisible in the grimy nether world of the New York City transit system seems just another aspect of the grit and streetwise sensibility that have marked her career to date.
The subway ride is fairly quiet, but when the two get off at their stop in Brooklyn, the game of beat the clock is in effect again. When they reach the first corner, McVey suddenly turns to Cherry and recites an address and a rapid-fire set of directions; he repeats it once, then takes off jogging down the block, apparently intent on catching the real-estate agent without subjecting Neneh to a headlong dash as well.
It is an act of gallantry that does not go unappreciated. Cherry watches McVey’s rapidly disappearing form for a long moment, and then a distinctly girlish sigh escapes her. “He is such a nice man,” she says finally, still watching him run.
What? Neneh Cherry allowing herself to go all swoony and googly eyed? Is this the hellcat who appeared on the cover of Raw Like Sushi with her fists wrapped in gauze like a prizefighter’s? The same woman who kicked off her debut album with a song that hurled teasing barbs at street gigolos and closed it with a track on which she almost gleefully described giving blue balls to a too-handsy suitor — not to mention that exasperated “I came already, stop it!” that served as the parting shot?
For all intents and purposes, Cherry’s trademark braggadocio is still very much intact; you pick it up in offhand comments she makes and in her bearing. It’s in full force on “Sassy,” a collaboration with Guru from Gang Starr that kicks off her sophomore effort, Homebrew. Cherry opens the song with the declaration “Fellas got to give me the most respect/Cause you know I don’t waste my time,” then turns the mike over to Guru, who caps a rap-sody of her praises with the caveat “If you step to her wrong, you’re getting played like jazz.”
It’s been three years since Raw Like Sushi catapulted Cherry to the top of the charts. The singer made her mark as the anti-Madonna, a pop diva who could flaunt her femininity without hitting us over the head with S&M gear and bullet bras but who could also revel in the tougher, more masculine aspects of her nature without veering into the realm of icy disdain. Unlike Madonna, with her detached, cold, computer-chip “sexuality,” Cherry exuded a sensual warmth; her contradictions were strikingly human and real. The media, naturally, ate it up. It seemed that Cherry would forever be saddled with the Strong Woman and Funky Earth Mother tags that surfaced in practically every article written about her during the post-Sushi press whirlwind.
But a lot can happen in three years, and during the long hiatus between Sushi and Homebrew, Cherry did more than swap vows with McVey and watch their daughter, Tyson, learn to walk and talk; she indulged in a great deal of introspection, emerging from the time with a new perspective on her past and a sense of calm and security about her future. Homebrew is a striking mirror to those changes, a mature look at the complexities and contradictions of relationships and what Cherry calls the “abstract realities” of life in general. More a companion to the don’t-mess-with-me mettle of Raw Like Sushi than a radical departure, Homebrew is an attempt by Cherry not to abandon her aggressive stance but rather to reconcile it with her vulnerability.
“After Raw Like Sushi,” Cherry says, “what almost started to gag me was being portrayed as this ‘strong woman.’ That was how the media was wanting to perceive me. And you know, fine. I mean, that’s definitely something I’ve got. For a long time, even when I’ve said, ‘I feel really pathetic,’ I felt like I was obligated to be out there kicking shit. You know: ‘Yeah, I can take this on, no problem. Shove it on my back.’ But there’s always that basic need that’s inside of you to just” — she offers a throaty giggle — “bury your head in someone’s armpit.”
Cherry’s acceptance of that need fuels Homebrew‘s most overtly romantic tracks. On “Move With Me,” she describes herself as “strong enough to be weak in your arms.” On “Twisted,” a song she says was an attempt to explain to McVey why she had been so complicated in the early days of their relationship, she admits, “I think I could give myself up to you, cause you pushed your way thru my attitude.”
But Homebrew is more than a hip-hop paean to the relief of finding, as Cherry puts it, “someone who doesn’t want to just pick up the car keys and leave.” A moody, atmospheric pastiche of jazz, funk, rap and slow, smoking soul, the album finds Cherry laying out her hopes for the future — with a little help from her past and, as was the case with Raw Like Sushi, a few friends, among them Gang Starr, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Lenny Kravitz.
“Trout,” Cherry’s duet with Stipe, is already kicking up plenty of dust on alternative radio stations. The song, set to the lazy guitar riff from Steppenwolf’s song “The Pusher” and propelled along by an unmistakably thunderous John Bonham sample, is what Cherry calls a “sexual celebration,” a means of articulating her outrage over the negativity of the media AIDS campaign.
“I’m not talking about the people who have done brilliant work,” Cherry says. “I’m talking about the ones who live in the sleeping Middle Ages. The way they’ve dealt with it is to promote this fear of sex and put this really ugly vibe over it. It’s about scaring people into conforming. Men and women have got to be allowed to feel good about themselves — to feel sexy, to feel beautiful, to feel wanted, to feel horny. You know, now more than ever.”
In “Red Paint,” inspired by an experience her mother had at the supermarket, Cherry writes about a fallen stabbing victim who waits for an ambulance while shoppers nonchalantly go on about their business, stepping into his blood and leaving red tracks in their wake. “I Ain’t Gone Under Yet,” a collaboration with Gang Starr, is a haunting call for faith and wisdom in the face of adversity. Crafted around a sample of acoustic bass and cymbal, imbued with the hiss and pop of an old, well-loved vinyl album and featuring an unintentional guest vocal courtesy of Cherry’s daughter, the song is as warm and comforting as steaming java on a bitter-cold day.
“I think that a lot of the songs on the album are about being aware of the big picture but coping with your own little reality,” Cherry says of Homebrew. “We all feel very moved and affected by a lot of things that are going on in the world. But to actually be effective in any way, you’ve got to shape your own reality into something that’s going to give you the force to get through that abstract feeling of helplessness. There’s something really quite deep about just looking at reality. You get so caught up in your own problems that you forget that you’re one of many and that a lot of people have got it a lot worse. I can remember walking up Fifth Avenue during rush hour, just looking at all these different faces and thinking, ‘God, all these different people have lives, and they’ve all been babies,’ and … you know, it’s a trip.”
The daughter of a West African percussionist, Ahmadu Jah, and a Swedish artist, Moki, Cherry was raised by Moki and her stepfather, trumpeter Don Cherry, a well-known figure in modern jazz. Neneh and her brother, Eagle Eye, a musician and aspiring actor, spent most of their school years traveling back and forth between New York and Sweden. Although she hastens to point out that she and Eagle Eye weren’t being carted around to smoke-filled jazz clubs (“That wasn’t really cool for kids”), she does have a few vivid memories, including “falling in love with Pharoah Sanders because he had these beautiful half-moon eyes” and going to rehearsals at a Prince Street loft in New York owned by Ornette Coleman.
“I can remember going backstage at a concert in Paris and meeting Miles Davis,” Cherry adds, smiling. “He had this voice that was like, ‘Yeah, baby, grrrr grrrr grrrr.‘ You know, he was like the cool cat of the century. I can remember sitting on his lap with white knee socks and this little brown velvet dress. He opened up his trumpet case and pulled out this Toblerone bar and goes, ‘Yeah, baby, here you go, this is for you, you’re so pretty.’ I can remember being completely in awe.”
But, says Cherry, “without sounding too blasé about it, I don’t really look at my upbringing as being more special than anybody else’s. People have this thing of ‘Oh, the bohemian family,’ which I find really irritating. The cool thing about my mom and dad was that they gave us confidence that they were there, and it was a very solid family. It was like we moved, and the home would come with us.”
Her parents, she says, were very supportive of her and her brother and also very open, which gave the younger Cherrys a sense of independence and self-sufficiency at an early age: “I suppose each little inch that they gave us kind of steadied us a little bit more as people. Because my mother gave me that little extra bit of space, there’s no way I was gonna hurt her by not giving her the respect back.”
When she was fourteen, Cherry decided she’d had enough of the conventional education system and dropped out of school. After a trip to Africa with her biological father that she has described as “overwhelming,” she returned to New York and started hanging around the club scene. Moki, she says, gave her her freedom as long as she checked in by phone: “I knew that if I called at one, I’d be able to stay out until two.”
“Listening to music and dancing was something that always made sense, but I didn’t really think that I was musical,” Cherry says of that time. “I tried playing the bass for a while and didn’t really get it together — I didn’t really have the patience. I felt very clumsy.” But other fixtures on the club circuit took notice of Cherry’s attitude and energy, and she finally dipped her toe in the water when she was asked to sing backup for a ska band called the Nails. Then, in 1980, her stepfather was invited to do a three-week tour with the all-female punk band the Slits. Neneh accompanied him to London and decided to stay on, moving into a house with Slits vocalist Ari Upp.
Just after she moved to London, the sixteen-year-old Cherry had an experience that she describes today as “a definite turning point, the first time that I’d had something thrown in my face that I couldn’t deal with or control.” On her way home one night, she was followed into an alleyway by a stranger. Despite her attempts to use her street smarts to get herself out of the situation, she was raped.
“When it was happening,” Cherry recalls, “I knew that I didn’t want him to take what was mine. I knew that it was his problem, and that he was inflicting his violence and his shit on me. I decided right then and there that I didn’t want to live with it. I felt incredibly angry, and I didn’t want to be bitter. I knew that I didn’t want it to destroy me; I didn’t want him to take a part of my soul and heart.”
For a long time, Cherry says she dealt with the experience by “talking about it without making it into a big deal — I felt like I had a responsibility to appear to have it under control.” She kept it from her mother for years, she says, “because I knew that the pain she would feel when I told her would just break me down; I knew that I would fall apart when I told her, and I wasn’t ready to do that.” Moki learned of the incident only recently. Cherry had discussed it in an interview for the first time, and not wanting her mother to read about it in a magazine, Cherry finally told her the day the story hit the newsstands.
“I feel that it’s important at this stage of my life to talk about it,” says Cherry, “because there are so many women who have these really heavy things happen to them, and they get sexually hung up for the rest of their lives. They get bitter and find it impossible to trust people. I made it into something that I could gain something for myself from. It was definitely something that I turned around and made into a life experience that taught me something. It’s like ‘I survived Hurricane Hugo.'”
After that incident, Cherry says she knew that she wanted “something real, something that was going to mean something.” She returned briefly to New York and took an office job. But in 1981, after a recruitment call from friends in an iconoclastic jazz-funk-punk outfit called Rip Rig + Panic, she returned to London and signed on as vocalist. The band’s reverence for jazz — the music she had grown up around but never really appreciated — gave Cherry, she says, “a real sense of security and a completely different perspective on what it meant.”
She recorded three albums with Rip Rig + Panic. At that point, she says, she was “wary of taking on too much” as a songwriter. “I was avoiding something that I needed to get on with doing, because there were other members of the band I could hide behind.” At eighteen, she married Rip Rig + Panic drummer Bruce Smith and gave birth to her first daughter, Naima. Within three years, Cherry had split with Smith, and shortly after that, while fronting a Rip Rig + Panic spinoff band called Float Up CP, she met McVey.
“Cameron was a friend,” Cherry says, “and he could see that I needed to go on to another level. So he said, ‘Just write — you’ve got a sense of melody, loosen up and put whatever you think and feel down on tape or paper.’ It was like he was provoking me — he was like ‘I bet you won’t do it.'” Three days later, Cherry, unable to walk away from a challenge, had come up with her first song. “I dropped the tape through his letter box and, like, ran, I was so nervous about it,” she says, laughing. McVey called her the following day and sang her song to her on the phone. “He’d worked all the chords out,” she says. “It was just so wild to hear that it made sense to him as something that could work.”
Cherry and McVey spent the next two years in a home studio, writing and recording material that would eventually appear on her debut album, Raw Like Sushi. Turning down a more lucrative offer from another label, Cherry opted instead for a smaller deal with Circa, a subsidiary label of Virgin Records, “because they were willing to let us experiment and develop the thing organically.”
Meanwhile, something else had developed organically: Cherry’s not exactly convenient pregnancy with her second daughter, Tyson. Before the completion of Raw Like Sushi, when Cherry was eight months pregnant, Virgin released her single “Buffalo Stance,” and she made a memorable appearance on Britain’s Top of the Pops, proudly shimmying up a storm with Tyson’s imminent arrival bulgingly, hugely apparent In May 1989, two months after Tyson’s birth, Raw Like Sushi was released, and Cherry found herself faced with the daunting pressure of promoting an album that caught on like wildfire and raising the newborn Tyson and her sister, Naima.
“I made it work,” says Cherry. “There are times when it’s hard. And obviously, the kids have to come first — they have to be happy. But it gave me a driving force that I didn’t have before. It opened me up emotionally, made me a stronger person.”
The key to juggling a career and motherhood, says Cherry, is consistency — to which she attributes the sense of normalcy and security she and her brother had despite their own globe-trotting upbringing. “I had this conversation with my mom,” she explains, “and she said: ‘Don’t separate your needs from the child’s needs. If you’re gonna play music, have the music on from the day the child is born.’ You can’t just not do something for three years because the kid’s gotta sleep, and then go, ‘Okay, now you’re old enough.’ Then they’re, like, shell-shocked for life.”
Cherry spent five months after Sushi‘s release promoting the album and giving equal time to Tyson — who made a guest appearance, while snoozing, in the video for “Manchild.” But illness tripped her up. In September 1989, on the eve of a planned tour with Fine Young Cannibals, she made an appearance as a presenter at the MTV Awards and then collapsed in her dressing room. The suspected culprit was Lyme disease, but Cherry never got a firm diagnosis. The singer canceled her planned tour, took to her bed with a heavy course of antibiotics and during her two-week recuperation decided that a hiatus was in order.
Aside from recording a version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” for the AIDS charity album Red Hot + Blue, Cherry made very few forays into the public eye for the next three years. She traveled in Spain and England and spent time with her daughters; eventually, she and McVey moved the family from London to Sweden, married, set up housekeeping in a converted schoolhouse owned by Moki and began work on Homebrew.
“I just felt that if it was gonna be about anything other than getting on and off planes, I had to have some time to absorb some of the things that I find stimulating — you know, stomping up and down Delancey Street, reading a few books, buying a few records and just being,” Cherry says. “We were also trying to protect ourselves, so that we wouldn’t end up in the situation we ended up with during Raw Like Sushi, where everything just started going so fast. I mean, we were in charge, but it kind of went real Mickey Mouse there for a while.”
The only irritant about the time off, she says, is that it fostered the misconception that she had crumbled under the pressure of being a working mother. “It was because of that whole Strong Woman image that people had,” says Cherry. “It was like, ‘Aha! I knew she couldn’t do what she’s trying to do and make it through with a little kid. She was asking for that shit.’ And I’m sitting there going, ‘Damn, I’m just not well, give me a break!'”
Cherry says that her children have been a “saving grace,” but that she could live without the nunlike image that is so often attached to motherhood.
“That whole mother earth thing,” she says, rolling her eyes, “I get really sick of that. There’s this weird thing that happens when a woman’s had a kid. People are fascinated by the fact that you can still have any kind of sexuality at all. Yeah, I’m a mother — but I can also have fun, get drunk, do all sorts of stuff. I mean, I’ve started having real fun since I had kids. You know, because when I go out, I don’t care where I’m at — it’s like, ‘I’m OUT!'”
Oh, God, woman, I’m so sorry. My brain cells are just … this is terrible. Maybe if I had a glass of champagne …” This certainly blows the mother earth theory all to hell. It’s eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, and Cherry has definitely been “OUT.” As she enters the lobby of the Paramount Hotel in Manhattan, she looks better with a hangover than most, but it’s clear that she feels a great deal worse than she looks. She and McVey, she explains, celebrated their two-year anniversary last night, but she is determined to tough out the interview. She lines up an arsenal of potentially soothing beverages — bitters and soda, a cup of hot tea, a glass of orange juice — hoping against hope that one of them will take the sting out before her two o’clock flight to Los Angeles, where another round of interviews in support of Homebrew awaits. When talk turns to the album, Cherry brightens.
“So far, what has really knocked me out is the response from alternative and college radio,” Cherry says. “That’s something I’m really happy about.” She and McVey, she says, are eyeing a tour with a live band at some point this year: “What we’re wanting to do is put together a band with really good players who are versatile enough to move around a little bit, so that if we wanted to jam out a bit, we could. We’re gonna try to get away from that whole sequined dresses and computers thing.
“I’ve grown up around people who’ve done things in a way where it’s kind of a matter of life and death,” Cherry adds. “It’s like, ‘If I don’t do this, I’m gonna go under.’ And I think that the beautiful thing and the strongest thing about a lot of jazz musicians is that they’ve always had something very boldly expressive and real. It’s always kind of indulged going beyond — there was always something else to pursue, always a challenge involved. It’s a spiritual thing. And the screams and pain, all of the things that were linked in be-bop and modern jazz and free jazz are very similar to what you’re hearing in hip-hop now. It’s honest.”
Honesty. Challenge. Strength. These are the things that are most important to Neneh Cherry, the words that surface time and time again in conversation with her. You don’t have to spend much time with Cherry at all to understand why her husband affectionately calls her a “woman of her time.” The singer is so multifaceted and fiercely individualist that you would think she would be insulted by the handful of adjectives often used to describe her, but Cherry says she tries to take the labels with a grain of salt.
“You can’t expect people who meet you for an hour to really understand who you are,” Cherry says matter-of-factly. “I mean, I’m still finding out who I am.
“But,” she adds with a raucous laugh, “I kind of know enough to keep myself rolling.”