Neneh Cherry is aware the fashionable notion that everything is better in Scandina. “I don’t know how Denmark got voted the happiest country in the world,” she grins, hanging out the window for a smoke. “How do you measure that? How do you gauge the happiest nation? Unless you’re basing it on some weird, scary sense contentment.” The word seems to spook her out a bit.
Scandi-love, as she calls it, has been good to her native Sweden, a quirky, awkward country so long “caught up in its own inferiority complex, trying to emulate England and America”. In the 50s and 60s, the American jazz greats – Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, her stepfather, the trumpeter Don Cherry – were “treated like kings in this strange, clean place full people who were obsessed with their music”, she says. “Like rock stars. Coltrane got the red carpet when he arrived in Stockholm.”
Born in Stockholm in 1964, Cherry moved back eight years ago to “come to terms with the Swedish bit herself” – and it worked. Her slow comeback began in 2012 with The Cherry Thing, a collaboration with Nordic jazz-skronk trio the Thing, who formed to play their own adaptations her stepfather’s music. Her first solo album in 18 years, the forthcoming Blank Project, is an eerie, compelling affair featuring evocative beat-style poetry and written in her bedroom using the same Casio synth she’s had for 20 years.
The trickiest thing about being back in the spotlight, Cherry points out, climbing into a huge orange bomber jacket, is getting used to the new-style photoshoots – where pictures appear instantly on a laptop, and everyone stands around discussing them in front you. “If I’m gonna wear this vest I have to do my armpits,” she observes, and disappears into the bathroom.
The Cherry residence is in Stockholm’s Mariatorget district, amid the cafes and vintage clothing boutiques, not far from the Hotel Rival part-owned by Benny from Abba. A cosy steam gathers in the stairwell the grey apartment block. Three flights up, a sign Sellotaped across the letter box reads Karlsson/McVey (Karlsson is the name Cherry was born with; producer Cameron McVey is her husband 24 years).
Snooping, Loyd Grossman-style, around the flat it is clear who lives here, but there are no pop star giveaways – no gold disc her 1988 smash hit Buffalo Stance or Massive Attack’s trip-hop album Blue Lines, which was partly funded by Cherry’s chart success and produced in her back bedroom. Instead, there’s a black-and-white collage, a bit like a Matisse cut-out, signed by Moki Karlsson, her Swedish artist mother who died in 2009. And in a prime position on a bookshelf, there’s a copy Don Cherry’s psychedelic jazz record Organic Music Society, released on the Swedish label Caprice.
There is a dog bowl, but no other evidence dog or her husband. The woman doing Cherry’s makeup looks just like her, but is not one her daughters, Naima, Tyson or Mabel. Five minutes in and you realise that this is not a permanent home – simply the Swedish base camp a huge nomadic family with its roots in the 1960s, whose friends and collaborators connect some the most unlikely names, from Ornette Coleman to Ari Up from the Slits, from Martina Topley-Bird to waifs and strays such as “that strange young man that Cameron met in the street and let live in our house for a while”.
“It seems unusual to people who weren’t brought up in that large collective to work out how it works,” she concedes, settling on the sa with a cup stewed tea, “but ever since I was tiny I’ve lived around a lot people, so that’s the way the music gets made too.” Over the next 40 minutes, her phone rings many times: more than once, it’s the Swedish pop empress Robyn with whom she is shooting a video in the morning (Cherry answers the calls in Swedish).
She talks about her biological father, Ahmadu Jah, who has so far been overshadowed by Don in the Cherry narrative. Born in the Sierra Leone bush, the son a chief, he came to Stockholm to study engineering – it was he who introduced her mother to the music Miles Davis, upon whose lap she was dandled as a child.
Cherry’s wholehearted commitment to ancestry seems so exotic and non-English. Yet to most us, she is a major part British pop history, at the centre the 90s trip-hop underground, virtually inventing the weed-infused west London sound that eventually produced Lily Allen.
When she started out, the press was more concerned with the fact she went on Top the Pops seven months pregnant. On the kitchen wall, there’s a collage (a wedding present from McVey) showing the same baby (Tyson) pasted on a blue sky, her nappy manipulated to form angel’s wings.
“When I found out I was pregnant, my mother said, ‘Don’t separate your life, the life that you’re going to make with this child, from the things that you are and what you want to do,'” she says. “Getting on Top the Pops and having that feeling with me was such a saving grace. I was aware all the entrapments, being suddenly on my own in the spotlight, not working as part the collective any more. But I remember standing there pregnant, and feeling charged by it – and proud, and very feminine, very woman. I thought, I’m not going to go away. I’m not going to go away.”
It still seems revolutionary, somehow. Talk to female pop stars the same age as Cherry was then and they continue to see motherhood as a separate life – a dream in the future, a house in the country, a huge brood and an indefinite career break. Last year, the video to Lily Allen’s tricksy comeback single, Hard Out Here, showed her under the scrutiny a plastic surgeon, protesting: “I’ve had two babies!” It was sort clear what point she was trying to make, but the national knicker-twisting that followed suggested we’re more edgy about pop mums, in one way or another, than we were in 1988.
“Obviously it doesn’t fit into the paper cut-out picture what a celebrity should look like,” Cherry says, “and I think the whole scenario has become really crazed. In modern motherhood syndrome, there’s this pressure high-level performance: you’ve got to have a great pregnancy, you’ve got to go to the gym, go jogging, have an amazing labour. You must have this whole magnificent, natural childbirth – I mean, thank God you can have an epidural, d’you know what I mean? Then you’re supposed to recover really quickly, start training, look great, go to work and juggle all those things seamlessly.”
After the success her 1996 album Man, which featured the worldwide hit 7 Seconds with Youssou N’Dour, Cherry stopped making solo albums, but she is frustrated at the idea that she “disappeared”. “People say, where did you go for 18 years?” she says. “Unless there’s some sort product to show for it, it’s as though the life doesn’t exist. I knew my kids were growing up fast and I decided to catch those years. That’s an option, isn’t it – if you want to become more authentic in your life and less a parody.”
Reading her press from the time her breakthrough, there’s the funny sense a clock having stopped. In 1988, they said: pop is entering a brand new age dominated by strong, sassy women! Alongside Cherry, other leaders the movement apparently included Salt-N-Pepa and the almost-forgotten British band Wee Papa Girl Rappers. Contemporary reviews praised Buffalo Stance for its anti-materialism and its original sense urban camaraderie, which is exactly what everyone said about Lorde’s Royals last year. Will we ever get fed up recycling the narrative about female pop titans?
“No, because women are fantastic,” she says, “and there is nothing sexier or more stimulating, or more exciting, than seeing a woman really being strong and comfortable within herself, whatever she’s doing. But I think we have taken some slaps recently. There is a kind sex-slave dimension now that is more aggressive – I want to say tasteless. When I look at my younger daughters, I do wonder how far we’ve come. Young women are starting to realise we need to be feminists.”
In the 80s, she rejected the term (“I feel I can just be a woman”), but things are different now. “I haven’t always felt that I’ve needed to use it as a label, but it is political and it is about social change,” she says. “Sure, it’s really hip to call yourself a feminist at the moment but there’s another side to it that’s more militant, more genuine.
“And I think that there’s room for everybody in there, whether you want to wear a G-string or, you know, a fucking sack! That’s why I love Beyoncé. There are other people that would maybe wear the same thing and you’d think…! But when she gets up and shakes her shit around, she’s having a good time – ’nuff respect.”
As an economic model, Cherry was ahead her time: if she started out now in the modern, leaner music industry, she would enjoy the very same career – some it lucrative, some it not – maintaining the same vast, mysterious network connections and collaborations.
“Maybe I’m a very simple person,” she says modestly, “but I’ve just kind got on with it – and I would do the same now. I am not super-ambitious. I am not a classically amazing singer or anything.”
The Cherry Bear Collective, her company with McVey, is now called Nomad Productions and is based in west London. Dozens people were involved in Blank Project – from Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), who produced it, to the two-man music factory RocketNumberNine and diffident Dutch songwriter the Child Lov, who died last year aged just 26.
There is the sense a gentle, complicated person here, someone who needs periodic coaxing to be in the spotlight, yet is “very spiritually dependent on what I do; without it, I would sag and fold up”.
Cherry describes her husband as “a crazy force nature. He has insight on a level beyond anyone else I know”. When McVey noticed she’d started writing songs again, after her mother’s death, he introduced her to the Thing (“partly because they had a connection to my heritage”), but the album they made consisted mainly cover versions: one step at a time.
“Cameron has a kind compulsive quality,” she explains. “And when he sees someone who has something to give, he wants to help. He’s probably the only person I can take my crazy meanderings to and piece the shit together as a song.”
They wrote much the album side by side on the sa. Instrumentally sparse, but full pounding tribal rhythms, it is both dark and airy; lyrics appear to be intensely personal: “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide/ husband and wife needing protection”. She shrugs f them f as “just words”, grabbed from the air, freestyle, then adds: “But, yes, some it’s about the black dog and the scary comfort zone that darkness can bring. You know, when you go duvet-diving; I started thinking about how you become addicted, in a way, to misery.”
It’s not something you can imagine from her today with those cheery brass hoops clattering around her ears. The track called Cynical is about “trying to be less so”. What about the one called Spit Three Times?
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when a cat walks out in front you?” she asks. “I try not to be superstitious, but, you know, we never put any shoes on the table. That’s totally against the law in our house. And I always salute when I see one magpie. People in Sweden – where they don’t do that – they think I’m nuts.”
Neneh Cherry and RocketNumberNine play Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth, tonight and Rough Trade East, London, on Tuesday