How We Met: Neneh Cherry and Andrea Oliver
Sunday 15 November 1998
NENEH CHERRY: I was in Rip, Rig and Panic with Andrea's brother Sean. In about 1981, he drove into a lamppost in Cambridge Circus, and I used to go and read to him in Middlesex Hospital. One day Andrea just appeared. It was love at first sight. As soon as we saw each other, it felt like, "Where the hell have you been?" It was like we'd always known each other. Within minutes we were outside in the smoking room, smoking fags and planning to make a record together.
We were in the same place in our lives. She was 17, I was 16. I came from a more bohemian, on-the-move sort of family, and she came from a much straighter background, but we were both breaking out of that environment and finding ourselves. When I saw her, it was like hearing a lost voice. I felt an immediate, unspoken bond. It felt really secure.
We'd cook together, and at the same time we'd have this pot of hot toddy at the side. We'd boil this whisky because we thought that would make it stronger. So we thought we were getting drunk, but in fact there'd be no alcohol left in it.
We'd try and sew clothes for Bruce, who I was married to at the time, but neither of us knew what the hell we were doing. We were like kids. We'd play Earth, Wind and Fire and work out incredibly complex dance routines that we'd forget at the end of the evening. We'd be out dancing three nights a week. Tuck our skirts into our knickers and just dance.
There's been a lot of coming home in the early mornings after funny nights out, having bizarre sandwiches in bed. A lot of under-the-duvet parties, watching EastEnders and black-and-white movies. For a long time, we were almost like man and wife. Guys always assumed we were going out. They'd look at us and have these lurid fantasies about the two of us.
They were wonderful times when I look back on them now. I wouldn't change them for anything in the world. But they were also quite tough. We were quite young and we gave each other confidence. We're both quite strong and capable on the outside, but we're also quite vulnerable, and I think we've propped each other up. We still do. And there's more of us to prop up now.
For instance, when my dad was dying, Andrea was incredibly supportive. And any time I'm having a bad day, if I ring her up she'll be there in a minute. She'll just drop everything, and I try to do the same.
We speak to each other about twice a day on the phone. And she has got the best pair of breasts to sob into. I love my tears going down her cleavage. It's very consoling.
I feel like I've learnt so much from her. She's always so forceful and so powerful. I've looked at her and thought, I wish I could be more like her. Sometimes, when I don't know what I'm feeling or thinking, I phone her or I see her, and she'll help me find out what it is that's lurking inside me. I feel more like myself when I'm around her.
When I became successful, it was never in any way strange for us. But Andrea experienced people around her being really snidey and weird, like, "What's it like being left behind?" Really picking for a problem. But now it's Andrea's time. I mean, it's always been her time but now she can finally start getting some credit and making money from it, which is what she deserves.
We quite often say to each other, we're becoming like one of those Alice Walker books, our story is getting deep and expansive. We've been through the major transitions in each other's lives. I was there when she had her daughter. We both had kids when we were really young and, in a way, we couldn't have done it without each other. We would have each other's kids around us like they were our own. They're family.
Miquita's about two years younger than Naima, but it's weird, sometimes I'll look at the two of them together and they've sort of become like us. They'll hate reading that! But I remember Naima saying to me, "I was out with Miquita and we just danced together, we just gelled together when we danced," and I got all choked up. It was just like Andrea and me.
ANDREA OLIVER: Whenever I remember how we met, I think it's so sweet. I was still living up in Bury St Edmunds with my mother, and my brother Sean came up and he showed me this record of Don Cherry.
He was going, "I know his daughter, she's so lovely!" And then he went back down to London and had this really horrible car crash which meant he had to have a pin put in his leg. Neneh used to visit him every single day in hospital, take him food and read to him out of this amazing African history book called My People, which Don used to have. I walked in and Sean went, "This is Neneh." We kind of went, "Ah, hi! It's you!" We just met and fell in love. It was like I knew her already. She was like an old friend I'd made as a kid. I could go, "You know that thing ... " And she'd go, "Yeah! I know exactly what you mean."
Now I don't even smoke, but we went in the hallway and shared a fag, and by the time we got back we decided we were going to sing together. Everyone was like, "Yeah, right," but about six months later we were on the road together in Rip, Rig and Panic. It really was like some huge weird romance.
We have so much fun it makes other people sick. We go into our own world and it can be quite impenetrable. We talk in code sometimes, we finish each other's sentences. The first interview I ever did on the radio was with Neneh. I don't think anybody could understand it. She was like, "You know when I was going to ... " And I'd say, "New Zealand, yeah." We were just giggling on the radio for half an hour.
I think we're hewn from the same rock. We were both little punk teenagers. She lived in southern Sweden and went to school with a bunch of strange rednecky types and I was the only black kid at my school in Suffolk. We've reacted to life in very similar ways, I think. We both eat up life, every moment of it, and it's a really wonderful thing to find someone who can eat up life at the same pace as you.
Neneh taught me how to be free as a person. Ever since I was a kid, I've always wanted to run around for seven hours going, "Yaaah!" Everyone would tell me I was making too much noise and to shut up. Neneh was the first person to go, "Yeah!" And she ran around with me with the same energy, the same gusto. That's a wonderful validation and affirmation of the way you instinctively feel. If I hadn't met her I think I'd be more scared of being me.
Every single time I see Neneh on stage I just cry. I just get so proud it makes me sick. When she stands up onstage and sings, it's a moment of real beauty, her own special, individual beauty. And when you see somebody you love displaying their magic, it's a beautiful thing.
Neneh makes me cry through happiness a lot. We'll get drunk or whatever and we'll sit up until three in the morning and at about a quarter to three we'll start to weep. It's just the time that we've had together that makes us cry. We have brought each other through some hell and some glory; some absolutely beautiful, joyful moments and some really painful times.
Neneh and my brother Sean loved each other enormously, and when he died nine years ago, Neneh didn't express the way she felt about it in front of me for a good couple of years, until she felt I could take it. I didn't even realise that until afterwards. She just nursed me through it until it was safe for her to let her own pain out.
Over the years, she's not changed essentially. She's much better at loving herself now which I'm really happy about, because I want her to love herself - in case I'm not about. Someone's got to do it! The things that have changed are marriages, boyfriends ... she is quite grown-up these days. She's just bought a new house and a proper big fridge. She's got married and had 25 children. (I tell her often she's the Swedish farm girl. She just pops 'em out. It only takes her 20 minutes.)
I can remember looking into her eyes throughout her wedding day, just incredulous that we were these grown-ups and she was getting married again. Because there's something about the way I see Neneh, and I think probably in the way she sees me, where we remain 16 and 17. In essence she's still a mad 16-year-old. And every now and again we remember that we're really old bags! We get really quite confused by it. How did that happen? Damn.
! Neneh Cherry and Andrea Oliver feature in 'Crazy, Sexy, Cool' on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 11pm
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE ORINO
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