Neneh Cherry: Another bite of Cherry

Neneh Cherry may have been out of the spotlight, but as she tells Charlotte Cripps, she is poised to relaunch her music career
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Neneh Cherry is wearing a pair of brown cowboy boots and black fishnet tights with a denim miniskirt and loose black mohair V-neck jumper. Wavy black shoulder-length hair and big silver hoop earrings frame an open and serenely pretty face. She walks into Wise Buddha, a music and radio production company just off Oxford Street, in central London, looking radiant and very much the pop star at large.

Neneh Cherry is wearing a pair of brown cowboy boots and black fishnet tights with a denim miniskirt and loose black mohair V-neck jumper. Wavy black shoulder-length hair and big silver hoop earrings frame an open and serenely pretty face. She walks into Wise Buddha, a music and radio production company just off Oxford Street, in central London, looking radiant and very much the pop star at large.

It is hard to believe that she has just turned 40. All her family have recently been in town to celebrate her birthday, including Eagle-Eye Cherry, her younger brother, who came over from Sweden (where Neneh was born). The siblings duetted on the track "Long Way Around" on Eagle-Eye's second album, Living in the Present Future, released in 2000. Her mother is Moki Cherry, a Swedish artist who now lives in New York, and her biological father is Amadu Jah, a West African percussionist, whom she is still getting to know; she was brought up by her stepfather, the jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, who died in 1995.

Cherry has been on an indefinite sabbatical from the world of pop since 1996. That was the year she released her third album, the atmospheric Man, before promptly vanishing. What has she been up to? "I've been taking stock of my life for eight years," she says, as well as "cooking lots of suppers" at home for her three daughters - Naima, 21, Tyson, 15, and Mabel, eight. The youngest two children are from her relationship with her husband/producer Cameron McVey, aka Booga Bear, who worked on Massive Attack's Blue Lines and has been writer/producer on all three of her solo albums.

"There was a point not long ago when Tyson saw me getting my youngest daughter, Mabel, dressed in the mornings and it made her angry. When she was that age I wasn't there. I was on tour, and that hurts," says Cherry, who was the first female pop star to appear on Top of the Pops eight months pregnant - in tight Lycra. "But it is more important that Tyson is able to say that. Then you can think about moving on."

There have been low-profile forays into music, most recently a collaboration on Groove Armada's sassy Love Box in 2002 and a stint of DJing in Ibiza. She and her husband, McVey, also share their north-London home with a lodger, Mat, who "makes beats and is a genius". But of late, Cherry has been having a lot of fun making music at home with Tyson - who loves singing, but doesn't ever want to be famous. Cherry says the result of her time out of the public eye is that she is now "much stronger, and much clearer" about what she needs to do.

Why didn't she just stick with making more albums like Raw Like Sushi (her debut album in 1989)? She had heaps of hits - "Buffalo Stance", "Manchild" and "Kisses on the Wind". "It's destiny," she says. "On my journey, I haven't been able to stay in the cradle and rock in it. It is the same punk-rock mentality that got me started in the first place. Sure, I could have had a lot more money and success, but I've got a life for me - and my family and my sanity is what I want."

But it appears that Neneh Cherry is resurfacing. She is at Wise Buddha today to record her new Radio 2 show, Neneh Cherry's World of Music, a half-hour slot in which she plays whatever she wants. "I love to play music from the record collection that I grew up with - Earth, Wind and Fire, early Jackson Five, Dinah Washington, X-Ray Spex - woven in with other stuff, like Louis Armstrong, Sly Stone, old Studio One reggae." But she holds back from spinning tougher hip hop, "because BBC2 radio listeners aren't really used to it - yet". Cherry is also due to host an event on 5 April at the Barbican called Billie & Me, celebrating the spirit of the jazz singer Billie Holiday. Guests are to include Carleen Anderson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Amy Winehouse.

But you get the feeling that she is warming up for something much bigger. The last time a Neneh Cherry song had a huge global impact was in 1994, when "Seven Seconds", a duet with Youssou N'Dour, was a hit. It was No 1 in France for 17 weeks, and was so overplayed everywhere that even she must have got sick of it. "That tune grew on its own, completely out of proportion," she laughs. "It was out there doing its own thing. But that is a dream when you write a song."

Was she into being a pop star? "One part of me was determined not to get carried away and get put on to the carousel," she says. "I took it all with a pinch of salt - not to undermine what happened," she chuckles. "But I didn't expect it to happen the way that it did when I put my first record out." Did she ever get chased down the street by fans? "Not really, because I carried myself in such a way that I didn't attract that kind of reaction.

"But let's put it this way," she says, drifting back in time. "When Raw Like Sushi came out, I was 25. If I saw a group of school kids around that time, I would cross the road or make a funny face hoping that they wouldn't recognise me." She pulls a silly expression. "Now it is strange to be on the other side of age and time, getting older. But there is a big part of me that is the same me that I was in my twenties. It feels like I could stroke that period, hold it - but on the clock it says that it was a long time ago."

Cherry's career started at 16 with a brief sojourn in the volatile punk-rock band The Slits. That led, at 17, to the wild, bohemian outfit Rip Rig & Panic, for whom she shared vocals with Andrea Oliver. With Oliver and her fellow musicians, Gareth Sager, Bruce Smith, Sean Oliver and Mark Springer, Cherry mixed various musical forms - jazz, funk, soul among them - and released three inspired and maddening records, God (1981), I Am Cold (1982) and Attitude (1983). When the band split, Cherry joined one of the short-lived spin-off groups, Float Up CP, who released the excellent Kill Me in the Morning in 1986.

"These bands were birthplaces for me," she says today. "I'm really glad that I had that time. The Slits was a learning place, then Rip Rig & Panic was so free. There was such room for individuality, but really, that was what the band was about - taking your torch and letting it shine with everybody else. I've said this before, perhaps it is boring, but when I met Gareth, I was singing words and I didn't really know what they meant. But the grounding I got with these bands has meant more to me than a lot of the other stuff that comes with the chaos of success."

After Raw Like Sushi, which made her a household name, her second album, Homebrew, came three years later in 1992. It was different from her debut and disappointed many fans, who expected another dance/hip-hop album. Instead, It was a mature and diverse second record, with cameos from Gang Starr and REM's Michael Stipe and a hint of trip hop in "Somedays", co-written with Portishead's Geoff Barrow.

"A lot of people questioned why I didn't take Raw Like Sushi and run," says the singer. "They implied that Homebrew was a mistake, that I should have stayed with the 'Manchild' and 'Buffalo Stance's. But I think I did stay with 'Manchild': it really set the spirit of things to come, like 'Seven Seconds' and also some stuff on Homebrew. It was much more a direction I felt suited to," she says. "But as great as Raw Like Sushi was, there was a part of that whole process that I was slightly weary of, and that made me feel sick. This aspect of it needing to be repeated, to have overlapping success. I couldn't stomach becoming a caricature of myself."

Her last album, Man, was made in a terrible hurry (12 tracks in 14 days). Tracks such as "Kootchi" and "Beastiality" were concernedwith sex, life and death. "It was chaos," she says. "My stepdad, Don, was dying. He was living with us in Spain, we had all these musicians living with us, I was pregnant and I came out of that pretty mashed up. I had a strong sense of intuition that I needed to put the brakes on - not to sound too self-help about it - and do some proper healing, because otherwise I would have kept kick-starting for ever."

Cherry admits that since then it has been weird not putting out any music in her thirties. She says that the conflict was painful. "I kept telling myself that I should be making music. Then it was like, 'Look, I'm going to be in my life in a different way.' I went missing inside my work, anyway. I never got anything finished."

Did she ever feel like giving music up entirely? She giggles and says, "Sorry, I don't know why, but I feel really shy all of a sudden. Everyone will think that I am really boring because it doesn't sound as if I've been doing anything, but I have. I'm a slow person. It was a conscious decision - give time to other things I care about, like becoming a better mother."

Cherry says that she is now ready to put out some music. "It has actually got to the point where it is a compulsion. I'm hungry to make music." She is currently recording a fourth album, describing it as "the natural next stage on from the last one. But the third album was quite live, and now I am back with beats and working with a tougher sound.

"In the songwriting process, I am bored with being understanding or nice. Not to say it is dishonest, it still means something - but it is all a little more playful, which brings it full circle, because I think that is what made Raw Like Sushi - a sense that it had playfulness to it."

Just as the interview closes, she also tells me that she is about to become a grandmother. Naima, the 21-year-old daughter Cherry had with Rip Rig & Panic's drummer, Bruce Smith, is having a baby. Cherry looks ready for a shocked response. "Everyone told me to keep it quiet," she says. "Why? Why should that take away from womanhood and sexuality? I'd say it is a notch on my belt. Particularly now, in music, with this temporary, throwaway obsession with youth. Everyone's got to be under 20 - never over 22. But I think that people are longing for something good... That is why we listen to such insipid music as Norah Jones."

Is there anything in the charts that stands out? "OutKast," she says firmly. "They have managed to crack it - pop and cool - by not taking themselves too seriously, but without being a total joke. There is some wicked music out there, leftfield artists, especially People Under the Stairs and artists on Stones Throw Records, an LA hip-hop label - it's jazz-inflected, not bling-bling."

As we leave the studio, Cherry says: "I have absorbed my life now. I am ready for my music to unfold. I know time flies, but before the end of this year, the album will be out. Even if it kills me."

'Neneh Cherry's World of Music' is at 9.30pm on Radio 2 on Tuesdays; Billie & Me, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7510) on 5 April