She wore Lycra over her pregnant tummy in 1988; she has her kids to mock her if she gets too 'debauched'. She's no nana, this girlchild of 32

the interview NENEH CHERRY TALKS TO DOMINIC CAVENDISH 'It's like, God, mom, stop it, shut up!'

Three hours before Neneh Cherry's first solo UK gig and the singer is laid up with a stomach complaint. "She'll be fine," says Tony the tour manager as I wander into the venue, the Junction in Cambridge during the sound-check. "She's just been working hard. I've sent out for some natural yoghurt." No way is Neneh (pronounced "narna") going to rise from her sickbed to discuss her life with yet another journalist.

The atmosphere is mellow. La famille Cherry is hanging near the stage amps. Mabel Alabama-Pearl (seven months) is in a highchair, disgorging half-masticated food, while seven-year-old Tyson (bunches, gold booties) is skipping around to the cooing of hired helps and roadies. The eldest daughter, Naima, 13, has apparently gone on ahead to London.

"Hmm, it's quite homey here," Cherry says, three hours later, surveying the crowd, her glitter-daubed eyelids fluttering in mock-delicacy. Her trademark ''get- outta-here'' pose - frown, pout, imperial gaze - soon shakes things up. Neneh Cherry is a tough cookie. That much was clear from the moment she strode into the Top 10 in 1988 at the age of 24, with the sassy soul-rap-funk mishmash "Buffalo Stance". Someone who has appeared eight months' pregnant and wearing skintight Lycra on Top of the Pops was never going to let excess stomach acid hold them back. Although her appearance has hardly changed since then (apart from some selective hair bleaching), pop tastes have. "Buffalo Stance", which helped the debut album Raw Like Sushi sell millions, blended inner- city self-sufficiency with a defiant anti-materialism, but its hip-hop flavour marked it out as an Eighties' beast. By the time Cherry had produced the disappointing follow-up, Home Brew, things were moving on, not least towards trip-hop, a sound she herself helped bring into the world by using profits from Raw Like Sushi to fund Blue Lines, the first album by Massive Attack.

Although she has had two major hits in the Nineties - the anti-racism duet with Youssou N'Dour, "Seven Seconds", and "Woman", a fem- reworking of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" - it has been difficult to work out where her music is going and what, if anything, her "stance" is now.

The question is answered by the new, live Neneh. Easing the crowd in with a DJ-scratched rendition of "Manchild", her early anthem to dysfunctional maledom, she then dwells mainly on material from her latest album, Man. It's such an eclectic mix that it's impossible to pinpoint a new style, except that rap seems to be out ("Buffalo Stance" doesn't get an airing) and rock in. She has a good time: swilling lager, flaunting a black fishnet number and laughing at her own outrageousness ("Eskimo pussy is mighty cold" she intones at one point between songs). She is clearly not so much redefining an image as shedding her image-consciousness.

"The whole thing had to become more real," she explains later backstage, not a bead of sweat in sight. "I felt trapped by this perception of who I was. I would make an album and then talk about it for a whole year. I kind of lost the drift a bit. Now, hopefully, the music has moved centre- stage." The escape route appeared during the recording Man last year, when her stepfather, Don Cherry, the jazz trumpeter, was dying of cancer. His death caused "an emotional revolution" that fed into, and accelerated, her songwriting. "It was my way of dealing with the pain - channelling it into the music. This is the first time I've used my own life as subject matter. Previously, it was just things I'd seen." With the loss of her guiding light (a multi-instrumentalist who played in Ornette Coleman's ground- breaking free-jazz quartet, hooked up with the likes of John Coltrane and is generally credited with establishing "world music"), she also saw the need to get on the road while she could.

If it is difficult to place Neneh Cherry, that's probably because she is the archetypal Bohemian nomad. Born in Sweden, with formative spells in New York and London, and a home in the mountains in Malaga, her accent is more transglobal than transatlantic. Her conversation is punctuated by American "weirds" and south-London-meets-Stockholm "you knows". Her eyes fix you with a seen-it-all stare, but her eyebrows seem perpetually raised in amused surprise. She travelled with her hipster step-dad on and off from the age of two, invariably returning to the converted schoolhouse where her Swedish artist mother, Moki still lives. "One of my main memories is sitting in the back seat with my step-brother, holding an old steering wheel we'd found and pretending to drive." (There's also the one about sitting on Miles Davis's knee at the age of four, but she plays that down. "He had very sensual snakeskin trousers, I recall.")

As a teenager, she found Sweden "immensely boring" and headed for New York for her "projects' girl" period. "It was just hanging out, following kids who were running sound systems, staying out late and going to clubs. I would pocket the $10 for the cab fare I had been given and take the subway home." She did much the same thing when she came to London at 17, to sing with experimental punk-funk-jazz group Rip Rig and Panic (she had already come over two years before, when Don Cherry toured with girl- punk group the Slits). Not long afterwards, she had Naima by Rip Rig's drummer, Bruce Smith. "I had a strong sense that it was important to retain my own life. That it was possible to be a good mother and also have a good laugh. I made sure I went clubbing with my friends. We weren't going out to get laid, it was just to get on the dance floor and go for it. It was an important part of gaining confidence in myself as a woman."

Having the kids with her on the road, is, she says, a way of "maintaining my [she stutters] sss-adam ... sanady ... SANITY [she laughs]''. "If I get too debauched [and her new single "Kootchi" demands raunch] it's like 'God, mom, stop it, shut up!'" Her mission, in those days, was to "not pay attention to the normal things you were meant to be affected by as a girl". And now? "It's still about not wanting to be boxed in. I hate that contrived area of sexuality, where you have to be a nice chick." That's about as far as it goes. Ask her what "Woman" is about and she says that what women are doing now is "valid" and "perhaps there should be a bit more of a balance in nature". Her directness compensates for the Manhattan psychobabble: "Look, just because I work and have kids, it doesn't mean I'm some sort of sewn-to-the-ground, sucked-down-by-gravity huge earth mother. I'm just a person trying to figure out what I'm doing most of the time. Nowadays, she can figure it all out in tranquil Spanish surroundings, with her husband of six years (and musical partner since Rip Rig), Cameron "Booga Bear" McVey. She can get in touch with her white-witch side ("I'm into aromatherapy and oils and that thing of healing and stuff at the moment").

She can get advice over the phone from her trip-hop-legend-cum-mate, Tricky, who has collaborated with her on some as yet mostly unreleased material : "The other day he said 'listen girl, f---'em, f--- the charts, f--- it all, just do what you want to do,' which is the most wonderful thing anyone has ever said."

She insists that her street attitude will never leave her, even though it's a long time since she roamed south London. "It's a case of how you stand on the ground," she declares. So what's the next thing she's looking forward to? "Taking a deep breath of Malaga air, 'cos it smells so bloody good, and watching the old guys play dominoes. Just exist, you know?"

And with that, she has to go. There are fans to meet, university venues to play. I lament the lack of time allotted to the mid-tour interview. "You don't need more time," she says, "you'd be bored with me after an hour."

8 Neneh Cherry plays Shepherd's Bush Empire tonight (Booking: 0181-740 7474)

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