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)

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

    Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

    Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

    £10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

    £17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable