Friday, April 11, 2014

Neneh Cherry - Running In The Family

The term ‘runs in the family’ can have many and varied connotations, good and bad, depending upon context.  Popular music is sprinkled with family connections of all natures, and in the case of Neneh Cherry, the Cherry family tree has served to produce one of the most talented singer/songwriters to have emerged during the late 80s, and into the 90s.  The ‘Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia of Rock & Roll’ surmised her early career as encompassing styles as disparate as “dropping beats and wisdom like a cosmo boho”, through to “prancing like an African queen”.  It was doubtless the girl was artistically versatile, with depth and substance to match.

Neneh Cherry was born Neneh Mariann Karlsson in the land of Volvo’s and all things ABBA, but moved to New York City at an early age.  She was raised and educated by her Swedish mother Moki (an artist), and step-father Don Cherry (whose surname she adopted).  Don Cherry was a world renowned jazz trumpeter who struck gold back in 1956 with the worldwide top five smash ‘Band Of Gold’.  Suffice to say jazz music was a mainstay soundtrack in the Cherry household, and a young Neneh soaked up the influences, in particular becoming a devotee of jazz luminary Ornette Coleman, often falling asleep to a jazz soundtrack whilst on tour with her step-father Don.

At age 17, Neneh Cherry relocated to London where she initially sang backup to the ska band Nails, then augmented the line-up of (nearly) all-girl punk outfit the Slits.  She already had a connection of sorts with the band, as step-father Don had provided guest trumpets on earlier work.  Following the demise of the Slits in 1981, Cherry followed drummer Bruce Smith (the father of her first child) to the newly formed outfit Rip, Rig & Panic, with whom she sang and played percussion.  The band was a stylistic blending of punk, funk, jazz, ska, and soul, that would inform Neneh’s future musical direction.  They released three albums - ‘God’ (1981); ‘I Am Cold’ (1982); ‘Attitude’ (1983) - before parting ways.  I recall seeing Rip, Rig & Panic guest on the TV sitcom ‘The Young Ones’ during the 1982 series.  Cherry followed up her tenure there with a debut single, titled ‘Stop The War’, followed by a new project Float Up C.P. during the mid 80s, and began rapping regularly at London clubs.  Her soulful vocals were also in much demand during that period and she appeared on The The’s ‘Slow Train To Dawn’ during 1986, and worked with Massive Attack as an arranger.  That same year Cherry met Cameron McVey (better known as Booga Bear), and the two formed a song-writing partnership that would bear considerable fruit before season’s end.

In 1988, Neneh Cherry entered the studio with producer/ musician McVey to record a revamped version of a song from McVey’s mid 80s project Morgan-McVey.  ‘Buffalo Stance’ was a funk-edged song laced with hip-hop beats, and interposed with Cherry’s wide-girl rapping.  It hit the charts during November of ‘88 and took a stance at #3 on both sides of the Atlantic (OZ#16).  Cherry came to notice as a woman of substance when she appeared on Top Of The Pops in a lycra bodysuit, whilst heavily pregnant with her second child.  The smooth and soulful ‘Manchild’, backed by a captivating music video, followed in May of ‘89 (UK#5/OZ#51) as a lead in to the release of Cherry’s debut album.

With such a diverse musical background, Cherry brought with her a melting pot of stylistic influences in the recording of her debut album - infusing it with hip-hop, jazz, soul, R&B, and avant-rock elements.  ‘Raw Like Sushi’ hit stores in mid ‘89 and soon served up a feast at #2 on the British charts (US#40/OZ#35).  The single ‘Kisses On The Wind’ blew in at #8 on the U.S. charts in late ‘89 (UK#20/OZ#52), and was followed by ‘Inner City Mama’ (UK#31), which further exemplified Cherry’s depth lyrically, addressing issues of motherhood and feminism with a maturity that belied her still young age (25 years).  In 1990, Cherry contributed the track ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ (cover of Cole Porter song - UK#25/OZ#63) to the AIDS research benefit album ‘Red, Hot and Blue’.  Soon after, Cherry returned to Sweden with now husband McVey to write and record her sophomore album in the township in which she grew up.

By late 1992, Cherry returned with the appropriately titled album ‘Homebrew’, a slightly less intoxicating set than her debut effort (UK#27/ OZ#74), which was led out by the single ‘Money Love’ (UK#23/ OZ#84).  The album featured guest spots from Gangstarr’s Guru, and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. The follow up single ‘Buddy X’ was, upon initial release, restricted to top 40 status (UK#35) - though it became a staple on MTV - but in late ‘99 was given a makeover and re-released by Dreem Team Vs. Neneh Cherry, and found a spot at #15.

After a quiet couple of years, Neneh Cherry came to the fore again in 1994 with the mesmerising and evocative single, ‘7 Seconds’, a duet with famed Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour.  Backed by an affecting promotional video, ‘7 Seconds’ took no time at all to peak at #3 in both Britain and Australia, and reached top spot in France (where it stayed for a remarkable 17 weeks) - I purchased the song on CD single at the time.  In March of ‘95, Neneh Cherry’s name was attached to the Comic Relief charity single, ‘Love Can Build A Bridge’, a British #1 hit that also featured Cher, Chrissie Hynde, and Eric Clapton.

Having released her work in Britain via the Circa label, Cherry signed with Virgin subsidiary Hut for her third album, 1996’s ‘Man’ (UK#16).  The album featured  the powerful feminist anthem ‘Woman’ (UK#9/OZ#16) which hit the charts mid year, a lyrical retort to the 1966 James Brown hit ‘It’s A Man’s World’.  Other featured tracks included ‘Kootchi’ (UK#38), and ‘Feel It’ (UK#38).

Neneh Cherry then took an indefinite sabbatical from solo recording to focus in part on family duties, but she remained actively involved in all manner of creative endeavours.  She formed a production company with her husband, has worked on several television projects, collaborated in jewellery design, contributed vocals to artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, and Groove Armada, and was an integral part of the band CirKus (alongside her husband, and daughter).  In 2011, Cherry returned to her jazz roots when she collaborated with The Thing, an experimental jazz group, with whom she felt a great affinity.

Following an absence from solo work of nearly eighteen years, Neneh Cherry released an album of new material in early 2014, titled ‘Blank’, with a European Tour in support announced soon after.

Proof that the Cherry doesn’t fall far from the family tree came in the form of Neneh Cherry’s half-brother Eagle-Eye.  Born the son of Don Cherry and Neneh’s Swedish mother Moki, Eagle-Eye was so named due to his opening of one eye shortly after birth, whilst being looked over by father Don.  Like his half-sister Neneh (four years his senior), he was raised in New York City, though also like Neneh, he spent a good amount of time in tow as his father toured the world.  Through such experiences, Eagle-Eye soon gained an ear for drumming, and a multitude of other musical instruments.  But his first passion upon reaching maturity was firmly in the thespian arts, enrolling in the famed Manhattan School of Performing Arts (FAME!).  It wasn’t until he was 24 that Eagle-Eye Cherry gravitated to a formal musical environment, when he joined his first band, whilst still studying towards a degree.

Within two years he had been signed up to Sony’s subsidiary Work Records label, and contributed soon after on the Marvin Gaye tribute album, ‘Inner City Blues: The Music Of Marv’, in 1996.  It was during this period that Eagle-Eye Cherry amassed a solid catalogue of self-penned songs, that would form the basis of his debut album.  Said album, released on Polydor, arrived in mid ‘98 under the banner of ‘Desireless’ (UK#3/US#45).  Like older sister Neneh, Eagle-Eye infused a myriad of song styles, and influences on the critically lauded debut set, from 70s era funk, through Dylan-esque guitars, and Motown vocals, he quickly drew comparisons with Lenny Kravitz (see future posts).  The debut single, ‘Save Tonight’ was a world wide smash (UK#6/UK#5/ OZ#17), and was followed up by another British top ten hit with ‘Falling In Love Again’ (UK#8).  The source album, ‘Desireless’, went on to sell over four million copies worldwide, and achieved platinum status.

With a burgeoning reputation as a songwriter with innate sensibilities and a wide aural palette, Eagle-Eye Cherry was enlisted to compose the soundtrack albums for the films ‘Best Laid Plans’ and ‘Go’ in the year following his debut set.  With producers The Dust Brothers and Rick Rubin on board, Cherry released his sophomore album ‘Living In The Present Future’ (UK#12) in 2000.  It featured my favourite track of his, ‘Are You Still Having Fun?’ (UK#21).  Over the ensuing twelve years, Eagle-Eye Cherry released three further albums - ‘Sub Rosa’ (2003); ‘Live And Kicking’ (2007); ‘Can’t Get Enough’ (2012).  In early 2014, he released the single ‘Dream Away’.  With sister Neneh reviving her solo career, it may not be beyond the bounds of reality to envisage a creative collaboration between the two of them in the not too distant future.

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