It’s easy to forget now, but when Swedish musician Neneh Cherry released her Raw Like Sushi album in 1989, a manic blur of R&B, hip-hop, reggae, punk (she had previously been a member of punky reggae band The Slits), African rhythms, and pure pop, she was on top of the world. In Europe especially, songs such as “Buffalo Stance” and “Manchild” were everywhere. Here in the States too, she had an enviable following.
The follow-up, 1992’s Homebrew, performed a little more modestly as Cherry experimented with jazz (her stepfather Don Cherry was a renowned American jazz musician) and electronic music, particularly trip-hop. But her third, ’96’s Man, propelled into the upper reaches of the charts again thanks in part to “7 Seconds,” a duet with Senegalese singer and songwriter Youssou N’Dour.
And then she was gone, at least as a solo artist. For 18 years, she focused on raising her children, occasionally popping up on collaborations, such as with Scandinavian jazz trio The Thing. Finally, 18 years after Man, Cherry returned with the Blank Project album in 2014, which performed okay in the charts (a whole new charts system to the one she left, by the way) but did very well with the critics. And now she’s back again with Broken Politics, her fifth studio album.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Cherry says. “When we made the record, I really felt like we’re in a good space with the songwriting — me and Cameron [McVey] who I write with. And I felt like we knocked out some good songs… Then the record came out and the response has been great, which is amazing. It doesn’t always turn out that way.”
Cherry has always been an artist unafraid to tackle world events, and blend those topics with the super-personal. Nothing has changed in that regard, except for the fact that she’s older, wiser, and more experienced. Naturally, that all manifests itself in the music.
“When I wrote Raw Like Sushi it was like sitting there waiting to come out,” she says. “The kind of album that was very in the moment. It became a kind of little diary. A collection of my journey so far. But when I went to make Homebrew, I was definitely needing to reflect a little more, to dig deeper, and to be thinking a bit more about what I wanted to say. I think Blank Project was a long puking session. With this one, it kind of came home more. I definitely needed to have more time and to be more reflective. It’s a craft, and it’s a craft that you have to work at. Maybe I have more skills now, in a different way, to sit down and write a song.”
It has to feel strange to get back on the traditional working musician’s horse. After so many years out, Cherry is back in the cycle of “write, record, release, promo, tour, repeat.” Many musicians that don’t take breaks have talked about how exhausting that can be and, maybe, it can hamper the creative process. So does Cherry think that her own break helped her in the long run?
“It was a funny break because it wasn’t a planned break,” she says. “I didn’t say I’m retiring. It just turned out that way. Obviously I was bringing up my kids, and the music I was making was collaborative in a different way. Guesting on other people’s things. I didn’t feel the need or desire to be in the center of things. I definitely knew that I wanted to sidestep the mainstream thing. I got to a place with the pop part of the industry that I was like, ‘I don’t think that I completely fit in here.’ I know that I’ve recorded things sometimes and listened to it, and not believed it because I just wasn’t truly engaged. I just wasn’t able to go through the motions just for the sake of it. So I got to a place where it’s like, ‘Okay I’m ready now’.”
Cherry is having the time of her life, because she feels free to release the music that she wants to, while also enjoying the fact that she’s still a “name” — people care about what she’s doing, but she can explore. That’s a cool balance to have achieved, and it allows her to enjoy performing those old standards, such as “Buffalo Stance,” without a hint of resentment.
“They’re like little golden nuggets,” she says. “Little funny babies. I still get a lot from doing them, but if I had no other music I’d probably feel really different about that. I have new music that I think sometimes stands up better than some of the old songs, but the old songs need to be there because they’re a part of the backbone of the new music. There’s space for everything. But I couldn’t just be out there being some sort of weird karaoke person. I would die.”
This week, Cherry performs at August Hall and it’s a special occasion because it’s the first time she will have played here as a solo artist (her only other S.F. gig was as a member of The Slits).
“I’ve never played a gig there and I’ve literally not really been there ever for promo or anything, so I’m happy that’s happening now,” she says. “Crazy but true. Predominantly, [the set is taken from] Broken Politics. We’re a seven piece band — a funny little family. There’s some golden oldies, but 65-70 percent of the tunes are from Broken Politics.”
It’s just good to finally get you here, Neneh!
Neneh Cherry with Davomakesbeats (Swagger Like Us)
Friday, Sept. 13 , 9 p.m., at August Hall, 420 Mason St. $30, augusthallsf.com.