Neneh Cherry wears contradiction stunningly. The part-African, part-Swedish singer-songwriter composes urban street music in the heart of the Swedish countryside. She keeps her family close without settling down in any one place for too long. She loves to don sexy underwear beneath her army pants. What she thinks about her music easily applies to her life: ”I like not having a formula,” Cherry says. ”The whole time it’s like tossing coins — I’m a bit allergic to the obvious.”
And it’s clear that when Cherry, 28, tosses a coin, the odds are in her favor. When she released her first album, 1989’s Raw Like Sushi, and rocked the globe with ”Buffalo Stance,” 2 million people anted up. When she then took three years off, her fans waited. And now, as she resurfaces with Homebrew — the year’s freshest fusion of hip-hop, rap, and dance music, establishing her as a radiant pop star — people are talking like she never missed a beat.
”I was completely milked out by the end of the last album,” says Cherry, who at the time had just given birth to her second daughter. ”For this record to be really, really worth listening to, it had to come in its own time. We had to absorb something before we got going again.” The we refers to her eight-year partner in love and business, Cameron McVey (a.k.a. Booga Bear), with whom she wrote Homebrew.
Not that she was simply slacking off. During her apparent hiatus, Cherry was traveling in Spain and England, recording Cole Porter’s ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin” for Red Hot+Blue, spending time with her daughters, Naima, 10, and Tyson, now 3.5, moving her family and some business enterprises from London to Sweden, devoting the better part of a year to producing the new album with Booga Bear and Jonny Dollar, and planting her very first vegetable patch.
Somewhere in there, Cherry and Booga Bear (”he picks his nose a lot,” she offers) even found time to stop at a London registry office and get married. ”I felt it was important to have the guts to admit to one another that we wanted to make the commitment,” she says. ”I found someone who was actually willing to see me for what I was. Someone who recognized my weaknesses — and that was freaky.”
Recognizing her own strengths came early to Cherry. Though she’s still in touch with her natural father, Sierra Leonean percussionist Ahmadu Jah, she grew up with her mother, Moki, a Swedish artist, and her stepfather, American jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, shuttling between his musical gigs on the road and their homes in New York and Sweden.
By age 13 she was spending entire nights hanging out in Manhattan clubs. Her formal education ended at 15, when Cherry went to London, ”turned myself into a punk overnight,” and began singing with a ragged all-female outfit called the Slits.
She went on to join the punk-funk-fusion group Rip Rig & Panic and then its offshoot, Float Up C.P. At 18, she married Rip Rig drummer Bruce Smith and gave birth to Naima. Within three years, they’d split up and she’d begun a successful love and writing relationship with McVey, which blossomed into Raw Like Sushi. ”She’s the best songwriter I’ve ever worked with,” says McVey, 35. ”She’s a woman of her time, and I suppose only a few of those exist in any generation.”