Swedish musician Neneh Cherry has been a staple of the alternative scenes for almost four decades – from her early years as a member of punk bands like The Slits, to an outgoing solo artist funk-punk headliners like “Buffalo Stance” and “Manchild,” and as an early streetwear icon and recent muse for designers like Bottega Veneta’s Daniel Lee. Five studio albums and two Grammys later, the 58-year-old Swedish musician is back with Versions, a collection of Cherry’s own songs reworked by other titans of the music industry including Robyn, Kelsey Lu, ANOHNI, Jamila Woods and Sudan Archives. For the project, which came about after Cherry heard a remix of “Buddy X” from her longtime friend Honey Dijon, Cherry let her collaborators loose on the creative process. As she tells R&B artist and fellow Swede, Snoh Aalegra, it’s the punk way. To mark the album’s release last Friday, the pair met for the first time on Zoom to chat about nostalgia, getting a Reiki massage from Sia and getting together in the woods.—ERNESTO MACIAS
[Both speak in Swedish]
SNOH AALEGRA: A little Swedish hello.
NENEH CHERRY: We are from the Swedish fraternity. Hi! Nice to see you.
AALEGRA: I’m so excited to finally talk to you. I mean, we never met. I’ve just admired you from afar all my life.
CHERRY: Oh, bless you. I admire you too. I have to tell you, when we were all locked up in my house, we had one of your songs on our survival playlist. Every time I heard it, I was like, “Oh my god, I love this song. Who is it again? And Tyson [McVey, Neneh’s daughter] would go, “It’s Snoh!” You guys have been very medicinal to us on this fucking pandemic trip.
AALEGRA: Did you spend the pandemic in London?
CHERRY: I was here from March to August. Then we ended up spending six months in our house in the forest in Sweden, a former school. I grew up between there and New York. There is no central heating. We were making fires.
CHERRY: Yeah, it was pretty nice. I haven’t spent this much time there since I was young. I had two personal spiritual journeys that I always wanted to do in Sweden. The first lived in Stockholm as an adult. I hadn’t lived in Stockholm since I was four, so going back there was a shock to me. It was an important part of my understanding of my Swedish identity after feeling like an impostor for so long. I finally got to a point where I’m like, “Yo, that’s how Swedish I am.”
CHERRY: The second trip was to stay at my family home in the forest. It was deep. In my family, we call this house “the source”. We always go back to reset and connect with our creativity. I really needed it, it made me enter another phase of myself.
AALEGRA: I haven’t spent so much time in Sweden since I left eight years ago. I go there twice a year, and I can relate to what you are saying about making Sweden your own thing and finding your place. As an immigrant, my parents immigrated from Iran to Sweden, and that’s where I was born. Because I don’t “look Swedish”, I have to explain myself. I always ask myself: “Where is the house, really? Where do I stand? It’s been a constant search, and that’s why the music – I mean, it sounds like a cliché, but you can probably relate – makes me feel so at home. It’s a place where people don’t question you.
AALEGRA: So it was interesting for me, but it’s about you! I just want to say that you are what I would call a Swedish national treasure. You embody everything I love: your voice, your tone, the melancholy, which all smell very Swedish. Even the contagious joy you have in your music. It’s impossible to watch “Buffalo Stance” and not smile. Your music and videos are some of the best things I’ve seen in my life. I’m so excited to talk to you today, and I’m honored to be able to hear about this project early. It’s nice. When did you decide to do it?
CHERRY: You know, I feel like sometimes the best things are accidents, llike our children sometimes. [Laughs] Basically, for the 30th anniversary reissue of Raw like sushi came out a few years ago, Honey Dijon did a remix of “Buddy X” as part of the relaunch. It sparked an idea. I was sitting with my family of people I work with – my husband, Robyn, and my manager. We were like, “It would be interesting to get a few people to reinvent these songs instead of doing more remixes.” Honey is an artist in her own right. I’m so allergic to being too nostalgic – I’ve always had this absolute allergy to the karaoke life. I don’t want to live in the past.
AALEGRA: I completely agree.
CHERRY: So it’s a way to breathe new life into music through these amazing new artists. To pass the baton. I mean, Robyn did “Buffalo Stance” with Dev Hynes. I think they recorded it somewhere really weird, maybe in Las Vegas.
AALEGRA: I was just going to ask you. Where were these songs recorded? Were you in the bedroom?
CHERRY: I didn’t attend any of the sessions.
CHERRY: I wish I was in the room, but I didn’t want to interfere. For me, it wasn’t about having a creative input.
AALEGRA: I love that it’s a women-led project. Was that the plan, or did it end like this?
CHERRY: It just seemed like a no-brainer to me. Then, it was a dream situation to reach out to these amazing women who touched me a lot in this moment. So many people said yes. The initial idea was to stick to Raw like sushibut people were excited about other songs.
AALEGRA: I was going to ask you about one of the versions of “Manchild” you did with Sia. I read that she was the first person to give you Reiki. Can you tell me about it? Because I really like Reiki, but I never received it from Sia. She seems very intuitive.
CHERRY: It’s a funny thing with Sia. I haven’t seen her in a while, but I absolutely adore her and will always consider her part of my family. My house was always an open house, and there were always people coming and going – Cameron, my husband, worked with her and they had become quite close. I was completely obsessed with the Zero 7 album, which was the first time I heard Sia sing.
AALEGRA: How did you meet?
CHERRY: We met at my house. I guess I was in a bit of a funny place in my life. I was going through some things, and I was supposed to be working, but I wasn’t really inside myself. Anyway, something happened one day, and she said, “Look. Have you ever done Reiki? Do you want to try it?” I don’t really like walking into an old massage parlor and having my back massaged, I don’t like people coming into my space, even though I’m a very physical person. But Sia said to me, “Let’s go to your room”, and she laid me down on the bed. It was 20 years ago, and I had never even heard of Rieki. It was pretty intense, and afterwards there was this incredible trust between us.
AALEGRA: My next question is about “Sassy,” which your daughter Tyson sings on. Yesou have three children. Are they all singing?
CHERRY: I have three daughters and a stepson. They all make music.
AALEGRA: It’s so cool that you are a musical family.
CHERRY: It’s funny how it ended like that, but my mom used to say, “The stage is your house and the house is your stage. She had very insightful ideas about family, creativity, and being an artist. It’s part of who we are, and I’ve expressed things in it through the music or the performance that I can’t put into words. This is of the soul, and it rises through your feet.
AALEGRA: Did you have any say in the final mix process?
CHERRY: I didn’t touch anything. I wanted each artist to feel like the song was theirs, because it’s a very personal thing, doing someone’s song. Tyson remembers being a kid in the studio when I did “Sassy.” She really wanted to do it, because IIt’s in his DNA. She had to evolve to find a way to revisit this music to which she feels so close, but in her own language.
AALEGRA: I like this.
CHERRY: I cried when I heard it.
AALEGRA: Obviously, you inspired all the artists on this album. Who inspired you?
CHERRY: Music was a constant in my household, and my stepfather was a jazz musician. We had a crazy record collection of everything from Miles Davis and Sly and the Family Stone, to Chrissie Hynde and Polly Stone of the X-ray Specs. But it was the female voices that helped me find myself. My epiphany record was the one I found by mistake, it was Tanya “Sweet Tea” Windley and it was called “Vicious Rap”. It was the only female rap record sitting on a record wall. I was like, “Give me that.” I didn’t even listen in the store. I wanted to be her.
CHERRY: Yeah, and also MC Lite, Roxanne Shante, Mary J. Blige. I mean, it just goes on and on, but something about these women gave me strength and purpose.
AALEGRA: That’s how I feel about your music and your artistic personality. It embodies strength, and you are so vulnerable at the same time.
CHERRY: It’s fun to have party songs that make you want to get up and dance, but are still emotional. That’s why I love Frank Ocean. He’s got that Stevie Wonder thing, he just makes me feel too much.
AALEGRA: The quintessence of sensations. He changed the game of R&B. With his writing, be honest about who he is. Everyone had to step in and I am so grateful that it exists. Are we going to see these songs live?
CERISE: I think so. I would love to do some of these songs with the artists, but maybe I want to do their versions in my own set as well. I think some of them are better than the originals. I love Sanibel’s version of “Kisses On The Wind”.
AALEGRA: I love that one so much. My last question: What is your favorite Swedish pastry?
CHERRY: Oh, the saffron rolls from the Factory at Christmas.
AALEGRA: Good. I’m obsessed with all Swedish pastries.
CHERRY: I have a question for you too.
AALEGRA: Oh, you?
CHERRY: You know, there’s one song that nobody’s finished, and that’s “Seven Seconds.”
AALEGRA: Oh my God. I can’t. . It’s so perfect. No one should touch it.
CHERRY: [Laughs] I just wanted to ask you. Think about it.
AALEGRA: I am extremely honored that this sentence even came out of your mouth.
CHERRY: I’m so happy to talk to you.
AALEGRA: Likewise, and I hope we will meet in person.
CHERRY: Oh my god. Take my number.
AALEGRA: I’ll call you.
CHERRY: I’ll DM you back. This is the modern way.