neneh cherry takes the big apple
Ahead of her first ever New York show i-D catches up with the icon to talk all things NYC.
"It feels quite monumental—emphasis on the mental—that I've never played a proper show in New York because a part of me is from there," explained i-D OG Neneh Cherry. Cherry isn't merely referring to a spiritual connection to the city, but the fact that she came of age smack dab in the middle of the city's creative renaissance, a long lost era in which Patti Smith might as well have been mayor and no tourist would ever set foot in Times Square. Ahead of her show at the Highline Ballroom tonight, we caught up with Cherry to hear her take on the City That Never Sleeps.
Can you start by telling us about growing up in New York?
We had a loft in Long Island City, and although there were already a lot of people living that area, we were part of this pioneering posse of people who went into these large loft spaces in no man's land. We moved there, a building that used to be a factory down by the river, around 77, when I was 13-years-old. Tina Weymouth from the Talking Heads, her brother John, and his friend Julia were great family friends who had a loft in the building as well; our next door neighbour was Ernie Brooks from The Modern Lovers. That loft was home until three years ago, when we were celebrating Christmas and planning our move: packing down the loft and dismantling the story, which was pretty hardcore. I mean what a story that place told! My mother was an artist, so that loft was like an installation, a whole journey and a whole story from 77. Unpeeling it was a profound experience, a real trip.
On the last day, I was the last person in the loft. I had a taxi waiting downstairs and a flight back to London, but there was this amazing sunset over Manhattan. It was one of those deep winter skies. I could see out over the skyscrapers and a little bit of the sun's setting reflection on the floorboards my mother painted white. I closed the door just as the light fell off, it was almost as if the loft went to sleep in that moment. It was heartbreaking, but the loft and its era live on in my mind and in my heart.
What was being 13 in New York in 1977 all about? Who were the people doing exciting things in the city at that time?
When I was travelling to New York with my mother through London, I kind of discovered punk overnight. My best friend growing up, Natasha, and I started going out and spending a lot of time at places like Pier 3. Punk was starting to branch out and collide with a lot of other genres, so it was the era of bands like Bad Brains and Television. We also used to go to clubs like the Mudd Club or Danceteria. It was a very cool time to be as young as we were and let in, there was no question that we weren't gonna take part. Of course people perceived us as the kids and youngsters, but that was fine. Nothing was gonna get in our way! It was actually quite a free, creative, and inspiring time. Our bands couldn't play for shit, but that didn't matter. I was part of a cool little family of people and all of us were into being creative.
Did that family mentality carry over when you moved to London and joined Ray Petri's massively influential Buffalo tribe?
I'd been living in London for about four years before I met Ray Petri, Mark Lebon, and the Buffalos, so I joined that family a little way down the line. That era was quite DIY and people were into being self expressive, so I definitely had my own style, but I learned so much from Ray—we all did. It was a new school, a new environment. Going out in New York when Afrika Bambaataa and Fab Five Freddy were coming up, seeing hip hop as a movement happen, it hugely influenced me. It was very interesting with Ray and the Buffalos because it was an expression that I was part of. It was self made, but also looked to and lived in the streets. I think Ray really broke the mold in a lot of ways with the work that he did; those i-Ds and The Faces from that era are still so relevant.
Your song Buffalo Stance really spoke about the experience of being young in London during that time. What advice would you pass on to today's generation?
Keep it real. In internet culture, everything can be a bit superficial or artificial. If we look back to 10 years ago, we were maybe in a place that was a bit repetitive and consumed by trends; everything was turning over a bit fast, eating itself. What I'm feeling, looking around right now, is that we're coming back into an era that is a lot more DIY. There's so much creative energy and a lot of cool things going on. People are constructing and making things as they want them to be and I think that's really cool. So my advice to those people is to just get on with it and really do your thing!
What are you most excited about in your return to New York?
The first morning I'm in New York, I'm going to go out for a walk, find a diner, have a nice breakfast, and just listen to the sounds of the city. I like doing everyday things, getting on the Subway or something, that remind myself I'm really there.
What's up next for you?
I'm really focusing on getting another album out, a bit quicker than the last one! I feel like I'm on a roll and really happy with what I'm doing right now. There are these thresholds in your life when things come together and make sense and you just grab ahold of it and go with it. I feel like I'm right there in one of those right now, it's really exciting!
Text Emily Manning
Photography Mark Lebon
Styling Judy Blame