Neneh Cherry’s Back On Top

After a nearly-two-decade hiatus, the singer and style icon returns to the spotlight.

by William Van Meter

Neneh Cherry, in London, wearing an original Buffalo T-shirt by Ray Petri and a Christopher Shannon ...
Photographer: David Burton Stylist: Judy Blame

“I’m a bit of a rebel, and I always will be,” says the Swedish musician Neneh Cherry, who broke onto the pop scene in 1989 with her streetwise debut album, Raw Like Sushi, and “Buffalo Stance,” its global smash hit. “I think: To hell with rules.” That’s been Cherry’s lifelong credo, but she is speaking specifically about Blank Project, her first solo album in 17 years. The record leaps from hip-hop to pop to techno-tinged dance music (often within the same song), all of it rooted by Cherry’s soulful voice. Though she recorded it in only five days, the album is by no means dashed off—in fact, it might be the 49-year-old’s strongest work yet. “I just let it fall out, with its perfections and imperfections,” she says.

In the long break since her last solo effort, Man, the Stockholm-based artist was far from dormant. She performed on tracks by other artists (Gorillaz and Peter Gabriel, among them), cohosted a cooking show on the BBC, and became a grandmother. She also recorded a couple of albums with cirKus, a collective featuring her husband, the music producer Cameron McVey, and one of their daughters, Tyson.

Still, Cherry will be forever associated with “Buffalo Stance,” her song about the loosely assembled fashion tribe that surrounded the late British stylist Ray Petri. The multicultural group mixed athletic gear and street style with high fashion—a blend that was unheard of at the time—and came to dominate London’s indie fashion magazines. “It was about celebrating who you were and having a laugh,” Cherry says of the aesthetic. Since the late ’80s, she’s also frequently worked with the stylist and jewelry designer Judy Blame. Back then, she remembers, “Judy would take things like medallions and gold earrings and mix them with clothes by Jean Paul Gaultier, Azzedine Alaïa, and Rifat Ozbek.”

And, as a new generation discovers Petri’s work, the Buffalo look seems to be having another moment—which doesn’t surprise Cherry in the least. “What people don’t get the first time, they will get the second,” she reasons. “That’s what happens when something has substance.” Cherry, who continues to mix-not-match her wardrobe (“If I wear a twinset from Chanel, I’ll be sure to put some Air Jordans on!”), is still sorting out her stage attire for the Blank Project tour, but she’s keen on the forward-thinking men’s wear designer Christopher Shannon. “I got some great things from him. One piece looks like a skirt but is actually shorts—a skort!”

Surely, if anyone can make that look cool, it’s Neneh Cherry.