Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Neneh Cherry's first solo record in 18 years is something of a revelation, really. Backed by jazz-dance boys RocketNumberNine (Tom and Ben Page), their instinctive grooves provide the jet fuel for Cherry’s sensual songs to soar, and it’s the abandon with which they do that keeps drawing me back to ‘Blank Project’. After Omar Souleyman’s ‘Wenu Wenu’, there’s also the small matter of Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, making another turn behind the mixing desk: if he keeps approaching his work with this deftness, anticipating many more Hebden-produced albums in the years to come doesn’t feel farfetched.
‘Blank Project’ felt fit for a close reading, so I headed out to their Walthamstow rehearsal space to meet with Neneh, Tom and Ben. Neneh’s in the midst of a pretty severe bout of winter cold, and in need of a pit stop at the chemist, so I have a cuppa with RN9 and they show me the (cosy) room where they’re getting the album ready to take on tour. Ben teases a synth-line for Neneh’s ‘80s mega-hit Buffalo Stance that they’re in the process of revamping and working into their live set. Once Neneh’s gathered her supplies, we all head upstairs to chat about 'Black Project', track by track.
01. Across The Water
Neneh Cherry: "Before we got together, Cameron [Mcvey, Cherry’s husband and co-writer] and myself had met with Kieran [Hebden, producer of ‘Blank Project’] in Norway, with the guy who runs Smalltown Supersound, Joakim Haugland. We talked about working together, and he was sending some backing tracks for me to write on – one of which ended up being this track Nina, which had nothing to do with the album in the end.
"Across The Water was one of the tracks. Cam and I had written lyrics, and then when we were in the studio in Woodstock, he had a bee in his bonnet about doing that track. So we finished recording, and I think Kieran was mixing everything, and it was the only one that RocketNumberNine hadn’t worked on. So we were in the studio working the track out, and Ben and Tom were coming up with their bits. Then we basically did it as a last blast in the session. It was interesting; it was evening, and we all felt quite peaceful."
Ben Page (Synths, RocketNumberNine): "You’d just watched that footage of Nina Simone hadn’t you, with just drums and piano?"
Neneh Cherry: "Yeah, Kieran had just shown it to us. Then we went in, and it was definitely a nice atmosphere in the studio. We were recording in this converted church, so we were inside this chapel doing it. We recorded the track and did one or two takes of it. When we went into the studio, Kieran looked a bit odd – basically, whilst we’d been recording it, he’d decided that it should just have drums and vocals. So we’d been in their, vibing on Ben’s synth playing – which was very nice, by the way – but he’d just taken it out, and decided it should be the way it is on the record."
Ben Page: "Typical of Kieran to make a bold statement like that. Also, starting the album like that, really stripped, is just fantastic."
Neneh Cherry: "It was sort obvious that it should be the opening for the album. I’ve been there before actually, sometimes the things that you do right at the end, when you’re feeling quite chilled or relaxed, [is when] the most special things can happen, in a weird sort of way. It’s like a prayer."
Ben Page: "It’s got a lovely drum sound, which was a certain kick, wasn’t it Thomas?"
Tom Page (Drums, RocketNumberNine): "Not a kick, it’s a Brazilian drum, and also some bones being rattled. I was just hitting away at them with these sticks, trying to stay in time."
Neneh Cherry: "That track sometimes makes me think of old spirituals."
02. Blank Project
Ben Page: "I suppose that’s got quite a typical RocketNumberNine sound in a way; really gnarly bass and drums. I don’t think there are many people that could sing and hold that really, because it’s got that bassline and drums and that one note coming through, and Neneh just sort of nailed it in amongst that."
Neneh Cherry: "It’s one of my favourites, actually."
Tom Page: "It’s like a runaway train that track, I imagine someone riding a horse."
Neneh Cherry: "For it being the eventual title track, we’d been word playing with RocketNumberNine and my name, and that stuff was going around. But to me, ‘Blank Project’ just kept coming around, it sort of sums up – I’m not quite sure exactly what about the record – but it just makes sense. I think the track was actually called Blank Project because of something to do with computers, the file that the music was on when we were writing from before RocketNumberNine were involved, was called 'Blank Project'. So that just stuck. To me, I really like the metaphor of it – you know, we started with a blank page, and people sort of go, 'Well, what’s it all about?' And you go, well it’s about everything and nothing. The tune itself, I suppose, is about the thin line that one walks on in a relationship between the euphoria of love, and the person you’re with knowing too much about you, and how that can make you hate them!"
Tom Page: "It took us a bit longer to get that one, didn’t it? It’s still been developing until recently. It was worked on in the same process as most of the other tracks, working to the vocal stems. Then we brought it into the studio and started playing around with it."
Neneh Cherry: "The sound of it reminds me of Mantronix or something."
Ben Page: "Your chorus reminds me of something quite African."
Neneh Cherry: "Yeah, melodically it is."
Tom Page: "There was supposed to be a timpani part on there, but Kieran removed it."
Ben Page: "Kieran, the removal man. There was never any problem with those parts being taken out, though. We’re mates, so we were just hanging out and laughing a lot, and you just trust him really, because he’s got those ears, hasn’t he?"
Neneh Cherry: "Me, Paul Simm, and Cameron had been writing the tunes, and there were a few other collaborators, so we kind of had the songs. But what we were missing was RocketNumberNine. They came like the saving grace. They didn’t hear any of the demos, because we’d basically been throwing together music just to have it to write to. We knew that the album needed to be recorded and produced, but not in a typical 'studio' sense, with multilayered, boring stuff, so we were giving them just the vocal parts. Once we had the basic structure for the songs, we would work them out together, so Naked was one of the ones we’ve actually been through a few times with."
Tom Page: "I’ve actually got a recording of it on my laptop of us doing the take for that. Because we were in the church with such massive, high ceilings, we had to try to control the sound. So Neneh was almost in a little yurt, boxed in canvas, and the drum kit was set up with a big canvas umbrella over it. It’s like we were this nomadic travelling band, settled in the church."
Ben Page: "Kieran took on a classic producer’s role. I think a lot of his favourite albums are from the ‘70s, when they had the big desk and all that, and he’s just sitting there. Maybe Classic Albums will come and make a programme about it, and get up all the tracks up on the mixing desk and go through them. There wouldn’t be that many tracks to put up mind, it would more be all the ones that had been taken out!"
"Because we were in the church with such massive, high ceilings, we had to try to control the sound. So Neneh was almost in a little yurt, boxed in canvas. It’s like we were this nomadic travelling band, settled in the church." – Tom Page, RocketNumberNine
04. Spit Three Times
Ben Page: "That’s one of my favourites, definitely, it sounds like a James Bond theme to me."
Neneh Cherry: "It’s quite an epic tune I think, I really like the way it grows, almost in that sort of trip hop vibe."
Ben Page: "The bassline shouldn’t strictly work on that, musically. Paul [Simm], who’s really good on that stuff, tried to work out what was going on using musical theory, but it wasn’t making sense. So there’s something going on that shouldn’t work, but it is does – so I think that adds to it."
Tom Page: "There are some triggers on the drums, which there are on a few tracks throughout the album. That big, electronic kick drum sound."
Neneh Cherry: "The infamous snare."
Tom Page: "Yeah, we sampled a buzz roll that I have to hit in exactly the right place… which wasn’t always easy."
Ben Page: "We didn’t do it to a click track on the original recording, which we are doing now for the live shows."
Neneh Cherry: [to Ben] "What were you doing on there?"
Ben Page: "Just pressing buttons, wasn’t I?"
Neneh Cherry: "I don’t really understand what he does… Ben’s like four people in one."
Ben Page: "I wish, yeah."
Neneh Cherry: "I’m loving this one more and more, because we’ve had like three, four, five, different instrumentations on the chorus. I think when we started doing it, I was a bit weird about it, because I felt like it was a bit too 'rocky'. Basically, the first thing we did together was at Koko for Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards show [in January 2013], and for that we did Weightless, Spit Three Times, Dream Baby Dream, and Cashback [off Neneh’s 2012 collaborative album with The Thing]. Weightless definitely has that immediacy."
Tom Page: "That big explosion sound at the beginning is actually a preset off a Roland SPD."
Ben Page: "We were laughing about that, weren’t we? It was like, 'Should we use this? Should we, really?'"
Tom Page: "But it got through."
Neneh Cherry: "I think Kieran found it quite funny."
Ben Page: "This is what Weightless sounded like on the 9th January, 2013…" [plays a completely different demo of the track, with a bouncier synth part at the forefront]
Ben Page: "We did it on the first day, and by the time we got through all the other tracks, Kieran said he was going to remix Weightless, and he brought it out and made it much more like it is. So that was the only track he did another mix of."
Neneh Cherry: "It’s interesting, I’ve never worked with anyone who’s mixed as you’ve gone along. We were recording two tracks a day, and after each tune Kieran would mix it."
Tom Page: "He was mixing even in the process of recording, so by the time you’d finished doing the last bit, there’s not that much more to do."
Neneh Cherry: "Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. In a way it makes so much sense, because you’re right there…"
Tom Page: "It captures the music in its immediate essence, as it was, as it sounded."
Neneh Cherry: "The other thing with Weightless… When I first started writing some of the stuff on ‘Blank Project’, it was about a year after my mother passed, and I was feeling like I needed to write again. I was sitting on my bed, and Cashback, off the 'The Cherry Thing', Weightless, and Naked were all from the 'sitting on the bed' writing sessions. So it was one of the very early tunes in the songwriting process."
Ben Page: "I think Weightless was one of the ones where Kieran did that thing where Neneh’s voice was pitched up really high. Then it’s just left in the EQ, so you can only really hear the high bit; there’s this really high-pitched reverb in there. Kieran said that’s one of Burial’s tricks."
Neneh Cherry: "Weightless was also the one with the cowbell."
Tom Page: "That was another part that tickled Kieran."
Ben Page: "A classic 'more cowbell!' moment."
Neneh Cherry: "'Turn the cowbell up REALLY LOUD!'"
Ben Page: "There’s a track off our RocketNumberNine album called Slide, which has almost a totally identical feel to Cynical – the beat and the sound is pretty close. It reminds me of a military marching band, that one, with Neneh as the general. I used a V-synth to get that central line; that’s my favourite thing really, that’s at the heart of the RN9 sound. It’s got rhythmic stuff and then a distorted quality, there’s a weirdness to it."
Tom Page: "It was a hard tune to put together that one, because of tuning all the synths with the vocal."
Ben Page: "Working with a singer was new to us, but the beauty of working with a vocalist is that you’ve got a structure. It’s a really nice way to work like that – if you’re just doing an instrumental, it’s like, 'Fucking hell, when does the change come?'"
Tom Page: "It’s good to have restraints, which we’ve never really had. It was unconventional working just to the vocal stems, it was challenging, but then rewarding at the same time."
Ben Page: "I remember sitting at home with that. It was such a beautiful thing. I just did this progression underneath, it’s just basically circulating, and the way it builds… And obviously to do it in that church, with that amazing setting and the stained glass windows and the light coming in… What Neneh’s singing about as well, it felt pretty deep. It’s about capturing the sound and getting it swirling and building up, that’s key to that."
Neneh Cherry: "I think we did one or two takes of it, and Kieran came in and went, 'That’s it, that’s the one.' It does this weird thing – I think it happens between when Tom’s playing with the mallets on the cymbal – sonically, something weird happens. It’s like the tune starts to breathe. I remembering feeling it happen. It doesn’t always happen, but it did that when we recorded that."
Tom Page: "It’s not technically perfect, from our point of view at least. There’s things we’d go back and change."
Ben Page: "You can hear a couple of timing issues, but it’s fine, it’s human."
Neneh Cherry: "I didn’t really listen to the album for weeks after we recorded it because I was just too hung up on listening to the mistakes, my mistakes, not anyone else’s. But that’s just what makes it alive, at the end of the day."
Tom Page: "That’s what gives the album its character, it works well with the nature of the songs and the lyrics."
Neneh Cherry: "The title 422 is another one. I think that was the number of my best take on my dictaphone, when I was rambling along writing it. I like random things like that; sometimes it makes more sense than finding a definition."
08. Out Of The Black (feat. Robyn)
Neneh Cherry: "We just shot a video for that where we do all this puking. We were drinking green water – the guy’s going to do all this stuff in post-production. It’s quite funny, because when we were writing that track I had food poisoning, so when I was singing the demo for Out Of The Black I was literally running between the loo, being really, really sick. So it reminds of being ill, and coming out of the black of illness.
"Me and Robyn had this bee in our bonnet about doing something together, and for me she was really the only other person that I wanted to do something with for the album. We didn’t really know what track it would be, we just knew that we wanted to get her somewhere on the album. I probably would have thought Dossier, or something that was a bit more raucous, but when we were doing Out Of The Black, I was having quite a hard time with it. We had a version that was more epic, a bit Chemical Brothers. I think Kieran said, 'Oh, this is a bit stadium.' I think that was the only track where did a version one day in the evening, and we sort of said, 'Fuck it, this isn’t really working, let’s do it again tomorrow.' It was also one of the ones where we set up the drums in a different room, for a different sound."
Tom Page: "For a tighter, more controlled sound."
Neneh Cherry: "So in the process of doing it, we did this more stripped-down version. I was struggling with it, and Kieran said he could hear some of Robyn’s voice working in the chorus. So it was the tune calling out for her, she was one of the missing pieces. At the end of the day both of us were really glad we did something a bit less jumpy-up-and-down and a bit less obvious. I was talking to a journalist recently in Germany, and she mentioned that it’s the first time I’ve done a collaboration with another woman. I hadn’t realised that."
"We just shot a video for that where we do all this puking." – Neneh Cherry
Ben Page: "We had it as a sort of Ibiza banger, and then Kieran took this string/organ sound out that he thought was too cheesy and took it away. So he deconstructed it from the off really, and it became something quite different."
Neneh Cherry: "Where did the white noise come from? Was that Kieran? I was talking to him on the phone around some of the live stuff, and I was saying I was finding that track quite difficult to to go where you want to go. He was saying, 'Well, the white noise – just focus on that, and you’ll find the key!' On the chorus, that white noise is definitely an essential part."
Ben Page: "Neneh did the overdubs with a distorted mic on the chorus."
Tom Page: "Didn’t it have a vocoder on it?"
Neneh Cherry: "It did, on the original demos."
"The drive and the force of the music. It’s such a big part of it for me, to get so much sense out of it, it liberates me. RocketNumberNine definitely have the ability to do that." – Neneh Cherry
Tom Page: "That was something completely different to what it is now. We mic’d it up, in this room actually, and it was really quite sparse, mellow, dreamy. I think it was maybe Neneh who said there’s something not quite right about this, we need to take a different direction. So we just sort of blurted something out, and that’s what it became."
Neneh Cherry: "We just did it really quickly. Did you sample my voice Ben?"
Ben Page: "Yeah, the voice you hear is Neneh’s sampled voice, so I’m triggering it and playing it and the bassline at the same time, so you get that rhythmic thing going. Then Tom’s playing the pads, it sounds like a drum machine but he’s actually playing the SPD-S pads. It was a one take thing, and Kieran was just gleeful after that, saying that it sounded like nothing else."
Tom Page: "Like a dancehall track or something."
Neneh Cherry: "It was just one of those ones where we were jamming and fiddling about, it made us all so happy. The drive and the force of the music. It’s such a big part of it for me, to get so much sense out of it, it liberates me. RocketNumberNine definitely have the ability to do that. I think sometimes with some of the tracks you get into a place where you’re over thinking it a bit too much, where you just go back to the drawing board and back to a place where it’s a bit more spontaneous."
Neneh Cherry: "That was kind of the last track on that particular night, before we did Hands Across The Water. I think we knew it was the closing track on the album, didn’t we?"
Ben Page: "Yeah, the way it builds and finishes, it felt appropriate didn’t it?"
Neneh Cherry: "Like a weird celebration."
Ben Page: "You get a bit shamanic on it, which is nice."
Neneh Cherry: "It gives it that link with the opener, that quality, the bones and everything."
Smalltown Supersound released 'Blank Project' on February 25th 2014, Neneh Cherry has just been announced for Field Day in June, find more information on that here.