As two of pop’s most innovative stars convene on Zoom – Neneh Cherry in bed in London, Robyn at home in Stockholm – it’s telling that they spend most of their conversation celebrating their collaborators and creative communities.
Thirty-three years since Cherry emerged from the punk underground into the pop mainstream with Buffalo Stance, Robyn (alongside the producer Dev Hynes and the Swedish rapper Mapei) has covered that timelessly bolshie hit for a new covers collection celebrating Cherry’s first three albums. What may appear to be a pop year zero, says Cherry, was simply a threshold in an ongoing continuity that started in her native Sweden’s collectivist spirit, grew through New York City’s burgeoning rap scene and London punk and street style, and, ultimately, swept a preteen Robyn into its orbit.
They first encountered each other through a mutual friend, the late producer Christian Falk. He was the only collaborator from Robyn’s 90s teen-pop career that she maintained once she quit the major-label system in the 00s and changed the face of pop. Her impact influenced dozens of young musicians, including Cherry’s daughter, the R&B star Mabel, who would play Robyn songs on the family piano as a teenager.
You get the sense that these connections are the spoils both Cherry, 57, and Robyn, 42, live for, more than anniversaries and glitzy celebrations. “You make me make sense,” Cherry tells Robyn in a conversation that spans age, independence and creating an alternative to the male rock canon. “I treasure the sisterhood and the exchange of ideas and the heart that it has.”
Robyn, did you have any trepidation about approaching such an iconic song?
Robyn: Just getting the request to do it made me feel confident because I had Neneh’s blessing. I feel very comfortable with the song because it’s been with me such a long time. I was 10 years old when I started listening to Raw Like Sushi on summer vacation with my best friend. There’s so much nuance in the words that I could draw from. There’s a deep sense of belonging. It has to do with being present in your own life, being brave, being defiant – these core feelings that have shaped how I look at making music and what I think is important when you perform for other people.
Neneh Cherry: I’m not really into nostalgia, but I think that the journey of history is really important and so to be in this space where Robyn, who is one of the loves of my life, has put her voice to Buffalo Stance and made it hers feels monumental. You could say all the work is connected, but there are these thresholds and Buffalo Stance is one of those.
The prehistory to Buffalo Stance is really well known – the Bristol scene you came out of – but it’s often up to women in music to assert the importance of their history. It’s not always canonised.
R: So true. I didn’t even know you were Swedish when I first heard it. That blew my mind because I had already identified with you without knowing anything about you. I was really little – I didn’t know what you were saying, I just knew this music was made for me. Then, as I got older, your legacy unfolded.
NC: We grew up in a similar environment with creative parents who were working among other people to drop the shackles and find a creative free space. I came in wanting to break out and be unapologetic about owning the space. I grew up between Sweden and the US. There was a duality where I was always being – not defensive, but unwilling to back down, but also there’s a self-consciousness about Sweden that I found quite overbearing. There was this release in coming to London where I could take all of it – the quiet, the loudness, the unusual background that I grew up in – and the world of people that I found here. Finding a way into music was a way of exposing it.
R: I was looking through a book that Neneh and her family has made about her parents and I saw this chapter that says “Report to ABF”. ABF is the workers’ educational institution. It was all about bringing the working class out of poverty through education. You could apply for money if you wanted to learn a new language or play an instrument. [Neneh’s parents] Don and Moki [Cherry] taught courses. My parents were active in that world 20 years later. They were studying collective knowledge and collective collaboration. My parents educated me in how to work in a collective. I feel like you work that way, too?
NC: I’ve become more and more conscious of what an amazing gift my parents gave me. Not everything worked! But they were pioneers. We had a schoolhouse [in Sweden] that we moved to in 1970 having been in the US. The Vietnam war was still going on. Being in America as an interracial couple, and all the shit that came with it, my parents decided to go to Sweden where they could focus on making the things they believed in happen, together with the other people from that movement.
Coming from those strong collective backgrounds must have helped you survive the harder parts of the music industry? Like leaving the major label system, Robyn?
NC: When I first came here to London, it wasn’t like: “Oh, I’m following in my parents’ footsteps.” But we were educated to try to be ourselves, like I say to my kids now: “Own it! Don’t let them change you, whoever they are.”
R: I was educated in how to protect my process and that you get to the better solution if you are working together with the people you’re around.
NC: You need to be with the right people. Quite often when I’m writing with Cam [McVey, Cherry’s husband], I’ll do some weird mumbling on the tape and what he hears will be the wrong words. They’re much better than my mumbling, so the wrongs make the rights, the rights make the wrongs. But it’s very frail, the creative process. It can leave you so vulnerable and unsure. You start overthinking.
R: But if you don’t go there, it’s like you haven’t risked anything. It must have been amazing to come to London and meet all these people that you kept working with like [stylist and jewellery designer] Judy [Blame] and your husband.
NC: My first friend here was Ari from the Slits. From there, again, one thing led to another. I think we were all very committed – but we were also quite free and a lot of things were able to happen because there was a spontaneity.
R: And not thinking about money.
NC: Yeah, we didn’t have a lot of money, but we didn’t think that much about it either!
R: That is a huge thing, too. The place where our parents came from was totally disconnected from making something for an audience, to make money.
It must be a challenge when the product of that creative community is exposed to the world. Neneh, many people responded strongly to your pregnancy. And Robyn, your second album didn’t come out in America because it contained a song about abortion.
NC: In those days, Top of the Pops was it. I remember having a weird internal alarm bell: “I don’t want to sell out here!” No, we’re not gonna sell out, we’re gonna do this in another way because why not? That uncompromising, cocky [stance] – take it, leave it, let’s go – became a protective forcefield.
R: I didn’t even register that my song was going to be a problem. It blew my mind – but a lot of things blew my mind about America when I started working there as a teenager. Swedish teenagers are more respected. The age groups were so separated in America – if you’re a teenager, you’re not supposed to do certain things or talk about sex. Looking back, I was definitely lost in translation coming from Sweden to America in the 90s.
NC: Everything was so segregated. You’d go to a city and there’s Black radio, white radio. In that way, England was so much more diverse and eclectic – and Sweden on a smaller scale. The first few trips I made to America after Buffalo Stance, there were a lot of super seedy things. There’s always been a silent revolution – these obstacles are real and I choose to battle within.
Neneh, your daughter Mabel is a big star, and Robyn, you work with younger artists. Has pop got any easier for young women?
R: There is a transparency in the music industry that wasn’t there when we started. There was a lot of funky stuff going on. But there’s a lot of pressure now that’s very hard to protect yourself from.
NC: There’s a problem with temporary-ism. Everything is so fast-moving and artists work in an environment where you’ve got very little time to keep coming back to an idea. Not everything is gonna be the best thing you ever did. That’s not why you’re doing what you do – you’re doing it because it’s what you need to do. There’s got to be space for growth.
Robyn, you’ve said the music industry’s conventional idea of sexuality made you rebel against it, but then you reached an age where you wondered if you had lost something by denying yourself that dimension. Neneh, you described your toughness. Was there a time where you could drop the forcefield? What did it take to let go?
NC: Those things change as you get older. Needing to be quieter or more vulnerable, or to scream, or how I’ve chosen to show my body or not – what I’ve wanted to do was to be able to express whatever that is as I get there. Maybe I jumped out of being in a very mainstream place to give myself more space to grow.
R: Don’t you feel like there is a way now to combine those worlds that wasn’t established when we started? It wasn’t easy to be super feminine and still be taken seriously.
NC: Maybe that’s what we’re talking about – breaking through stereotypes. That has been very important within my continuity – to break through my own stereotype and comfort zones.
There are so many archetypes for older male musicians. For older women in music, there are fewer role models and stereotypes. And so the field is wide open for invention.
R: It’s freeing. You can be under the radar. You don’t have as much pressure in a lot of ways. You have less to refer to. It’s more queer, it’s more open. It’s like we’re filling in the gaps but in a much more conscious way. The canon is also so heavy with “the male genius”, the one person that came in and did the thing. As a woman, you’re less a slave to that way of thinking around what’s good or bad.
NC: It’s a very interesting place to be where I am – I’m a bit older than you – and feeling so unfinished and like I’ve got so much more to say and do. I was on a battleship for a while when I felt – not insignificant but very conscious of ageism, in particular when I was in the middle of menopause. Now I’m on the other side and I feel a quite deep sense of freedom. It’s about the quality of the work. It’s not so much about keeping up with what’s ultra cool, but feeling still that it can be cool without being strapped down by trends. It is different for a woman. A guy literally can turn up with a beer belly …
R: And kind of know what he’s doing!
NC: And it’s totally fine. While as a woman, I felt conscious of this sell-by-date issue. [Now] I can engage in my own time in a different way than I did before. I’m loved and of course my kids need me but they don’t need me on a daily basis in the same way. It was a bit daunting in the beginning but now I’m starting to feel very at ease with it. I can coexist in a different way.
You’ve been writing a memoir, Neneh?
NC: [She puts her face in her hands] Oh my God.
R: She’s gone shy! She’s blushing!
NC: The things that we’ve been talking about are the reasons I felt I wanted to try to do it. It’s not about spilling the beans. It’s more about needing to pay homage to the awesomeness of the journey and also to figure out how the fuck I got here!
Robyn, would you write one?
R: I think you shouldn’t be afraid of writing about your life. It’s so challenging, but it helps, the act of defining your thoughts and knowing what you went through. When I go back through my notes, I always remember things that I would have never remembered [otherwise]. I wish I did it more. That’s what keeps me from saying that I would because I don’t think I have the discipline – yet. Maybe I’ll get there.
Are there are more collaborations in your future?
NC: Of course! Because we collaborate even if we are not making things together, so we will be collaborating until we drop.
What are you both working on at the moment?
NC: I haven’t done any music for ages, so that’s where I’m going next.
Robyn, is it going to be eight years until another album?
R: No! That’s never gonna happen again. That was too long. During the pandemic I’ve just been in the studio, so I’m working on an album. I hope that it’s going to be done this year, but I don’t know when it will be released.