Neneh Cherry: Inside 'Blank Project'

What if you had a nervous breakdown and instead of hiding out, you bared your ravaged psyche for the world to see? An inventive artist perpetually fired by exploration and soul, Neneh Cherry documents her recent highs and serious lows on Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound).

On Blank Project, hip-hop poet goes deep fast, cutting ten songs in five intense days and no second-guessing

Dreamland’s live room. What if you had a nervous breakdown and instead of hiding out, you bared your ravaged psyche for the world to see? An inventive artist perpetually fired by exploration and soul, Neneh Cherry documents her recent highs and serious lows on Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound). Produced by Kieran “Four Tet” Hebden, and performed by his protégés techno drum and keyboard duo RocketNumberNine, with songwriting collaborators Neneh Cherry, “Cam” McVey (Portishead, All Saints), and Paul Simm (Amy Winehouse, Tom Jones), The Blank Project reveals a troubled beat poetess atop a grungy techno duo channeling Sun Ra.

Neneh Cherry’s enviable track record: the global hip-hop smash, “Buffalo Stance,” her chart topping 1989 debut Raw Like Sushi, further hit singles “Man Child,” “Inna City Mama,” “7 Seconds,” and her collaborations with Massive Attack, Pulp, Chrissie Hynde, and Eric Clapton positioned her at the top of the game. But rather than follow trends or seek out the glitterati to enhance her career, Cherry maintained a reflective profile, aiming instead for quality and inspiration. But when Cherry’s mother passed about two years ago, the artist almost went down for the count.

“Neneh basically broke down,” says Cam McVey, who is also Cherry’s husband. “The entire record is about her breaking down then coming out of the breakdown. So to have music that felt too correct made me want to puke. Having Four Tet add his judgment—he has a razor sharp mind, so he kept pulling things out and stripping it down even more—was invaluable. He didn’t add anything; he was always taking away. That was great.”

Cherry’s involvement with Nordic out-jazz troupers The Thing on 2012’s The Cherry Thing, and the lasting influence of her stepfather, trumpeter Don Cherry, are also apparent on The Blank Project, which sometimes sounds like a free jazz/techno whirlwind married to Cherry’s own post-punk band, Rip Rig & Panic. Songs that sound like a beat poet chanting over exotic rhythms (“Across the Water”), Nina Simone rapping over distorted techno (“Blank Project”), a cooing seductress nailing tribal Latin (“Naked”), a Four Tet-inspired robo-samba (“Cynical”), and a journey to the dreadzone (“Weightless”) conspire to create an album that is frankly emotional, bruised, frantic, blunt, surreal, and ultimately victorious.

Engineer Adam Armstrong. “The constraint was that we only had five days in the studio and they left with ten mixes,” reports engineer Adam Armstrong. “Two songs a day, recorded and mixed, is pretty unusual. We’d record with the three musicians in the room, do quick overdubs, then mix it.”

Cherry, McVey, Four Tet, and RocketNumberNine’s Ben and Tom Page (keyboards and drums respectively) gathered in Woodstock, NY, at Dreamland Recording Studios, operated by former studio drummer extraordinaire Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel). A converted church with vaulted ceilings and wooden floors, Dreamland’s live room is large, with the control room on the former altar. The musicians set up in a corner, 15 feet apart and forming a triangle with minimal isolation. Under Four Tet’s guidance (or insistence) the trio cut everything live, in one or two takes.

“I don’t think she realized at first that the first vocals were the final vocals,” Armstrong says. “But she listened back and realized it was okay. Most sessions it would never work, but with Neneh she can nail it and it’s a real performance.”

“Sometimes I get the best vocal when I’m rehearsing when we’re not recording,” Neneh Cherry explains from a Manhattan coffee shop. “I’m not so self-aware then. There is that very weird thing where you know you’re recording and your desire of what it can be gets in the way of the natural process of just feeling the lyrics and the music. Sometimes I can be my own worst enemy, I pick everything apart.

“The thing that makes one take better than another is a kind of professionalism,” she adds, her hands animating her language, “which comes after doing something for a long time. But then there’s that thing that you don’t own, that thing that just happens, and you can’t plan for that to happen.”

Four Tet and Armstrong used three vocal setups at Dreamland. One included a Neumann U47 through a Neve 1073 with “very little compression.” Another was a Beyer M-88, and “we also did a few overdubs where Neneh was singing into an old green harmonica bullet mic through a Marshall amp,” Armstrong says. “Instead of putting distortion on her vocals, we wanted to record the sounds upfront so she could vibe off of the effect. We put a bullet mic through a Marshall 10-inch amp and a Neumann U87 on the amp. There are these great moments where she has a rap and we recorded it like that.”

For hardware vocal effects, Armstrong and Four Tet used Dreamland’s EMT 140 plate reverb, Eventide H3000, Yamaha REV7, and Lexicon PCM 42, “all on sends, mostly for vocals but we’d change it up for different things,” Armstrong explains. “Sometimes we would have one effect on the left speaker and a different effect on the right speaker and balance between them. That gives a different depth to the effect. It puts a vocal into a unique space. Maybe a plate on one side, and a digital hall on the other side. They don’t sound incredibly different, so you wouldn’t necessarily notice it. It just gives you different depths to play with.”

When recording demos with McVey and Simm, using her trusty Casio PT-40 to carve out melodies, Cherry’s vocal chain consisted of an old AKG “number 99 in a series of 100” microphone purchased from the BBC, according to McVey. “It’s gone up more in value than our house,” he laughs.

“When Cam and I and Paul Simm were writing, I used the AKG handheld mic,” Cherry explains. “That was a really good way to be less self-conscious. As we had an idea I would sing straight into Paul’s laptop. It let me be more raucous. But I used a mic on a stand at Dreamland with headphones. It was cool having the depth you can get in the cans. If you’re using a handheld mic in the studio, you can’t have the sound up too loud because of feedback, so you are guessing in a way.”

After the group presented finalized demos to Four Tet, his method was to record fast, with minimal miking, using Waves TrueVerb, Digidesign DigiRack Pitch Shift, and SoundToys Decapitator as vocal plug-ins. The Blank Project sounds very loose, so loose the time becomes bombastically elastic. Pro Tools ran with no click through an API Discrete 48x48 Series console (one of only four made); effects ran live concurrent with RocketNumberNine’s Kaoss Pad-Nord Lead-Roland V Synth/triggers/reamped sound constructions.

Four Tet’s personality looms large in The Blank Project—sonically, where his trademark psychedelic loops seem purpose-programmed, and in his ability to suss out exactly what Neneh Cherry needed from a producer as soundscape conjurer and emotional ally.

“Four Tet spoke very openly and knew what he was looking for instead of being vague,” Armstrong recalls. “He went for as little miking as possible. He won’t do 100 vocal takes comping between each one. He wants to get that first take energy and let the take freely exist in the moment. He would work off a quick impulse, attack it, then not second-guess it. The way he likes to use plug-ins is great too. He would say ‘use this preset, then take that knob and move it up there and that knob to there.’ It was quick and easy and minimal, and no second-guessing at all.”

Sometimes the group butted his heads with Four Tet, who butted right back. “We did a deal for ten songs, but on the last day Kieran said, ‘I’m finished,’” McVey recalls. “’I don’t want to do the tenth song.’ ‘No way, man, you’re on for ten,’ I said. That was ‘Across the Water.’ So, I did the arrangement while he remixed the first track, which he wasn’t happy with. RocketNumberNine and Neneh recorded ‘Across the Water’ in one take, and when they came into the control room Kieran said to the keyboard player, ‘I hope you didn’t enjoy playing that ’cause I didn’t record you. I didn’t like what you were playing.’ That’s why ‘Across the Water’ is just drums and voice.”

Armstrong recorded Ben Page’s Nord Lead-Roland V Synth-Kaoss Pad rig both direct and through Vox and Marshall amps. Drummer Tom Page played a vintage Gretsch kit, with triggers on his kick and snare, abetted by a pad controlling samples.

“We also sent his samples through an amp,” Armstrong says, “and his drums through a Vox AC 30 amp using a Sennheiser 421. He created additional sounds and probably some sequencing too. It all created different colors.”

Keyboard miking was relatively minimal; drums followed suit. The vintage Gretsch kit, with its bottom heads removed in true ’70s fashion, was captured using a Neumann FET 47 on the bass drum (placement changing with the song), and a pair of Beyer M 160s three feet off the snare drum as overheads. A Telefunken ELA-M 251 mostly “lived at the left shoulder of the drummer aimed at snare and hi hat”; an RCA 77 “went everywhere, depending on the drum’s focus in the song, whether it was kickhat- snare centric, or other songs where the toms were more the focus.

“Four Tet wanted that route,” Armstrong adds. “It’s easier to get things like phase correct plus you get interesting sounds with that palette of microphones. There’s no close snare mic, but the Telefunken ELA-M shoulder mic brought out all we wanted. The ELA-M captures the top end without being harsh. I favored the Schoeps 1073 mic pre’s for the drums. The Schoeps is one of the closest re-creations of the Neve.”

But if there’s one element that glues the pieces of The Blank Project together, it’s Neneh Cherry’s riveting lyrics:

“To the fickle let it drop we have power to sustain / like the motor needs the food to bring real power to our brain / Now we bought it back so let me make it plain / since our mother’s gone it always seems to rain / And the booze and the friends and the party never ends / No excuse for behavior that no one can defend / We reflect in the quiet times inside our heads and give thanks for our children tucked up sweetly in their beds / inside their heads.”

“I wanted to be blank,” Cherry says regarding the project title. “The album was a vehicle, an important vehicle that I needed to get in and travel with. I tell people to believe your gut; your gut is quite wise. Trust your instincts and stick by your guns. Making mistakes is essential. We’re all scared and that’s healthy. Being fearless is a dangerous state of mind. But don’t be scared of taking risks and being experimental. It’s not about reinventing yourself but moving forward in your creative process. It’s a journey. The thing that comes with success is the pressure to maintain that success rather than being able to follow your natural course.”

Ken Micallef lives in New York City, where he shovels snow off his roof onto unsuspecting tourists, and covers sounds for DownBeat,,,, and Modern Drummer magazine.