Neneh Cherry Never Stopped Taking Risks. Now She’s Making Politics Personal.
Neneh Cherry recorded her latest album, “Broken Politics,” with the electronic musician Four Tet in the Woodstock studio of an old friend, Karl Berger.CreditCreditLiam Henderson for The New York Times
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. — Neneh Cherry’s career path has been marvelously circuitous. She had international pop hits like “Buffalo Stance” in the late 1980s and early 1990s and ventured through post-punk, hip-hop, jazz and an array of collaborations with Tricky, Youssou N’Dour, Chrissie Hynde and Cher, among many others. “Broken Politics,” her new studio album — only her fifth under her own name — loops back and leaps ahead at the same time.
Cherry, who is 54, made “Broken Politics” in this music-loving Catskills town, where she was a regular visitor in the mid-1970s. She recorded in the studio of a lifelong friend, the vibraphonist and teacher Karl Berger, who started the Creative Music Studio in 1971. The participants there in the ’70s included the trumpeter Don Cherry, Neneh’s stepfather, who was a member of Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking free-jazz quartet and a perpetual musical explorer. And the album’s producer is a current resident: Kieran Hebden, 40, the Englishman better known as the prolific electronic musician Four Tet.
“Broken Politics” was recorded in February 2017, a month after the inauguration of President Trump. “I don’t even want to mention his name or see his bloody hand movements,” Cherry said in September via Skype from Ibiza, in a speaking voice an octave below where she usually sings. “I just lose it. But I feel like, O.K., maybe I can get something from feeling this upset.”
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In Cherry’s lyrics, fraught issues — refugees (“Kong”), abortion (“Black Monday”), guns (“Shotgun Shack”), disinformation (“Faster Than the Truth”), women’s rights (“Soldier”) — jostle with personal reflections in tracks that are most often meditative, not strident. “It’s my politics living in a slow jam,” she coos in the album’s pivotal song, “Synchronized Devotion.” As she has since her 1989 solo debut album, “Raw Like Sushi,” Cherry wields her convictions in lithe, airy melodies.
“It’s what we see through our eyes that’s coming back out in sound. That’s the only way I know,” Cherry said. “It’s very much about saying things but also about listening, hearing and digesting. But I think that I’d be wary of saying what are the answers. We’re trying to figure out, like a lot of us, how do we move forward? How does one stay hopeful in life right now?”
Serious thoughts, a buoyant spirit and a disregard for genre boundaries have defined Cherry’s music since she emerged on her own in the 1980s. She is the daughter of a drummer from Sierra Leone, Amadou Jah, and a Swedish painter, Monika (Moki) Karlsson, who married Don Cherry soon after she was born. The family had a bohemian life, performing and making visual art, living in Sweden and in the United States.
Kieran Hebden, who records as Four Tet, produced Cherry’s 2014 album, “Blank Project,” and returned to make the music on “Broken Politics.”CreditGary Wolstenholme/Redferns, via Getty Images
In 1978, a 14-year-old Neneh headed to London, where she found kindred spirits in the era’s art-punk scene. She performed and recorded with the Slits, New Age Steppers and Rip, Rig + Panic. She worked as a reggae D.J. on a pirate radio station; she did a little fashion modeling, and she wrote songs with assorted musicians.
Among them was Cameron McVey, an English musician who became her longtime songwriting partner and, in 1990, her husband. He was the executive producer of “Raw Like Sushi.” With its blithe, brash melding of pop, hip-hop, salsa, electronics and gleeful female empowerment — and with two Top 10 singles in the United States, “Buffalo Stance” and “Kisses on the Wind” — the album brought Cherry a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist. (The Grammys chose, ahem, Milli Vanilli.) Sometimes, she has said, royalties from “Buffalo Stance” still pay her rent.
Cherry remained a pop contender into the mid-1990s, with her 1992 album “Homebrew” and the 1996 “Man,” which included the worldwide hit “7 Seconds,” a duet with Youssou N’Dour from Senegal. But she was also caring for Don Cherry, who died in 1995, while growing increasingly disillusioned with the machinery of pop stardom.
“I definitely knew which compromises I did not want to make,” she said. “What I found slightly daunting after the success of ‘Raw Like Sushi’ was this feeling where you end up in a little bit of a cage,” she added. “There were definitely restrictions and a funny feeling, a worry about becoming competitive rather than taking risks. Or not just taking risks, but just growing.”
She added, with a laugh, “I’m sure I could have had a lot more money in the bank if I had played my cards differently — maybe.”
But she never rejected pop songwriting. “I always enjoy a pop song — it’s a great, life-making thing,” she said. “I definitely use pop sensibilities to write some of the songs, and some of the structures are quite pop.”
But for more than a decade, she set aside pop-star striving, appearing now and then as a guest vocalist (with, among others, Gorillaz and Peter Gabriel) or in songs for soundtracks. In 2006, she made a low-key re-emergence in a group called CirKus that also included, under pseudonyms, her husband and their older daughter, Tyson, billed as Lolita Moon. And while she and McVey continued to write songs, she delivered them in decidedly non-pop settings.
“It’s interesting, using the idea of organic music but making it in the way we’re making music — the way we carry the torch,” Cherry said.CreditLiam Henderson for The New York Times
She made an album in 2011 with a Swedish jazz trio, the Thing, in a collaboration billed as the Cherry Thing. And then she returned to top billing, backed by the drums-and-keyboard duo RocketNumberNine, on her 2014 album, “Blank Project.” With the release of that album, Cherry — who had toured Europe repeatedly — finally played her first concert as a bandleader in New York City in 2015, a belated local debut, at the Highline Ballroom, that was rapturously received. She is planning another New York City concert on Dec. 2 at National Sawdust in Brooklyn.
Hebden produced “Blank Project,” largely as a document of live arrangements Cherry had worked out with the duo. But for “Broken Politics,” she entrusted him with creating all the instrumentals. She and McVey sent voice-and-keyboard demos to Hebden; he chose sounds and built productions. Then, for just five days in Woodstock, Cherry sang and Hebden tweaked the music.
“They always have hooks in their songs,” Hebden noted. “Even if it’s not intended to be a pop song, all the songs on all their records always have a little hook.”
“Broken Politics” is filled with the sounds of an international assortment of instruments — piano, kora, harp, wooden flute, steel drums, hand bells — that echo the cultural cross-pollination Berger encouraged at Creative Music Studios. Yet except for a cameo appearance by Berger on vibraphone, and some snippets of city life recorded on Cherry’s cellphone, all of the album’s music came from Hebden’s laptop, using libraries of instrument sounds, samples and synthetic ones.
“I made the whole thing in the computer,” Hebden said in an interview at Berger’s studio. “I knew I was making something that was going to evoke the mood, that you would listen to it and it would sound like there were a group of musicians playing there. But nothing like that happened at all, ever.”
The studio is unassuming but comfortable: a converted basement with a glassed-in control room and windows that open on a woodsy backyard view. High-quality microphones share a few shelves with old reel-to-reel tapes, wind chimes and books including “Music Universe, Music Mind,” a 1996 history of Creative Music Studios. When the album was made, Hebden recalled, there were many more tapes around: some 500 hours of Creative Music sessions recorded through the decades, an archive that was being digitized for the collection of Columbia University. No doubt magnetic particles from the old tapes hung in the basement air.
“The music is made for real, even if it’s loops and coming from a computer,” Cherry said. “To me there are definitely sounds and a feeling in some of the tracks that remind me of the music that was made in the room, some of the music that brought me to where I’m sitting at now — the music that my parents made and the music I grew up around. It’s interesting, using the idea of organic music but making it in the way we’re making music — the way we carry the torch.”
Elvis Costello, Carole King and a Song 20 Years in the Making
A song Elvis Costello and Carole King wrote in the 1990s, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” is finally being released on Costello’s new album, “Look Now.”CreditCreditErik Tanner for The New York Times
Two decades ago, Elvis Costello and Carole King kept running into each other at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan. “It was the lure of the sea urchin,” Costello said. And the meals paid off: Over the course of several omakase dinners, the musicians developed a friendship that led to a writing collaboration — but not before they went through a harrowing experience.
In 1995, the two were performing with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison in Dublin. “At the end, it was too dark and when everyone went offstage left, I went stage right,” said King. “Boom! I fell 15 feet onto a concrete floor.” Costello said it was “truly horrifying.” King broke her right wrist and left thumb in the accident. “I think I was saved by landing on a pile of cables,” she said.
Not long after, the two musicians decided to write a song together. For more than 20 years, the piece, “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” only existed as a demo, though Costello performed it live on several occasions. But the track finally has a home on “Look Now,” his new album with the Imposters, out Friday.
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Several weeks ago, the two met at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village (where he recorded the album’s strings) to talk about their work together, as well as their separate histories as collaborators, writers and performers. Settling down on a plush red sofa, King, 76, kept referring to her collaborator by his birth name.
Elvis Costello & The Imposters - "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter"CreditCreditVideo by Elvis Costello
“Do you mind if I call you Declan?” she asked Costello, 64, who was looking healthy several months after revealing that he had undergone successful surgery for cancer.
“Anything but Gladys,” he answered. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
“Burnt Sugar” fits right into “Look Now,” which recalls the grandeur of those highly arranged, early ’60s pop hits written by artists like you, Carole. When you heard the album, did you recognize yourself in it?
CAROLE KING I didn’t, but I did recognize a value I hold dear, which is authenticity in presentation. You take a song that’s good, and you go into the studio and you present it to the band, and they find themselves feeling the groove. Then you give them direction, and they take it to levels you didn’t quite imagine. You [Elvis] probably have more of the big picture going in than I do.
ELVIS COSTELLO That’s really true of this record. It’s one of the only ones where I recorded the vocals last. Normally, I arrange outward from a core vocal, which tortures the band. Sometimes the drummer says I drag or speed up a verse. Here, I had it all arranged in my head.
In your memoir, Elvis, you wrote about seeing Carole in concert in Manchester in 1971 when you were 17. Do you remember that show?
COSTELLO The two most memorable concerts I saw that year were you, with James Taylor, and Joni [Mitchell] doing “Blue” before that album came out. Can you imagine today someone touring before their album came out? You were playing all these songs that had been standards from the ’60s and then your songs from “Tapestry.” But you made sure not to tour until your album was in shops!
KING That wasn’t me. It was Lou Adler [the head of her record company, Ode].
COSTELLO I have a Lou Adler story. I was sitting at the Whiskey A Go Go in 1978 watching [the band] Rockpile, and this gentleman passes a piece of paper over the table, so I signed it. I thought he wanted my autograph. Looking floored, he handed the paper back to me and, after I turned it over, I saw it said, “Lou Adler” with his phone number on it. He was trying to sign me!
KING He knew your talent. We all knew! You did so many different things and did them all well. If you had begun in our generation of writers you’d be right there with us.
COSTELLO I can’t believe you said that!
KING A lot of it is just time and place. In some ways, I feel that it’s all undeserved for me. I know that I’ve done the work and I have the gift, but I feel grateful that circumstances put me in a time and place where people have gotten to hear it.
COSTELLO Do you remember the first reaction you got performing for people in the business? When I started doing it, they thought I would be coming in with a tape and I could see the look on the guy’s face when I walked in with my guitar. I made him listen to me play, and I’m super loud. I could see him thinking, “When is he going to stop?” I imagine it would be different if you come in playing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”
KING I have to say this as if I’m speaking of someone else: I got everybody’s attention. I think they weren’t expecting a small Jewish girl to have that much power or confidence. They were hungry for new talent. They were small start-up companies. Atlantic Records was in a tiny office on 54th Street.
Carole, you made history twice: first as one of the young, New York writers of the ’60s hits; then as part of the singer-songwriter movement of the early ’70s, which asserted that the quirky writer’s voice was more authentic than the “professional” singer. Given your unusual voice, Elvis, was that aesthetic shift an inspiration?
COSTELLO You hit the nail on the head. I never planned to be a singer. I was a songwriter. My role model was Robbie Robertson, but I couldn’t find a Levon Helm or a Rick Danko, so I was forced to sing. Had I come up in Carole’s time, I tell myself I wouldn’t have been a performer, which, for a lot of people, would have been a relief because they wouldn’t have to hear me sing.
KING I beg to differ. Probably you would have started off as a songwriter, but your vocal ability would have emerged. Your interpretations of your songs are magnificent.
COSTELLO When you went from songwriting to singing, you were reclaiming songs that made their name played by other people.
KING Look, if you’re following Aretha Franklin [on “Natural Woman”] it’s like … I wasn’t going to try to compete with her vocally because that would be silly. What I did was just present the song I had written.
In a way, Carole, that makes you an unlikely collaborator with Elvis. Your songs are unfussy, and his are ornate, especially lyrically.
COSTELLO That’s probably because I thought of myself as a writer before I thought of myself as a musician. I knew I was some kind of writer from when I was 8 or 9. I didn’t know I was a musician until I was 17.
KING Your lyrics aren’t linear, but you get all the emotional components of what’s going on. There’s a freedom to it, even though you might not be able to draw a line from Point A to Point B.
COSTELLO That’s why you listen to the song more than once.
KING Well, I go directly from Point A to Point B, and they listen too!
Elvis, you’re known for full-album collaborations with everyone from Paul McCartney to the Roots. Carole, you’ve teamed with artists from Paul Westerberg to Mariah Carey. Why do you enjoy the collaborative process?
COSTELLO It’s the speed with which it’s done. When I did the songs with Paul McCartney, it was like a tennis match. Reaching across the table, I’ve got this line. I’ve got that line. And then the song was done.
Carole, what do you look for in a collaborator?
KING You trust that the person is coming from the same place — i.e. let’s write something creative that comes to a conclusion we both want. Most of the people who I collaborate with rise to that occasion.
What’s the core of your contribution to the writing?
KING I’m very chord oriented. I have been informed in that by Richard Rodgers — the way he wrote melodies that are deceptively simple.
[Both Costello and King spontaneously break into the same Rodgers’s song, “If I Loved You.”]
COSTELLO That could be one of your tunes!
KING I hear that, yeah.
COSTELLO People also hear that gospel thing in your songs because of “Natural Woman.”
KING That’s an influence too. It’s all down to writing the chords. Sometimes I wander off melodically. I’m wondering, “How the hell do I get from here to there?” To me, bringing it all back home is the magic of writing. When you have a collaborator, you share that joy. It’s so much richer than what you can write on your own.
Aretha Franklin ‘Atlantic Collection’ with Rarities Due
by Best Classic Bands Staff
The world lost one of the most important, influential and iconic voices of all time this summer when Aretha Franklin passed away. To celebrate her musical legacy, Rhino is readying a trio of releases honoring he Queen Of Soul.
Dec. 7 will see the release of the Atlantic Records 1960’s Collection, a six-LP boxed set that includes Franklin’s first five studio albums with Atlantic, plus an LP with 11 demos and outtakes that are making their vinyl debut. Limited to 5,000 copies, the set features each album pressed on 140-gram vinyl and presented in sleeves that faithfully re-create the original releases. Atlantic Records 1960’s Collection includes the five studio albums that Aretha released between 1967 and 1969: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (mono), Aretha Arrives (mono), Lady Soul (stereo), Aretha Now(stereo) and Soul ’69 (stereo).
Related: Tributes to Lady Soul poured in after her death
Prior to that, on Nov. 16, the Franklin holiday album This Christmas will be released on vinyl for the first time. The nine-track album, pared down from original length to fit on LP, features the Queen Of Soul’s distinctive take on holiday standards such as “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” along with some newer yuletide tunes like “This Christmas” and “My Grown-Up Christmas List.”
Available today as a digital single is the “Solo Piano Version” of “Silent Night,” a new mix of the holiday classic that was originally included on Franklin’s 2008 holiday album This Christmas. This new version features only Franklin on piano and voice.
Rarities From The 1960s Track Listing
1. “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” – Demo
2. “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)” – Demo
3. “It Was You” – Outtake
4. “The Letter” – Outtake
5. “So Soon” – Outtake
1. “Mr. Big” – Outtake
2. “Talk To Me, Talk To Me” – Outtake
3. “The Fool on the Hill” – Outtake
4. “You’re Taking Up Another Man’s Place” – Outtake
5. “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – Outtake
6. “I’m Trying To Overcome” – Outtake
This Christmas LP Track Listing
1. “Angels We Have Heard On High”
2. “This Christmas”
3. “My Grown-Up Christmas List”
4. “The Lord Will Make A Way”
1. “Ave Maria”
2. “Christmas Ain’t Christmas (Without The One You Love)”
3. “14 Angels”
4. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
5. “Silent Night”
Carol Hall, ‘Best Little Whorehouse’ Composer, Is Dead at 82
The songwriter Carol Hall, in an undated photo. Her Broadway hit, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” grew out of a dinner party conversation.CreditCreditPolk & Company.
Carol Hall, who helped turn an unlikely inspiration into one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1970s when she wrote the music and lyrics for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” died on Thursday at her home in Manhattan. She was 82.
An announcement from her family said the cause was logopenic primary progressive aphasia, a rare form of dementia.
Ms. Hall was enjoying moderate success as a singer and songwriter when, developing an idea first hatched during a dinner party conversation, she, Peter Masterson and Larry L. King created “Best Little Whorehouse,” a comedy based on an article Mr. King had written in 1974 for Playboy. It concerned the moralistic efforts to close down a real-life Texas brothel known as the Chicken Ranch (because some customers paid in chickens) that had operated for years.
The show drew mixed reviews — Walter Kerr, writing in The New York Times, called it “an erratic and ambling, if sleekly produced, business.” But the reviews didn’t seem to matter much to audiences. The provocative title, the down-home humor and Ms. Hall’s amiable songs made for a winning package.
“Best Little Whorehouse” ran for almost four years and toured everywhere. A 1982 film version starring Burt Reynolds (who died in September) and Dolly Parton — though unloved by critics — brought the tale to an even wider audience.
The show was certainly saucy, but Ms. Hall said it wasn’t really about sex or prostitution.
“I was talking to a hooker I met one night recently and she asked if I was fascinated with the business,” Ms. Hall told The Boston Globe in 1978. “I told her I was fascinated with hypocrisy.”
Carol Hall was born on April 3, 1936, in Abilene, Tex. Her father, Elbert, had a music store in Abilene, and her mother, Josephine Grisham Hall, was a classical pianist and violinist and a music teacher. When her parents divorced in 1939, Carol and her mother moved to Dallas, where Carol began studying the piano; at 12 she performed as a soloist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
She graduated from Highland Park High School in Dallas and spent two years at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Her mother had chosen the college, a women-only institution, and Ms. Hall found it to be not a great fit.
“The good news was that at Sweet Briar I found a great way to meet boys from other colleges, and that was to write songs and college musicals,” she said.
She transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., graduating in 1958.
She wrote advertising jingles and was accepted into the composer Lehman Engel’s BMI Workshop for aspiring musical-theater songwriters. Among the first song of hers that was recorded was “Jenny Rebecca,” something she had written for a friend who had just had a baby; Barbra Streisand included it on her 1965 album “My Name Is Barbra.”
A scene from “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” in 1980 at the 46th Street Theater in New York. Ms. Hall wrote the music and lyrics.
With female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell becoming stars in the late 1960s, Elektra Records, in search of the next big thing, signed Ms. Hall to a contract, and she released two albums, “If I Be Your Lady” in 1971 and “Beads and Feathers” the next year.
To support her first album, the record company wanted her to do something she had rarely done before: perform live. Her first such engagement, she said, was opening for Kris Kristofferson at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village.
“It gives me the creeps to think about it,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in 1971. “I mean, I didn’t even get a part in the senior play.”
Staying behind the scenes remained her preference. She wrote three songs for “Free to Be … You and Me,” the 1972 children’s album (and television special) conceived by Marlo Thomas. One was “It’s All Right to Cry,” performed by Rosey Grier, a former professional football player. She also wrote for “Sesame Street.”
Ms. Hall said “Best Little Whorehouse” began to take shape during a dinner-party conversation she had with her friend Mr. Masterson, an actor and fellow Texan. She told him she wanted to write a musical “about where we come from,” perhaps an adaptation of “The Last Picture Show.” Mr. Masterson, in turn, mentioned an article he had just read by Mr. King about the Chicken Ranch.
“He thought it had possibilities,” she told The Globe in 1978.
It certainly did. With a book by Mr. King and Mr. Masterson and music and lyrics by Ms. Hall, the musical opened on Broadway in June 1978 after an Off Broadway run. It ran until March 1982, playing 1,584 performances, then reopened a two months later after a dispute with the musicians’ union was resolved. It closed for good on July 24 of that year.
The show, directed by Mr. Masterson and Tommy Tune, received seven Tony Award nominations and won two, for its featured actors, Carlin Glynn and Henderson Forsythe.
A 2001 tour starred Ann-Margret. A sequel by Ms. Hall, Mr. King and Mr. Masterson, “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public,” did not catch lightning in a bottle as its predecessor had; it closed in May 1994 after 28 previews and 16 performances.
In 1960 Ms. Hall married Richard Blinkoff. That marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by her husband, Leonard Majzlin, whom she married in 1973; a sister, Jane Hall; two children from her first marriage, Susannah and Daniel Blinkoff; and a grandson.
Ms. Hall wrote the music for, or contributed songs or lyrics to, a number of other shows, among them “Are We There Yet?,” seen in 1988 at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and “Paper Moon,” produced at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1993.
When they were working on “Best Little Whorehouse,” Ms. Hall and Mr. Masterson, who had five children between them, shared a house for a time, spouses, kids and all. Despite the subject matter, they also shared the creative process with the children.
“We had to explain everything as we went along,” Ms. Hall recalled in 1978. “Children understand reality just fine. It’s the lying about reality they don’t understand.”
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