Dear Reader is a musical act led by the beautiful and gracious Cherilyn Macneil. Macneil’s story is unique; the South African songstress ended up in Berlin after Myspace messaging Menomena’s Brent Knopf with her music, after which he then produced her record and shared it with City Slang Records’ Christof Ellinghaus, and then Ellinghaus signed Dear Reader. City Slang’s home base is Berlin, so Macneil decided to eventually make the move to the German city from her faraway stomping grounds in South Africa. Since signing with City Slang, Macneil has released two critcally acclaimed albums and has completed numerous tours around Europe, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. The musician now feels at home in Berlin, and in two years of living in Germany, she has mastered the language quite impressively.
THE BOMBER JACKET spoke with Macneil about the evolution of her career and what life is like for her now living in a major European city.
TBJ: So, you have been in Berlin for around a couple years now?! How do you like Berlin? What do you like about it? Saw you just did the SWATCH/QVEST video about Kreuzkölln…
Dear Reader: My two-year anniversary in Berlin is coming up next month, and it’s really flown by. I’m feeling very settled here now. I just moved into my own one-room apartment in Neukölln, and I’ve made really good friends here. The thing I like about Berlin is how relaxed it is–it’s a completely different pace than Johannesburg, which is a really frenetic city. This place feels like a village to me, because we tend to stick to our Kietz, and all my friends live nearby. I bump into people on the street. But at the same time, we’ve got everything a big city has to offer: great museums and exhibitions, awesome bands coming through town, the opportunity to go somewhere you’ve never been before if you’re feeling bored. Other great things about Berlin…I can get around on my bike, there are loads of green spaces, it’s really affordable, it has rich and tangible history, and it retains anarchic undertones.
Did you see that the Berlin zoo now has a couple baby leopards? Haha, I wanted to make sure I told you! Have you checked them out yet?
I did not know that. That’s pretty great. Leopards are almost impossible to see in the wild. I have been to the zoo here, but that was a while ago. I should definitely go again. I’m an even bigger fan of the aquarium. There is no place as peaceful as an aquarium.
What’s your favorite place to play music in Berlin?
Congrats on your SAMA nomination for Best Alternative Album for Idealistic Animals. Can you talk a little bit about what life was like for you in South Africa musically?
I started this band six years ago with Darryl Torr, who is an engineer and producer back home, and who had already been working in the industry a while when we started. So we started with a head start, in the sense that he knew a lot of people, and had a lot of experience. We recorded a record, and then we signed it to one of the few indie labels, played all the festivals there are to play, toured as much as a band like Dear Reader can tour there (which is not much) and then we sort of hit our ceiling. I mean, the indie scene is growing, and there are more alternative bands than ever, but the world we’re in represents a tiny sliver of the South African music scene. When you go to the SAMA awards ceremony, this becomes very clear. There are very big markets in South Africa for kwaito (a South African genre which is a mix of kwela and hip-hop), gospel and Afrikaans music. Those artists can sell hundreds of thousands of records. But for alternative bands, singing in English, there’s only so far you can go.
How was your recent tour back in South Africa?
I had a lot of fun playing shows back home. It had been two years since our last show in SA, so people were excited to see us, and there were a lot of really old fans, so many friendly faces that I recognized. In terms of actually playing a good show, it’s pretty difficult. There are very few venues, and they’re not really conducive to the kind of concerts where people can really experience the music, really listen. Usually it’s just a bar with a stage stuck in the corner and a shitty PA. There are a couple of good venues in SA, but they are few and far between. So yeah…people tend to chat at shows. Which is something I’m not used to anymore, having played in Europe for a while. But we had an great road trip down the coast, and a couple of the shows were really great.
What other musicians do you recommend from South Africa?
Carlo Mombelli and the Prisoners of Strange, Fulka, Thomas Krane, Chris Chameleon is amazing when he plays solo…Simphiwe Dana is really intriguing. My friends and some ex-bandmates are in a good pop/rock band called Zebra and Giraffe…
You have some really creative music videos. What do you think of music videos as a form of expression for artists? How important are music videos to you as an artist?
Since I’m not able to make a music video myself, I see them as a really great opportunity to collaborate with and showcase the talents of other creative people. In the end, the music is my baby. When it comes to making a music video, it’s about somebody coming to me with an idea that I like and that I think has the same spirit as the music. Something that I think will complement the music, and bring out other sides to a song. Lately, I’ve been fighting the feeling that I have to make a music video, just because that’s what bands do. That’s why there has not yet been an official video for Idealistic Animals. I’m waiting for an idea that really excites me…
Where did you shoot the live video you did for tape.tv?
That was shot on the roof of a hotel in Berlin, Mitte. Although for the life of me I cannot remember the name of it…
You just finished up touring for Idealistic Animals. Are you planning another release for 2012?
Actually, we’ll be doing another three-week tour in May, and then a few scattered festival shows over the summer. After that I’ll be concentrating on a new record, but it won’t surface before the beginning of 2012.
I’m not sure yet. Brent is a close friend and an incredible talent. I feel so lucky to have had him involved with this project. I haven’t really had much time to get my head around the new record yet, so at this point, I have no idea what I want to do…but undoubtedly Brent will stay a part of my life and my work in the years to come.
Calexico‘s Martin Wenk is in your live and recording band. How did you guys get to know each other?
Well, actually, Martin is Christof’s (the head of City Slang) brother-in-law, which is undoubtedly how he first got to know the guys from Calexico. So yeah, I met him through the City Slang family. Unfortunately, he’s been really busy touring with Nadasurf (the other City Slang band he’s involved in) and so he wasn’t able to join us on the last tour. But he’s also a good friend, and someone who’ll be involved in Dear Reader in some way or form in the future.
You write everything yourself and then you bring it to your band for rehearsal and recording, right? How do you start with your songs usually? What’s it like to then add the influences of your band members? Which songs have grown the most when doing so?
Songwriting is something I’ve done since I was about 14 years old. It’s always been a very personal process for me, and it’s something I find hard to imagine doing in collaboration (not that I’ve ruled out this possibility). I don’t actually write very often. Usually, the songs kind of just burst out of me. Sometimes, a few days beforehand, I’ll get the feeling that a song is brewing, and then when it’s ripe, it’s born, and often I feel like I wonder where it came from. Usually I just start playing either guitar or piano, and then I sing along, and whatever comes out, comes out. And then I craft it from there. But those initial ideas come from somewhere else.
I tend to be good at creating the essence of the thing. The bare bones. After that it’s a bit more of a struggle for me to flesh things out, and that’s where people like Brent, and other bandmates come in. The difference is quite evident on this record release, as we released a live acoustic EP of five tracks from the record, which I played more like the way I wrote them, you can see what happened during the recording process. That is–the addition of dozens and dozens of layers. Many people say I should make more stripped down records, but I am a fan of different textures. Different instruments are like different characters, and I want them all to be in the fray. I love really intimate, bare moments, but I also want to be able to build up to huge, full, dramatic parts.
Do you have plans to take your music to the US eventually?
I would love to do that. But in order to do so, I would need the support and help of some key people over there–people who know their way around. Up until now we haven’t connected with people who are really passionate about Dear Reader, and want to push it over there. And honestly, it’s a really daunting thing to imagine tackling without that kind of infrastructure. But I really hope I get the opportunity to release and tour there one day. I’d like to road-trip the US anyway, and even better with a guitar on my back!
Do you have any big festivals lined up for the summer yet?
Any other big plans fans of yours should know about?
Hmmm…there are things up my sleeve, but I’m not quite ready to talk about them yet. Soon.