Interview: Dear Reader

Dear Reader - Photo by Marcus Maschwitz

Dear Reader - Photo by Marcus Maschwitz

There is a whimsical quality to the music of Dear Reader, but underneath the surface is an air of something deeper and more profound.

The band, which is fronted by singer-songwriter Cherilyn MacNeil, began in 2006 as a collaborative project; playing alongside MacNeil was friend and bassist Darryl Torr. Originally known as Harris Tweed, the two released an album, “The Younger,” before changing the name on account of potential lawsuits.

Two years later, the first official Dear Reader album, “Replace Why with Funny,” came out. This led to a deal with City Slang, who released the album in Europe in early 2009.

In 2010, MacNeil and Torr parted ways amicably, and Dear Reader was downsized to a solo project. It was at this point that MacNeil moved from her hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa, to Berlin – partially to be closer to the label and partially because she had developed friendships there over the course of touring.

“It just made the most sense to be close to that support base,” she reasoned. “It’s, of course, also a very cool city, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know a bit about its fascinating history. I find Berlin to be really chilled out for a big city. Often it feels like a village to me. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to be a pedestrian, and to ride my bike everywhere, which is something I can’t do in Johannesburg.”

However, the change in membership and location didn’t drastically affect the way in which songs came about, as the core components of MacNeil’s songwriting have been in place for awhile. In fact, although her songwriting has undeniably changed over the years, MacNeil shared that she’s been writing songs since the age of 13 or 14, and as a result, there’s a certain method to it.

“It has always been intensely personal for me,” she said, elaborating on the process. “I don’t really write very often. Once in a while I get the feeling that a song is brewing, and in a few days or weeks I know it’s ready, and then I sit behind the piano or the guitar and let it be born. Many of my songs are written like this, where I feel like I’m hardly involved. And I think those are usually the best songs. I don’t think about the theoretical stuff. I am not trying to achieve anything. Sometimes I do attempt to write in a more deliberate way, and this can also yield good results. But I am nervous to mess with the organic way my songs are born. So I don’t like to try too hard to write if it’s not just coming out.”

Yet at the same time, forging ahead with a new album as a solo artist was bound to have some effect on the end result, regardless of how minimal. So it’s not surprising that when “Idealistic Animals” was released last September, although the venture received mostly positive reactions, it didn’t meet the expectations of every fan.

“I think some people would have preferred it to be a little more like the previous album, but I guess that’s always the case,” MacNeil said. “This one is simultaneously a lot heavier and more difficult to chew, and quite poppy.”

She went on to share that, in her mind, “Idealistic Animals” likely requires a handful of plays before it begins to grow on listeners. And because of her own perfectionist nature, once it was completed, even MacNeil herself couldn’t listen to it any longer.

“I haven’t listened to the album for almost half a year now, and doubt I will for another year. It only drives me crazy. Perhaps in a year’s time I can listen to it with a little objectivity and enjoy it,” she said. “I can’t say I like the music I make. But once in a while I hear something I’ve done and think, ‘hey, that’s actually pretty cool.’ I tend to be really hard on myself. The only way I am able to do this job is to really distance myself from my work.”

MacNeil makes it sound easier than it is, but in reality, writing and recording music places her at odds against herself. While songwriting comes from a natural place, committing to those songs forces her to work against her very nature.

“Making an album involves a huge release on my part, and I have to let go of the part of me that wants it to be genius and perfection,” MacNeil explained of the battle between what she feels inclined to do and what she feels compelled to do. “Instead I go completely the other way…and take on a kind of happy-go-lucky ‘what happens, happens’ air, purging myself of any preciousness about the songs.”

In the end, however, things all seem to balance themselves out, and that give-and-take relationship doesn’t end up being the hardest thing for MacNeil. Instead, she shared that it’s the act of putting herself out there that is, in some respect, the most difficult.

“I think the most challenging aspect is that sometimes I feel like I’m constantly having to sell myself. My music is so personal…and it feels like by putting my music out into the world I am really making myself vulnerable, saying to the world, do you like me or don’t you? And of course they let you know, one way or the other,” she said. “But making music also makes me happy. I guess the biggest reason is because once in a while I feel like while making music I have wholly and unquestionably managed to express my true self in that moment. And that’s pretty unbeatable.”

Dear Reader plays tonight at Lido in Berlin. The show begins at 21.00.

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