And just like that it was March, this and I hadn’t recommended you any new music at all this year.
The first few weeks of a calendar year are a strange time for me. I get to reset the automatic playlists that dictate my on-the-go listening, and as part of that I get to rediscover randomly selected songs I’ve loved in the past, and older music. Of that year’s offerings – well. There’s just a lot less on there. So in those moments when I’m not playing it safe, there is a better chance for something new to grab me by the heart and the brain and the feelings.
Dear Reader is not a new artist but her work is new to me – and the four-year gap since she last put out new music makes this feel like an appropriate entry point. Released last week, Day Fever finds South African musician Cherilyn MacNeil in contemplative mode: the record’s dark themes and delicate vocal performances lend themselves well to its bare bones production, helmed by LYG fave John Vanderslice at his Tiny Telephone studio in San Francisco.
As she is based in Berlin, where she has lived for the past seven years, the decision to work with Vanderslice meant MacNeil was forced entirely from her comfort zone: a flight halfway across the world, and another hand in the producer’s chair. In her really revealing responses to my interview questions, she decscribes how Vanderslice taught her to embrace the little flaws that characterise recording live to tape. The result is an incredibly special album: warm, vulnerable and yet completely self-assured. I hope you fall in love with it, and with Cherilyn, as much as I have.
LAST YEAR’S GIRL: How did you get started writing music and recording?
CHERILYN MACNEIL: I started writing songs when I was 14. I had been taking classical piano lessons since I was eight and when I was about 13 my dad showed me some chords on the guitar. I started out like everyone does, trying to learn other people’s songs. Soon after that I started composing. (Though I think it’s safe to assume the first songs weren’t particularly good.) I kept writing all through high school and beyond. It was something cathartic that I did for myself to process my feelings.
When I was 23 I met Darryl Torr at a get-together with friends. People were passing around a guitar, playing their songs. Although desperately shy I finally played a song and Darryl saw something in me. He was a producer and had a studio in Johannesburg. He took me under his wing and we started recording my songs together, which paved the way for us starting Dear Reader together. When I moved to Berlin seven years ago Dear Reader became my solo project, and I’ve since started learning a lot more about recording on my own. I made my last record Rivonia almost entirely in my apartment.
Three words to describe your sound…
Direct, dramatic, diverse.
What influences you – both musically and otherwise?
I’ve been very influenced by Shape Note music. I sing it every Thursday. It’s very old, very raw, very loud acapella music. I think I have also been influenced by playing classical music. And probably by all the hymns I sang over the years in church. Mostly I’m inspired by interactions with people, or moments I observe.
I am also often inspired by stories, be they true or in films or books. I feel like I notice traces of Game of Thrones in Day Fever, which is kind of funny. But I guess anything that you spend a lot of time with will invade your psyche.
I’m curious about why you chose the name Dear Reader for the recording project, both because it’s separate from your own name but also because it refers to a different art form (it’s not Dear Listener)! I was wondering whether there was a story behind the name?
The name was taken from the novel Jane Eyre. The book startled me with the phrase. Suddenly the narrator was addressing me, the reader. And I really like the repetition of all the letters. It’s close to a palindrome.
At the time when I chose the name Dear Reader was a duo. Nowadays it leads to some confusion, but I really like the name Dear Reader. And even if it is my solo project now it is always a very collaborative thing, be it in studio or on stage. So I like that the name pushes it away from coming across as a singer-songwriter project.
I’m new to your music (good news for me, more to discover) but I get the impression that the subject matter is a lot darker this time than it has been on your previous material. I wonder, given we’re in pretty dark geopolitical times (particularly for women’s rights worldwide) whether there’s anything of an intentional response in that – particularly given the lengthy gap between the new album and your previous release?
The material is dark, it’s true. I think it’s true of all my albums that the lyrical content is a lot darker than the music divulges. I decided very purposefully to take my time writing this record. I wanted to make sure that it was something conscious and something special, not just another record for the sake of another record. But in all honesty, that ended up meaning that I was spending a whole lot of time at home alone, with no structure and no deadlines, and it wasn’t very good for me, psychologically.
I have intermittently struggled with depression and anxiety and over time they kind of took over the show. So the record very rawly exposes my mental state while writing the music. But of course I am also affected by what’s going on in the world, and in general there is a sense of doom looming over everything. I tend to be quite pessimistic and things can feel quite hopeless. But I think it’s been amazing how people worldwide have been mobilised to resist the trend towards populism. I need to surround myself with more people who respond with action, since my default response always tends to be retreat and reflection.
I’m a big John Vanderslice fan. How did that relationship come about – especially since his approach to recording is so different from your own – and what was he like to work with?
Working with John was Christof Ellinghaus’ idea (the boss at City Slang, my label). At first I was a bit nervous about the idea. In Berlin I know so many singers and musicians and it’s a safe place for me to work with people I trust. But I had been spending way too much time working alone and had lost perspective. It was exactly what I needed to be thrown out of my comfort zone and into the deep end with John.
He is a fascinating person. He has a very strong philosophy about recording music, and his ‘rules’ combined with the technological limits of recording to tape meant that the process was vastly different to how I usually work. He had to talk me through it a lot. We talked as much as we recorded. Maybe more. But I had decided to throw myself into the experience. I figured an opportunity like this might never come up again. I committed myself completely to the process and I think the results are very special because of that.
John taught me so many important things while we worked together. He taught me to embrace flaws and that the only important things are the energy and the narrative that you capture. All the fine details that I obsess about are things that no one else hears or care about. I think most people nowadays edit the life out of their work. I am certainly guilty of it. I think working with John has changed my outlook on making music forever.
I’m really interested in your international travels. How long have you been living in Berlin, and what is it about that city that felt like home for you?
I’ve been in Berlin for almost seven years now. I made the decision to move when I started working with City Slang (the label is also based here). South Africa is a very small market for indie music, and it’s very isolated from everything. Also, at the time, I just wanted to get out of Johannesburg, see the world.
In hindsight, I made a massive decision that will shape the course of my life. I have planted myself on the other side of the world to my family, which is painful for me. But I do love living in Berlin. It’s changing rapidly, like so many cities. But nonetheless it is still a haven for artists and freaks. It’s cheap enough to give people space to pursue art. It’s full of other immigrants, so I don’t have to feel alone in that. It’s full of green spaces and it’s slow paced, but it has all the advantages of a big city. And it’s gritty. I think coming from South Africa that was important for me. I couldn’t live in a clinical place. I need at least a little anarchy.
Has it been nerve-wracking coming back to recording after a bit of a gap?
The recording process was entirely nerve-wracking, but not because I hadn’t done it for a while. I am constantly recording things at home. But as I outlined before, this was way out of my comfort zone. It was very hard for me letting go of control. Though in other ways it was a huge pleasure.
Tiny Telephone is a well-oiled machine. Everything ran so smoothly. There was no fighting with technology, which is the absolute worst in studio. Nothing can kill inspiration like having to fight with a computer for two hours. That’s not to say there can’t be problems recording to tape. It was just my experience that everything was completely taken care of. John was at the helm of the ship, especially sonically speaking, and I could just concentrate on my performance and creative decisions about arrangements. I wish I lived in San Francisco so that I would never have to work anywhere else every again!
And what are you listening to at the moment?
Right now I’m super into Bayonne’s Primitives. It’s a really great record. Sucks you right in. And also sir Was’ Digging a Tunnel. I love the juxtaposition of the dreamy vocals with the simple hip-hop beats. (As you can see, I get my new music by pilfering the desks at City Slang for promo copies!)
Dear Reader’s Day Fever is out now.