Dear Reader Rivonia

Dear Reader Rivonia

Dear Reader sings her way home with haunting new album Rivonia

After moving to Berlin, like many expats, Cheri MacNeil became embarrassed by questions she couldn’t answer about South Africa. This inspired her to research her own history, and ultimately resulted in Dear Reader’s third and most deeply personal album, Rivonia.

Dear Reader Rivonia

Dear Reader Rivonia

Dear Reader RivoniaCherilyn MacNeil aka DEAR READER has just released her third album called Rivonia, named after the Johannesburg neighbourhood in which she grew up.

I spoke to Cheri to find out how Rivonia came into being.

The album is partly based around the arrests of struggle icons in Rivonia. What was the inspiration?

Actually just one song is about the arrests in Rivonia – ‘Took Them Away’. What happened is I moved to Berlin, and being so far away from home gave me a fresh perspective on my homeland. And on top of that, people here asked me a lot of questions about South Africa, especially its politics and history, and I was embarrassed by how inadequately I could answer those questions. I realised that I was actually really ignorant about my own country, so I started reading up on South African history. I also started reading Long Walk to Freedom, which I had been meaning to read for ages. ‘Took Them Away’ was directly inspired by Nelson Mandela’s account of that story in his autobiography. And I was finding so many other incredible stories while I was reading.

Historical accounts are obviously really factual and dry, but between the lines everything was really dripping with drama, and I started imagining the characters, and how they might have thought or felt. So I got the idea to write a whole album about South Africa. But it was something I was really nervous about, and I was also unsure whether it was something that could work at all. So I actually didn’t tell anybody what I was working on for a long time, just in case it turned out to be a horrendous idea and then I could just quietly sweep it under the carpet.

Obviously I was also nervous because I had the feeling that nobody would want to hear this stuff from me – a white, middle-class South African. I felt like maybe these weren’t my stories to tell. But it is also exactly those feelings of guilt and not belonging that made me really want to write this album. It was a really personal endeavour, something I principally did for myself.

Your lyrics on the album delve into issues such as the hypocrisy of apartheid and its atrocities. Is writing a way for you to deal with those ?

I think this album was my way of trying to figure out my place in it all, to try and build a personal heritage for myself, because I’ve always felt this disconnectedness from South Africa, and longed to be connected. I can’t say I achieved this. I don’t think a pop album is capable of quite so much. But it is part of a process. So yes, I guess it might deal with the atrocities of apartheid, but more so with my own personal role in it all.

Often there is an echo of myself in a character in a song. The remorseful boy who narrates ‘Took Them Away’ represents me. ‘Back from the Dead’ is a song about a freedom fighter in jail trying to keep hope alive, but it’s also a very personal song about my own feelings of despair. So yeah, it’s music as catharsis I guess, which is what music has always been for me.

Kevin_Schuenemann_Silhouettes-Barbara_Steinitz_-Cheri_Shadows_0031-2 (Medium)How do you think people back in South Africa are going to react to this album?

I have absolutely no idea. I’m quite nervous about it actually. It was released in South Africa last week (a bit later than in Europe) so I’ve yet to receive any proper feedback from down south. I have a constant anxiety about this project – that it will offend or hurt somebody inadvertently. I know that it is inevitably flawed, and couldn’t be anything but incomplete. But I hope that it will be the start of a discussion of sorts. I guess that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

There is more choral material in Rivonia than in your previous albums. Was there any reason for a different approach to the music?

Well this was the first time I produced an album on my own. So I spent a lot of time before I started writing or recording just thinking about this album, and how I wanted it to sound. I decided that I wanted to focus on three things – voice, piano and drums, with embellishments on horns, woodwinds and strings. But most of all I wanted to work with the voice. I guess it was influenced by the choral singing I do in my spare time (Sacred Harp singing, or shape note) which is just so much fun. I love singing with other people. It was probably also influenced by the fact that I feel most free and comfortable working with my voice.

Producing this album on my own was really daunting for me. I was fighting my own demons – the ones that told me I have no good ideas and am incapable. Previously I have always relied on a producer to help guide the process, take it in a direction. This time I had to figure out what I liked, what I wanted. It was an exercise in learning to trust myself. When you stand at the start with the bare bones of a song, there are thousands of directions you can go in, and in the end I guess it’s like most things in life – pick a path, and then just put one foot in front of the other.

What was the process of creating the album?

I wrote the songs at home using my piano  and my voice. Most songs were written in the traditional way, sitting behind the piano and singing. ‘Down Under, Mining’ I composed using only layers of my voice.

Then, once I had the skeleton of the song, I used my voice to arrange the album as well. I demoed things in my room at home and arranged the songs by singing line after line after line, knowing that eventually this one would be played on a violin and this one on a trumpet, and that one would be sung by the boys and that one by the girls etc.

Then I went into the studio with Earl Harvin, who plays for the Tindersticks (also signed to City Slang) and is somewhat of a legend. I knew I wanted really interesting percussion on this album, and had heard about Earl, his prowess behind a drum kit, and that he lived in Berlin. So I got in touch with him, and we jammed together on the songs for a day, working on parts and ideas, which we then recorded at a little studio in Neukölln. I also recorded my piano parts there, and some stuff on harmonium and the bass guitar.

I recorded pretty much everything else at home in my one-bedroom flat. Many talented friends came over to sing or play all the parts I had demoed with my own voice. I also took a trip to Leipzig to record woodwinds with some good friends of mine, and it was there that we put together an informal choir of 16 people and sang ‘Victory’.

Then I edited everything and sent the files to Eli Crews in New York, and he mixed the songs. It was quite a business – the back and forth by email, the time difference, Skype conferences. But he is really good, and it was great to have someone with fresh ears give their take on the songs.

And then finally the album was sent to be mastered in Berlin.

And TA-DA! it was done.

You are signed to German label City Slang and you perform throughout continental Europe. When will fans in the UK see Dear Reader perform here?

We plan to be in the UK in the autumn. People can keep an eye on our websites for more info: