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By Bruce Dennill

Editor, pArticipate Arts & Culture magazine

Between the lines

South African singer-songwriter Cherilyn MacNeil, aka Dear Reader, has been based in Berlin for a good few years now –...

South African singer-songwriter Cherilyn MacNeil, aka Dear Reader, has been based in Berlin for a good few years now – long enough to build herself a good reputation in Europe purely on the work she has done since arriving there.

So why, at this point in her career, has she chosen to write a bunch of songs about specific incidents in South African history, thus highlighting her uitlander status? MacNeil’s professed reason for exploring the subject matter is the sense of shame she felt when asked by Berliners to elaborate on stories from her home country’s past, which she was unable to do due to a lack of knowledge. But an album called Rivonia is still likely to be, at best, a novelty for German listeners (especially when it’s the connotations of that name – the trial and the reasons behind it – rather than the plain geographical reference).

“It’s been well received,” says MacNeil, “but the response is different in different places.

“For South Africans, it’s an emotional thing. The Europeans are curious. They like it when I explain the stories. And musically it’s quite light, so you don’t have to engage with the themes in a heavy way.

“The Germans like me being different. They have enough artists of their own.”

Rivonia’s apartheid-related themes might not be the most culturally sensitive topics to discuss in a country with Germany’s history.

“The label was concerned about that,” admits MacNeil.

“Germans are still sensitive about their own past and very politically correct. So when I brought in a song like Already Are, which I wrote from an Afrikaner point of view, the label asked me ‘Why are you sympathising with the bad guy?’

“My mother was also worried about the contentiousness of the issues. She asked me: ‘Why would you do that? You’ll make someone angry!’

“But I’ve tried to avoid tak-

ing a moral stance. These songs are historically inspired, but they’re fictional. I’m just representing a few of history’s thousands of faces.”

Rivonia’s front cover features no writing, with all the room taken up by a rather severe, old-fashioned portrait of MacNeil. In branding terms, especially for an act which has morphed from something very different (Dear Reader was previously known as Harris Tweed and has since been refined further to, more or less, a one-woman operation) this is an interesting decision.

“I wanted to say: ‘This is mine; it’s about me’ and to try and explain the nature of the content. This is all my baggage. It’s not history; it’s not objective.

“For the picture, I tried to replicate the portrait of an ancestor of mine, which also had a very serious look. So, in a way, it’s not me; it’s someone playing a role. But also, this was the first time that I produced my work on my own, so I was happy to be represented. I didn’t like it the last time I was on the cover – there was no purpose to it, then.”

Rivonia is a concept album, which can be a problematic tag, as it often refers to something that’s, at best, self-indulgent. But this project doesn’t feel that way, unless you put it under a microscope. “It’s not something I did on purpose,” MacNeil grins.

“This music reflects my personality. I’m serious, sensitive and melancholy, but I’m also silly and light-hearted sometimes. My lyrics tend to bring out the former and my music the latter. It’s inte-resting when I play live people are dancing to a happy beat, not knowing what the words mean.”

Would the reception for the same project have been different had MacNeil been based in her home country, rather than abroad?

“I’m not sure, but both here and in Europe, this album has launched me into a new world,” she says.

“I’m noticing a new audience at the shows – and many of the people are older. It’s like I’ve taken a

step into culture and out of pop, which is great, because where this music is talked about wil make a difference.”

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