I love it here, Cheri MacNeil says of Johannesburg, South Africa, where she
and musical partner Darryl Torr formed Dear Reader some four years ago. And I
hate it here. A lot of the time I feel really alienated. I feel like I dont
belong. But neither do I belong in Scotland or England or the Netherlands, where
my ancestors come from. This is my home.
Her statement sums up the contradictions at the heart of a band whose debut
album offers on one hand sweet melancholy, escapist flights of fancy and
extra-sticky (as they call them) melodies, and on the other hand a gritty
sense of the complex realities of day to day existence that are reflected in the
enviable intricacies and depth of both their lyrics and their arrangements.
We live in fear all the time, she continues, and for once this isnt a
melodramatic quote designed to emphasise the authenticity of a songwriters
muse, or a sweeping generalisation about the state of our 21st century world.
That wouldnt be Cheris style: she specialises in shrewdly observed,
confessional intimacies delivered in a voice of extraordinary clarity and
pristine beauty. Its just a simple statement of fact, a reflection of a place
where, as she puts it, our homes are fortresses behind bars with electric
fencing and alarm systems, and there are destitute people begging on every
corner. Shes not exaggerating: with its 40 unemployment rate, one of the
worlds highest crime rates, and a tragic and unmanageable flood of refugees
filling Johannesburgs grim housing projects, South Africa remains a country
ravaged by social and economic problems.
But there are two sides to every story, and Dear Reader specialise in exploring
both, as the bitter sweet magic of Replace Why With Funny attests. Our country
is also very beautiful in a rugged way, MacNeil adds, There are the savannah
parts where its dry and dusty and the natural vegetation consists of thorn
trees and you can see elephants and lions and giraffes. And then theres
semi-desert, where the stars make the sky white, and huge mountain ranges,
tropical forests, gorgeous beaches It really is amazingly beautiful.
Maybe its unnecessary to emphasise the geographical location of where Dear
Reader come from, but they are a product of their homeland, and thats something
they clearly recognise: their relative isolation from western culture means
that, as Darryl puts it, it feels as if I am looking at the world from the
outside in. Their upbringing and environment have shaped the way they see the
world and coloured the way they make their music. That doesnt mean, however,
that they are merely a more authentic version of African-influenced acts like
Vampire Weekend or Yeasayer, both of whom sound like nothing like them at all.
It simply ensures that they offer a jumble of influences tangled together in new
and original shapes, familiar but fresh.
Replace Why With Funny is a shiny little pearl of a record and the first thirty
seconds of opening track Way Of The World encapsulate its contrary charms.
Creeping in on the rattle of guitar strings, it skips merrily along a melodic
path honeyed with simple harmonies until MacNeil shatters this short-lived
illusion with an almost imperceptible but universally recognisable sigh. Its an
endearing injection of reality, typical of a band who constantly explore
contrasting emotions, MacNeils exquisitely pure voice offset by the despair
shes expressing, her melodies masking lyrics largely focussed on the break-up
of a relationship, and which she confesses were written for me, to help me deal
with feelings of loneliness and betrayal and that bitter feeling that real love
is an elusive state only meant for the elite lucky few.
So while the album has its fair share of bright-eyed moments, they are, like
MacNeils voice, merely sugaring the pill, acknowledging the fact that sometimes
we actually revel in our own melancholy. Relish, therefore, the contrast between
the French horn, strings and the glam stomp of Dear Heart, as its protagonist
delights in writing her first optimistic love song (I never wrote a long song
that didnt go oh woe is me) the sudden burst of Morricone strings and
subsequent Hazlewood-ian twang in Bend the extraordinary image of the belly
of a Great White Bear as a hiding place, and the songs stirring climax the
choral epiphany of Never Goes and its haunting refrain, Im alone, Im alone,
Im alone And you cant help but admire the frank attempt to address what it
feels like to be a white South African in the brutally honest The Same, a song
that pleads for understanding but recognises feelings of conflict within as well
as between each individual: Please dont look at me that way / I already live
with the guilt that I own / From my forefathers past.
Its a record created in relative cultural isolation sub-Saharan Africa isnt
exactly on the map when Arcade Fire are planning a world tour, laughs MacNeil
and sheltered from ephemeral fads we use the internet to experience bands and
music we love when the rest of the world is experiencing it first hand, sighs
Torr. But perhaps these are reasons why its delivered so unpretentiously from
the heart and speaks so successfully to the mind. Because Replace Why With Funny
is bright and breezy, world-weary and wise, and perhaps the most honest record
you will hear all year.
MacNeil and Torr met at an ad-hoc musical gathering and released a first album
under the name Harris Tweed in 2006. Shed been studying languages and
politics, but Torr who worked as an engineer and producer, and who before that
had been in bands since he left school persuaded her to focus on writing and
performing music with him. She and Torr gelled so swiftly that they were soon
heard on South African radio, appearing on South African TV, and playing shows
around the country, even opening for Jose Gonzales. A trip to South by South
West in 2007 awakened new ambitions, but it was a short run of dates in Europe
later that year that led to a crucial creative meeting of minds that brought out
the very best in them both.
On our day off some friends took us to see Menomena, MacNeil explains. The
place was packed with people singing along to the strangest music I had ever
heard. After that I listened to their album every single day solidly for three
months, so when we were looking for a producer I sent a myspace message to the
Menomena guys, something along the lines of I think you guys are geniuses and I
love your music and is there any way youd consider coming out to South Africa
to produce our new record? and they replied! I was jumping around and screaming
like a banshee!
Thus Menomenas Brent Knopf wound up in Johannesburg in one of the years more
unlikely pairings. His influence was vital: he helped lead MacNeil and Torr away
from the gentle folk-pop they had so far recorded and dramatically expanded
their musical canvas. Torr admits it took a little while to adapt: My focus was
more about recording the parts as beautifully as I could, whereas Brent was more
focussed on capturing the rawness and energy of the song. But such
experimentation soon invigorated them. Brent was running around, barking at
everyone, jumping from instrument to instrument, MacNeil reminisces. He was
just so into it. We gave him a lot of freedom and let him lead us. I really do
think he is a genius.
Between the three of them they have created a record of exquisite poise, tense
drama, witty candour and accomplished detail. MacNeils voice with its gentle
innocence, syncopated delivery and singular turns of phrase recalling the likes
of Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant and Stina Nordenstam is what initially
grabs the attention, but its her songs combined with Torrs (who mixed the
record) and Knopfs wildly imaginative and often extravagant arrangements, the
memorable sonic layering and eccentric details, that keep you returning to its
They take their name from Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre. I love the way its
written in the first person, MacNeil explains, and every once in a while she
addresses you with a dear reader. I like that sense of connection between
reader, writer and plot. Thats what were interested in when were making
music: connecting with the people who are listening, commiserating with one
another. Replace Why With Funny is just the start of the story