“My identity as a white South African has always plagued me”

(Foto: Kevin Schünemann)

Am 2. Dezember tritt Dear Reader im Rosenkeller in Jena auf. unique sprach mit der Sängerin Cherilyn über Südafrika und ihr neues Album „We followed every sound“. Zudem verlosen wir via Facebook 2 x 2 Freikarten!

unique: On December 2nd you and your Band Dear Reader will play in the Rosenkeller in Jena. What is the audience to expect?
Cherilyn: I’m on the road with a bunch of people who really like each other – we might even love each other! Put it this way, there’s a lot of harmony, on a personal and on a musical level. We like to create an intimate atmosphere that draws the audience in. The music is quite emotional, and there’ll be melodrama in buckets. But there are also beats to bop to and a lot of silly comments from the stage. So I think – and hope – people will have a great time.

How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard of it?
It’s honest and heartfelt. It’s dramatic. It’s pretty serious. But then sometimes it’s also really silly. There are a lot of different colours and textures from mostly acoustic instruments like drums, piano, violin, horns, reeds, accordion, harmonium and percussive toys. It features a lot of singing by different people with different voices, but mostly by me. The music doesn’t repeat itself enough, so it could be that you have to listen to it a few times before you like it. The music is light and the lyrics are dark. So you can choose just to listen to the music and it will feel uplifting, or you can delve deeper into the words and then it might feel sad.

About your last record Rivonia: You´re originally from South Africa. Which parts of African history are you reflecting in the album?
is a bit like a collage where I’ve just nabbed tiny pieces of South African history and told a story set in that context… So there’s one story where sailors with the Dutch East India company are ship-wrecked on the Cape of Good Hope and discover South Africa. There’s a story about a Khoi man who falls in love with a San woman, and learns a whole new way of life so that they can be together. There’s the story of Lilliesleaf farm, where the apartheid government raided an ANC hide-out in 1963 and captured almost the entire ANC leadership within one day. There’s a song inspired by Mandela’s time in prison. Many different snap-shots, all told from the perspective of a character, so that the album contains just as much fiction as it does non-fiction.

Do you also sing about personal memories of your time in South Africa?
This album is intensely personal to me, even though a lot of it contains stories about other people or fictional characters. The song „Man of the Book“ for example is all about my great grandfather, his religion, and his relationship with the young Ghandi. But on an emotional level there is of course a lot of me in it too. I use my own emotional landscape when I am trying to imagine the feelings of my characters.

Do you have a personal favourite song on that album?
Yeah, my favourite is „27.04.1994“. For this song I asked South African fans on Facebook if they would like to share the names of their domestic workers and gardeners with me so that I could honor them in a song. I got a huge response to that. I included the names in a collage at the end of the composition. Nancy, Sarah, Tees and Johanna are the four women who worked for my family over the years, and then I built from there. The song is about the complex and highly flawed relationship between white people and their servants, and it looks at the difference in their reactions towards the first free elections.

You also played concerts in South Africa this summer. How is the South African audience different from the German one?
Well for one thing, they talk a lot more. That was one frustrating thing for me about touring at home. If you are in a seated venue like a theatre it is different. But when you play club shows there then the culture is to talk, and that drives me crazy. But it was also really cool to play for an audience that has been with me from the very beginning, and who have watched me grow over the years. It’s also different to play Rivonia in South Africa, because I think South Africans react a lot more emotionally to the content than a European audience.

How was your album, which reflects a lot of South Africas past, perceived there?
People really liked it. I think people like me, middle class white people, can really relate to it, and a lot of people I really respect in the music industry gave me great feedback on the album. Unfortunately I haven’t really managed to jump across the borders that exist to get the music heard by South Africans in different situations. That is something that is really difficult to achieve, unless maybe you have a hit single on radio. I have been thinking about trying to go and play some small shows in Shebeens (editor’s note: These are small informal bars) in Soweto or something. The idea terrifies me, because I wonder if people would hate the music. But maybe it’s worth trying even if they hate it.

Do you have personal memories about the year 1994, when the apartheid system broke down?
I can remember being on a huge playing field, and my parents standing in a massive queue for hours and hours, and playing in the sun with my brother and all the other children. I didn’t know what it all meant. I was oblivious to the gravity of that day. Later in school they taught us our new National Anthem and showed us our new flag. But none of it was ever really explained to me, and it was only years later that I understood what had happened right in front of my nose as I was growing up.

How was it to produce an album about your home country in Berlin? Do you think, the distance made it easier?
Yeah, I think the distance was what facilitated me making this album. Basically, as a foreigner I was asked a lot questions about South African history and politics that I couldn’t answer, and suddenly I realised just how ignorant I was – and still am. So coming to Berlin is what started me thinking more about home, and reading up about South African history. One day I wrote a song inspired by something I read in Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – the song is „Took Them Away“ -, and then I just thought: „Maybe I should make a whole album like this.“ The idea really scared me, because I kept thinking that maybe it’s not my place, or that no one would want to hear it from me. But my identity as a white South African is a theme that has always plagued me, and something I will continue to wrestle with for the rest of my life, and I always make my art about the things that are weighing on my heart. So it made sense for me to do it. I did it for myself. I think this album was a turning point for me, and helped me get my head out of the sand and become a more engaged person.

Why did you decide to record songs with the German Film Orchestra?
Well, we got the offer to do this once-off show for Radio Eins in Berlin, where we would play live on air with the Babelsberg Film Orchestra, and well, we were just really excited about the opportunity. I’ve always wanted to play in an orchestra, but couldn’t because I play the wrong instruments. So this was a dream come true for me. And it’s something that would be extremely expensive to do, and that we could never afford to do on our own. So it was a bit of a ‚once in a lifetime‘ experience. It took a lot of preparation, working with the arranger, rehearsing our butts off – it was our very first show as a new live band, so we were shitting ourselves! And then in the end, it was over in the blink of an eye. So I am really glad we recorded the show, so that we can re-live it from time to time, and so that we can share it with others. I think it was a very special concert, and is worthy of being made a bit more ‚immortal‘.

Rivonia was your first album which was produced in Berlin. Do you find that the city you live in has an impact on your music?
I don’t actually feel like the city I am in matters that much, except to the extent that the city dictates my emotions and experiences, and therefore the inspiration for the subject matter. But once you’re locked in a room working on music, it doesn’t really matter where that room is. I go into some sort of obsessive frenzy where I work manically and don’t sleep or eat or pee often enough. It’s a beautiful thing, to be so intensely caught up in something you’re doing that nothing else matters. And I think that can be done anywhere.

Last question: Perspectively, do you have an idea of where you’re heading to? Any aims for the next few months?
We’re on tour for the next few months, and for next year I’ve got my mind wide open. I’m not going to rush into making a new record. I’m really keen to challenge myself and try something that uses my skills and strengths but also scares me. I’m not yet sure what that could be. But I am hoping I will stumble across it soon…

Thank you for answering our questions.

The interview was conducted by Babs.


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