Idealistic Animals: Dear Reader’s search for a new ‘big idea’

16 August 2011 - 10:45
By Nikita Ramkissoon

The first time I heard of a band called Harris Tweed in 2006, I was dragged along with some friends to a cozy little theatre called The KwaSuka in Durban. I fell in love immediately. Now called Dear Reader, they will be releasing a new album, Idealistic Animals.

The album is in some ways a concept album, says singer, songwriter and pianist Cherilyn Macneil. “I didn't set out to make a concept album, but once I was looking at the body of work I realised that there was a subtle theme running through all of it.”

She says in a lot of the songs she is expressing her search for a new worldview, post-Christianity. “I came to define myself as agnostic rather than Christian quite a few years ago, but this is the first time I really starting dealing with looking for a new 'big idea'.”

The title track, Man (Idealistic Animals) is the nucleus. Macneil reckons it explores the idea that maybe humans aren't quite as important as they would like to believe, and that perhaps humans have much more in common with “our fellow creatures” than they think.

Macneil says the album deals with a thought track she was on… “What if there really is absolutely no meaning or order to anything, and we really are just at the mercy of random and chaotic powers that we cannot control?

“It is steeped in a feeling of powerlessness, but in doing so reveals my wish or want for the opposite – to feel like I have a purpose, like there is a point to it all.”

Though on first listen, the album seemed far less personal and less acoustic than previous albums, The Younger and Replace Why with Funny, the lyrical content, Macneil says, is extremely vulnerable. “I do feel that in some songs the content can be a little more abstract – exploring things I am thinking about as well as things I am feeling.

“I also think there's been a lot of growth in my song-writing, and I'm pretty proud of that.”

As to the sound, Macneil says she guesses it just happened that way. “We had three amazing analogue synths in the recording space in Leipzig [Germany], and they were so much fun to play with. So we did!”

Being the first album recorded out of South Africa, I thought the recording experience would be entirely different. However, Macneil says, the biggest difference in terms of the recording experience probably had almost nothing to do with which country they were in.

“I'd say I found the most difference in the fact that this time around we were doing a really [low fidelity] 'home recording', whereas before, Dear Reader always made records in fairly big studios.

“I'm used to working with Darryl [Torr], who's an incredible producer and sound engineer and who works with great gear.

“His priorities have a lot to do with getting really warm, beautiful sounds. [Current producer] Brent, on the other hand, has always made records with absolutely no budget and only the most basic gear. so the focus is far more on capturing the energy in the moment.

She says it was really eye-opening to record this way and she learnt a lot about recording, because she was much more hands-on with engineering and editing. “It also made me really appreciate all the stuff Darryl always took care of in terms of recording and all the technical parts before.”

Hi-fi and lo-fi are completely different experiences, each with their own merits. It was a great experience to do it this way, Macneil says, as it's something she’s always wanted to try. “I think the product is also very different.”

Recording away from home also meant some band members were not around. “We had a lot of friends involved in the recording – many friends from Europe came through to be involved in the sessions in Leipzig. Then more friends were involved while we were working in Portland, Oregon.”

Violinist and vocalist Jean-Louise Nel, also sent over parts from South Africa, which drummer Mike Wright helped her to record in his home studio.

Macneil says Dear Reader has built a really good foundation in Europe, especially in Germany, even though they have been quiet since Replace Why with Funny. “I am looking forward to getting out there again and playing to our European fans and hopefully winning some new ones.”

Home fans will also get to see them soon. The band is planning shows in South Africa for January 2012.”I am really looking forward to coming home and playing in SA again,” she says, adding that she hasn’t abandoned the fans back home.

The new album will be released on on September 2, and a pre-release of the title track is now available on Dear Reader’s website.