Cherilyn MacNeil is a team player. That’s why she has brought along her two bandmates, bassist Darryl Torr and drummer Michael Wright, for this interview. It is an unbelievably hot day at Berlin’s recently shut-down Tempelhof airport, where, in one of the hangars, the Berlin Festival is taking place. As a long queue of parched concert-goers forms at the bar, elegant singer Cheri, with her elfin complexion and knock-out smile, exudes an air of complete composure amidst the hustle and bustle. That may be an intrinsic characteristic of this out-and-out optimist, but it has had a little boost too: 'We spent a few amazing days in Berlin. We went swimming in the lake, picnicked in the park, did a music quiz – and won! – and I went cycling. It’s winter in South Africa, you know, so it was like a summer holiday for us!'
Cheri’s enthusiasm for Berlin is infectious; what’s more, the group seem to be well connected, staying as they are in the capital’s trendiest district, on the border of Kreuzberg and Neukölln (or just Neukölln for short). This neck of the woods isn’t yet smart enough to attract galleries or investors – on the other hand, it is not too run-down for various cool bars and boutiques to have taken root here in recent times.
Johannesburg, a mix of crime and cultural diversity
A totally different atmosphere reigns in the band’s home city, Johannesburg. Home to over three million people, Jo’burg’s reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous cities is stuck as firmly as the glue that is sniffed on its backstreets. What does she think of lives spent behind bars in fear of break-ins and violence? 'For us that’s normality, that’s just the way it’s always been. Of course, you have to be careful, but you do that automatically. Of course, I don’t walk around after dark, I drive, and I make sure I always go out in a group. It looks worse to outsiders than it actually is… I’ve just got used it.'
Darryl joins the conversation. Born and raised in Johannesburg, the city as he sees it offers endless possibilities which are far from exhausted, and he expects things to really get interesting in the not too distant future. Cheri agrees, though with some restraint. 'It is simply the most cosmopolitan city in our country, with a difficult history, but a lot of different cultures exist here – unfortunately, often still too separate from each other instead of alongside each other.'
Losing my religion
South Africa’s music scene, however, is eclectic and colourful: the top of the charts are currently mainly filled with hip-hop, dance and American-style hits alongside traditional African music. All of South Africa seems to be swamped by the musical mainstream. Recently a small yet high-quality independent music scene has begun to take shape. As a band, Dear Reader has actually been around since 2006, although then under the name of Harris Tweed, a moniker that the indie group had to give up in 2008 because of the clothing brand of the same name.
'When I look back I think Wow, who was that person? I was a real freak!'
'If Jesus was my friend, tell me where he went,' goes one of the lyrics to Cheri's songs. The singer explains how she was once a strong believer. 'I was brought up religiously and even carried on with it later. I was a really difficult person at that time. Somewhere along the line I lost my faith, not because of any dramatic event, but just because. That was the first time my heart was broken – way before the guy I sing about in my songs. It’s kind of strange for me to talk about it. When I look back I think, Wow, who was that person? I was a real freak!' Cheri has since strayed from that path, but the interest in spirituality, philosophy and the all-important 'Why?' in life have stayed with her.
Lovesickness and coolness
Cheri has written a lot of songs about her heartbreak, freely admitting that their content is autobiographical. But isn’t someone as strikingly attractive as this dream-woman, whose inner beauty reveals itself within seconds of your meeting her, more of the heartbreaker than the heartbroken? 'Oh, you know, back in school there were always those kids everyone looked up to, who no-one was ever cool enough for, and who everybody had such massive respect for. Then one day you find out that to others, you were exactly that person. Sometimes you only notice years later what other people used to think of you, which can come as quite a shock! We’re all just geeks really. We should just talk to each other more instead of wasting all our time trying to be trendy and cool. I like it when you meet someone and find out that you are actually just the same. That’s the great thing about music, because you discover parts of your personality that are otherwise buried away.'
'We should just talk to each other more instead of wasting all our time trying to be trendy and cool'
Music’s capacity for reaching across boundaries of space and time is well documented. In The Same, Cheri highlights the differences which continue to run through South African society. All differences, be they religions, skin colours, customs or traditions, share a common ground which is worth fighting for: Same, we’re both the same/ We share the same heart/ We’re made of the same parts. That goes for everyone, freaks or not.