Interview: Dear Reader

Following the release of Dear Reader’s latest album Rivonia, TFFT caught up with her to find out exactly what the album is all about, and to get to the bottom of exactly what is behind the thought-provoking title.

Dear Reader, hello! You must be rather excited about the release of your third studio album, Rivonia, how are you finding the public’s reactions to the record?

Thankfully the feedback so far has been really good. Considering the lyrical content and concept behind this record, I have understandably been quite nervous about releasing this work, terrified that I might really offend or hurt somebody inadvertently. But I think people are mostly interested in what motivated me to make this kind of record, and to find out more about it. I am also waiting and wondering on reactions from South Africa, which will undoubtedly be somewhat different to those of people living in Europe or the UK. The album only comes out there at the end of the month, so my breath will be bated a while longer…

Would you say that you find releasing your work a more exhilarating or nerve wracking process?

This time, definitely nerve-wracking. But usually I find I am quite disconnected from the whole idea of ‘going public’. On a theoretical level I understand that it’s happening, but I tend not to think about it much. I guess it’s only when you read a bad review that it really hits home emotionally. So I find it’s best not to read too many articles or reviews, and try to forget about it. But this time I’m definitely more on edge about it.

It would be fair to say that strands of theology and philosophy have featured continually in many of your previous works, would you say that this theme of religious contemplation is continued throughout Rivonia?

Yeah, the religious thread definitely continues here, specifically in Man of the Book and Victory. I guess it’s something I won’t shake off easily. Victory specifically is a kind of satire on religion. But the song functions on two levels. At first listen, it just sounds like a religious song. And it can function like that, for a believer. But for me, it is about the absurdity of it all.

Tell us about the decision to name the album Riviona … 

Well, the first song I wrote for the album was Took Them Away, which was directly inspired by Mandela’s account of what happened at Lilliesleaf Farm in The Long Walk to Freedom. Lilliesleaf is in Rivonia, which is the suburb I went to Primary School in, and where my father worked. So basically, I grew up there. And it was really startling for me to read this story that took place in Rivonia. This was a different Rivonia to the Rivonia I had known. And so the place came to represent for me the fragmented South African experience – the way my South African experience has almost nothing to do with the experience of someone living in a township, or in a hut in rural Natal. Like all places, South Africa is so many different things at the same time, and what it means to you all depends entirely on the experiences and encounters you’ve had. And I guess this album was me trying to broaden my horizons, trying to see some of those other sides and trying to imagine different South African experiences. For each song I stepped into the shoes of a character and tried to see the world through their eyes. So each song is an exercise in storytelling.

To what extent would you say that your music is influenced by your experiences in South Africa? Now that you are based in Germany do you feel your music has taken a different direction?

Obviously the lyrical content for this record was completely influenced by my South Africanness and also by my moving away to Berlin, which was the catalyst for me thinking a lot more about South Africa and reading about it and ultimately making a record about it. But on a musical level I am not sure. I guess the influences are there and I am just unaware of them. The music has taken a new direction, but that has more to do with the fact that I produced it on my own this time, and my very deliberate decision to focus primarily on vocals, piano and percussion, and to leave the songs a lot of room to breathe. I definitely didn’t try to give this album an African sound. But there are moments that sound a little African, and these just happened organically. In fact I was quite nervous when that did happen. I wondered if it was a bit kitsch. But I was enjoying myself too much, so I let it slide. I feel like those moments might have arisen because I was working so much with the voice, and African music is also so voice-orientated.

Are you looking forward to the upcoming tour? Do you prefer to be touring around, or writing and creating music off stage?

I find the rhythm of it quite nice actually. I spend some time at home being private and creative, and then just when I’m starting to get cabin fever I get launched out into the world and life becomes very busy and very public and then just when I’ve really had enough of it the time comes to draw back and be creative again. At least, that’s how it’s been working for me up until now, and it’s great.

I’m rather taken with the track, Down Under, Mining from the new album. The video is very cool and pretty stylish, where did the idea come from? Were you pleased with the finished product?

Thanks. I made the video with a good friend here in Berlin, Barbara Steinitz. Last year I saw her performing a suitcase theatre piece for some kids in my neighbourhood (she is an illustrator and author, and performs her children’s books live) and I thought it would be wonderful to work together on a video using her paper figures. She showed my some work she had done using shadow puppetry and we both thought that would be the perfect medium to depict the world of the miners, under the ground. I had a day dream while on a hiking trip in the Transkei in South Africa in December, which resulted in the storyboard for the opening scene with the snake, and then I left her to it. I was really astounded by the results, and how much emotion she managed to convey using only paper and shadows. I feel very lucky to have had such a video made for my music.

What’s next for Dear Reader? What are your plans for the summer?

We’re playing a show live on radio with the Babelsberg Film Orchestra next week, which is amazing and terrifying at the same time. Then we’re going on a three week tour of Europe in May. We have a few festival dates in Germany over the summer, and will also be headed down to South Africa for a tour in July, and then we’ll be touring Europe and the UK again in the autumn.

And finally, seeing as though we are Thank Folk For That, we might as well ask – who are your favourite folk acts of the moment? 

There’s a wonderful folk act from South Africa called Thomas Krane, which i would recommend people check out. Also, I recently heard some songs by Angel Olson and I think she’s awesome.

Questions by Jessica Newsome