Interview with Dear Reader’s
Cherilyn MacNeil

Dear ReaderCherilyn MacNeil, the incredibly talented singer-songwriter better known as Dear Reader, kindly answered a few questions I had about her latest album, and how she works and lives as a philosophically conscious musician in her post-religious world. And while you’re reading, listen to my three favorite tracks, ‘EARTHWORM (All Hail Our Ailing Mother)’, ‘MAN (Idealistic Animals)’ and ‘FOX (Take Your Chances)’, embedded in this interview.

Almost a year has passed since the last Dear Reader album ‘Idealistic Animals’ came out. Are you satisfied with how it’s been received so far?

Reactions to ‘Idealistic Animals’ were mixed. I think in some ways it polarised people – either they preferred my last record, the more accessible ‘Replace Why with Funny’, or they saw a lot of growth in ‘Idealistic Animals’. The subject matter of the latter is tougher to digest. Sonically it is dense and busy. It requires a lot more work on the part of the listener.

One memorable reaction was on the part of a UK-based blogger, who actually found the record and the songs being named after animals very pretentious. Knowing how naively that idea came together, (I was just excited about the idea of having a zoo on the back of my record!) it makes me smile to think someone thought that I thought I was being ever so clever.

I’ve read about your songwriting process, how it’s an intimate but almost involuntary act that you have little control over; you just “let it be born.” But after it’s born, do you ever feel you need to suppress what’s written, to practice some kind of self-censorship, because it turned out too personal, too harsh or otherwise inappropriate for some reason?

When I first start writing something I just go with whatever happens. But soon after there appears that nagging little voice going, “Is this acceptable? What will people think of this?” That voice has grown louder over time, and it takes a conscious effort to tune that little guy out.

A few times I have experienced people interpreting something completely differently to how I see it or intended it. Luckily, before songs are released to the world, there is a long period of preparing and recording, and that invariably involves other people who give you their take on things. So that means that if there’s any very dangerous ground covered in a song, there’s ample time to figure out if there’s not a better way to say something. Not because I’m afraid of people’s reaction, but because I do actually want people to get my meaning, and if I have been made aware that something doesn’t make sense to people, or maybe offends them when that’s not at all what I meant, then I do consider changing it.

In terms of the songs being personal, I don’t tend to censor myself. My songs are such a mish-mash of true, personal experiences, and imagined or exaggerated ones, that the line between truth and fiction is quite blurred. And generally I am a very open person, very happy to share intimate details with people, even ones I don’t really know. I have no idea why, but it’s helpful when my music involves me baring my soul a lot of the time.

You talked very openly about your ‘break-up’ with religion in many interviews. Why did you think it’s important to talk about it so explicitly when it’s already expressed quite clearly in the lyrics?

Well, I myself often wonder why the writing of the songs and lyrics isn’t explanation enough! But when presenting art to the public, one needs a story, and every record has to have one. The story of this one is kind of bizarre to tell, because the territory covered is all abstract and philosophical, and I end up having conversations with journalists about the meaning of life and my own, very personal history. I wasn’t always entirely comfortable talking about this stuff, but that was the honest answer to the question of what the work was about, and I frankly didn’t know how else I could reply.

You said somewhere that losing your religion had broken your heart, and left you “with a profound sense of betrayal.” You also said that making music was like therapy for you, but did you get any additional help from external sources, such as books, art or friendly advice?

This all happened a very long time ago. Wounds that were raw back then are more like scars now. And this record had a lot more to do with trying to build something new of the ruins of my old worldview, than with the loss of it.

But looking back, things that helped me were meeting and talking other ‘post-Christians’ (as my friend Jacob once dubbed us). Brent Knopf, who produced both Dear Reader records, comes from a very similar background to me, and it was an enormous coincidence (or was it?) that he had gone through a similar ‘fall-out’ with Christian faith. I can highly recommend the graphic novel, “Blankets”, written by Craig Thompson, who did the artwork for Menomena‘s ‘Friend and Foe’. That book also deals with this subject matter wonderfully. I also spent some time going to Quaker meetings for a while. I found their ideology to be really wonderfully open, but ultimately didn’t settle into that community.

In the end, every person’s journey is so personal. Mine has involved me trying to accept the idea that I can never find finite answers to the big questions. My focus now is on trying to enjoy all the good things in my life, and to try and be the best version of myself that I can be. But instead of searching some huge picture for the right path to take, I am trying to simply respond to the opportunities that cross mine.

One of the most captivating songs on the album is also probably the most cryptic. Would you tell me what ‘EARTHWORM’ is about for you?

‘EARTHWORM’ is about our connection to mother nature, and how we are becoming more and more estranged from nature as our relationship with technology becomes more and more all encompassing. One of the images from the song is of the protagonist lying down on the ground in the forest, filling up the creases of mother nature’s frown with his arms and his legs, offering his body as a salve for her wounds. I am however very unwilling to shout this stuff from the rooftops. I guess my long dance with Christian fundamentalism has made me cautious about throwing myself too whole-heartedly behind any new cause.

Have you already started writing songs for the next Dear Reader album? Do you have an idea what it’ll be like?

I am in the thick of working on it right now, and simultaneously terrified and extremely excited about it. It is something very different to my last two records, and… I am not quite ready to disclose any details. But if all goes to plan it will come out in March 2013, and I guess by then I’ll know if this idea is a good one or a terrible one.

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