British Columbia, Canada
"Joan Baez meets Leonard Cohen."
Everyone in the studio laughed when Rick Salt uttered those words, but the Nanaimo, BC producer/recording engineer had clearly zeroed in on something important about singer-songwriter Cheryl Cohen.
At the time, she was laying down vocals for the first track of what was going to be a three-song demo. Instead, with good vibes flowing in the studio, the song turned into a key track for Cheryl’s debut CD, Love & Exile — a poetic, multi-genre album with a bluesy world music feel that Rick went on to co-produce with Aaron Bethune, who also lives on Vancouver Island. It was released in 2015.
That first song, “Free Yourself (In Memory of Steve Biko),” is a soulful tribute to the Black Consciousness leader who had a major impact on Cheryl's life when in her late teens she attended a small, illegal gathering he addressed in apartheid-era South Africa. Cheryl grew up in South Africa and believes she left at age 22 because of Steve Biko’s words that day. He was later murdered in police custody.
Cheryl was a career newspaper journalist for 20 years, and has held senior editing positions at The Globe and Mail in Toronto and worked as a reporter at major newspapers in Alberta and South Africa. In 1997 she became a freelance book editor.
Started writing songs in 2004
She started creating songs on her guitar in 2004, two years after moving to the West Coast, when the poetry she had been writing for decades started coming with melodies.
“I certainly haven’t patterned myself after anyone, but I’ve always had an affinity for artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Marley — people who sing about social injustice,” she says. “And I’ve always loved poetry, both written and sung. Including Leonard Cohen.”
At age 51 she enrolled in jazz school in Nanaimo, which is where she first met Aaron, who has accompanied her on guitar in recent years, and Marisha Devoin, who plays upright bass on Love & Exile.
That’s also where Cheryl met established singer-songwriter Jenica Rayne of Kingston, Ontario. The pair share a poetic sensibility and teamed up for five shows during Jenica's 2015 visit to the West Coast to promote her own new album.
Cheryl was born in Windsor, Ontario to South African parents who took her to their home country when she was 18 months old. After she left in March 1976, she lived in Berlin for six months, then moved to Canada.
Her bluesy voice is distinctive. And the love songs on her CD are just as varied as the tracks with social justice or environmental themes, such as “Exile Song” and “Hug a Tree for Me.” Her sense of humour shines through especially in “You’re My Crack Cocaine,” a rock number. (“You’re my crack cocaine, /You just bring me pain. /When can I see you again?”)
Both Aaron and Rick contribute riveting guitar work to the Love & Exile album, and Marisha plays knockout upright bass — as she does on the Hub City Ramblers’ EP that won the country award in the 2015 Vancouver Island Music Awards. Blues drummer Bill Hicks adds his feel to "You're My Crack Cocaine" and "Hug a Tree for Me," and drummer and band leader James McRae adds his to the reggae number "One Beautiful Thing."
“I couldn’t be happier,” Cheryl says. “It took 11 years to get my songs to this level, and a lot of wonderful people have worked with me along the way, but it’s been worth the wait to have been able to collaborate with these fabulous musicians and get the music out there at last.”