“I don’t think that an outside figure is going to be the thing that propels you. It’s got to come from the inside”
No Easy Road: Jen Cloher talks to Riley Fitzgerald about struggle, isolation and conquering the world with Australian music
You could cast Jen Cloher in a number of roles. But first and foremost, she’s an artist. A bare-your-heart songwriter. The kind that travels past personal emotional state and speaks to the universal.
Secondly, you could pitch Cloher as a strong voice within Australian music. She carries the authority of someone who’s made it happen. The product of a life in music inspired not by the presence of catalysing figures but rather their absence.
On a more personal level, she’s also a courageous lover. Jen wasn’t afraid of acknowledging partner Courtney Barnett her wife, even when the laws of this country said otherwise. Take them as you will, but each of these portraits of person come coupled with huge amounts of determination an equal measure of passion.
But tear these lofty notions of ego from the equation altogether. At this moment, she’s a Melbournian. Cloher’s kicking back. Following the unexpected successes of an international tour, she’s taking a quick breath before the tour’s final Australian dates. She modestly skirts around use of the words, but ‘victory lap’ might just as fittingly describe it.
Following these shows there’s more work to be done. The eternal plights of the Australian artist remain unchecked. Yet Jen assures that things are slowly changing for the better. Our champions of culture are continuing to kick at the world’s door. A few are even making a modest living of it too.
These words push forward in a cool and collected tone. This can mask it a little, but their speaker is excited. Here are a few of her thoughts.
Rabbit Radio: With your own work as well as your work with Courtney it seems like you’ve been all over the US, UK, and Europe these last six months. How are you feeling right this moment?
Jen Cloher: Really good! It’s been so wonderful to go out and play a whole lot of shows around this album. It’s even better to come home and do our sort of last lap for this album in Australia. With so many shows under our belt there’s a really great confidence we have now when we’re playing these songs as a band.
It’s been incredible! I’ve been, as you’ve said, playing sold-out shows in the US, the UK, and Europe. Which is beyond what I ever imagined for this record. I’m feeling pretty good.
RR: A lot of your life goes into these hard-touring bands, but at the same time you’re managing a label and generally championing independent music. What are the coals that are keeping the fire burning?
JC: I guess it has been a bit of a juggle. Because I manage the label I’ve had to really work hard when I’m home to make sure everything is really moving ahead with everyone - timelines and release dates and making sure everyone is feeling supported. But I guess just because it’s the first time I’ve ever really toured overseas it’s just the pure joy of walking out and being greeted by an audience that I don’t know - where did they come from!? That’s really kept me going.
RR: You’ve put out some great records on Milk! over the last year. The Jade Imagine EP immediately springs to mind and Hachiku’s too. I’ve just read today that you’ll be releasing another one with Evelyn Morris from Pikelet. What are you looking for in the artist that you work with? Is there a criterion? What draws you to them or them to you?
JC: Well I think that’s a really good point, I think a lot of artists are drawn to Milk!. They’re generally people in our immediate community. All of the artists we work with at this stage are Melbourne based.
I guess we’re always – Evelyn’s album is a piano album. It’s predominantly instrumental. There’s a couple of vocal songs on it but it’s a very raw, incredibly well composed and well played piano album. It’s certainly the first time we’ve ever released something along those lines.
But I think that’s the thing, we don’t really have any set criteria around what it has to be or how you have to sound. It’s more just that we can engage with the music personally and hear something we love about it. How it makes us feel.
RR: So what you’re saying is that it’s a very community-based ethos?
JC: I think it definitely started with that. It was so low key. Courtney decided to start a label and she asked some of her closest friends like Oliver [Mestitz] from The Finks who had played drums in the very first kind of Courtney Barnett band. And then we met, and I said I’d like to put my record out through the label and really wanted to apply things I’d learnt through running workshops around D.I.Y. release to the label. So I came into the picture and now we’ve really just build it up.
A lot of the artists we come across through bandmembers. Like my drummer, Jen Sholakis introduced me to Loose Tooth and Jade Imagine. Jen showed me their work and I was like, “Wow, they’re amazing!”
It’s very organic. I think that’s what lends a sense to it that we’re not kind of out there like a traditional label where you have an A&R Head scouting all the clubs looking for The Next Big Thing. It’s more about documenting the work of those around us who we feel and think are doing something special.
RR: If I can take you back to a moment to the early naughties when you were just getting started with your own music. You were doing other things around this time with acting too but were their figures around you at the time inspiring you to step up and take your music to another level?
JC: I guess not in a sense where I felt like they were championing independent music. There weren’t really any people in my immediate surroundings. Maybe today if I was starting out I could look around and go, “Look at Jen and Courtney they’re doing it for themselves at Milk! Records or Poison City and Camp Cope or Hysterical Records and Wet Lips!”
There’s a real community in Melbourne. And in other cities too! There’s stuff going on wherever you go. But there is something in Melbourne that’s quite special. But when I started out it was more just finding other musicians and artists in Melbourne that inspired me. Getting to know them, reaching out and playing really small shows together.
I guess I’ve always been propelled by the desire to perform. I love performing live. As you’ve noted I spent time at NIDA [the National Institute of Dramatic Art] and I’ve always been an actor as well. But I think that for anyone to go, “Ah! I think I’m going to be a musician in Australia, that’s what I’m going to do!” [Laughs] That’s a rebellious, risky act. It’s not going to be an easy road so usually what’s driving you is a huge amount of passion for music and performing music.
RR: But moving back further still, was their figure in your life that gave you an electric shock? A person which gave you a sense of ‘I can do this’?
JC: There were definitely songwriters but they were in the UK and the US. They were BIG figures you know? People like PJ Harvey or Lucinda Williams, they were just an idea. They weren’t in my immediate surroundings going, “Hey! This is how you do it.”
I knew that there were artists around Australia like The Waifs, John Butler and all of that crew, who were just out there doing it. But I wouldn’t necessarily say I connected with them in a meaningful way that then made me realise that I could go out and do it. Like I said, I don’t think that an outside figure is going to be the thing that propels you. It’s got to come from the inside. What propelled me forward was just a passion for music and performing music.
RR: Do you think that having all these overseas creatives looming larger than life is a thing which defines Australian music or our culture more generally? This idea of being far more removed from everything else than say if you were living in New York or London. Places where you may have been able to open a gig for PJ Harvey or just see her walking down the street?
JC: Absolutely, I think that we are so …isolated! We don’t see ourselves that way because we’re on our news feeds and it feels like everything is really close, but you just need to get in a plane and travel across to New York or London to realise how far away it is. Your body is aching by the time you’re getting off that plane!
There is something to be said for that distance because not as many people come down to Australia and not as many people are able to leave Australia because it’s financially not a reality to just jump on a plane and off you go. It does create this isolation and that’s been our story. It’s been Australia’s story.
The musical story has been one of struggle, huge sacrifice. People leaving their home and their families to go and try to make it abroad. It hasn’t been an easy road. There really isn’t a single Australian band that I can think of who’s been like, “Oh, it was so easy! I’ve just put a record out and now I’m just touring the world, it was just sweet.”
To be fair that’s probably only become a possibility in the last ten years with bands like Tame Impala or Courtney Barnett or Tash Sultana. They’re actually having big careers overseas. There’s always going to be a barrier and a struggle being an Australian artist, but I think the doors have been opened. The connections are there and the infrastructure that is required to tour and release music at that level is now happening – which is awesome.
RR: I think what’s interesting in a lot of our music – in Courtney’s and especially your own – is that there’s a lot of references to very local and very Australian things. Yet at the same time, there are all these people overseas who are really digging it. People are finding something beyond or past the words. What is it do you think that people really connect with in the music?
JC: I think it’s interesting because we’ve listened to songs about [dramatic voice] New York or London Town. There’s always a fascination in what you don’t know and hearing about it. So I think those audiences overseas are like, “Oh wow! Australia’s so interesting. I’ve never been there. What is it like to live in Melbourne or what is it like to be in this huge country?”
I think they just come to it from that very pure place of curiosity. And then underneath, the experience. Wherever you are in the world there’s the human experience. So beyond the geographical, good songwriting might talk about a place but underneath that there’s the experience of being a person in that place and we can all relate to that.
RR: You’ve got this last leg of the album tour happening here in Australia in the coming weeks. Which is very exciting! But speaking more generally, can you give our readers a hint at what’s coming next for you, Milk!, and the whole family?
JC: Sure. Well, this is really the last kind of opportunity for people to see me play this album for a while because my band will be leaving with Courtney Barnett. My guitarist and bass player will be on the road touring the new Courtney Barnett record [Tell Me How You Really Feel] for a couple of years!
So I guess that’s what kind of makes these shows a bit more special. And then I’m sort of settling into label managing, we have quite a few albums coming out this year in fact. I’ll be busy on the ground just making sure everything’s taken care of there and then I’ll be writing! Just back to writing songs and seeing what evolves over the next year or two. I’m really looking forward to it!
Interviewer - Riley Fitzgerald
Sunday 11 March - Golden Plains, Meredith
Friday 16 March - Rosemount Hotel, Perth
Saturday 17 March – The Zoo, Brisbane
Thursday 22 March - Theatre Royal, Castlemaine
Friday 23 March – Anglesea Memorial Hall, Anglesea
Saturday 24 March - The Croxton, Melbourne