Australia is a big, lonely island and Jen Cloher feels it: as an artist, as a woman, as a gay woman and as one half of a relationship that is often stretched across continents.
Over a decade since the release of her debut record Dead Wood Falls, the ARIA-nominated Melbourne punk-rock figurehead is at her powerful best on her self-titled fourth studio album.
Crushingly candid, deceptively funny and vivid in its imagery, Jen Cloher is a bona fide album of the year contender that remains strikingly authentic whether Cloher is decrying the tyranny of distance, skewering armchair critics or sharing her most intimate thoughts on fellow musician and wife Courtney Barnett.
Ahead of the album’s release and the start of a national tour, Jen made the time to talk to Lot’s Wife about critics, what her album is really about and her own connection to Monash.
LW: So what have you been up to lately? It’d be a busy time for you.
JC: Yeah, it has, it’s been pretty hectic. We’re doing an Australian tour, then we head over England and Europe and then I go on and do a several month long solo tour in America, opening for Kurt Vile and Courtney [Barnett], who are doing a group show together.
Is that the first time you’ve gone overseas to tour with Courtney?
I’ve gone over, just hanging out, but I’ve never played – actually I’ve never played any shows overseas, outside of Australia and New Zealand. I’ve just never got the money together and the right sort of support with overseas labels.
So this is a really good opportunity because all of those things have lined up for this album and it just feels like a natural thing to do.
You seem to have a bit of momentum behind you. I saw you popping up on NPR, which is obviously a big platform.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s obviously handy when your wife is Courtney Barnett, as far as being a lot more visible. People are willing to have a listen if they’re fans of Courtney’s music.
Someone like [NPR host] Bob Boilen, he doesn’t review or play anything if he’s not into it.
So there’s kind of that thing where there’s a bit more exposure, but in some ways you want to be really good because it would be disappointing if they had a listen and were like, ‘oh, okay … next!’.
I guess even if it helps you get a foot in the door, the rest of it comes on the back of your own work.
People aren’t stupid, they’re not going to pretend they like something – which is great. It should be that way.
So switching gears a bit – your mum went to Monash, is that correct?
Yes! She did, she did a PhD at Monash in geography, of all things. She was there doing her PhD while she was pregnant with me and she always tells me, I was in a little bassinet next to her desk while she wrote her PhD.
I have a feeling that she got a fellowship to study there and she might have done some teaching or lecturing for a few years, but then both my parents moved to Adelaide, when I was about three or four years old. And that’s where she started her own consulting business.
She did return to academic life as a senior professor at the Auckland University, probably about 20 years later and continued her tenure there for about 10 years.
I know Monash is a little out of the way, but have you ever made it down to the Clayton campus?
That’s a good question, I’ve got a feeling that I have but I can’t remember what is was for … and it was a while ago …
Look, as much as I’m a proud student, I don’t know if it’s the most scenic commute out here…
Well, I went to Flinders University in Adelaide which was the not-sexy equivalent of Adelaide University, which was really hip and in the city and had nice old buildings. And then there was Flinders, you had to travel like, 45 minutes to get there and it was just a pretty weird vibe. But there are still heaps of cool people, especially at the drama centre. Actually, the drama course at Flinders was much more esteemed than the Adelaide University.
You find that, there’s specialties at different universities and that will attract an interesting collection of people.
I suppose being a little more isolated cultivates a sense of community, too.
Yeah, totally. You kind of hang together in a bit of a pack and live together and party together. I did a lot of ‘first things’ at Flinders University, some of them were good and some of them were not good … and they had nothing to do with the curriculum!
As much as I’d like to know more about that, one thing I do want to talk is the new album because it’s an absolute beauty. How do you feel, do you have pre-release nerves?
I’m really excited about playing some live shows and I think that’s when it really becomes real: you’re on a stage and you’re playing your album and people are coming to the songs, maybe for the first time or they’ve had a few listens, and you get to see those songs land on an audience. Also, over a period of time the songs start to show themselves to you, as an artist and band.
It’s such a weird thing with songs, that you write them and you probably haven’t played them much live, then you put them down in the studio and they grow once you go out and start playing them live in front of an audience.
There’s a relationship and a chemistry that starts to evolve and I’ve just seen songs go from being good recordings to absolute monsters live, and that’s really exciting when that happens.
With this record, look, I know the record that I’ve made. I’ve made a few records now. I know the strengths and the weaknesses and what anyone else thinks is really none of my business. There’ll be people who like it and people who probably aren’t too fussed and that’s cool.
You seem to have good perspective when it comes to criticism, you mention on a line in Shoegazers that you think critics are “pussies who wanna look cool” …
Every reviewer has brought that comment up! It’s so great.
It kind of sounds like I’m talking about critics as in journalists, but I’m also talking about everyone out there who doesn’t make something but feels they can comment about it in public forums where they can be anonymous.
Lots of YouTube comments, lots of Facebook comments, coming over to pages and commenting on an artist when, if you don’t like it, what are you doing on their page? What are you doing on their YouTube channel?
If you think you can do it better, well, why don’t you? It’s like everyone’s become a critic … a faceless pussy online. It’s just lame.
Anyway, you can see it just gets me going!
Do you think social media is, on the whole, still a net positive for artists?
Yeah, I think the good thing about social platforms is that you don’t have to pay a lot of money. You have to put in a lot of work to build an audience and a relationship and trust with the people that you’re talking to, and you can’t do that overnight.
You’ll see people who do that really well and I think it’s great that that’s available to people. You don’t have to spend truckloads of money to reach an audience.
And really, at the end of the day, if anyone wants to leave negative comments … who cares? I actually don’t give a shit.
In the context of that song, what I’m trying to convey is that we make things in our lives so big: what people will think, what critics will write, what the music industry is, ‘oh my god people are touring and playing in front of thousands of people’.
At the end of the day we’re all just human, it doesn’t define anyone or make them more special because they’re out doing those things.
People glamorise the music industry and make it sound so mysterious and interesting and crazy and it’s like … nah, it’s actually just a lot of people working really hard and other people having opinions on it.
What does success look like for you now?
I think it’s always about giving my best. Putting in the work and making sure when I’m standing on the stage that I’ve really worked through the sounds and the songs and that I’m ready, that it’s a good show.
Or, with a record, I can’t control every aspect of how it’s going to end up but doing the best I can with the time and resources available to me.
Being a creative, there’s so much that you can’t control and things don’t always turn out the way you thought they would. But you can just show up every day and do what’s needed.
And that’s what I’ve really learnt: take the action and let go of the outcome.
Is that something you’ve carried with you for a while or is it something you’ve had a new appreciation for?
I think it’s something that has developed over the years. Initially I thought I could control everything and be perfect and if I did this, it would equal that and slowly, over time, you realise it doesn’t work like that.
Creativity and whether that art connects with people, you have no control over that. You can’t second-guess it. I think if you start to go ‘oh, maybe people will really like a song about this’ then you lose yourself.
People are reading books or watching shows or listening to records because they want to hear something authentic and something coming from that writer’s perspective. So really, for me, success is about remaining true to the things that you care about and being honest.
When you write a song about your relationship with Courtney like Forgot Myself, is it difficult taking the song her and baring your soul? Or did that honest discussion come before you wrote the record?
I think Courtney was well aware that I found the touring really difficult, because it went on for years. It was like, three years that she was away for most of the time.
She’d come back for a few weeks here or a month or two there, but for the main part she had to be on the road making the most of the opportunities that were coming her way.
And I certainly understood that. But there’s understanding it and there’s living it, and I think really that song is me realising that thinking about Courtney or thinking about her being miles away or missing her and just making that my thought world every day meant that I forgot myself and that I really needed to bring the focus back onto me: what am I doing in this day? What do I need to achieve today? What song do I need to be focusing on?
And that really helped me because, I mean, anyone who has been in a long distance relationship, or even when you’re new in a relationship, and someone doesn’t text you back … It just creates this sense of, all of a sudden you’re on shaky ground.
And that’s a really revolting feeling. That’s the feeling that we all run from, that feeling of being truly vulnerable. What I tried to learn to live with is that feeling, that it’s okay and that I didn’t need to fix it up or run away from it.
Is that the feeling that album ends on with Dark Art, just accepting that feeling, being okay with that and, in some ways, embracing it?
It was a really hard song to work out where you would put that on a record where majority of the songs were full band songs, but I knew that I wanted that song to be on the album because I feel like it’s a really simple but powerful song.
I think Forgot Myself and Dark Art bookend an album that really, when you look at it, is about what it’s like to be an artist in Australia, what it’s like being an artist in Australia who’s gay or lesbian or GLBTQI. It’s really an album about Australia.
And my relationship just happens to be an extension of that and definitely worth putting into the context of an album that delves quite deeply into the Australian psyche: the fact that we don’t dream big, we’re not encouraged to dream big and that, as an artist, we’re so far away from the rest of the world. Even with social platforms and the digital age, it still costs tens of thousands of dollars to tour your band overseas.
It’s just acknowledging that truth, that it’s an interesting path. I feel like I’m at a point in my life where I can talk about it with some authority, whereas I think in the past I felt like ‘woah, that stuff’s too big, I’m not even going to go there’.
Jen Cloher will be playing at Howler in Brunswick on September 8 and September 10. For tour information and tickets, go to www.jencloher.com.
Her new album, Jen Cloher, is out now via Milk! Records. Buy or stream here.