A good novel can suck you out of reality via words alone. I’m not really talking about sci-fi or any other fantastical genre: I’m referring to those empathy-triggering accounts of another human’s life—real or imagined—so strong, you’re moved out of your own life into someone else’s for a while. Jen Cloher’s new self-titled album has this effect.
When I asked her at the end of our interview if there’s any else she wants the world to know about Jen Cloher, she told me that where she thinks this album really shines is in the lyrics. She couldn’t have been more right, but she did write it, after all. These are the types of tracks that deserve your undivided attention, like a poem or a book you can’t put down.
You probably haven’t built your musical artistry in a geographically isolated location, or even visited Australia, or started your own label, or married a successful touring artist like Courtney Barnett, but Cloher can move you with the life of someone who has. When you listen to “Sensory Memory,” you know the exact intimate pain of missing someone, and when you listen to “Forgot Myself,” you know what it is to let it hurt you. “Regional Echo” places you in the well-intending chamber of a small town with small thoughts, and “Strong Woman” shows you what it means to find the confidence to break beyond it.
Although the album undoubtedly tells its own story, we talked to Cloher about the process of making it, the influences of the Australian psyche, writing songs about her relationship and acknowledging women’s contributions to music.
Vinyl Me, Please: Over what period of time did you write Jen Cloher?
Jen Cloher: I spent a couple of years writing this album, and I deliberately took that time for a couple of reasons. The first being that I knew that I wanted to be very conscious about what I wrote about on this album, and it feels like a time in the world for me, where it felt important to slow down and think about what I care about, what matters to me and what I want to communicate in my songwriting. The other reason I took it slowly was because I had a lot of work in other areas, predominantly in managing Milk! Records, the label that Courtney and I started in 2012. That got pretty busy, so it was a bit of a juggling act to find time to write the record, but I got there in the end.
Having more experience with the business side of music—managing Milk! and founding I Manage My Music—did that influence your approach to making this record?
I think it was more in my perspective as an artist in Australia and just how difficult it can be. I think what’s specific to Australia—that I’m not sure if Americans or Europeans would feel—is this isolation, because we’re so far away from the rest of the world. Even though we have the digital age, and we can share music to other parts of the word with the press of the return button, there’s still the actual physical distance of being thousands of miles away. And the expense of traveling to those places, and touring a band to those places. I write about that quite openly on the record.
“This weird story [has] been told that women are on the outside or are a minority or don’t have something to offer or didn’t write classic albums or shouldn’t be put in the same sentence alongside Bob Dylan or Neil Young or Leonard Cohen, and it’s bullshit.”
Was there any impact of your experience in the music industry—an industry sometimes referred to or thought of as a “boys club”—on the song “Strong Woman”?
I know a lot of women in music in Australia, younger women who are really finding themselves, women in their teens and early 20s, and they’re finding their place in music—whether they’re working musicians and songwriters, or whether they’re working within the industry as reviewers, in management, whatever. And I just really saw a lot of their vulnerability, you know the vulnerability of trying to find your place, your way. And so it made me think of my own journey, and even though I wouldn’t say I landed and had all the answers and knew what I was doing—it’s been a long journey to get to a place where I feel that I could even write a song like “Strong Woman”—but it’s acknowledging that I was extremely lucky in that I had this very strong matriarchal line. The indigenous New Zealand Māori people is my Mother’s line, so I come from Māori heritage, and there’s a real strength that runs through those women, and it was sort of naturally in me, because it’s been passed down both by example and maybe through genetics. And I guess, in a way, I’m kind of acknowledging how grateful I was that I had such strong women role models in my life, and that it allowed me to take some more risks and have a bit more confidence.
And directly in regards to the music industry, I was reading this great NPR article about women in music, and redefining all those kind of lists, like those tired, old lists of classic rock albums by men. And they listed 150 of the greatest albums of all time by women. And it was so awesome. I was just looking through these album going, “Wow, amazing!” Women’s contribution to music is not token; it is massive. And it is true, like they kind of point out, it’s this weird story that’s been told that women are on the outside or are a minority or don’t have something to offer or didn’t write classic albums or shouldn’t be put in the same sentence alongside Bob Dylan or Neil Young or Leonard Cohen, and it’s bullshit. There are all of these incredible songwriters and artists, but I don’t think there’s really been a culture for those artists to be fully acknowledged for their contribution.
How did your Australian identity shape your writing on this album, particularly on “Regional Echo” and “Great Australian Bite”?
Those songs in particular, and the second song “Analysis Paralysis,” speak very directly about—there’s a strange… it’s kind of like a small-town mentality in Australia. You know if you come from a small town, and if you have some kind of success, people want to kind of make sure you don’t get too big for your boots? I don’t know if that happens in America, where it’s like, “Uh-uh, don’t think you’re too good now.” I lived in the states when I was 10, and I actually felt the difference there in attitude around going after your dreams. There was this much bigger attitude where people were quite positive and encouraging. And then going back to Australia, I really noticed that that wasn’t there.
Historically, white Australian culture originates from convicts that we brought out here on tour ships, and it was really a punishment to be brought down to Australia. It was settled on this very harsh land that was very difficult for these English farmers to sustain themselves [on]. They didn’t know how to handle the climate down here, it’s mainly dessert, you know, the heart of Australia is mainly dessert. Of course, there’d been an incredible, ancient indigenous culture that had been here for forty thousand years. No one thought to maybe ask them the best way to live in this country. That’s another story altogether. Although I do reference that in “Regional Echo”: “The Australian dream is fading / stolen anyway.” There’s definitely a scar in our national psyche around pretty much stealing this country from the people who lived here. It kind of has ripple-out effect, like anything, you can’t cover up the past and pretend it didn’t happen. And I think, in a way, we sort of deliberately stay small and pull each other back from getting too big for our boots because there’s actually a kind of shame around our founding story as far as white culture here.
Having been in the scene for while, do you share the sentiment that the music scene in Australia has been evolving and gaining traction recently?
It feels like the world has kind of turned its attention to Australian music a lot more. Particularly in the last sort of 5 to 8 years, It feels like there’s been a real shift toward global audiences feeling like our world is world class. And I think that’s really changed our culture here in Australia. The actual truth—it’s kind of sad—is that we were brought up—I mean, I’m 43 now, but I was brought up to believe that real music happened overseas. Like, real music was from America and real music was from the UK and Europe. And that is a very common belief system of my generation. And it’s kind of been described as “cultural cringe” where we didn’t have the self-esteems to believe that perhaps the music we were making in this country was great. And so it’s really, really good to see a new generation of artists coming up and having these examples of people like Courtney and Tame Impala and Flume and Tash Sultana and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard actually making real waves around the world. So it’s a great time to be making music in this country. But, just to sort of anchor it with some reality, for an Australian band to tour over to the states—just to land a four-piece band in the states with airfares, return airfares and visas—is about $15,000, and you haven’t even played a show.
The video for “Forgot Myself” is beautiful and really conceptually interesting. Was it your idea?
It was actually the director Annelise Hickey… She kind of came along at this perfect time. She’s a fan, and we both got really inspired by each other. I’m not the biggest fan of making clips—it can be a bit nerve-wracking—and it ended up being this really fun, inspiring… You know those experiences in life where you’re just standing around going, “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now, this is great, I’m doing what I was born to do?” And I felt that way when I was making the clip with her, I was like, “I’m so happy to be with this group of people making art.” And it did feel like that this clip was multilayered, did have something to say, and aesthetically, was really beautifully done and shot by Simon Walsh.
Did anything you were listening to at the time you wrote or recorded the album influence the process of making it?
We ended up mixing the album in Chicago at The Loft, which is Jeff Tweedy and Wilco’s recording studio and clubhouse, and it’s like a little museum full of American music artifacts, and it’s a pretty amazing space. I definitely chose to go and work with their engineer, Tom Schick, who has made a lot of the recent Wilco albums. He recorded a Tweedy album Sukierae, which I’m a really big fan of—I think the songs are just fantastic on that record, and I loved how the album sounded so real. The way the album is mixed and the engineer that I used were based on some of the music I’d been listening to around the the I was writing the record.
What was the actual recording process like?
I’m a really big fan of an Australian songwriter and musician called Greg Walker who has put out maybe five albums now as Machine Translations through Spunk records. He’s an incredible composer and arranger for television and film as well. He has a studio in—it’s called the Gippsland—this beautiful, lush, green belt of countryside. Lots of cows and sheep and rolling green hills about an hour and a half out of Melbourne. I just thought it’d be fun to go and record—he’s got kind of like a barn out there. We spent about 10 days out there with our partners and pets—our drummer has a couple of dogs that came out as well. And, because Bones plays bass in my band and also plays bass in Courtney’s band, so both myself and Bones’ partner had spent a lot of time away from our partners, because of the successful career that had happened for them. So I really wanted to make sure that partners weren’t left out of the process of recording the album, to have everyone out there but still be able to make a record.
Courtney recorded on this album with you—what was it like to be recording songs about your relationship together?
I think that both of us kind of understand that songwriting is songwriting, and in a way, it’s telling a little snapshot of a story. I was very open with Courtney about how much I struggled with her being away so much, but I didn’t want to hold her back in any way. So, it wasn’t like a guilt trip—I totally understood she had this window of opportunity and an audience that wanted to see her play all around the word, but I had to also be honest about how it felt. But it was really good to be able to write about it in my music so that I didn’t sound like a broken record for her.
Every relationship has its struggles and its turmoil, and I feel like the more we share about about our humanity and what we all have in common, these emotion responses to things in life, that people respect that. I don’t feel like letting people know these things will create some kind of strange relationship with my audience, I think to the contrary.