Jen Cloher’s fourth album became so personal and honest that she decided to make it self-titled as a way of reinforcing this. Her bio says it all: “Jen likes best to tell the truth.”
With a series of songs that explore her relationship, the very topical subject of marriage equality and amongst other things, music critics, Cloher gives us her most complete and lyrically important album to date.
We started by discussing why she included the lyric sheet in the promotional material that was sent to the media. “I wanted people to really listen to the lyrics. That’s the main reason. I feel that the album is as much about the lyrics as the melody and the playing. I spent the majority of my time working on the lyrics and really struggling at points to find the right ones to go into each song. It was a real labour of love. I think you get a lot more from the album if you’re aware of the lyrical content.”
Cloher continues, “I’m also conscious that a lot of journalists and media people are bombarded with music. I do it myself, working with the label, to have a cursory listen and maybe not go as much in depth with what the album is saying or what the artist is conveying. I thought if the lyrics were sent along with the music or even before the music, it would give people the opportunity to understand what I am saying.”
It’s a great idea and one that harks back to the good old days of album sleeves slathered in lyrics.
Interestingly, Jen doesn’t see herself as a writer. A songwriter, yes, but not an actual writer. This album, however, seems to push more into the land of non-fiction and autobiographical writing than has been heard of any other album in a similar vein.
“It feels like that with this album, I’ve found a new kind of directness and frankness to the lyrics; I’m not hiding. At the same time, I think there’s enough poetry and imagery in there to keep you dreaming, so there’s a nice balance between having a direct conversation, but also painting a bigger picture.”
The album itself explores the feelings of having your best friend and partner travelling the world having a career that you would have also been pursuing. It’s a topic that comes across more than once on the album and it comes with such honesty that one wonders if it comes with being more mature.
“Perhaps as you get older, you feel more confident about the person you are and you’ve lived enough life experience to feel like you maybe understand things a bit better. It becomes easier to stand by what I say, believe or feel.”
Jen Cloher responds to questions with precise, metered answers, always careful to clearly convey what she wants to say. It’s a style that also comes across in her music. Whilst she puts herself out there in her releases, her past reveals some dabbling with acting as well, accepted into the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney at the age of 19.
“I was young and I loved performing and had always been drawn to the performance aspect of theatre. I always loved singing, but I hadn’t really learnt an instrument well enough to be able to accompany myself when I sang, so I wasn’t writing songs when I got into NIDA. When I was at NIDA, I was inspired by a housemate who was writing songs with a guitar and I went and bought a guitar as a result and started to learn a few chords and slowly, while I was there, taught myself enough chords to write my first songs, which never saw the light of day. Which is a really good thing!”
She laughs at the memory. ‘What did those early songs sound like?’ I asked.
“I listened back to a tape recently and it sounded like a Dawson’s Creek soundtrack. Thankfully, 20 years ago, those songs were not released!”
Although Jen did a bit of acting after graduating, she became “obsessed with the craft of songwriting.” She describes the marriage of performance, writing and singing as a holistic experience for her. “It’s a really incredible experience being a musician and I think it organically took over as the thing that I love doing.”
With the success of independent label, Milk! Records, over the last five years, Jen, along with her partner in passion and business, Courtney Barnett, have been busy keeping the label running with a great line-up of artists – including Fraser A. Gorman, Jade Imagine, Loose Tooth and Ouch My Face. But how does she maintain a balance between business, recording and spare time?
“I think, as an independent artist, you get used to the idea that there’ll always be stuff that needs to be done. I suppose I just do what I can in the day to meet the demands. I’ve learnt, to the best of my ability, not to over-commit and do too many things, because then you become ineffective. There needs to be space there for seeing friends, going for walks or going to see a play and being part of the community. There’s definitely really busy periods and it’s a full life that I live, but I’m doing things that I love so much that it doesn’t ever feel like a slog. When I worked in retail for years, that’s when you feel it!”
We get back to talking about her album and the lyrics in Sensory Memory, a really honest song about what it’s like being alone while her partner is touring overseas. There’s a verse that includes:
“Routine keeps me sane
I’m not made
For the lonesome highway
I guess I’m never gonna be
The Joy to your Slim Dusty
But you know I’m always here
When you get home.”
We discuss what a standard Jen Cloher day consists of and some of the routines that keep her focused and not thinking about which foreign city Barnett is in. “I guess I like to cook. I really love being able to have good food around and I like to have a good breakfast and dinner. Having food in the house and cooking really grounds me and keeps me feeling nurtured. It’s just a really nice way of taking care of yourself, I reckon.
“I like to potter around a bit, water some plants, make a pot of tea, pat the cat, go outside and move a few things around. I’m a homebody and I really enjoy those mundane domestic routines. They’re actually really satisfying. I guess I’m not the sort of person that dreams of being away on the road all the time, because I just love home life,” she giggles.
Despite her love of home, Jen is currently taking her album on the road and touring, for the first time, in Europe and the US in October and November with Courtney for the first time. “I don’t have, perhaps, as many expectations as I might have touring Australia, because I’ve toured Australia for over a decade, so I have a pretty good idea of how many people will turn up in each city that we go to.
“Whereas in Europe and the UK, no one’s really heard of me before because I’ve never released an album there. So I don’t really have huge expectations and it’s a great thing to kind of go over to a new part of the world and if people turn up and connect and enjoy it and if they don’t, that’s okay. I’d just be happy if a few people come along!”
Jen will also be opening for Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s new collaborative tour across the United States in October/November.
“It’s going to be a busy time and because I have an album out there’ll be a lot going on around the edges and a lot of promo and I’m sure I’ll be wanting a rest from all of that touring, but it’s going to be fun!”
Her cat (Bubbles) and her routine will be waiting for her when she gets home.
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