Jen Cloher never felt that she fitted in anywhere when she was growing up, and definitely not at her Catholic school. “I didn’t identify with being a young lady and everything that comes with it,” she told me recently. “You know, you get married, you have children, you’re heterosexual. And I was at school at a time where there were still all sorts of rules … the dress code, how you spoke, the way you behaved, legs crossed, all of this stuff. It was old school.”
Cloher was in Sydney to promote her new album, Jen Cloher. Her Catholic education in Adelaide was referenced in the second verse of “Strong Woman”, a song that comes at the halfway point of the new album. The song’s opening verse reveals more:
When I was young
I wanted to be Jon
It wasn’t hard
Short hair, no curves to speak of
I could do things
I couldn’t do as Jen
Ride bikes with boys
Kiss girls and make some noise.
Cloher wasn’t being fanciful here; she told me she actually managed to persuade the boys at the local milk bar that she was Jon for almost a year. “I would go to the corner store to play video games on a weekend and it’s full of St Peter’s Anglican boarders, and it’s no place for girls,” she says. “They thought I was a boy.”
It ended when her mother came to fetch her one day. “My mum came into the store and went, ‘Jennifer! Come home at once!’ And I had to do the walk of shame across the shop. I saw this look of shock – ‘Who’s Jennifer?’ I couldn’t go back to the store. My cover was blown. I was a traitor.”
Cloher may have left her male alter ego far behind but she is still kissing girls and making noise, these days with her partner and fellow musician Courtney Barnett. Their relationship is inextricably woven into the new album, both as a subject of the songs and as a key component of the recording process. Barnett’s exceptional lead guitar and spot-on vocals are prominent throughout the album, but her greatest contribution may be as the muse who has inspired some of Cloher’s greatest songwriting to date.
Although this is Cloher’s fourth album, it’s pointedly her first self-titled one. She explained: “It’s probably the closest album to just really talking about where Jen Cloher is right now – what I think about things.”
Cloher’s first two albums were released under the name Jen Cloher and The Endless Sea. Her 2006 debut, Dead Wood Falls, was embraced by Triple J but the station was less enthusiastic about its 2009 follow-up, Hidden Hands. The songs on Hidden Hands were written and recorded while she was living with her parents in New Zealand, having put her career on hold to look after her mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Looking back now, Cloher is sanguine about the album’s lack of appeal to the youth broadcaster. “Triple J had moved on. A country–folk album? They weren’t interested in it. And thematically, I don’t think it spoke to their demographic – ‘Here’s an album about Alzheimer’s, kids!’ So I sorta discovered firsthand the other side of the coin.”
Four years later, and a year after the death of both her parents, she released the acclaimed In Blood Memory. By now, she and Barnett were running their own record label, Milk! Records. According to Cloher, their label “is about collaboration and group tours and staying together, and the power of community”. When In Blood Memory came out on Milk! in 2013, it wasn’t just a reboot of Cloher’s career, it marked a spiritual rebirth for the artist.
The enormous success in 2015 of Barnett’s debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, turned their little indie label into a significant player on the world stage. The downside was that Barnett’s lengthy international touring schedule resulted in protracted, painful separations for the couple, something that fed into the songs Cloher was writing. She describes feeling completely adrift in the unfamiliar role of rock widow in “Forgot Myself”, the opening track of Jen Cloher:
You’re riding ’round the world
You’re doing this and you’re signing that
The facts are that you’re there and I’m here
When you’re gone too long I become an idea
I’m driving in my car
Your song comes on the radio
And I remember what I always forget –
“It’s a very surreal experience to have,” Cloher told me. “There were points where I felt like I was losing my mind because I hadn’t seen my partner for three or four months, you know? And you’re in the middle of winter in Melbourne and you’re watching all of your friends getting cosy and watching TV and making meals, and I’m in this big house with the cat, just really feeling the loneliness of it and questioning, is this something? Can I make the distance? Am I built for this?”
The fierce honesty of Cloher’s lyrics reveals the vulnerability beneath her self-described alpha female persona that she embraces so wholeheartedly in “Strong Woman”. “Sensory Memory”, “Waiting in the Wings” and “Dark Art” are three other songs here that are almost forensic in their examination of her relationship. Cloher’s economical, engaging lyrics are beautiful in their intimacy – breathtakingly so. This is a very gifted songwriter.
“Analysis Paralysis” moves away from the deeply personal into the overtly political, although the two remain intertwined. Nearly eight minutes long, its music choogles along on a steady groove punctuated by Barnett’s spiky guitar solos. Cloher delivers her lyrics in short, pithy phrases, and in three verses she paints a compelling portrait of folly, humbug and outright bastardry, touching on political rhetoric, climate change ignorance and hashtag activism, until finally climaxing in the last verse with a takedown of “the feral right” and its agenda to deny same-sex couples marriage equality:
While the Hansonites
Take a plebiscite
If I can have a wife
I pay my fines,
Taxes on time,
But the feral right
Get to decide
If I can have a wife
If I can have a wife?
Born into hate
Brought up to despise
Frightened of a world
That’s left them behind.
“That was, like, a moment for me,” Cloher laughs. “You know, as a writer, where you’re, like, ‘I just rhymed Hansonite with plebiscite!’ There is no one in a song who’s done that yet, as far as I know.” In “Kinda Biblical”, Cloher squares off against President Twitter and the dangerous fantasies that dominate United States politics. The songwriter doesn’t care if her stance offends some people. “I realise many times I step across the line on this album ... but if you can’t do that as an artist, what’s the point?” she said. “I love people who have a point of view, and I know when you have one, people will have a point of view back.”
“Analysis Paralysis” is followed by “Regional Echo”, which is probably my favourite song on the album. Its title was taken from a line in a Les Murray poem, so it is appropriate the song contains some peculiarly Australian imagery such as dead fruit bats dangling from power lines and wheelie bins in which discarded prawns “marinate in a cocktail of stink”. “Regional Echo” is dreamy and lethargic, like the off-season atmosphere of the seaside town being portrayed. Its music reminds me of The Velvet Underground in that band’s quieter moments, or the Stones during their heroin phase. The song has such a beautiful melody that it’s easy to overlook the sting hidden in the lyrics. “Regional Echo” appears to endorse a completely vacuous lifestyle, one bereft of dreams, ambition or hope for a better future. A world inhabited by zombies, comfortably numb.
Jen Cloher was recorded virtually live in the studio, including most of the lead vocals. Many readers will note that I often mention this in my reviews. The ineffable magic of live recording is a precious commodity but it is an extremely difficult trick to pull off. Full credit must be given to the skilful engineering of co-producer Greg Walker (Machine Translations), who allowed the performers to interact musically without compromising the fidelity of the recording. The sound of this album is top notch, ably finessed by Tom Schick’s sympathetic mixing at The Loft in Chicago.
Putting aside the studio ambience for a minute, the arrangements of the songs and the performances of the musicians themselves are exceptional. The intuitive playing of Cloher’s longstanding rhythm section – drummer Jen Sholakis and bassist Andrew “Bones” Sloane – provides an excellent foundation for her songs, aided and abetted by the brilliant guitar work of Barnett and Cloher. The more technically minded might notice a couple of spontaneous little clunkers, too. “We chose to keep them in there because it’s more fun,” Cloher said. “Rather than going, ‘Let’s go record that one note,’ we went, ‘Ah, bugger it.’ I mean, you kinda do notice it but then you get past it… it’s just part of the song.” Barnett’s brilliant, inventive guitar work animates the entire album and is a vital ingredient.
This is a living, breathing rock album, raw and alive, but there are many subtle production touches that add a flourish of pop sophistication to the mix. Dan Luscombe contributes droning synth pads to “Forgot Myself” and Tom Healy plays Minimoog over the chunky guitar riffs of “Shoegazers”. However, it is Greg Walker who has taken the lion’s share of overdubbing, discreetly adding guitar, keyboards, violin and unobtrusive percussion in a multitude of places. Walker’s contribution is particularly evident in “Waiting in the Wings”, a poppy number that Cloher partly modelled on the work of Burt Bacharach, a particular favourite of her parents.
This time around, Cloher has mostly eschewed acoustic guitar, but it makes a welcome return on “Loose Magic”, a song that also features a guest appearance by Kurt Vile on electric guitar. Cloher also gets out her acoustic for the poignant, final track, “Dark Art”. Part lullaby, part hymn, Cloher accompanies herself in a solo performance that brings the album to a simple, profound conclusion.
There is so much more I could say about the great songs on this album but you’ll enjoy discovering them for yourself. The live performance aspect of Jen Cloher makes it immediate and compelling on first listen, but it is also a textured, nuanced affair, one whose many artistic pleasures only intensify as you listen more.
INSTALLATION D.A. Calf: Remnant
Kings Artist-Run, Melbourne, until August 26
CULTURE Darwin Festival
Venues throughout Darwin, August 10-27
LITERATURE Bendigo Writers Festival
Venues throughout Bendigo, August 10-27
ARCHITECTURE The Moderns: European Designers in Sydney
Museum of Sydney, until November 26
MULTIMEDIA Eamon Sprod Sound Series: Housekeeping
Blindside, Melbourne, until August 19
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until August 20
VISUAL ART Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair
Darwin Convention Centre, August 11-13
VISUAL ART Ray Hughes: AFRICA
Delmar Gallery, Sydney, until August 6
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 4, 2017 as "Cloher registers".
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