At home in Australia, singer-songwriter Jen Cloher sits with her middle-aged Burmese cat Bubbles in her lap in the home she shares with her wife, fellow musician Courtney Barnett. “Am I dissing you?” she coos at Bubbles, a “deeply needy” female. “She's really cute, but when it's just me by myself here, it can get a little bit much.”
Over the past four years, Cloher has spent a lot of her time in the house alone with Bubbles while Barnett made multiple loops around the globe, becoming one of Australia's most successful singer-songwriters in recent memory and establishing herself as an indie darling so lauded she wound up performing on Saturday Night Live's season finale last year. For Cloher, it was a source of immense pride. As a singer-songwriter herself, it was also inspiring to see another independent artist breaking out of Australia, a notoriously hard feat. Yet it also came at a cost.
“Anyone who's done a long-distance relationship will attest that after a few months, texts and phone calls—even Skypes—get a bit weird. I had to write about it. What better thing to use than the rich tapestry of your own life? I never thought other people would find it interesting to know what life would be like being Courtney's partner during that time,” she says.
Well, they do. Cloher wrote through her feelings and has turned in her most brilliant work yet. Self-titled, her fourth album is a sharp, bitingly honest account of what happens when you're left at home to revive your own voice. For Cloher, it was time to use hers more purposefully. On the record, she deals with issues as wide-ranging as the perils of the music industry to modern femininity and marriage equality (LGBTQ couples are still not legally allowed to get married in Australia, though Cloher refers to Barnett as her wife regardless). Released on the Milk! Records label, which she and Barnett run together, it's a tour de force in classic songwriting, but it also doubles as a surging rock 'n' roll record—something that's all too rare these days. Here's what Cloher has to say about her new album, what it's like to be partners with a fellow musician, and whether or not a "creative liberation" happens as artists get older.
Would you say this album is your most personal and definitive yet?
Yeah, it's the most confident. I'm four albums into a career, and I've done a lot of living between my first album. I was 31. I started late. Now I'm 43. I feel like it's the first time I've had the confidence to talk about the things going on in my immediate world, so there's a political ripple. I'm not afraid to have a viewpoint.
On a personal level, were you nervous about playing these songs to your partner or were these conversations you had while you were writing?
What happened to Courtney was one of the greatest things that has happened to an Australian musician in my lifetime. You saw a woman finally break through into international markets and people were talking about lyrics, not what she was wearing, or how catchy the tune was. It was refreshing to see a woman lauded for her musicianship. The difficulty was that it took her away from Australia and me. When that break comes along for any artist, you stand back and let it happen. But at the same time, I had to address the mental health issues around spending at least half of a good four-year period, when she was touring around the world, away from her.
Through both of you being so frank, we get to see each side of this coin as outsiders. "Sensory Memory" is about how unglamorous it is to be on the road, living the dream…
I went over and spent time with Courtney on a few tours. I saw how exhausting it was. It was her first experience of touring, so it's even more stressful because it's unknown. I'm amazed that she came back not insane. You could go mad on the road. I reckon people do.
You made the album live. It makes the energy of the record so much more in your face. Are there wider reasons to make a real “rock record” as a female musician?
Yeah, absolutely. This is a funny thing to say, but if you didn't know, you wouldn't necessarily think the majority of the band were women. It's like listening to a Sleater Kinney album. The classic rock album hasn't always been a world inhabited by women. Rock is about the performance; the songs start somewhere and end somewhere else. There's no better way of capturing that than live.
Genre-wise, this record is very couched in a punk, slacker rock sound. Are your inspirations steeped in Australian acts as opposed to, say, PJ Harvey?
People hear PJ Harvey, Patti Smith... and my voice lends itself to those comparisons, just by virtue of me not singing all the time. It's so weird, this expectation that women should sing. I love that Patti and PJ are like, "Really? Well, I'm gonna fucking talk, I'm gonna read some poetry." PJ is one of the great artists of our time. She has created an extraordinary body of work. I love her. I love Patti Smith. I love Gillian Welch. I'm a big fan of Neko Case, Lucinda Williams… Those would be my main contemporaries. Are there many singer-songwriters talking deeply about the world that we're in? It takes guts to start having those discussions, particularly as a white, middle-class women.
So many women become better than men because we have to work so much harder to prove that we deserve our position. You feel a sense of responsibility for every woman after you.
Totally, and, believe me, that was in my thinking when I started to talk about bigger issues. I was certainly fearful at times working on this record. Songs like "Analysis Paralysis"—popping in a line that goes, “Born into hate, brought up to despise.” That can be pretty scary, you know? I'm just gonna say it 'cos I think it's true.
This is happening all over the world with white privilege, not admitting the deep-seated problems. It's scary to use your platform, but then what do you have a platform for in the first place, if you don't use it to voice things that the underprivileged can't?
Absolutely. My awareness of local and global politics has made me a lot more engaged. I've come to a place in life where I'm less concerned with myself. That happens as you get older because you get over yourself. Why have that platform if you've got nothing to say? Nothing needs to change for me in my life. I'm happy. I don't need to be famous. I don't give a shit about that. But the great thing is that I saw that I had this opportunity for a bit more visibility. I wanted to use it. This might be the album that gets heard outside of Australia, so I'm not going to waste it just singing about bullshit.
It kicks off with "I Forgot Myself," a song that's concerned with how you've been swept up in the context of Courtney, but you find this purpose again for yourself.
Imagine being at home and seeing your partner on the Ellen show! You're at the end of the word with your cat and a cup of tea and a biscuit and your partner's singing fucking "Depreston" on Ellen. It's so fucking surreal. You don't expect that to happen in your lifetime, certainly not as an Australian artist. It was a wild trip. Everyone's talking about it. They've got no interest in what's going on in your life. Everyone I saw would be like, "How about Courtney?"
Using your platform, you have this line on "Kinda Biblical" about praying for our unborn daughters. What would be the advice you'd have given to yourself 20 years ago?
Just slow down and take your time. There's that line on "Forgot Myself": “For all the time I spend worrying/ Most things they never happen.” It's true. Do you ever realize that half of the stuff you fear never happens and you're just fucking freaking out? Write about what you care about, be yourself—what does that even mean? There is that intuitive feeling in all of us from a very young age; we know where we are, where our drive is, and then we get thrown off course because there are these mixed messages coming your way, social pressure, ideas around what a woman's meant to be. It's confusing finding your way through all the bullshit, to get to a place where you go, "I don't give a fuck what anyone thinks, this is what I think." Trust your intuition, listen to that little voice, because I reckon that's the voice that a lot of women ignore.
You mentioned earlier that you're 43 now. From your perspective do you think there's a creative liberation that comes with age? I feel that's true for artists like Bjork, Trent Reznor, etc…
Yeah, absolutely. The reason why certain artists have had such a huge impact upon popular music is because they're making music for themselves. That's what you do as an artist. It's just so boring if you're not pushing yourself into new directions. You challenge yourself to stay interested and in love with the creation. You sit down every day at the table, you show up, and some days you're mining gold. Some days you feel like the biggest talentless phony. And I don't know whether anyone in the world never has those days. I was talking to a friend the other night about how lyric writing is just fucking hard, but if it was easy, do you reckon we'd be obsessed with it? It's like the rules of attraction or seduction, it's a similar energy. You have to stay interested.
You're such a big advocate for mental health in the music industry. Do you feel as though there's been an improvement in the infrastructure?
The good thing is that there are discussions going on. It's difficult because there's so much stigma. No one wants to turn around even to their close friends and say, "I'm having some difficult mental health issues at the moment." People are scared of mental illness in the same way as they're scared of someone with Alzheimer's. I watched my mother slowly disappear into Alzheimer's. I saw all the people in her life disappear. As an artist advocate and someone who has watched firsthand the struggles that independent artists have gone through in this country, more discussions around those areas need to keep happening to lift and give people space to find the help that they need.
You're going out on tour with Courtney and Kurt Vile. What are you anticipating?
There's no doubt that I get a massive high from performing. We all do. It's ritualistic. It's one of the greatest fucking highs on earth. Who gives a shit about drugs and alcohol when you can be on stage just fucking channeling shit? But there are no expectations. Whatever. It's a great place to be. It's not that I don't care about the work, it's just that I'm just really happy. I get to do what I love every day, whether I'm playing to 100 people or 1,000 people.
You make a point in "Shoegazers" about music critics getting away from that main thing, which is the enjoyment of music itself.
I was trying to sum up the poisonous aspects of the music industry and reminding people that artists read the reviews. There's nothing worse than when people dismiss you. Why did they review it in the first place? I say: "Most critics are pussies who wanna look cool… like, those who can, do, those who can't, review." It's not just about journalists, but all those other fucking idiots online who come and weigh in on your art. Why are you on my Facebook page or my YouTube channel? Go away. If this isn't pleasing for you, go and make your own fucking music and put it out. Everybody has these fucking opinions. Apparently, there are all of these arguments going on underneath a Guardian review that I got because the album got five stars and everyone freaked out. Who gives a shit? Do your ironing! Go outside and have a walk. Get a fucking life.