Jen Cloher on her self-titled album, Courtney Barnett, and being a musician in Australia

By Lisa Divissi | @lisadivissi

In ‘Forgot Myself’, the first track from her new self-titled album, Jen Cloher manages to berate, disparage and laugh at herself simultaneously.

As a staccato of bright bouncing chords begin – a sound that has become a hallmark of some of  Melbourne’s best bands (Dick Diver, Eddy Current Suppression Ring) – the music video presents us with a surreal Noah’s Ark situation, set in a restaurant.

There’s two of everything: clocks, lamps, staff, band members; all except Cloher who is by herself, wondering where her counterpart self has gone.

Cloher describes the agitation she feels missing her partner Courtney Barnett, who is off touring overseas, in both a sincere and detached tone. Text messages become hard to interpret, and soon the slow-burn grief that creeps in when a loved one is away becomes too much. Looking into the mirror, she realises her reflection isn’t there. In a panic, she turns the place upside down trying to find herself, upending full cups of coffee, table cloths, and cutlery.

“It kind of felt like a good place to start, because the album does talk quite candidly about being in a relationship with another artist who has this massive world experience, and watching them go through that,” she says of the song.

“And also going through that experience yourself, because you’re their partner.”

The song is a springboard for Cloher to examine larger themes she says are at the heart of the album: of being queer, a woman, and a musician in Australia.

“There’s always that sense of being so far away from the rest of the world and I think that’s been an ongoing theme for Australian musicians and artists since forever,” she says.

“What can be really challenging is that a lot of artists naively go into the arts in this country with this idea that they should be (making a living from their craft), and then when you discover it’s virtually impossible, you have to diversify and be smart about how you run your music business.”

It’s hard-won wisdom from someone who has done just that. Having worked as musician for over 10 years, she also co-founded the independent label Milk! Records together with Barnett. Cloher provides an experienced voice on how to make it work as an artist in Australia.

She’s been particularly vocal about her experiences as a woman working in these spaces (check out this hilarious satirical video on buying music gear as a woman, featuring many of Australia’s finest) and credits her ability to do so with having a strong sense of identity.

“Even though I’ve had my issues growing up and trying to find out who I am like we all do, I’ve always felt quite confident, articulate, and outspoken,” she says, discussing the song ‘Strong Woman’.

“And then when I thought about it, I realised that it was because of my mother and her mother and her mother and on it goes, this incredibly powerful matriarchal line of Maori women.

“The line that says, ‘I’m proud my mother wanted respect more than love / I’m proud her mother taught her that she could want for more,’ I think that’s acknowledging my mother had the courage to not always be liked but to be respected, which I think is a really hard thing for women to feel comfortable to do. I know she struggled with that.”

Despite the enormity of the themes she speaks to, Cloher doesn’t try to articulate or explain the large forces that shape her. Rather, it’s her eventual acceptance and coexistence with them in each track that sets this album apart.

If ‘Forgot Myself’ marks the beginning of Cloher’s self-examination, then ‘Dark Art’ shows the place she ends up. It’s also a song about love, but ends in a completely different place.

“I think that I used to have a very romantic idea of love,” she says.

“And I think romance and love are two very different things. I lived with such limiting ideas on who I would love or how I would love and what that person needed to do in order to be loved.

“And it’s like actually, they’re just someone that you cruise through life with, that you want to hang out with. I think that’s kind of where I am these days.

“With Courtney and I, our relationship has also been about creating things together. She plays in my band and has done for six years, she’s made two albums with me now, we’ve created this record label together and thought very deeply about it and put a lot of energy into making it the way we want things to be.”

Jen Cloher’s self-titled album is out now via Milk! Records.

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