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Interview with Jen Cloher

Jen Cloher

Image & Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers

”My current album actually goes in depth into
what it's like to be an artist who lives in Australia
and some of the struggles I think we have
with being so far away from the rest of the world.”

Jen Cloher

Jen Cloher
Jen Cloher is an Australian singer-songwriter based in Melbourne, Australia. She is best known for her solo career, former band Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea and collaborations with her partner and fellow musician Courtney Barnett. Cloher recently released her fourth solo album, Jen Cloher (2017).

Courtney Barnett
Grammy nominated artist Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter known for her witty lyrics and deadpan singing style. She received four awards and eight nominations at the 2015 ARIA Music Awards for her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015). Barnett is currently on tour for Lotta Sea Lice (2017), her joint album with musician Kurt Vile.

Musician Jen Cloher’s self-titled fourth solo album is an overt declaration about where Cloher is coming from, literally and figuratively. Recorded in Gippsland, Victoria in Australia and mixed at Jeff Tweed’s renowned Loft Studios in Chicago, Jen Cloher reflects on what it means to be an artist in Australia, Cloher’s roots in a line of strong tribal matriarchy and her own inner strength. The album includes musicians from Cloher’s inner circle, featuring her partner Courtney Barnett on guitar, drummer Bones Sloane of Courtney Barnett’s backing band and drummer Jen Sholakis formerly of Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea. She reflects on her journey to becoming a musician, being in a relationship with another touring artist and her increased admiration of Patti Smith.

Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile is a Philadelphia-based musician whose repertoire includes banjo, guitar, piano and trumpet. Vile is best known for his solo career, having released six albums as Kurt Vile and touring with his backing band, The Violators. A founding member of The War on Drugs, Vile released Constant Hitmaker (2008) with the band before focusing wholly on his solo project. He is currently touring with musician Courtney Barnett for their joint album Lotta Sea Lice (2017).

When did you start making music?
Probably a good fifteen years ago. I’ve been recording and releasing music in Australia for the best part of a decade now. I’m currently touring my fourth album, and it’s my first time touring overseas. I just spent a few weeks in the UK and Europe playing banjos, which is a lot of fun, and now I’m doing these really amazing solo supports with Kurt [Vile] and Court [Barnett]. I’ll be back in America in January, playing my own band shows.

Who did you listen to growing up?
I’m an only child, so I didn’t have cool older brothers or sisters showing me music, and my parents were kind of old and daggy. Aside from some amazing soul divas like Aretha Franklin or Billie Holiday, I didn’t get a very good start. But in high school I met people like myself, and I got kind of embarrassingly obsessed with The Doors, specifically Jim Morrison and his lovely tight leather pants. It’s funny being in LA because he wrote quite a few songs about being in LA. I’m in the Lizard King’s spiritual home.

The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) is an Australian performing arts institute based in Sydney. Opened in 1958, NIDA is ranked as one of the world’s best drama schools and includes programs for theatre, film and television.

“To step into Patti Smith’s world you have to commit. They’re nine minute stream-of-consciousness monologues set to rock ‘n’ roll music, and if you hold back you look like a fraud.”
— Jen Cloher

How did you decide that this is what you were going to do?
I went to an acting school in Sydney called NIDA when I was 18, and I spent three years training as an actor. While I was there I bought my first secondhand guitar. I started writing some pretty terrible songs in the girls’ changing rooms between classes, and then when I got out of NIDA, I kept writing songs. Slowly, it just took over and became the thing that I love to do. So in a way, it found me.

What life events have impacted you and your music the most?
I draw very heavily on my own life experience in my songwriting. It’s fairly candid, personal storytelling. Probably the biggest thing that happened to me—obviously there was falling in love, falling out of love, classic topics—but one of my albums focused on my mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She’s no longer with us, but that was a big life event, watching a parent get sick and die.

My current album actually goes in depth into what it’s like to be an artist who lives in Australia and some of the struggles I think we have with being so far away from the rest of the world. The isolation, the expense to even be able to tour in other parts of the world, let alone with a band. Here I am solo. It covers a lot of territory, but I definitely talk about my own experience.

What inspired you to self-title your fourth album?
I tried a whole lot of different titles out, and none of them seemed to fit. You kind of know it’s a record when you find the title that’s like, “Yeah, that’s it.” Nothing really seemed to encompass everything I was talking about on the record in a satisfying way, so I eventually decided that it was better left untitled or self-titled. I think it was a good decision in the end because it is very much a candid portrait of where I am as Jen Cloher in 2017.

Aside from being a musician in Australia, what are some issues you were looking to address through the album?
My immediate life experience the past few years has been watching my partner, Courtney Barnett, have huge breakthrough success and become a full-time artist and touring musician. So obviously that meant a lot of time apart, which was a real struggle. Anyone in a long-distance relationship or who’s spent a lot of time away from their partner knows it can be annoying and hard at times. I talk pretty openly about that experience.

I address other issues such as politics, but through a personal lens. At the moment in, there’s a really unnecessary marriage equality vote in Australia. It’s costing $122,000,000, and it’s a non-binding poll, so really it’s an expensive poll to determine whether taxpaying citizens should have the same rights as other taxpaying citizens. I talk a bit about that in “Analysis Paralysis.”

There’s many layers. The album was written over a three year period, and it needed that time to be the rich collection of songs it is.

Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
Gee, I have no idea because collaboration is such a big leap into the unknown. It would be really intimidating to name one of your idols and end up sitting in a room working with them. I’ve collaborated with other contemporaries and toured with people, but they’re all usually people I have some kind of rapport with. That’s a terrible answer to a really interesting question.

“There’s many layers. The album was written over a three year period, and it needed that time to be the rich collection of songs it is.”
— Jen Cloher

Patti Smith
American singer-songwriter, poet and artist Patti Smith is known as a legendary figure in the 70s punk rock movement in New York for her debut album, Horses (1975). Smith has collaborated with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Kevin Shields and Michael Stipe. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and her memoir Just Kids won the 2010 National Book Award.

There is a YouTube video of you performing Patti Smith’s Horses. Is she an inspiration to you?
Absolutely. Interestingly, she’s not someone who I followed my whole life. I esteem her, but I hadn’t thought a lot about her until about six years ago when I listened to Horses with fresh ears and heard it for the incredible debut album that it is. It’s had such an influence on rock ‘n’ roll, songwriting and lyric writing. Getting to perform those songs on a stage, I really got insight into how special she is as an artist. To step into Patti Smith’s world you have to commit. They’re nine minute stream-of-consciousness monologues set to rock ‘n’ roll music, and if you hold back you look like a fraud. So that was a challenge, let alone remembering the lyrics.

We actually got to see her play Horses in Australia this year on her tour. We were lucky enough to meet her after the show, and she said she’d seen snippets about our performance.

The the thing about Patti Smith is that she’s a true artist. And what does that mean? I don’t think she’s ever had any interest in being famous or commercially successful. She’s always followed her muse. She was willing to take 17 years away from music to rear her children and to be a great mother and to give them that time, and she also used that time to write. And then she comes out and drops to incredible depths. She’s just vital, and she’s present, and she still has something to say and to offer. She hasn’t lost her edge, you know? She’s an interesting artist and an interesting woman.

What are your interests and passions outside of music?
I’m a big fan of cooking and eating food, and I’m a real homebody. I love gardening and puttering around the house. I love spending time with my friends.

Do I have lots of hobbies and other things that I do? Not really. It’s hard to fit life in around making music and running Milk! Records, the label Courtney started in 2012. We’ve been running it outside our home in Melbourne, Australia for about five years now. It has a bunch of incredibly talented artists, all of them Melbourne-based. It feels like a hobby, it’s so fun.

What are your favorite books, film, and music right now?
I just watched Transparent. I think it’s an incredibly progressive, interesting, challenging piece of television, and the acting is phenomenal. I love Jill Soloway and where she’s coming from as a filmmaker and a feminist.

I haven’t read a whole lot this year, to be honest, but I have been listening a lot to The New York Times podcast The Daily with Michael Barbaro, a top-notch journalist. It’s only 15 minutes a day, but I love where he’s coming from and his ideas and his coverage of American politics.

There’s an independent newspaper in Australia called The Saturday Paper that’s put out each Saturday. It’s still pressed on good old-fashioned paper and has a broad shape. We get it delivered to our house. A dear friend of mine is the editor, and he does an incredible job. Fantastic, in-depth journalism. It’s one of the only newspapers in Australia that still has a double spread dedicated to an album.

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