Words by Holly Pereira
Photos by OkayPhoto

“I put a lot into this album,” wrote Jen Cloher on Facebook. Never someone to do anything by half measures, Cloher has always had a strong ethic around honesty and hard work. But with her latest self-titled release, its immediately apparent that she’s taken her art to the next level. Jen Cloher is a rich, unflinching portrait of the artist, with Cloher exploring her relationships and politics with no shortage of detail. Ahead of the album’s release, we meet up for coffee. In person, Cloher speaks with passion and a candidness that mirrors her raw, adept lyricism, with no topic shied away from.

We start by chatting about the representation of women in music, a topic that has been making headlines of late, and one that Cloher clearly feels strong about. “We’ve been taught to perceive women as more gentle and quiet,” says Cloher as we discuss the report released by the University of Sydney which referred to women in music as ‘chronically disadvantaged’. This is a subject Cloher counters head on in the anthemic track “Strong Woman”. “I spend a lot of time around younger women – women we employ at Milk Records, lots of women in bands. I’ve had a real insight into that journey of finding your voice and finding out who you are. That song really made me think about how I had this inherited strength and leadership. I realised that it was a matriarchal influence, my mother, her mother and her mother before her were Māori. They were powerful and strong leaders, and very vocal.”

The song, Cloher says, also touches upon her personal experience of gender and sexuality when she was growing up. “I spent quite a few years outside of school being a boy, calling myself Jon. I could do the things that boys do without any limitations keeping me from what I wanted to do, which was ride BMXs, kiss girls, smoke a ciggie and play video games in arcades. It was less dangerous to be a boy.”

The song ends with the Māori phrase "Kia kaha" – which Cloher explains means "Be proud, stay strong". “You often hear Māori people go ‘Kia kaha, sis’ and it’s like ‘Hang in there’. It was only until we started playing the song live that I started to feel like it was much bigger than me. Some songs I believe are haunted, they have the spirit of something else. If you listen to any of Dr G [Yunupingu]’s songs, there’s a spirit coming through his work. I feel like there’s a few songs, particularly when I touch on stuff around my mother and my ancestry, where something else happens and you really do feel like you’re just a conduit channeling that real power that’s around us all the time.”

Yet, on the record Cloher also deals with feeling powerless, envious and inadequate in the wake of her partner -  Courtney Barnett’s -  breakthrough success. “Naturally it stirred up in me, initially, some comparing,” she says. “‘Oh, I’m a failure, I never did all of these things that she’s doing. Why am I even trying to make music?’ It was really tough, I had to talk about it because I struggled.”

The distance and time apart while Barnett toured abroad also took its toll. “Here I was in Melbourne living without my partner, watching her life through social media and the occasional quick phone call when we both happened to be awake at the same time” she says, “You’re not in the same picture and I think what constantly came up for me was, ‘How do I share a life with a partner when I’m not in their life?’ I’ve come through it with a lot of wisdom.”
On the LP, Cloher also grapples with her fraught relationship with stolen Australian land and the fallacy of the ‘Australian dream.’ “I think a lot of us who are not indigenous Australians have a very uneasy and complex relationship with growing up here… there’s a massive scar in the Australian psyche because we have not taken true responsibility and ownership for the unacceptable crimes that we have committed. I think the best thing to say is that I’m still not at peace. I say 'The Australian dream is fading', but that’s a white dream of house ownership. It’s stolen, the dream is stolen.”

On the track, “Kinda Biblical”, Cloher extends her social commentary to the United States and the election of Donald Trump. “I had to try and make some sense of it because it was one of the most devastating things that I’ve ever seen happen in my lifetime” she says, “To see this psychopath elected to the highest position in the free world and as a result giving permission to those people with violent and racist beliefs. It was devastating.”

When I ask why Cloher keeps making music, she draws on something she heard Adam Briggs, one half of Australian hip-hop duo, A.B Original, say on a panel they were on together. “He said ‘We have to make ourselves feel uncomfortable to make music because if we don’t we’re not really doing our job.’ I got so much from him sharing that. It can feel a little scary to be someone who might be talking about bigger issues, but I feel that it’s time for artists to step up where they can and speak intelligently about the world we’re living in... I constantly go back to what Patti Smith said when she [was touring Australia] about how people have the power. You have a voice, so use that voice for good.” ■