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JEN CLOHER A Strong Woman

It’s been a massive 12 months for Jen Cloher. Her August 2017 self-titled album has made her one of Australia’s hottest acts, 11 years after her debut record. Now she chats with EMMA STOKES ahead of the release of an EP, Live at the Loft and Loew’s, a collection of intimate, acoustic re-releases. They discuss the beauty of a receptive audience, the experience of growing up as a queer woman, and the expression of personal truths. In the midst of her solo Australian-European tour, Cloher is playing in Fremantle at The Aardvark on Friday, September 28 with support from Tanaya Harper.

This EP is really beautiful. How are you feeling about it coming out? It’s interesting to be releasing something where the songs have been released before and this is kind of giving them a second life…

Yeah absolutely, I guess playing the songs and recording the songs this way they just have a very different energy. When you’re up there with the band they connect with the audience in a different way. Especially a song like Strong Woman which is a pretty fierce anthem with a full band, but to slow it down and play it on an acoustic guitar, there’s more time for the lyrics to hit you as a listener, and to absorb. So it’s nice, it’s a different interpretation of the songs and they’re being released before I go out and play some solo shows so it feels like a good time.

And I guess it’s kind of true of the way that you’ve toured a bit by yourself. Were they all from the one performance?

Two of the songs were recorded at The Loft which is a studio in Chicago, and I just recorded them live with the tape rolling, so to speak, and then two of the songs were recorded at an actual live performance at Loew’s Theatre in New Jersey, which was on the same tour with Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett in October last year. Hence the name, Live at The Loft and Loew’s, the two places it was captured in.

You perform a lot in intimate spaces, is this how you prefer to perform?

It sort of depends. I don’t really mind if it’s a big room or a small room as long as people are engaged, and it feels good on the stage. It is nice sometimes to have that intimacy when you’re watching a solo performer to be in a space that’s a little bit more enclosed, but at the same time touring last year opening for Kurt and Courtney, I was playing for theatres that were like 2000 capacity, and that felt really intimate, strangely. Maybe because the lights were down and there’s theatrical lighting on the stage and the sound is pristine and it just brings people into the space with you.

There must be something about having performed so much and being so well-versed in interacting with the audience that makes you able to command and engage so many people?

Definitely the more opportunities you get to walk onto different stages of different capacities whether it’s with a band or solo, or playing your own headline show or opening for another artist, or playing a festival, the more opportunities you get to do it you definitely start to relax more. I think it really helps when a performer walks onto the stage and there’s a level of relaxation and connection and the audience can sit back and enjoy it. I think it’s a beautiful thing to be able to share.

I wanted to ask you about your song Strong Woman, about whether or not when you’re writing a song like this, are you consciously thinking of the people who are going to listen to it? Are you writing those words down and imagining young queer girls, or just queer people, eventually hearing that song, and how it’ll affect them, or how much power a song like that can hold for someone who hears it at the right time?

Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think so. At the time I’m writing the song I guess I’m just trying to get clear around what I’m saying. That song is really about acknowledging that there’s so much condition and negation of being queer, or being a woman, of growing up just to start with. And I guess also just a celebration of the fact that I was lucky enough to have such a strong role model as a mother who as I say, wanted respect more than love. Most of us want to be loved, it’s a pretty huge thing. Sometimes commanding respect doesn’t necessarily mean that people like you, and you have to come up against criticism. It’s a really personal song about what it’s like to grow up queer, a woman, and also celebrating the incredible matriarchy that I have come from. I think when you write from a place that’s true and and meaningful to you then chances are other people are going to connect on some level, because we all have a lot of similar experiences in this world. I think that’s one of the really beautiful things about creating art, and music, and literature, and sculpture, and painting, film and television; is that we go to those things to see ourselves reflected back. When you do see yourself reflected, you feel less alone and I think it can also inspire you and help you to think bigger. I think a lot of art helps people through periods of their life where they look to those things for comfort and inspiration.

That’s really true. What is it like then to be creating art and music with your partner (Courtney Barnett)? Because it is art, and your songs are autobiographical, and about one another, and very personal, and then you’re broadcasting that to audiences, and you’re doing it together a lot of the time. Is that just even more beautiful? Does it have challenges with it as well?

Look I think it’s a mixed bag, I think it definitely can be challenging and I think at the same point as an artist your commitment is to I think, the truth, you know. The truth of your lived experience and drawing from that. That’s what creates a great artist. You know people talk about ‘develop your voice’ as an artist, well developing that voice is living a rich life, and then examining it and talking about it. Examining the life that you’ve lived or are living. The conditions that you live under. To not talk about aspects of our experience, my experience of being an artist in a relationship with another artist and the challenges of that kind of relationship, to not talk about that would be very odd for me.

I think there’s a lot of respect both ways that there’s probably going to be things said in songs that you don’t necessarily want to hear, let alone the rest of the world [laughs], but there’s so much more freedom in being transparent and open and in touch.

I was really impressed when I read the transcript of your speech on Medium, Women In Music Can No Longer Be Erased From The History Books. I really liked how honest you were about dealing with feelings of envy when your partner Courtney became successful and then having to overcome that. It’s really interesting how that can exist because of this culture where it’s harder for women to succeed, to begin with, that we feel like a woman’s success is threatening to our own because it’s like they’re taking a place away, as if there’s only a limited number of spaces. I think that’s really sad, and really good you could overcome that feeling…

Yeah, I feel like it’s a really human response to feel like there isn’t enough room for everyone – isn’t enough success for everyone. But it’s the opposite, what we discover is that there’s plenty. Good work will stand alone, and be seen and heard, and appreciated, eventually. Just because someone else is creating great work, doesn’t mean you will be overlooked as a result. I’m just so glad that I stayed in touch with those feelings and looked at them and got past them. It’s been the best thing in my life to get over that stuff. It’s such a block. It just holds you back from so many great things. And I really think had I not addressed those issues, my own issues, Courtney had nothing to do with it, if I hadn’t addressed that stuff I wouldn’t be enjoying the great things that are happening in my life, with this last record, and touring overseas and playing to audiences around the world who are really receiving the music and really showing up. I really think that wouldn’t be happening had I stayed in a place of feeling like there wasn’t enough for me because Courtney was enjoying abundance and success in her own career.

And now that you’re both taking up more of a settled space in your music careers, you can make more space for other women, and elevate each other even more…

Exactly, and that’s really been a gift. I think also working at MILK! Records, and focusing on other people’s careers, releasing music for other people, and really caring about what other people are doing, rather than just focusing on ourselves all the time, has been a really wonderful gift as well. Like, I really actually care about how other artists and women are going. And I think that it’s absolutely time for women to come together and support each other, create together, play in each other’s bands, just be in each other’s lives as comrades and support and sisters. I think that seeing that energy coming is so powerful. I think in the next 10 years we’re going to see even more wonderful change around women in music and recognition of our contribution.

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