Melbourne singer/songwriter Jen Cloher’s self-titled album has been heralded by Australian media as a career breakthrough. She’s bringing its lyrical splendour to the Rosemount Hotel on Friday, March 16, with support from locals Carla Geneve and Bells Rapids. It’s Cloher’s fourth album and her biggest yet, spinning deft and witty lines on the political and the personal with the unflinching guts Jen is known for. JESS COCKERILL caught up with her over tea and toast to ask her thoughts on the same-sex plebiscite, the virtue of old-school songwriting in 2018, and what a ‘breakthrough album’ means for mid-career musician.
Your music falls within that singer/songwriter tradition, which has been around for decades. Why do you go for that classic sound rather than something more modern or experimental?
For me, my interest was less in trying to play with the conventions of music and instead push lyrically, so I use a conventional form that everyone knows and is comfortable listening to, while the lyrics are not comfortable. It’s not a polite album, it’s very honest. And I think if there’s anywhere where the album is fresh and interesting and new it’s within the words and the stories.
I read a lot of Australian poetry when I was writing, because I wanted its roots to be firmly planted on Australian soil… Les Murray and Dorothy Porter. Lyrically, there are just so many people in my immediate surroundings that inspire me. There’s a band on Milk! Records (Cloher’s label with partner Courtney Barnett) called The Finks, the songwriter in that band is an incredible, and of course I’m really inspired by Courtney’s lyrics.
It’s kind of rare for a mid-career musician like yourself to have such a breakthrough – usually it’s much younger artists. I feel like as a result, a lot of young people only hear music by people their own age. Who do you perceive your audience to be at this point?
I write for everyone, everyone who’s interested in listening. It’s a really diverse audience, and it makes you realise that age really is irrelevant. It’s just about people wanting and needing art in their life, to make sense of life and connect.
I think also as a younger person it’s great to hear from older artists rather than only listening to music created by people your own age, because there is a limit to how much life experience you’ve had, how many times your heart’s been broken. You can take comfort in work from people who are older and who have been there, they can say it’s gonna be OK. It’s like, ‘It might feel insane right now, but Jen Cloher, who’s been on the planet for 20 years longer than me, said it’s gonna be OK.’
I also think on the other side of that, making assumptions about what young people listen to is bullshit. The young people I know listen to all sorts of music, from all sorts of age groups and places.
One of the standout songs on this album is Analysis Paralysis, it’s got that killer line “I’m paralyzed / in paradise / while the Hansonites / take a plebiscite / to decide / if I can have a wife”. How did you feel about the result of the plebiscite?
I’m happy with the result, but it was a really painful and sad process we had to go through. A lot of people in my immediate community with children felt really upset by their children having to go to school and be faced with that.
The great thing was Australians showed our government that we are progressive and we can make decisions when they can’t lead. Much like the youth activists speaking about gun laws in America, they’ve basically exposed people in power for being ineffectual and not making the right action, not respecting what the public want.
Are there wedding bells on the horizon? I know you and Courtney Barnett have called each other ‘wife’ for a while already….
I think somewhere down the track we’ll probably have a party and celebrate, but we did just decide to call each other wife because we wanted to be wives, and not have a government dictate whether or not we could. We were like, blow this, we’re wives, you can have your own opinion about it but we’re just gonna get on with things.
A lot of articles I’ve read – even your own blog post on Medium – have talked about your relationship with Courtney, and dealing with tricky feelings about her sudden international fame. How much do you think her success has influenced the reception of this album?
Obviously there’s greater exposure through Milk! Records, and Courtney’s success has shone a light on those who work around her. But then the album itself still has to really speak to people. I think this record is very honest and candid, I think it’s quite topical and political, and I think a lot of people can identify with the themes. It’s the first time I’ve really spoken about what it is to be an artist in Australia… We’re down the bottom of the planet, Australian artists have a lot stacked against them.
Speaking of which, this is the first time you’ve gotten to take an album overseas yourself, right?
Yeah, we did a couple of tours to Europe and the UK, and we did our first band headline tour in the US this year.
Looking forward to Perth after all those glamorous places?
The crowds there are great, there’s something about Western Australians where they’re just a bit more forward with their energy. They’re quite happy to yell something out during the gig; they’re a bit looser, which I like.
We’ve got a couple of really amazing Perth bands on the lineup, Carla Geneve and Bells Rapids. It’s also been really cool to see Boat Show, Stella Donnelly and Abbe May putting stuff out. Female singer-songwriters like that have always been there, but what’s changed is people are really interested in what women have to say at the moment. It’s really a good time, the spotlight is on them.