Redefining success in music: Jen Cloher

‘Overnight success’ is not a term you’d use to describe Jen Cloher – and she’s okay with that.

At the age of 44, the indie singer-songwriter is enjoying well-overdue international success following the release of her fourth album.

The self-titled record is Cloher at her most personal, her most political, and arguably her best. It’s seen her tour internationally for the first time, receiving rave reviews, and she’s recently returned to Australia, playing bigger venues than ever.

That Cloher had the foresight to name the album after herself suggests she had a sense this would be the one to define her.

“I think it just didn’t want to be named,” she tells Music Insight from her home in Melbourne.

“It’s a fairly personal record. I’m very open and honest about how I see the world, what life’s been like for me in the last few years and what it’s like to be an artist in Australia. I tried to come up with all these different names and nothing felt right. In the end, I thought, well, maybe it doesn’t have a title. Maybe it’s self-titled. And when I made that decision coupled with the album art, the photo of me sitting on the bed playing guitar, it felt right.”

The album is lyrically superb, with Cloher’s own personal struggles set against a vivid backdrop of Australia’s wider social and political climate.

“Lyrically, it’s quite bold and different to my previous work,” she says.

“It’s always been very personal and come from my own experience but on this record I’m not holding anything back or frightened to say how I see things.”

Rather than being a conscious decision to write political songs, Cloher says the album evolved naturally.

“During this period of my life, perhaps getting older, I’ve become more interested in world politics, national politics and becoming a bit more active and participating more. So I think that spilt into what I was writing about because that was what I was absorbing and most interested in. I think whenever you’re writing, whatever you’re reading or thinking about or feeling will generally find its way into the song.”

It’s always been very personal and come from my own experience but on this record I’m not holding anything back or frightened to say how I see things.

There are standout lyrics throughout, but Cloher counts one of the more humorous as her personal favourite.

“I think, poetically, my favourite line is in a song called ‘Regional Echo’ when I say, ‘Prawns in wheelie bins marinate / a cocktail of stink.’ It’s quintessentially Aussie. We all know that smell. Walking around, post-barbie, post-Christmas, when the bins haven’t been collected and you’re like, ‘I feel sorry for the garbo that has to pick that one up.’

It’s the kind of imagery that etches itself in the mind, calling you back for repeated listens – and if that’s a measure of success, Cloher has definitely made it.

It’s a success that hasn’t come easily, though. A career in music, especially in Australia, is hard. But she’s quick to point out her story is just one of many.

“I’ve made four albums now and I’ve been through all the ups and downs of, you know, ‘Why bother? I’m not going to do it anymore.’ Then deciding I do want to do it and recommitting. If you talk to anyone who’s been making music for over a decade, they’ll share that sentiment. It’s a tricky career. But you work out that things shift and change and it’s not always going to feel hard. Writing is just putting one foot in front of the other. You just have to keep showing up to the page or to the instrument and that’s how songs are written.”

The ride got particularly bumpy in recent years, with all the challenges of making a living as a musician magnified by the added pressure of watching her partner Courtney Barnett crack the bigtime overseas.

Navigating an ocean of envy and loneliness was a monumental challenge, but Cloher says she’s safely on the other side now and couldn’t be happier.

“I think the most important thing is to focus on yourself,” she says.

“When you’re the one at home, around all of your possessions in the house that you share together, it’s very clear there’s something missing from the picture. You start thinking about them not being there and thinking about what they’re doing, where are they in the world, rather than just letting that go and being in your life and focusing on what you’re doing.”

Having been lucky enough to tour overseas, Cloher now understands what it’s like to be on the other side of that equation.

“I discovered through touring quite a bit in the last year with this record that when you are overseas for an extended period of time, you stop thinking about home because you’re not there. I would never take that natural feeling of distance that just settles in, personally, again.

“Courtney’s about to go out and tour another album and will be realistically on the road playing shows for the next couple of years. It’s still challenging, but there’s also the knowledge of having gone through it and I guess this time around having a bit more of a blueprint for how to manage it.”

Writing is just putting one foot in front of the other. You just have to keep showing up to the page or to the instrument and that’s how songs are written.

There are practical concerns, too, like who feeds the couple’s cat Bubbles, while both Cloher and Barnett are on tour.

“We have so many amazing friends – a lot of them are in share houses so they love the opportunity to come and be in a house where they don’t have to share, except with Bubbles, who can be quite demanding,” laughs Cloher.

“You have guilt; you don’t want to leave your pets. In fact, when we went on tour last year for a couple of months, when we were leaving, I cried. I was like, ‘Bubbles, I’m so sorry, I’m going to miss you.’ I was a bit of a mess.”

A self-confessed homebody, Cloher says she’s looking forward to spending the rest of the year at home (with Bubbles) managing the label she and Barnett run together, Milk! Records.

“We’ve got a lot of incredible albums coming up through the label this year,” she says.

“I’ll also be getting back into writing songs and just enjoying being at home and having routine, because that’s how I write and that’s how I create and reflect. Some people manage to write on the road but it’s not really a place that I feel comfortable writing, so yeah, it’s good to be back.”

Cloher plays Castlemaine’s Theatre Royal on Thursday night, followed by shows in Anglesea and Melbourne.

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