Jen Cloher walks into Umberto, an unassuming espresso bar in Melbourne’s inner north, and is immediately greeted by the staff. She’s a regular here, and people know her by name.
What else would you expect? She’s never lived in Los Angeles, or London, or New York City. She’s spent the entirety of her music making career in Melbourne, and has become steadfastly loyal to the quietly dynamic scene around which she and her wife Courtney Barnett have based their record label and life together.
Cloher has been releasing music for more than a decade, but little of it has had the impact of 2017’s shockingly honest Jen Cloher. Precise and free of naivety, it’s a record characterized by terse emotional confessions that glitter with cruel self-awareness.
The songs were written during an extraordinarily dark and depressive period, and they’re fittingly bleak. “I didn’t really hold anything back,” she explains. “When I was writing the album I was stuck at home while my partner was touring, and I was trying to make sense of how do you that kind of relationship.”
Adopting the swagger of Patti Smith and the cynicism of PJ Harvey, the album finds Cloher admitting to feelings of jealousy over Barnett’s career success (“I guess I’m never gonna be / The Joy to your Slim Dusty”), agonizing over Australia’s prolonged and painful marriage equality debate (“The feral right / Get to decide / If I can have a wife”), and contending with the horrors of long-distance relationships (“The facts are that you’re there and I’m here / When you’re gone too long I become an idea”).
Cloher’s sold-out tour in support of the album—her first real experience playing overseas—has taken her all over Europe and the United States. Having endured the frenzy of press commitments and time zone differences and tour buses for herself, she “no longer gets mad” at Barnett for taking too long to reply to texts. “I wouldn't take that distance I felt from her personally ever again,” she explains.
Touring, Cloher says, has been “far more fun” than she’d expected. But now, she’s home for a string of dates in the beer-stained venues she came up in. And she’s happy about it.
Noisey: While you were playing overseas, Australia was voting on marriage equality. Your song “Analysis Paralysis” was a perfectly timed soundtrack to the frustration of that process.
Jen Cloher: I actually wrote the song two years ago, and didn't realize that everything was going to happen so quickly. It was written during a time when I was looking deeply into the difficulty of being a human person alive in the world right now, especially in Australia, where there’s complacency because life is so good. Only 25 million people live here, in this kind of paradise. I don’t think we realize just the amount of strife that’s in store for us if we don't start to clean up our act, take action.
It's so nice to think of you touring this record internationally when the sound and lyrics are so unapologetically Australian. Did you ever feel tempted to pretend otherwise?
When I first started playing music it still wasn't fashionable to sing in an Australian accent. A lot of my influences came from the American scene. I've had to find my way into being comfortable and expressing myself as an Australian. I don't think I was equipped to do that with my first album because there was such a huge cultural cringe. It's been about finding my identity as an Australian artist and then having the confidence to talk directly about it. I think a lot of Australian artists don't want to do this—it's not cool to talk about the Australian music industry.
There are tracks on the album that speak explicitly about being a woman in music. That’s an observable trend for Australian musicians right now—Camp Cope, Stella Donnelly. How much are you thinking about feminism as someone who runs a label and puts out her own records?
What’s made me happy recently is that women have dominated indie rock and folk in the past five to 10 years. Courtney, Waxahatchee, the list goes on and on. It's a space that women have come in and filled, and have done so in a way that's disruptive. They've used the conventions of rock and infused them with something more complex and interesting than their male counterparts.
In some ways, not all ways, I think the men have been left behind. I think what we're slowly starting to see is more space opening up for women. My hope is that in the next three years women start to come up to the top of festival bills.
Australia has been slow to get with the program.
And it's not just Australia, sadly. I look at lineups in the UK, Europe, the US—anything that Courtney's announced on—and there are plenty of women on the bill, but they're always the small print. So you'll see five to 10 (usually white) men, then the first woman, which is often Courtney. Then the rest of the women in tiny print at the bottom of the poster.
My hope is that we see that change, because it says so much. Women are clearly not being paid the same. They're not getting as much exposure. And yet we all know that they're releasing the most important records. What the fuck's going on there? Why aren't they higher?
You’re singing about these issues—feminism, marriage equality—on the album, but with a lot of restraint.
That’s informed by me being alive on the planet for a bit longer. I’ve been making music for a bit longer. To have that depth of field and compassion for the human condition you have to live a bit. There's been a tendency in Australian music to write bands and artists off once they've made a few albums or been around for however long. And perhaps because I've never really achieved big mainstream success in this country, there was an opportunity for me to make my fourth album and for it to have a larger reach than any of my previous three. I think it's harder to keep coming back when you’re really known. I think a lot of artists are just written off or boxed away after successful first albums.
No one really talks about how Australia's major alternative music station is entirely youth-centric, and what that means for our musicians.
It’s well known amongst people who work in the industry. But general punters might not think the reason Jen Cloher can't go play in Toowoomba is because no one would hear her music out there, because it's not on triple j. And for people in Toowoomba, the only way you're going to hear new music is through the national radio network.
The youth-centric element to national radio in this country means that everything has a short lifespan. And rather than supporting people who are making great work no matter where they are in their career, it's all about breaking the new. It's exhausting. Just because it isn't "new" doesn't mean it isn't great.
You've been playing music a long time, far longer than Courtney has. When she went viral, you'd just released your own critically acclaimed album, one that didn't get nearly as much commercial play. I honestly can't think of anything worse than being in that situation as an artist or as a partner.
Six months after I first met Courtney, six years ago, her career started to take off. And it was in that next year that I grappled with my own demons. When I met her I was in this place wondering if I should even keep playing music. I'd gone into debt, I couldn't work out how to make a living from music in this country. Or even how to sustain music while doing other jobs. I was going through all these internal processes, and on the other side of that I had to watch all the opportunities that I would have loved to happen for me happen for my partner. In a relatively new relationship, as well.
It wasn't like we'd been together for six years and now the success we'd worked for together was happening. We'd been together for one year. But because I'm a bit older and I've been around the circuit a few times, I just hung in there. I didn't run. It would have been easy to think, Oh, this is shit and I don't like it, it's really challenging and triggering for me, bye! But instead, even though it was painful, I thought I'd keep delving. I discovered that I couldn't give a shit whether I was famous or successful. It really meant nothing. It was an empty promise, there was nothing there. Watching it happen to someone else I realized that not even fame's going to fix you.
It might destroy you, more than anything else.
Yes, and when I was able to let go of fame I was free to just be me. I'm not frightened of who I am. I don't need to be someone else. Before this album came out I was genuinely––and still am––really happy in my life. Nothing needed to change, nothing needed to happen, nothing needed to be added or taken away.
So when the opportunities came along with this record and people connected with it, it was icing on the cake. It hasn't affected me in a way that I feel like the next record has to be even more amazing. Maybe I won't write another record. Maybe that was that. Who knows? It's a really nice place to be creatively, making music and art simply because I enjoy doing it.
That's the dream. And pretty rare. If someone offered you a stadium tour, though...
It would depend on who, and who with, and how long, and where. And whether it would make me happy. These days I look at life really truly as something very precious. And I don't want to waste any of my time not enjoying it or wishing for something else. Right now, I'm happy to be home. I'm grateful that I just had the opportunity to play for beautiful audiences all around the world. Wherever I’ve played, beautiful people keep turning up. And they've heard the album. When I play I look out and people are fully engaged. They understand. That, to me, is success. That's the greatest compliment.
Kat Gillespie is an editor at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey AU.