Q&A: Jen Cloher talks her career in Australian music

Jen Cloher plays the Doug Fir in Portland on Friday. (Courtesy of Grandstand Media)

Australian indie-rocker Jen Cloher may have just been in the United States, opening for her partner Courtney Barnett and friend Kurt Vile’s tour this fall — but she’s back in the States and raring to go. Three months after playing the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, the musical storyteller and her backing band return with a sold-out show at the Doug Fir on Friday, Jan. 26.

The Emerald spoke to Cloher via email about her sense of lyricism, preparing for tours and running her label Milk! Records while also making music.

Emerald: You toured with your partner Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile just a couple months ago and are now entering a solo tour with a backing band. How do you prepare yourself mentally for a tour like this one?

Jen Cloher: To be honest, it’s more prepare yourself physically! Touring is fairly brutal on the body, lots of sitting in planes and cars, late nights, early mornings, a tendency to eat crap food late at night. You have to accept that you’re going to have days where you feel a bit dead. It’s kind of like parenting, if you didn’t love what you created so much you probably wouldn’t make it. Mentally I am super excited, it’s my first headline run of shows in the States and they’ve pretty much all sold out. You couldn’t get a better welcome than that.

E: When you opened for Courtney and Kurt, you played a lot of tracks from your 2017 self-titled album. Going into the new year, how do you think the album was received? How would you rate your own performance on the album?

JC: I was very happy with how the album was received all around the world. People have come to shows and bought the album, that’s the best sign of connection you can get. I feel like the album was a band performance. We recorded it live to tape in rural Victoria, [Australia], about two hours from Melbourne. I’m really happy with how the album sounds and I’m even more excited to be bringing our live show to the States.

E: I heard you tend to focus on lyrics when it comes to your own music. What is the songwriting process like for you? Has it changed based on your albums or where you are at in your life?

JC: I love lyrics. I find them hard to write, I think most people do. Especially if you want to use lyrics to convey something meaningful. I think of lyrics as a conversation with the listener and my approach has always been to mine my own personal experience because that’s the only place I really have any authority to speak from. All four of my albums are a reflection of what was happening in my life at the time.

When I was writing my second album I was losing my mother Dorothy to Alzheimer’s disease. One of the songs from that album “Fear is Like a Forest” was covered by Courtney and Kurt on their Lotta Sea Lice album. Whenever I hear it I think about that time in my life.

E: How does it compare to other forms of storytelling? I heard you studied theatre before becoming a musician. What’s the same, different?

JC: I love live performance, and both acting and music are forms of that discipline. I suppose the biggest difference is that as a songwriter you get to write your own lines and tell your own story.

E: You’ve talked a lot in interviews about being at home while Courtney tours and the nature of your relationship because of her fame. Do you guys keep your creation processes separate or do you help each other out?

JC: It’s definitely been a challenge, like any long distance relationship you have to work hard at keeping the connection. For the best part of three or four years, Courtney was away at least half of the time. It can get lonely, especially in winter when everyone hibernates! We keep our writing process separate, I think most songwriters do unless they are collaborators or co-writers. Courtney plays in my band so she has a lot of input when it comes to recording and playing live. And we’re always bouncing ideas off each other.

E: You are a working musician but you also help run the Australian indie label Milk! Records and teach bands how to manage themselves. How did you learn how to work in the ‘business’ side of all this?

JC: I think both sides feed each other. The more I have learned about the business side of releasing music the more meaningful the process of writing, recording and touring become. You realize you don’t have time to waste, half of my day is committed to writing and making my own music and the other half to running the label and helping other people release their music. It’s a great job and I get a lot of satisfaction and joy seeing the artists on Milk! Records thrive.

E: Who are some Australian artists unaware Americans should check out?

JC: So many but here’s a couple! Totally Mild, RVG, Cable Ties, Hachiku, Jade Imagine. All of these bands and their albums/EPs will bring you joy.

E: Who are some of your favorite musicians working right now? Other artists? Why do you think their art speaks to you?

JC: I am always excited when PJ Harvey, Bill Callahan or Gillian Welch release a new album, I think they’re all masters of their craft. People often talk about someone having an authentic voice and I think that’s what we are all looking for in art. Something that feels very much like it could only have come from that person. Someone daring to be themselves.

E: What do you plan to do after this tour?

JC: After the States, we head to Europe and the U.K for follow up shows and then home to Australia for a couple of weeks of touring, which will take us through to early April. We have six albums out through Milk in the next couple of months so I’m going to be busy!

This interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.

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