“And to lose who you are
Just means to discover
That we are what we love”
– Jen Cloher, ‘Hold My Hand’
There are plenty of artists whose songs make us feel like we know them. Jen Cloher is one of them. Her songwriting voice, particularly on last year’s magnificent self-titled LP, is wide open. Never too cool, Cloher’s songs reveal her loves and her grievances, underlining her principles and duly celebrating beauty.
Cloher’s lyrics regularly portray her as a devoted music fan. Allusions to other artists and quotations of existing lyrics are spread throughout the Melbourne-based songwriter’s four-album catalogue. This tendency towards intertextuality serves to deepen the uniquely affecting quality of Cloher’s songwriting.
“I think all songwriters are music fans first and foremost,” says Cloher. “I also feel that if a line is good it should be used again. I suppose it’s more like quoting a line from a poem or song that you love in a conversation, except that it’s turning up in one of my songs.”
Cloher’s latest record focuses prominently on the difficulties posed by her partner, Courtney Barnett, spending a lot of time away from home. Given the pair’s close involvement with music, Cloher looks to music culture to help her navigate the situation.
‘Sensory Memory’ includes a nod to Joy McKean, the wife of Australian country musician Slim Dusty: “Guess I’m never gonna be / the Joy to your Slim Dusty.”
“I was trying to find other musicians who had gone before us. How did they do it and stay connected and sane?” Cloher says. McKean played an indispensible role throughout Dusty’s career, working as his manager for over 50 years and writing a number of his hit songs. Cloher, by contrast, didn’t want to get completely engulfed in her partner’s career.
“I don’t think I could live that life and stay grounded, but she went all in. She made her own solo album too. What a legend.”
Watch Jen Cloher perform ‘Sensory Memory’ live below
A couple of Jen Cloher tracks pay homage to the Aussie musicians that paved the way for the likes of Cloher and Barnett. ‘Great Australian Bite’ applauds the hard work of The Saints, the Go-Betweens and The Triffids, artists who toiled in the pre-streaming era when getting heard internationally demanded major lifestyle and financial sacrifices.
“Well The Saints were stranded / Lindy, Grant and Robert had to go-between just to be heard / Australians in London making do with nothing / Oh yeah, the Wide Open Road,” go the lines.
“I feel like referencing music culture and those who have blazed a trail before me keeps those artists and bands alive for me,” Cloher says.
‘Loose Magic’ is a love song dedicated to the instrumental rock band Dirty Three. The verses provide figurative biographies of the band’s three members, while the chorus testifies to the transcendent quality of ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ (from the band’s 1996 LP, Horse Stories).
“Nothing in the world, no, nothing could ever feel / Like the first time ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ messed you up for real.”
Elsewhere, Cloher quotes directly from other songs. ‘Name In Lights’, from 2013’s In Blood Memory, gives kudos to her contemporary, Darren Hanlon: “‘Happiness is a Chemical’ / Darren Hanlon said that.”
‘Kamikaze Origami’, from the same album, manages to reference Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Blondie all in the space of three lines: “But love is not a victory march / Not every love is built to last / Heart of gold or heart of glass.”
This sort of lyrical appropriation is common in the folk music tradition, where authorship is subordinate to capturing and reinterpreting stories of communal significance.
“I love how Gillian Welch and David Rawlings make traditionals their own,” says Cloher. “There’s a sense in folk music of not needing to own songs, of constantly re-interpreting. And in soul music too.
“I mean do we remember Carole King’s ‘Natural Woman’ or Aretha Franklin’s? Both are great but Aretha took Carole’s song and defined it. The arrangement, the emotion, the life experience all infused in her version.”
Watch the clip for ‘Hold My Hand’ by Jen Cloher below
One interpolation of especial note is the use of the chorus lyrics from Sonic Youth’s ‘Kool Thing’ – “I don’t wanna / I don’t think so” – in Cloher’s ‘Kinda Biblical’. It’s gutsy to borrow so conspicuously from an iconic song, but Cloher says nothing else would do the job.
“For some reason when I played those chords I heard Kim Gordon. Then when I started writing the lyrics to ‘Kinda Biblical’, weirdly the lyrics of ‘Kool Thing’ were aligned.”
‘Kinda Biblical’ is Cloher’s bleak take on Trump’s reactionary, post-truth America. ‘Kool Thing’, correspondingly, finds Kim Gordon asking, “Are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?”
“30 years later and we’re still asking the same question,” says Cloher. “Kind of sad really!”
David Bowie, Patti Smith, the Pixies and The Drones are just some of the other artists who appear in Cloher’s lyrics. The assorted references aren’t just fun for fans to keep track of; they allow us to gain a better understanding of Cloher’s artistic perspective. And in each instance, Cloher labours to produce songs that’ll withstand the march of time.
“For me [lyrics are] the most important thing. Mainly because I’ll have to sing the song for years to come and I want to stay interested in what I’m singing or at the very least know that I’m singing the best lyric I could write.
“At the moment I’m learning old songs again before I head out on a couple months of solo touring in Australia and Europe. I’m happy to say that the really good songs stand up. They’re the ones you go back to again and again.”