“What a powerful thing to know: that one’s own desires are mappable onto strangers; that what one finds in oneself will most certainly be found in The Other.” – George Saunders.
It goes like this: you wake up, and the first thing you read is a news article about the kind of world that we will live in when climate change irreversibly alters the make-up of the ocean. Maybe you’re not even out of bed yet – maybe you’re lying in the sheets, flicking through your phone – and then all of a sudden you’re reading about the end of the world. Because according to this article, which has been written in the detached, eerily academic tones of a terminal cancer diagnosis, within 20 years ocean acidification caused by our highly polluted atmosphere will begin to poison the air.
Within two decades, this report says, you won’t be able to walk outside your front door without the help of a gas mask. Untold millions of animals will die. The food chain will break down. Supply lines will be severed. The risk of global war will increase. And, same as it ever was, the first to suffer will be the poor and the needy.
So what the fuck are you meant to do? What are you actually meant to do? I mean, you’re lying there in your bed, or maybe sitting at your desk, and this news article is open in front of you, and you’re assessing your choices. You can, what, try and ignore it? Think about something – anything –else? Maybe share the article on Facebook, adding some pithy comment to make yourself seem less scared than you actually are, something like: “Well, I guess now is finally the time for me to take up smoking”, or, “Guess I won’t bother going on that new diet anymore”?
But that, when it comes down to it, is about all you can do. Because there is a limit to how much you can take. No matter how conscious and aware you might want to be, you can’t keep your heart open to the world all of the time. No-one can. You start your day out by reading that yes, the rapture is real, and more than that, it’s heading our way; that we have 20 or so years, tops, before our way of life is changed forever. And then you have to live, somehow; you have to go on despite this great, horrible atrocity we are glumly trudging towards, and you have to work a job to save up to a future that might not even have a place for you.
“People call it compassion fatigue,” says Jen Cloher, simply. The Melbourne-based musician is sitting in her car, having just dropped off her partner Courtney Barnett at an appointment, and her voice sounds tremendously close. “That’s what they call it.”
Cloher understands that particular kind of exhaustion all too well. Last year, after months of reading about environmental devastation and the lies pouring from the mouth of the man recently chosen to serve as the US Republican party’s nominee for President, the musician found she simply could not take it anymore.
“Compassion fatigue,” she says again. “It’s a terrible couple of words to put together really, but you can see how it happens when everything comes at you from all these angles. It’s really easy to become less human. I mean, I think that we live in such a fast world – and the result of that fast living is that we disconnect. We disconnect from our bodies, and from our hearts. We don’t have time to take in the reality of what’s going on around us, and even when we do, sometimes it’s too painful; sometimes there’s just too much suffering that is so readily in your face.”
For Cloher, that disconnect quite quickly came to feel paralysing. “I know that I went through a stage of actual despair, if I’m being honest with you,” she says. “I went into a place of despair about the future of this earth and what humanity is doing to it. And we are the earth, so we are by extension watching ourselves dying. We came up through the earth – we haven’t just been plopped onto the planet out of outer space. And I was really challenged by all that; by what was happening to us.”
So Cloher turned to work, throwing herself into the day-to-day running of Milk Records, an independent music label founded by Barnett, as a way of coping. Thankfully, there was enough to do on that front to keep her active – she had posts to schedule on Instagram, and shows to organise, and press releases to send out – but still, as busy as she was, she couldn’t quite shake a deep, steadfast sense of guilt. “What could I do?” Cloher says. “I had to really think about it – about the difference that I could try and make.”
Eventually, she hit upon a plan. “I made the decision to get involved with a local environmental community group,” she says, “and I brought my skill set when it comes to independent fundraising to a project that they were working on to save the blue-banded bee, which is an Australian native bee.”
Along with Barnett and several other artists from the Milk Records roster, Cloher got to work organising a fundraising gig. She printed limited run t-shirts that she sold via a crowdfunding website that also offered a range of other purchasable perks, and she got down to the quiet, intensely admirable business of doing what she could.
She wasn’t saving the world, of course, in the way that none of us can ever save the world; in the way that we can only ever make the smallest, most imperceptible of changes. But it wasn’t nothing. And in a world of gradually accumulating atrocities, sometimes not nothing is enough.
“It was so rewarding,” Cloher says. “And it was so good for me. Because rather than living in despair I was actually going out and doing stuff. And sure, it may not have fixed everything, but at least I was putting some of my energy and my time into more than just me. And I think that, despite all the bad things that you read, a lot of people do that, all around us, all the time. I think it’s very important. I think it can keep you sane.
“Because that’s the thing – if you want to keep your heart open, you’ve got to stay sane. And that can be a challenge.” She laughs again. “To say the least.”
This month will see the release of Cloher’s new record, a self-titled collection of 11 songs about relationships, art, grand plans, Australia, and yes, despair. There is a song on the record called ‘Analysis Paralysis’, which, as Cloher tells it, was born out of those strange feelings of worthlessness that she felt last year; feelings always tempered by the acute understanding that she was a lot better off than most.
“So many of us experience those feelings,” she says. “But we are in this amazing country; we have enough land, we have enough clean air and water; we have food on our tables; most of us sleep with a roof over our heads. That’s what ‘Analysis Paralysis’ is all about. It’s a song about having so much.”
Jen Cloher is far and away the musician’s best record; better, even, than In Blood Memory, her 2013 masterpiece. In fact, it is the record of the year so far –the most fully realised, the most immediate, the most heart wrenching. But more than that, it is the work of a musician who has lost interest in hiding from her audience; a musician who has given up burying her feelings in simile, or using three lines where one will do.
There are songs about her relationship with Barnett that do not pretend to be anything else but songs about her relationship with Barnett. There are songs about marriage equality. There are songs about Australia’s habit of dreaming small, and turning on any who experience overnight success – particularly those who do so while young.
So by the time the 11 tracks are done, you don’t even really feel like you’ve listened to an album. You feel like you have been let into some great, beautiful secret; like a stranger has taken you by the hand, and quietly, undramatically let you into their life.
And because we are used to artists lying to us – because sometimes we want and expect to be tricked when we relax before our record players with a glass of wine, or cling to the barrier at a show – there are times when Jen Cloher is difficult; times when it whips about the place like a Hills Hoist in a storm. After all, it is unusual even for the musicians we love – the musicians we think of as honest, and unfettered – to tell us the truth. They change names to protect the innocent, and they spin life into white lies to protect themselves.
But Cloher doesn’t. And more than that, she makes not doing so seem like the easiest thing in the world. “There’s just no reason to hide,” she says. “That’s what I’ve discovered. There’s so much power in being open about your experience. Some people have said to me, ‘Wow, you’ve written some pretty intimate stuff about your relationship and your partner is quite visible.’
“But I’m kind of like, ‘Yeah, but who cares?’ It’s not really hurting anyone. It can’t hurt Courtney, it can’t hurt me. Why would that be something to hide? People need it. Cause there’s a lot of lies – there’s a lot of people out there telling lies.”
Of course, as Cloher herself points out, it’s not particularly new for her to write about her life in such a way. Hidden Hands dealt un-sentimentally and openly about the loss of a parent, while songs on her debut LP Dead Wood Falls are so simple and detail-obsessed as to resemble diary entries. Cloher has always been a confessional songwriter. She is the kind of artist who can scoop up the detritus that makes up what we tend to call “everyday life” and can turn it into song; who writes lines that shrink the room a little, and prompt their listeners to draw little, sharp gasps of air.
“I guess the difference this time around was this record was about my heart, and how it feels to be Jen Cloher in my heart,” she says. “I talk really honestly about being a child, and not really feeling like I was a boy or a girl, and living in a world that goes, ‘You are this, so conform.’ I talk openly about how I think aspects of the music industry are really detrimental and poisonous; I talk about how hard it can be being an artist in this massive country with a small population tucked down the end of the world.” She laughs. “I guess I kind of talk about a lot of stuff.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy to start writing an album that was so unfurnished by disguise, but when Cloher got down to it, the process only ever got easier. And anyway, she never really doubted herself – not really. “It takes a lot of courage to be honest, because you’re kind of like, ‘Here I am, I am not hiding anything anymore.’ But it has been hugely rewarding for me. What I have actually discovered is that the more honest that I become the more connected I feel – the more connected I feel to everything.”
Cass McCombs is to blame for all this – McCombs and Mark Kozelek and Laura Jean, the artists Cloher says have always impressed her with their honesty. They were the forces that guided her, and in their honesty and their truth, they showed her a way of making art that she had only ever guessed at before.
“I read an interview with McCombs where he just said, ‘Write about what you care about. Write about what you love. That’s what the world needs right now.’ The words cut Cloher to the quick. “You know when something really penetrates your psyche; when it hits your heart? You go, ‘I really understand what this person is saying’. And I think that’s really the album that I have written – an album about what I love.”
To record the new album, Cloher had to escape. She took Barnett and her longtime collaborators Bones Sloane and Jen Sholakis with her, and the four of them fucked off to South Gippsland in Victoria. “It’s dry and tufty up there,” Cloher says of Gippsland. “A lot of cows. A lot of dairy farms.”
Cloher and Sholakis have been round the traps together for some time now – Sholakis played on Dead Wood Falls way back in 2006, and has been a permanent staple of Cloher’s artistic inner circle for the 11 years since. “Jen doesn’t really ‘approach me’ anymore,” Sholakis explains. “I’ve kind of become part of her – attached to her side like a boil. If she was going to approach me about working with her on a Jen Cloher project I’d assume she was approaching me to tell me she was gonna sack me.”
Sholakis and her labradors.
Thanks to that connection, Cloher and Sholakis didn’t have to talk too much about the album in advance, or worry about making sure the other knew exactly what the thing was meant to sound like. And anyway, Cloher rarely works that way; rarely dives into the album-making process with something as nebulous as a genre or tone in mind. “I’ve never been like, ‘I am going to make an album in this style, or one that sounds just like this’,” Cloher says. “I just don’t think my musicianship extends to that kind of thinking ahead.”
That’s not to say she’s completely unaware of where she’s heading, mind you. She is not new to this particular game – she knows what she wants from a record and how, in the vaguest possible sense, she wants the thing to sound. She might not have a blueprint, but she has something else; maybe the kind of plan that can’t be readily translated into words; that we just know on the deepest level that we know things.
So for Greg J Walker, the man responsible for the album’s recording, the key was about staying as un-involved as possible. “Most of the songs didn’t change too much from their initial structures,” he explains. “Jen had already put a lot of thought into them and it was primarily a live, band-orientated album we were aiming for. We changed a few things along the way but nothing too major.
“I got involved in a couple of the longer and more introverted tracks adding some different textures and counter-melodies to help shape them a little, but the songs had really good structures and arrangements from the get-go. A big part of my job was just to capture that without harm.”
“Jen comes [to the studio] really well prepared with her songs,” agrees Sholakis. “We very rarely just get a sketch or an idea from her. She usually has a fully formed song and an arrangement in her head of how things will go. Obviously once we put our parts down, arrangements can change, new ideas can emerge and so on. But for the most part the songs are whole. Meaning, she could play them on an acoustic guitar to us and they’d sound complete.”
Which Cloher did, strumming out the tunes to the band at the beginning of the recording day and working with them as they begin to nut out individual parts. Walker was impressed. “It’s always great to work with people who have a clear musical direction and vision,” he says now, “and Jen had all that – plus a killer band that played off each other beautifully. It was a real pleasure to record them.”
The days were long – “eight to ten hours long,” Walker explains – but the recording sessions were no drag. There’s not much phone reception to speak of out in South Gippsland, so Cloher couldn’t have checked an email even if she wanted to. Instead, she and her band relaxed in the evenings with board games, and glasses of wine, and big, hearty, homemade meals. Everyone brought their partners along with them. Sholakis brought her dogs. “It was like a holiday,” Sholakis says, simply. Sometimes, at the end of a day, they went down to the beach, and sat there on the sand, just talking.
To be honest, in real life, recording sessions tend to considerably less exciting than they appear in the movies. There are more drugs in films, not to mention significantly more moments when the recording artist, usually played by some old, colourful character actor you just about remember from that one movie, pulls their headphones off their ears, dumbfounded, and mutters, “We got it.”
So Cloher had no massive, heart-stopping revelation that she was making the record of her career while laying the songs down to tape. There was no moment when the band locked eyes, and the cameras swooped in to collect close-ups off their faces, and a sense of mutual appreciation settled over the room like a light rain. There was, in other words, nothing more to the recording sessions than four friends standing in a room, playing beautiful, sturdy songs with ease, and for no other reason than they wanted to.
But throughout, Cloher resisted all temptation to play the process down, or be cynical about the record she and her friends where assembling. She was done with that kind of self-depreciation – exhausted by having to put up a front of false humility. “That was probably because I’ve watched someone go and have a big, successful experience outside of Australia,” Cloher says, the conversation drifting back to Barnett. “I loved [Barnett’s success], even though a lot of the album is about watching it from afar and at times feeling lonely – which I think is pretty normal when you don’t see your partner for about a year and a half.
“But the other side of [what happened] with Courtney was just this immense joy I got from watching an Australian woman being celebrated around the world for her songwriting. I feel like it was maybe the first time I had ever seen that happen. That’s not to suggest that other women from Australia haven’t gone and had big success overseas … but it felt like it was just Courtney being herself. That was hugely affirming for me, and for heaps of women and men in this country.”
Jen Cloher was mixed in Chicago, in a loft-cum-mini-Americana museum presided over by Jeff Tweedy of the American band Wilco, by a man named Tom Shick. And it was in that mixing studio, its walls covered with old guitars and paintings, that the record finally, finally began to take shape. “I’m so glad we went to Chicago,” Cloher says. “It ended up being a really satisfying way of ending the project. It just meant we had such closure – closure that you don’t always get when you’re making a record. It was like, ‘Wow, it’s a complete thing now.’ You know: it’s an actual record.”
Milk Records takes up a lot of Cloher’s time these days. She spends much of her waking hours at the computer, answering emails and checking in with the small army of publicists, artists and pressing companies Milk has become involved with over the years. “It’s the worst when you’re lying in bed at night and you just remember all of these emails that you have forgotten about; these emails that you know that you need to get back to,” Cloher says.
When we speak on the phone, it’s still some three weeks before the new album will come out, so Cloher has plans to lay low for a little bit. She hasn’t been to the dentist in a while she says, and she knows she needs to, and she’s way overdue a trip to the shops. “You get lost in all of your exciting projects, and then you’re like, ‘When did I last buy a jumper?’”
Of course, such respite will be temporary – come the release date of August 11, she’ll start touring, not just in Australia but internationally. ”This will be the first time I’ve ever had a world-wide release – although, when I say world-wide, let me be real about that: I mean England, Europe to some extent and the US.
“It’s a big job, but it’s really exciting. It’s been a dream of mine to get out and play to new audiences overseas. I’ve never even played to audiences outside of Australia before, so it’s exciting finally getting round to it now.”
It remains to be seen what kind of world Cloher’s album will be released into. After all, who has the self-confidence or the foresight to predict the news cycle anymore? Who has it in them to guess what’ll happen tomorrow, let alone the day after that, or the day after that? August 11 is a lifetime away. There will be a lot more international sabre-rattling before Jen Cloher comes out. And the planet will be that little bit hotter.
Which is all to say, we are living in the kind of era that wears away at a lot of things, but that wears away the sanctity of art first. It’s hard to think about Picasso when there’s war breaking out, or to put a record on when you’re worried about the breathability of the air, or whether it’s safe to bring children into a world that is beginning, finally, to buck itself free of the human race.
Cloher knows that, of course – Cloher has had those thoughts herself. “I think any artist who is awake and conscious has had that dilemma,” she says, simply. But whenever that fear starts to set in, she just calms herself by thinking about the Dirty Three. She saw the Melbourne-based, Warren Ellis led instrumental trio early last year when they played Sugar Mountain festival, and the experience was a revelatory one.
Or no, actually, she didn’t see the band — she saw their audience. She was standing side of stage when the group played, gazing out at a sea of faces, all of them awash with something that looked a little like rapture. It was a startling moment.
“People were bawling,” Cloher says. “There was tears and snot running down their faces. And it was such an intimate moment. It was so powerful to witness all these people having huge emotional and physical responses to the music that has obviously changed them, and helped them along their path.
“And sort of around the same time I had been reading a lot of work by Mary Oliver, who is this incredible poet – she’d be probably in her late seventies now, and a lot of her childhood was spent in the wilderness. She writes beautiful poems – almost like haikus about nature and animals and the planet. And she has this great poem about how poetry is like bread in the pockets of the hungry.”
Cloher says the words again. She’s still sitting in her car, somewhere in Melbourne, and it’s almost like the vehicle shrinks down; like it contracts to fit the exact dimension of her words.
“Bread in the pockets of the hungry. Those words just reminded me that even that though we live in a world where people want to tell us that art is not a need, it is. It’s a deep need. It’s as necessary as the air we breathe; the food we eat. We have to have art in our life.”
She takes a breath, laughs, and the world expands a little bit. “Realising that was cool. It was like, ‘Fuck yeah. Of course I’m going to keep making music.’”