Tagged: Jen Cloher

Love’s shadow

A piece of paper stuck to the entrance of the Coburg RSL in Melbourne reads “cash only (dark ages)”. It’s not much warmer inside than the freezing July night outside. A lonely few returned servicemen and their wives prop up the bar. At the far end of the hall is a makeshift stage, instruments and amplifiers waiting for a crowd that would never normally be here. Images of soldiers watch like sentries overhead.

The first person I see is Melbourne singer and songwriter Jen Cloher, one of the main reasons a large crowd will soon pour through the doors. The other is her partner and lead guitarist in her band, Courtney Barnett. Cloher is stirring two large vats of pumpkin and black bean soup for the soon-to-be huddled masses. “Gotta serve something to warm up the troops,” she says cheerfully.

She’s on first. Her bass player Bones Sloane, who also plays with Barnett, plays the opening notes of a new song, Regional Echo. “We’ve got a new album coming out,” Cloher says when it’s over, to polite whoops from the crowd. “We’ve got a launch coming up in a couple of months and all that jazz.”

“August,” Barnett says.

“September 8 at the Howler [in Brunswick],” Cloher corrects her sternly. “Are you my manager now too, Courtney?”

“It’d be a bit disorganised,” drummer Jen Sholakis quips.

“Imagine if Courtney was my manager,” Cloher says, the crowd giggling awkwardly. “She’d be like, ‘I’m about to play to 20,000 people in Chicago and I have to organise a gig for Jen at the Corner Hotel in Richmond.”

I MEET Cloher the next day for lunch in Thornbury. Asked why she decided to play in a decaying RSL – part of a month-long residency of sold-out gigs being staged by the independent label she runs with Barnett, Milk! Records – she says it’s a symbol of an older, inner-urban Melbourne disappearing fast under the pressure of gentrification that Barnett captured in her song Depreston.

“We see parallels between something like an RSL, which is a community-run not-for-profit voluntary organisation and Milk! Records, which is quite similar,” she says. Cloher talks about community a lot. In a dark period early last year, while Barnett was touring overseas, she volunteered with the Friends of Merri Creek, raising $25,000 to plant indigenous shrubs and trees for the native blue-banded bee to pollinate.

In a blog post published on Medium, she also wrote of the importance of mid-career artists who could no longer rely on the support of radio and media to find their own artistic community of peers and fans, slowly building the profile of Milk! Records “to the point where we can just announce a show, sell 900 tickets and no one needed to know about it beyond our mailing list and social media”.

In the same post, she also wrote candidly of the envy she felt towards Barnett, who is 15 years younger (a subject they addressed on the duet Numbers). In 2013, Cloher released her third, highly acclaimed album In Blood Memory, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Australian Music Prize, only to watch as Barnett’s career took off in the wake of the viral success of her single Avant Gardener.

For Cloher, it was a difficult time. It’s another freezing day outside. “You know, it’s winter, and I did two of these [alone], watching Courtney’s career from afar,” she says. “There were some moments where I was literally sitting at a table with friends weeping, going, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ … Most human beings would stop that relationship and go, this is actually not good for my mental health.

“But I think that would have been a really premature response based on the short-term pain of missing someone and feeling very lonely. And being on the road touring with someone – it’s not what people think it is. It’s not a holiday with a few gigs. It’s relentless lack of sleep, late nights and early mornings, and I’m amazed that Courtney came through it relatively unscathed, because it’s fucking hard work.”

I point to the wedding band on her finger, and ask if she and Barnett married overseas, when Cloher joined Barnett for a stint on the west coast of the United States. “We haven’t got married,” she says. “We feel very much married, but the law in this country won’t permit us to get married, so we’re just wearing the wedding bands and calling each other wives until the law catches up.”

In a way, their union was preordained. Barnett first saw Cloher at the Falls Festival in Hobart, when she was still in high school. “Will you marry me?” she yelled at Cloher (who says she didn’t hear her from the stage). Later, when Barnett moved to Melbourne, they became acquainted. “We led very different lives when we first met, so I don’t think either of us thought it would be a plausible option,” Barnett says.

Both have since written extensively with and about each other – love songs, some devotional; others humorous. Barnett’s Pickles From The Jar writes of their chalk-and-cheese personalities: “We couldn’t be more contrary if we tried.” It culminates with these lines: “You say Christopher, I say Walken / You love, I love Christopher Walken / I guess at least we have got one thing in common.”

CLOHER’S new album is self-titled and features her nude on the cover, back to camera, cradling her guitar. The meaning is so obvious it hardly needs spelling out. “The main objective was to be as honest as I could be. Unflinchingly so,” she says. In several songs, she addresses her jealousy and admiration of Barnett with the same emotional honesty of her Medium post.

“I checked in with Courtney when I was writing the first draft of these songs [and] she was like, just go for it,” she says. “That’s the great thing about Courtney. She gets that it’s not our relationship; it’s just a song. It’s a little picture postcard of one aspect, but no one will really ever know what our relationship is … The more open and transparent you are, the safer you are. There’s nothing unsafe about telling the truth.”

Later, I ask Barnett if a song like the lead single Forgot Myself – which features the lines, “There’s only so much you can say in a text / Reading between the lines is hazardous / A slow reply can really mess with your head / I was feeling kinda free, now I’m desperate” – caused more than the usual degree of angst around the dinner table when she got home.

“I’ve never really taken offence to it because it’s all honest,” she says. “I get the parts that might seem a bit brutal, but I think it’s very fair and intelligently spoken, which just makes me love it. So, I don’t think so. And she was pretty open about writing them around me and singing them, so I heard them develop over time as she sat around writing.”

FOR a number of years between her first and second albums, Cloher left Melbourne to care for her mother in New Zealand, who was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. The long goodbye – as the illness is colloquially known among support organisations, carers and family members – took the wind out of Cloher’s career, although it gave her many songs.

One of them, Hold My Hand, revolves around a circular conversation between her parents. Her mother asks her father how they met. He explains: “Well my dear, it was cold / Shivering, nearly snow / You wore my favourite coat.” But her mother forgets the story as soon as it is told: “Did I dear? I forgot / Did our love begin there? / How did we meet again?”

Love, Cloher says, is not merely a reward, or a balm we use to soothe. The last song on her new album is called Dark Art, and it is about selflessness: “The other side to love’s joy is shadow / Jealousy, fear, loss, anger, sorrow / If we never stay to sit in love’s shadow / A part of you will always be hollow.” It could apply to caring for an ailing parent as much as it could to supporting a partner in their career.

Surely, Cloher must have wondered when she would finally get her turn. “Growing up means suffering,” she says firmly. “The human experience is full of suffering, and yet we have this weird idea that life should never have any hard times, that it should just be this lovely rainbow paradise.” She quotes another line from her album: “Life is the great leveller. No one will escape.”

The previous night at the RSL, the band tore through a song by the Go-Betweens, Love Goes On! Uncharacteristically, Cloher forgets a few lines: “The people next door got their problems / They got things they can’t name / I know a thing about lovers / Lovers don’t feel any shame / Late at night when the lights are low / The candle burns to the end / I know a thing about darkness / Darkness ain’t my friend.”

But, as the chorus goes, love goes on anyway.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 29 July 2017

“He was like a god”: Australian musicians mourn David Bowie

As the Australian music community absorbs the news of the passing of David Bowie at the age of 69 yesterday, musicians and songwriters – especially those who came of age in the 1970s and early ’80s, when the songwriter was at his peak – have spoken of his profound influence on both their work and their lives.

Melbourne soloist Jen Cloher expressed commonly recurring theme of disbelief. “I turned to Courtney [Barnett, Cloher’s partner] last night and said, you just never thought that David Bowie would die. Which is ludicrous, but that’s how it feels … He was like a god.”

Cloher also spoke of Bowie’s indirect impact on her as a queer artist. “The ’70s in so many ways were far more dangerous, far more edgy, far more open to a broad idea of gender than today. It would have rubbed off. You grow up around that, and it infiltrates in ways that you don’t even think about at the time.”

Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, has often written and spoken of his admiration for Bowie. “Bowie was obviously the most important white musical figure of the ’70s. He bestrode the decade like no one else.

“Bowie was beautiful, which was confrontational for a 14, 15-year-old boy. The most beautiful pop star of the early ’70s was a man, which is an amazing thing by itself, and Bowie played it to the hilt.

“All the Melbourne boys at the time – Sean Kelly, James Freud, Nick Cave – loved Bowie. The Brisbane boys loved Bowie too, but they didn’t want to be Bowie. All the Melbourne boys loved Bowie and wanted to be Bowie. There’s a lot of photos of those boys in make-up, believe you me! That’s how the different cities took to it.

“He was this beautiful flittering presence, and an amazing songwriter. It was Rebel Rebel; it was Golden Years; it was Diamond Dogs. I could name every track off Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory. It was Sound And Vision; it was Heroes, it was just an amazing run.”

Yet Bowie was also remembered as an open and friendly presence, a world removed from his alien persona. Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, who supported Bowie on his first Australian tour in 1978 as a member of the Angels, recalled Bowie introducing himself backstage over a bowl of soup.

“It was one of the first times I had met someone really famous who was incredibly normal, and he put to shame a number of people I met who were nowhere near as talented.”

Kim Salmon, of pioneering punk-blues group the Scientists and later the Beasts of Bourbon and the Surrealists, posted a personal note on his Facebook page that highlighted the intergenerational nature of Bowie’s cultural legacy.

“A few months ago I took my 11-year-old daughter to the Bowie exhibition. Today she said it – I said it – he gave people permission to be exactly who they were. When I was a 14-year-old spaced-out science fiction kid he was my man.

“When my drop-dead gorgeous friend was wondering about his sexuality, Bowie gave him permission to be what he was. Lately my daughter’s been far above the world, floating in her tin can, and it hasn’t been easy. Bowie was there to let her know it’s OK. Thanks to his massive body of work, he’s still there.”

David Bridie, of Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake, also pointed to Bowie’s astonishing output.

“There are very few artists you could say made at least eight classic albums – Hunky Dory, Lodger, Low, Aladdin Sane, ‘Heroes’, Scary Monsters, Ziggy Stardust and Station To Station. Fine work, Mr Jones.”

“Regardless of his image or his sense of how he projected himself, there was always the songs, and he wrote some of the best pop songs ever written,” Cloher said. “He transcended our idea of what rock or pop music should be. I guess the Beatles started fucking with those ideas, but I felt that Bowie took it to the next level.

“He never lost melody, his sense of what a good pop song is. Genius is thrown around far too often, but in the case of David Bowie, he really did possess that quality.”

First published in The Guardian, 12 January 2016

Dying by degrees

Songs don’t have trigger warnings; if they did, they wouldn’t hit us so damn hard. News stories might warn viewers or readers in advance that the content they are about to consume may be graphic but, in art, an R rating or parental advisory sticker shouldn’t protect us from the shock and awe of emotional impact.

Some of the great songs in history cover intensely difficult terrain. Some of them even become fluke hits: Suzanne Vega’s late-’80s classic Luka, a study of child abuse, is one. Archie Roach’s Took The Children Away endures, too, because you didn’t have to be a member of the Stolen Generations to be moved by Roach’s suffering.

About a year ago, I heard a song by Melbourne songwriter Jen Cloher, Hold My Hand, the last song on her most recent album In Blood Memory. It hit me like a truck. The song is a conversation between two old lovers. One asks the other to tell the story of how they first met. He responds:

Well my dear, it was cold,

Shivering, nearly snow

You wore my favourite coat.

But his answer is instantly forgotten, and the conversation, like the song, becomes circular:

Did I dear? I forget,

Did our love begin there?

How did we meet again?

Cloher’s mother, Dorothy Urlich Cloher, died on Christmas Day of 2011. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years earlier. A distinguished New Zealand academic, her last creative act had been an acclaimed book on the famous Maori warrior chief Hongi Hika.

She had written the book quickly, aware her memory was failing, from her desk overlooking the Hauraki Gulf. Jen would write the bulk of her second album, Hidden Hands, at the same desk while her mother remained “upstairs, staring out to sea, losing herself slowly to the disease”.

In a blog post from 2012, she described the scene confronting her: “Her study, once a hub of academic achievement, was now a mess of scrawled notes to self and handwritten instructions furiously underlined with red pen: ‘1. Turn power on at the wall. 2. Push ON button below desk 3. Wait for computer to load 4. Type in username Dorothy password Nunky.’”

Seeing our own stories reflected through the eyes of others can make our own travails both more real and more bearable, because they take us outside the situation and allow us to view them from a distance. They also allow us to feel.

My mother, Sue, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in November 2011, aged 64. The symptoms had been there since at least 2002. That was when she first took leave from her job in the upper levels of the Queensland Health bureaucracy where, in a hideous irony, she worked on devising and implementing aged care policy.

So mum knows more about Alzheimer’s disease than I’ve forgotten. Except that now she’s forgotten she has it, we have to keep explaining to her why she can’t go home. In February, we placed her in long-term care, when her needs became too acute for us to cope with; her house was sold last week to fund her placement.

In the same blog post, Cloher tells the story of a disastrous journey she undertook with her mother to visit her childhood home in the far north of New Zealand, only to see her become disoriented and distressed when she failed to recognise either her relatives or her surroundings. By the middle of their first night away, Cloher felt she had no choice but to take her home.

“The drive back to Auckland was five hours of winding coastal road in the rain and I had moments of feeling insane,” Cloher writes. “Mum stayed awake for the whole journey home, asking every five minutes where we were going and then, upon receiving the explanation, apologising for not being able to remember where we were. ‘What’s wrong with me Jennifer?’ she asked at one point.”

A couple of years ago, aware that opportunities for mum to visit those closest to her were diminishing rapidly, I accompanied her from her home in Brisbane to her old home town, Melbourne, before driving her to visit my father – her ex-husband, with whom she has remained friends – in Wangaratta.

On the plane, unable to comprehend distance or time, she had quickly become confused and frightened. “I didn’t realise how far it was,” she kept saying. “Wouldn’t it have been quicker to drive?”

Later, as we drove the three hours up the Hume Highway, she became more animated as she thought she recognised various landmarks. It felt like being trapped in a scene from Mother And Son. “It all looks exactly as I remembered,” she would exclaim. Seconds later, the fog would descend again: “I have absolutely no idea where we are,” she said crossly.

Love, Cloher concludes in Hold My Hand, is “more than a reward, or a balm we use to soothe.” It’s an ongoing act of supreme patience and loyalty. Alzheimer’s is demanding; grief is a luxury carers can’t often afford as they lurch from one daily crisis to another. It’s only now we know she’s safe that we can begin to let go.

Shortly before the house settled, I took her on a final tour of what had been her home. She lingered in the garden. She’d known the names of everything that she’d once nurtured; now she bent to touch a tiny purple flower, blooming brilliantly, and tearfully asked me what it was. I couldn’t tell her.

Once, she told me she was dying by degrees, as everything that connected her to the world was slowly erased. Sometimes, I think that it’s not until she’s actually gone that we will get our own memories of her back. But, to quote another of Cloher’s songs, she is going, she is not gone. All we can do is remind her we’re still here.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 15 August 2015

Jen Cloher – live @ ACMI, Melbourne

Halfway through her gig at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s David Bowie exhibition, Melbourne singer-songwriter Jen Cloher introduces her own Bowie moment: her song David Bowie Eyes is an obvious nod to partner Courtney Barnett, standing on her right. It’s possible at least a few in the audience are here mainly to get up close to Australia’s unlikeliest and best musical success story, but it’s Cloher (looks like Patti Smith, drawls like Lou Reed) who’s the real rock star of the pair. Her set starts quietly with Hold My Hand – an impossibly moving vignette of ageing and decay – but when Mount Beauty kicks in, her band begins rumbling like a feral cross between the Velvet Underground and Crazy Horse. Cloher’s lyrical economy and classic sense of rock dynamics is the opposite of Barnett’s brilliant verbosity, but the combined chemistry and charisma of the two on stage together is riveting: held together by Jen Sholakis’ supple drums, the songs power along, set ablaze by Barnett’s bottleneck guitar playing. For the finale, they rampage through Bowie’s Suffragette City, Cloher’s final, ironic shout of “suffragette!” delighting the overwhelmingly female crowd. Barnett’s debut album was a deserved hit around the world earlier this year. Let’s hope Cloher’s follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed In Blood Memory receives the same level of attention.