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