Here in Brisbane, the heat has finally broken. For 46 days in a row, the mercury exceeded 30C. The previous record was 27 days, in 2017. While the north has been awash, the wet season here has failed. I’m listening to the title track of the new Robert Forster album. It’s called Inferno (Brisbane In Summer). You might think it looks like paradise, he sings, but everyone here is screaming: “Let me, let me, let me, let me, let me out!”
Forster has written about the weather in Brisbane before. On his 2008 album The Evangelist, recorded during a similarly excruciating period of mind-melting heat, the first song was called If It Rains. At the time, we thought it might never rain here again. Not that Inferno is any kind of manifesto. This is not a climate change concept album. It’s a Robert Forster record, which means buckets of atmosphere, dry wit, subtle pleasures and unerring quality.
While Forster’s last album, Songs To Play, was recorded close to his home patch in the hills west of Brisbane, for Inferno he escaped to Berlin, where he recorded his first solo album, Danger In The Past, in 1990. And where Songs To Play featured a drier sound and coiled, latent energy, Inferno, produced by Victor Van Vugt, is lush and tropical, and it moves at a slightly more languid pace.
The first song on this record is called Crazy Jane On The Day Of Judgement. I have no idea what that refers to, and frankly couldn’t care less; it might be the best title since the Go-Betweens cut Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express in 1986. There’s a simple four-note progression, a ride cymbal, Forster’s wife Karin Baumler pulling insistently at the song’s edges on violin. Forster doesn’t sing much, but the melody is inferred and fleshed out by his players.
That’s how Forster’s albums get under your skin. He’s very much an acquired taste, but lyric-driven songs that seem tuneless on the surface are the ones you find yourself humming later. And the ones that seem most banal, like The Morning, have a wisdom that hits you later. “The morning is a friend,” he says. After all, you never know when you might not wake up. The world might be cooking, but Forster remains an eternal optimist.
He’s also a marathoner, not a sprinter.He’s 61 now, with seven solo albums under his belt around the nine he made with the Go-Betweens, and he is one of Australian music’s elders.He doesn’t sell remotely as many records as Nick Cave, a close peer and friend, or Paul Kelly. On the song Remain, he says, “I did my good work, knowing it wasn’t my time.” The groove of this song is totally relaxed as he speaks of being overlooked and forgotten.
Forster doesn’t care. Not only is he an optimist, he’s supremely self-assured. He knows what he does is good without needing the validation of others. No Fame contains the lines “I’m gonna write a novel that is set a hundred years ago / The custom and the carriage of the people, well, I don’t know.” While others overtake him, Forster is content to cruise and to observe, knowing that one day they’ll catch up with him – not the other way around.
After the big heat, listening to this album is like Spring Rain.
The Go-Betweens’ Streets Of Your Town is the winner of Guardian Australia’s Songs of Brisbane poll. But is it even about Brisbane? Separate interviews with the surviving members of the band reveal very different viewpoints and memories about the song’s genesis, recording and legacy.
Streets Of Your Town was written in Sydney shortly before the recording of the Go-Betweens’ sixth album, 16 Lovers Lane, in 1988. Grant McLennan was in a relationship with multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown when he wrote it. It was unusual in that the band’s co-founder, Robert Forster, had not heard the song before it was brought to the group. McLennan died in 2006.
Amanda Brown (violin, guitar, oboe): “Grant and I were living together in Bondi Junction in Sydney, and that song was written very quickly in our sunny top-floor flat … It was written in, I would say, 10 minutes. I was singing along and I sung that ‘shine’ line, which is like the call and response answer in the verses, and that’s pretty much it – that’s how it came about. And I don’t collect any songwriting royalties for that song, because that was a condition of my joining the band.”
Lindy Morrison (drums): “We were in a park in Glebe when Amanda and Grant played the song to us for the first time, and I guess I was hearing it through Robert’s reaction, because Robert was so shocked. So I was feeling his pain, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t see how magnificent that song was.”
Robert Forster (singer-songwriter, guitarist, band co-founder): “The fact that I hadn’t heard the song, it did miff me … Every other song from every other album that we’d done before that, and every album that we did after, I knew all the songs that Grant had. This was the one song that I didn’t. But a week later it was fine. That was the thing with Grant and I, we didn’t yell and scream at each other. There’s things that I did to him that he must have just had to swallow, too.”
Amanda Brown: “What I do remember is sitting down with [producer] Mark Wallis somewhere and Grant saying, ‘And we’ve got this one’, and then just singing it with me, and Mark hearing it and going, ‘Oh, we have to record that song.’ Probably everybody concurs that it was a late addition to the album. And, I hasten to add, everybody [else] was dead against recording it as well.”
Lindy Morrison: “We all knew that it was going to be the single.”
Robert Forster: “You don’t go into an album thinking this is going to be the single. It just felt like one of the other songs. It’s only really in the studio, [when] you get to the end of the session, that you go, ooh – we’ve got this, this is the single.”
Lindy Morrison: “Oh no, that’s rubbish. Because it was so good, I mean, come on Robert! It was so hooky! It was such a standout. And to see the two of them play that together, and Amanda doing that backing vocal ‘shine’, you know, she composed that, and it’s a hook.”
Amanda Brown: “It’s kind of pointless to bear grudges about it. The band gave me lots of good things that I’m very grateful for, but at the same time there was a pretty concerted effort to erase, in particular, mine and Lindy’s contribution to the band.”
Robert Forster: “The one person who could really speak to that isn’t here to defend himself.”
16 Lovers Lane was recorded with English producer Mark Wallis in Studios 301, Sydney, in May.
Lindy Morrison: “Because it was the single, there was an enormous amount of pressure on me to use a drum machine. And that was fine by me because I understood that a single had to be treated differently. It was my beat that I programmed into it, so it’s exactly as I would play it.”
Amanda Brown: “I remember multi-tracking the vocals and Mark always telling me to sing it softer. We did several takes that were just really whispered, and at the time I was a bit suspicious of that process, because I didn’t want to sound like some fey Jane Birkin-esque ingenue.”
Robert Forster: “Streets was always difficult to play live, if only because the flamenco guitar solo is done by [bass player] John Willsteed, and when we were playing live he was on bass. So it was much more of a studio construction, and maybe the best version of it ever is on the album.”
Amanda Brown: “John’s bass line was actually played on a guitar, on an octave pedal, so that’s why it has such a distinctive sound. It was a nylon-string classical guitar he played the solo on – it might have even been a crappy old guitar of mine that just happened to be lying around.”
John Willsteed (bass, guitar): “It was Amanda’s guitar … I probably did a couple of takes. I know that the ending got fucked up – I didn’t have an end, so had to kind of glue an ending on. I’ve never been happy with the ending.”
Robert Forster: “John Willsteed and Amanda were the great musicians in the band … Not every great musician gets that opportunity of being in a world-class studio, with a world-class engineer-producer with good songs, and that came to John, which I’m really happy about.”
Streets of whose town?
Streets Of Your Town has long been identified with Brisbane, and has featured in an advertising campaign by Queensland newspaper the Courier-Mail (with the darker lyrics omitted). The Go Between Bridge, spanning the Brisbane river, is also named after the group. Yet it remains a source of passionate conjecture which “town” the song refers to.
Lindy Morrison: “I always thought it was about Brisbane, because of the buildings being torn down; the nostalgia expressed for a town that once was. The most important thing I want to say is that Brisbane took it on as their own, so the Brisbane community grabbed it and ran with it, and because of that, for me, the song is about Brisbane. It’s owned by the Brisbane community. But Amanda will have a different story, and Amanda was a lot closer to Grant than I was.”
Amanda Brown: “Well, I’ve got a few things to say about that. Firstly, is it important? It’s quite a universal thing, which is how the controversy or perhaps the misconception has come about, because everybody thinks it relates to their town.”
Robert Forster: “It was written in Sydney, and a lot of the songs that Grant was writing around that time involved Amanda. Streets Of Your Town, it could be Sydney, because that was Amanda’s town. But I really don’t know.”
Amanda Brown: “There’s reasons for and against. First is the title, Streets Of Your Town, the possessive noun there being, I think, in relation to me. But the song’s bridge – They shut it down, they pulled it down – Brisbane people of that generation would feel that keenly, with Cloudland and other beloved buildings being torn down in the dead of night by the infamous Deen Brothers. In Sydney, it was the beautiful Regent Theatre. There’s also the line I ride your river under the bridge, and I take your boat out to the reach – it could relate to Brisbane, of course, being a river town, and Sydney more commonly being known as a harbour town, although it does have rivers as well.”
John Willsteed: “I don’t think it’s really centred anywhere. I know Grant wrote it in Sydney, and if he wrote it about running around after Amanda in her town, then I guess that’s Sydney. But at the same time there’s the river, and the bridge. Maybe it’s a beautiful amalgam of Grant’s experiences!”
Amanda Brown: “It’s a widely misunderstood song, in the same vein as something like [Bruce Springsteen’s] Born In The U.S.A. – people think it’s that kind of patriotic, parochial sentiment. It’s actually very dark, with the lyrics about butcher’s knives and battered wives. There’s a lot more awareness of domestic violence now, so it’s a very relevant song.”
Lindy Morrison: “It’s really funny. It’s always the same, everybody’s got a different perspective, haven’t they?”
Despite being the glossiest production of the Go-Betweens’ career, Streets Of Your Town wasn’t a hit, stalling at 70 on the Australian charts and 80 in the UK, and the band broke up amid acrimony in late 1989.
Robert Forster: “[It wasn’t the hit] that the band needed at that stage of our career. But before we went [into the studio], no one would have seen what it became, in terms of its commercial accessibility.”
Amanda Brown: “It’s probably the closest thing to a hit we ever had. It certainly generated the most income of all the songs, and it’s the song that everybody knows.”
John Willsteed: “It doesn’t matter how many fucking great songs you make. There’s a whole range of twists of fate that lead you towards something being popular or just disappearing. But obviously, it’s retained some kind of place in people’s cultural memory.”
Amanda Brown: “That duality inherent in the lyrics is really emblematic of Grant as an artist and human. He was charming, affable and loved by all who had the good fortune to know him.
“But privately he was also melancholic, with an ever-present awareness of loss, absence and loneliness, and these qualities are all in his best work. If Streets did not have this, it might be too saccharine, too sweet.
“Sometimes, when the stars align, we come together in unlikely formation and create something that resonates and touches the soul. I think, for the Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane was such a moment, and Streets was the bittersweet, poppy gem at the heart of the album.”
I’m from Melbourne. I spent the first 15 years of my life there, in the outer eastern suburbs of Wantirna South and Ringwood North. I grew up on Australian Rules football and Countdown until punk entered my life 10 years too late. Then, in 1987, my parents relocated the family to Brisbane. Other than a few regrettable years in Sydney in the late 90s, I’ve been here ever since.
I still feel like a Victorian, though I’ve come to hate the cold. I still follow a Melbourne-based AFL team, despite having written on the side about the Brisbane Lions for 13 years. I even wrote a book about Brisbane, a sort of love letter to my adopted city and, especially, its music. The sound of the place captured me. To this day though, I feel like an outsider or interloper. Stranded, you might say, far from home.
But when I hear Streets Of Your Town by the Go-Betweens I feel differently. Never a hit at the time (the band’s co-founder Robert Forster has said they may as well have released a free jazz record, such was its commercial impact), the song, written by Grant McLennan, has become part of the city’s fabric. The Courier-Mail even used it for an ad campaign when it downsized from a broadsheet. They cut the line about the town being full of battered wives, of course.
That was the Go-Betweens, though. They called theirs the striped sunlight sound, and they captured it best on 16 Lovers Lane, their sixth album, 30 years old last month. Streets Of Your Town, the hit that wasn’t, is so lyrically visual it seems to sparkle in the late afternoon sun. At the heart of the song is aimlessness: “I ride your river under the bridge / And I take your boat out to the reach / ’Cos I love that engine roar / But I still don’t know what I’m here for.”
A lot of people in Brisbane ask themselves that question. Many leave, as I did, in their 20s, only to return. It’s like the city has a push/pull magnetic field around it.
For all the punk energy that roared out of the place in the 70s in the wake of the Saints, and for all its growth since, Brisbane has a stillness missing from Melbourne and Sydney. Partially it’s the heat and humidity of the increasingly endless summer. That builds tension. The Saints’ guitarist, Ed Kuepper, wrote of it in one of his best solo songs, Electrical Storm. You can get stuck here just watching the thunderheads build up, waiting for the place to blow.
In between, things drift. The Apartments’ Peter Milton Walsh, the finest Australian songwriter most Australians have never heard of, puts that push-pull effect of Brisbane best in No Hurry: “Smell the rain that’s coming, all the windows open wide,” he sings, “I’ll never get away / I can’t stay here forever … Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past.” It’s a great place for procrastinators.
I came of age around the same time Brisbane was awkwardly doing the same. Expo 88 was happening on the South Bank of the river. It looked a little quaint to my Melbourne eyes but, for many Queenslanders, it opened theirs to a bigger, brighter world. Directly opposite, the state and its government were in the dock as Tony Fitzgerald’s inquiry calmly tore Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s corrupt police state apart. Brisbane wasn’t called Pig City for nothing.
There was a surge of energy that pulsed through the city in the next decade as a new generation of artists emerged. I can listen to Screamfeeder’s Wrote You Off, a song from their second album Burn Out Your Name, and I’m 22 again, on the cusp of … Well, I didn’t have a clue what. I saw Regurgitator’s second or third gig and was stunned but not surprised to see Quan Yeomans on stage: I’d gone to school with him and he was always miles ahead of everyone else.
There was a separate scene that revolved around Custard, in a Spring Hill house owned by David McCormack’s parents. McCormack had another band called COW – Country or Western – with drummer Glenn Thompson; they ended up being Robert Forster’s backing band on his solo album Calling From A Country Phone. Like the early Go-Betweens, though, what McCormack really tapped into was the suburban viewpoint of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.
Brisbane still has a streak of that suburban sensibility a mile wide – listen to Jeremy Neale, for example, last year’s winner of the GW McLennan fellowship. Jeremy’s song In Stranger Times is a favourite of mine from the last decade, tapping into the pre-Beatles AM radio sound that Richman fetishised. You can hear it in the dream pop of Babaganouj and Hatchie, too.
Grant’s death in May 2006 sent a violent shudder of mortality through everyone involved with music here. We’d lost our first genuine elder prematurely, at 48. I’m 47 now. Life comes at you fast and we’ve all gotten older with the music, and the people who made it. Powderfinger’s These Days is probably a very nostalgic song for many. Who can’t relate to the feeling of things not turning out as we planned? Some of us never had plans to begin with.
What I love most about Brisbane is that it’s unafraid to be itself. There’s no confected competition or rivalry with Sydney or Melbourne to be had. The music made here was always too variable to be reduced to a “Brisbane sound” but the best of it is unafraid to be itself too, and that’s the stuff that travels and endures. Most of our best bands, like Blank Realm, SixFtHick and HITS all command much bigger audiences overseas. Our flaw is not to rate ourselves.
They also prove that making worthwhile art isn’t necessarily a consequence of reactionary politics. It seemed to me that Bjelke-Petersen’s biggest contribution to music in Queensland was encouraging a generation of artists to leave. But the survivors wear it like a badge of honour. Some never made it back here. For those who remained or, like me, came to visit and decided to stay, Brisbane is just home – stranded or not.
Back at the beginning of the 1990s, two mixed-gender Australian bands looked set to have long and successful careers ahead of them. Falling Joys and the Clouds shared many things: most often stages, including at festivals, but also management and female singer-songwriters – two, in Clouds’ case – with unique voices and visions. Both peaked early with classic debut albums, but were unable to sustain their momentum.
Now both are back, on a joint tour (delayed halfway through by a bout of food poisoning suffered by the Clouds’ Tricia Young) that’s all but sold out. There’s clear affection for both bands – the Triffid is full when Falling Joys take the stage just before 8.30pm – but there’s also some cobwebs to be shaken off: the power-pop gem Shelter lurches to a premature conclusion, and Puppy Drink has a false start before the band realises they’re in the wrong key.
Not that anyone minds too much. The crowd – mostly peers of the band, though a few parents have brought their teenage offspring along – is just happy to have them back. As we should be: Suzie Higgie’s songs still exude warmth and depth, and while the songs from 1990’s Wish List still shine brightest (Shot In Europe; Jennifer), the selections from the following albums Psychohum and Aerial underline how much her voice has been missed.
But none so much as their beloved single Lock It, which elicits a cheer that brings a clearly moved Higgie to a momentary pause. It’s a timeless, life-affirming song that captures the vulnerability of love’s first consummation with big open chords in the chorus and lyrics that act as a sort of female complement, or counterpoint, to Hunters & Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me. Like that song, it wasn’t a hit, but it feels like a standard now.
The Clouds are less reliant on nostalgia. There’s a new single, Beautiful Nothingness, following a EP from last year, Zaffre. And from the moment they hit the stage, they’re tight, precise and muscular: the combined voices and harmonies of Jodi Phillis and Young have lost nothing, Dave Easton is one of Australia’s more unassuming guitar heroes (though Phillis has more than a few tricks up her sleeve, too) and Raph Whittingham is a powerhouse on drums.
When they first appeared, the Clouds occasionally suffered from unflattering and unfair comparisons to the Pixies. There were superficial similarities, but with Phillis and Young out front, the literary and psychological bent of Phillis’ lyrics especially, and the unusual, shifting time signatures of their songs, the band had more in common with that band’s Boston contemporaries Throwing Muses, and with Australia’s Go-Betweens.
It would be easy for them to rely on songs from Penny Century, released in October 1991, but we only get a few tracks from that album: Wednesday Night, Foxes Wedding and the closing Hieronymus. The rest of the set spans the remainder of their underrated later career, opening with the rapid-fire smash and grab of Here Now, from their overlooked 1996 album Futura.
“This song isn’t about dicks,” Young says by way of introduction to Bower Of Bliss, which is actually about, well, the exact opposite: where Lock It is all sweetness, Phillis challenges a lover to “come and slip downstream to the root of your fears”. On one hand, it’s a surprise the song achieved moderate Triple J airplay, on the other it’s a shame its magnificent glam-rock strut wasn’t a huge hit, and it’s the highlight of the set.
We get a number of other songs from the troubled Thunderhead album, including Domino – the track that writer Craig Mathieson noted saw the band’s cards marked by label Polydor, after Phillis had her voice slowed down to a speed that made her voice sound like a man’s. It was as an act of commercial sabotage at a time – post-Nirvana’s Nevermind – when the independent scene and the mainstream were uncomfortable bedfellows.
It’s a different time now. There’s an insuperable gulf between what remains of the music business and a million artists making music in their bedrooms or makeshift studios on shoestring budgets with total creative freedom. But that independence and feminist spirit shown by the Clouds were exemplars for a new generation of Australian female artists, and their work sounds just as fresh today. Let’s hope there’s more of it to come.
Scene: a tall, erect man, aged 60, is walking up a long gravel driveway. He is impeccably, incongruously dressed for the country surroundings: dark blue suit and tie, rose-pink shirt, dress shoes. It is the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster. He is carrying a guitar. An old radio voice-over asks him to describe the music he plays. “It’s like running water off thin white strips of aluminium,” he replies. Soundtrack: the first three notes of Cattle And Cane.
The next person we see is footage of the late Grant McLennan, the song’s author, who died of a heart attack at the age of 48 in 2006. He is dragging on a cigarette. “We’re not a trendy band,” he says. “We’re a groovy band. And I like that.”
Rewind. Setting: The Golden Century, a Chinese restaurant in Sydney. Film director Kriv Stenders, best known for Red Dog, is pitching his documentary about the Go-Betweens, Right Here, to a suspicious Lindy Morrison, the band’s drummer on their first six albums, and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown. During the band’s life, Morrison had been in a relationship with Forster; Brown with McLennan. Old wounds remain close to the surface.
Morrison describes the meeting as “extraordinarily traumatic”. The Go-Betweens is a subject on which she long ago stopped giving interviews, except in relation to specific projects. The story of the band always returns to the friendship between Forster and McLennan: Forster’s memoir of last year was titled Grant & I. After the band broke up, Morrison and Brown fought and settled with the two songwriters for a share of royalties.
For Morrison and Brown especially – along with former bass players Robert Vickers and John Willsteed – Right Here was a chance to detail their vast musical contributions. Cattle And Cane would have been lost without Morrison’s unique time signature; Bye Bye Pride is crowned by Brown’s oboe part; Streets Of Your Town features a gorgeous Spanish-inflected acoustic guitar solo played by Willsteed.
“I don’t think Kriv knew who or what he was dealing with,” Morrison says. “He had no idea of what had unfolded at the closing of the band, and the discussions about that brought forward our feelings again about what had transpired.” Stenders didn’t know what had hit him. “I must admit I didn’t sleep that night,” he says. “I think they ran me through a gauntlet to test my mettle … There was so much emotion, so much anger and frustration there.”
The dysfunctional band documentary is a staple of the genre, but it’s just getting started in Australia. So far, most of the energy has focused on the punk scene of the late 1970s. Radio Birdman and the Saints, Australia’s two primary sources for the movement – both famously tempestuous groups – have been honoured recently on film. But for human drama, the Go-Betweens, arguably Australia’s first post-punk band, were untouchable on stage and off.
What Right Here has that most “rockumentaries” lack is atmosphere. Taking the Go-Betweens’ stifling mid-1970s home of Brisbane as its starting point, it feels naturalistic and expansive. Interviews with band members were shot on the verandah of an enormous Queenslander owned by Stenders’ sister near Beaudesert, south of Brisbane. But the suffocating humidity, which builds like a thunderstorm, is provided by the complex relationships between the members.
Forster stares into a bonfire as he recounts how he and McLennan decided to end the band in 1989 and return to their beginnings as a duo, heedless of Morrison and Brown’s financial and emotional investment. “We were just bumbling boys,” he says. Morrison’s response is acidic: “Both of us refused to be defined as the girlfriends, and that’s what they did, when they dumped us. They treated us like ex-wives, and that was the greatest insult.”
It’s a heart-stopping scene, shot in darkness, with Brown and Morrison together. There’s a twitch in Morrison’s eye as she bitterly recounts the moment, while Brown’s eyes are full of tears. But if Right Here was only about settling scores, it would be a lesser film. There are many moments where Morrison’s old fondness for Forster, Forster’s for Morrison, and Brown’s deep anguish at the loss of McLennan are keenly felt.
To get those moments, Stenders put his subjects through the mill. Morrison was interviewed for 16 hours, in four blocks of four hours each. For her, she says, the results were therapeutic. “It’s lifted the sense of sadness I’ve always felt about the band. It’s made me close the door … I feel great about the band and the music now; I feel that finally that bloody striped sunlight sound has warmed me!”
The Go-Betweens, as McLennan noted, were never trendy. “I never gave a shit,” Morrison says in the film. “We did not look the part, we didn’t sound the part, we were not the part. We were too intelligent.” Cue the opening chords for Streets Of Your Town, the closest the band’s “striped sunlight sound” ever came to a hit. It reached 70 on the Australian charts; 82 in Britain. “We may as well have put out a free jazz record,” Forster says.
Yet the music has endured. Forster and McLennan reconvened the band at the turn of the millennium – without Morrison and Brown – making three more celebrated albums before McLennan’s death. Here, Stenders encountered a problem he couldn’t resolve. Interviews with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance, the band’s drummer and bass player during this period, hit the cutting room floor. The band’s final act is summed up in five minutes.
The decision grieved Stenders, as well as Thompson and Pickvance, whom Stenders says was especially upset. But the heart of the Go-Betweens’ story lay in that classic line-up. Stenders justifies it by saying he wanted to present an emotional history of the band, not a discography. “That band just kept on building and building to a point where I think it just caved in on itself,” he says.
In 2013, Morrison was awarded an Order of Australia medal for her services as a performer and an advocate. A social worker before joining the Go-Betweens, she is now the welfare co-ordinator with music industry charity Support Act. The end of the band, she said, “was pivotal in me going out and establishing myself as Lindy Morrison, and I will not be anyone but Lindy Morrison, and nothing will change that”.
But she will always remain a Go-Between. “Despite the acrimony, despite the anger, despite the betrayal, ultimately there’s still love there, and I find that very moving,” Stenders says. “I know it’s an extreme analogy, but when soldiers go to war, that bonds you forever, and I think it’s the same with the Go-Betweens. That’s why the music was so great, because they lived it and believed in it so passionately.”
When the Go Between Bridge was opened in Brisbane in 2010, Forster and Morrison shared a moment. “We walked across the whole bridge together, just him and I,” Morrison says. “Just chatting, like a couple of old codgers. That was very, very special to me, and I’m sure it was special to him. We’ve had our moments where we’ve been able to find each other again. It’ll never return to what it was. But we found each other on that day.”
First published inSpectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 23 September 2017
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 inSpectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 29 July 2017