Want something done? ‘Ask a busy person’, goes the saying. Melbourne based singer songwriter Jen Cloher, is one of those busy people who achieves a lot. As co-founder of Milk Records, she has been able to position the label so that it could function along with the best of them on an international level and keep up to speed with her label and life-partner Courtney Barnett’s soaring global music career. Yet Jen and Courtney have still found time to attend to the needs of the local talent on the roster too, by implementing wonderful initiatives such as the recently completed Milk Records artist residencies at the Coburg RSL. Then there’s the I Manage My Music program, the mentorship program which Jen also facilitates. With so much happening on an administrative level, what Jen hadn’t left time for was her own creative pursuits. It had been 4 years since her last album, the song ideas had been coming and around a year ago she finally decided that it was time to dedicate time and space to Jen Cloher the artist. On August 11 this year Jen Cloher released album number four, self-titled and self-assured. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Jen to discuss her extracurricular activities and the creation of the new album.
Before we chat about the album, you just wrapped up a residency for Milk Records artists at the Coburg RSL. Tell me about the idea behind that residency.
We wanted to do some shows that were not in traditional pub venues. Something that was mid week, early in the night, family friendly and affordable. I guess they are are our dream gig, you get there and eat some soup, the band is on at 7 30 until 9.30 and you’re home in bed by 10 30. I guess the other thing …when we started working with the Coburg RSL … or why we chose that venue was that there was a time when pokies were brought in but the members had them shipped out again. I think a lot of those type of clubs rely on people being addicted to gambling to get by and we love that they made that choice not to go down that path. They’ve struggled to attract a younger audience and the returned soldiers are getting older, so we wanted to bring a new crowd into this beautiful, untouched traditional venue and see if we could reinvigorate the energy around the club rather than it being knocked down and turned into apartments or something.
You spend a great amount time and energy on things like Milk Records and I Mange My Music programs, plus other things. In the four years between your 3rd and 4th album, was the music still coming to you? Were you writing all the time or did it just suddenly come to a point where you thought, I need to write these songs and release an album?
I think I definitely needed to make time to write. Things were getting busy. As Courtney’s profile grew, so too did Milk Records and we wanted to make sure Courtney didn’t leave Milk Records behind, that it could travel along with her journey and be able to serve her and her music as well as the other artists who release music through Milk as well. I saw it as a great opportunity to showcase the great talent in Melbourne and I just decided to put a lot more of my energy into Milk Records than I previously would have done with my own music. So I had to compartmentalise my time and I think as you go on in your career, you discover that writing is about sitting down and being there. Sometimes nothing comes, sometimes an idea comes, sometimes you have to work long and hard getting a song done and other times they just spill out onto the page. I don’t have any control over that but I do have control over making sure I sit down and put the time in, most days when I can.
Has your method of songwriting and recording changed much since your first release?
I think for me, I really enjoy the dynamic of a band. All four albums that I have made, have been with set bands rather than sessions musicians. We’ve had some session players come in and play some strings or brass but at the core, it’s a set band. I really enjoy the energy of live performance. Both the this album the previous are live takes. Most of the time they are live vocals with minimal overdubs. I guess because my style of songwriting is classic, singer-songwriter, candid story telling, it lends itself to keeping it pretty simple. the other thing is that I can then go out and play live shows that sound like the record.
There are some brutally honest moments on this album lyrically and also in your blog, you were saying that Courtney’s success made you question your own worth as an artist until one day you just got over it. At what point did you say to yourself and Courtney this is what I’m going to say with this record?
I think for me, if there was any objective or goal with this record … it wasn’t so much that I wanted to make a record that sounds like this or deals with any particular theme, it was that I just wanted to make my most honest record. So I don’t want to shy away from the truth of what I am talking about in every song. Because I feel like when I hear that, myself as a listener, when I hear someone talking honestly about being a human in the world, that it has a lasting impact. It is very meaningful when someone expresses their thoughts and feelings. I think Courtney really respects that and she knows that is a song and not the whole of our relationship. It doesn’t equal anything except how I was feeling that day about a certain aspect of my life. Obviously I said to her, look you’ve heard the songs … there’s quite a lot of comment and I certainly talk about some of the challenges that we have had as a couple with the distance and lots of time apart and she just said go for it. I think both of us know too, if you are going to go out with someone who is a writer, you are going to get written about.
Track 2 on the album, Analysis Paralysis comes in at a long 7:46. Was it always going to be that long?
I think it was just where I wanted to take the lyric. What I wanted to talk about in that song led it to be quite a lengthy number. Also because it sits on a groove, you can get away with quite a long song. In a way, it is a hypnotic experience and you kind of forget if you’re in a verse or a chorus. As a listener you just get into it.
Sensory Memory begins with a softy sung vocal and builds gradually, getting quite epic by the song’s end … and so does the next track Shoegazers. How long did you play around with the arrangements of those tracks? Did they come out of jams?
Very much so. I spend quite a bit of time at home with a song and I will bring a fully written song to the band and usually it will contain parts where I can hear an instrumental break and we’ll jam on the tune and it will evolve. I really enjoy songs that begin somewhere and end somewhere else. I guess it is also part of storytelling. It’s a lyrical story but there is also a story in the music and you can tell that story by introducing different sounds or taking a left turn. You want to keep people’s ears spiked and interested. I like it when you can listen to an album six or seven times and still be hearing things for the first time on the seventh listen.
The album also has some punk moments too …
It’s funny there has always been .. even if you go back to my first album Deadwood Falls, it is predominantly an album full of ballads but the second track Peaks and Valleys, is a pretty hard out, punk rock song. It has always been there as something which I enjoy doing and it works for my voice. My voice enjoys having a bit of a yell. I think I have become more comfortable going to those places musically. Also I picked up an electric guitar, really for the first time live and in the studio on my last album In Blood Memory. So it has been that album and this one where my main guitar part are electric. I think when you pick up an electric guitar, different things start to happen. You go into a bit more of a rock territory because all of a sudden you have all of these pedals and a nice big amp and you can let notes ring out.
What is your main guitar?
I think my favourite guitar is a Jim Dyson which he made for me, probably a good 8 or 9 years ago. It’s based on a Telecaster style, the way that it sounds. It’s just a beautiful guitar and I am stoked because he stopped making guitars 5 or 6 years ago and I don’t think he will do it again, so I have this little piece of Australian history. It’s got made in Torquay on the headstock, which is really cool. I actually have a lot of guitars on stage with me because I play in different tunings and because I don’t have the budget to have a full time guitar tech tuning all of my guitars and I don’t want to be boring the audience with tuning guitars, I will have about 4 guitars on stage. I will have the Jim Dyson, then I’ve got a Gibson Melody Maker, great punchy guitar for punk rock and power chords. There’s a Gibson Les Paul for songs like Shoegazers, the opening riff, plus I have a Fender Jag. They all have such different voicings, strengths and weaknesses
What about pedals?
I keep it really simple with effects. It’s one less thing to think about. I envy Courtney who just walks out with one or two guitars because she doesn’t much around with tunings but she has quite a lot of pedals. I will just have a Hot Cake which is my main distortion and I have a micro amp which gives you a bit more volume when you need it and that’s it.
There are a lot of guitar textures and distortion on album but it ends with an acoustic ballad Dark Art. How important was the track order to you?
Really important. It’s quite a long album coming in over 50 minutes. My album before that came in at 33, so it’s nearly double the length of my third album. I really needed to think about the journey for the listener because it jumps around a little bit. There’s quite a lot of variety on the record. I decided that Dark Art didn’t really belong anywhere but the beginning or the end of the record and the end would be a nice place to leave people with a heartfelt, really simple folk ballad.
The album was mixed at Jeff Tweedy’s Loft studio. Why did you choose to mix there?
There’s an album that Jeff Tweedy put out with his son Spencer called Sukierae under the name of Tweedy. I just loved it and thought it sounded fantastic. I looked at the credits and saw that it had been mixed by a guy named Tom Schick. When I dug a bit deeper online I saw that he’d worked with Rufus Wainright, Mavis Staples, Ryan Adams and of course Wilco. I also saw that he had worked with Paul Dempsey. I shot a message through to Paul asking him how he found it. Paul said it was amazing and he couldn’t speak highly enough of his work. So I got in touch and sent him a couple of songs and he said he’d love to mix it. Initially the plan was that we would do it remotely but because he only had a window of five days, and rather than emailing back and forth between time zones. Also he was mixing on an analogue desk, so when you pull a mix off an analogue desk, you have to bring it all up again if you want to make changes. In the end Courtney and I said let’s just go over there and have an experience being in Chicago. We rocked up and it was snowing. We sat up in Jeff Tweedy’s music museum. He mixed it in 4 days, did 3 songs per day. We’d walk in and he’d say what do you think of this? We were like .. um perfect!
With this album, you name check a few Australian things … there’s a line about watching The Dirty Three. There’s a track called Great Australian Bite. Courtney sings about suburbia too. We now have a Smith Street Band. In the past we’ve been reluctant to name-check local things apart from a few notable exceptions. In America they don’t have that problem. Why do you think that is and do you think it is changing?
I think that slowly our psyche is changing as a country, certainly as far as artists go. I think it is really encouraging to see bands like the Smith Street Band and Courtney…. King Gizzard, Tame Impala, Tash Sultana … there are these fantastic artists from all sorts of genres going across and finding this audience there waiting. It’s not like they don’t have to work really hard and tour their arse off. Like I say in the Great Australian Bite, The Triffids or Go Betweens or Saints had to move their entire lives to another country and start again. It feels like you can have a bit of a head start through word of mouth now. I feel like we are reclaiming our place in the world as artists and musicians. There’s a bit more pride. In the past it was like it wasn’t cool to be from Australia or New Zealand. I have certainly spent a lot of time over the last decade reading about Australian music and educating myself about the people who came before me. What it does is gives you a sense of where you belong, where your place is in the story. I think it is really important to know who has come before them and pay respect. So in that song Loose Magic, I am paying my respect to a band that had the courage to be themselves and without any compromise managed to carve out this incredible body of work and an international touring career and are considered in Australia and overseas in a lot of circles as one of the great rock bands.
Your album is self titled. Did you have some titles along the way?
I spent a lot of time thinking about what the album would be called and nothing really stuck. In the past I’d throw a few out there and think yes, that really sums up that body of work but this album didn’t seem to be wanted to be labeled. Then when I thought about it, a self-titled album seemed to sum it up because a lot of the songs are an honest account of where Jen Cloher is right now today in the world.
Jen Cloher is out now on Milk Records. www.jencloher.com
Jen Cloher – Upcoming Tour Dates
Thurs 24th August – Brisbane @ The Foundry
Fri 25th August – Sydney @ Oxford Art Factory
Sun 3rd September – Fremantle @ Mojo’s Bar
Fri 8th September – Melbourne @ Howler
Sat 9th September – Adelaide @ Jive Bar
Sun 10th September – Melbourne @ Howler