August 2017

Arts & Letters

On the road again

By Anwen Crawford

Photo by Tajette O’Halloran

Jen Cloher’s self-titled album is a unique take on the trials of a touring musician

There’s a long tradition of rock musicians writing songs about the difficulty of life on the road. AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ is surely the most famous, and the best, its mood standing in gleeful contradiction to its apparent subject. After hearing it, who wouldn’t want to pay their dues in a rockin’ band? And that’s the risk for any songwriter who chooses touring as their subject: your audience might wonder, rightly, just what you’ve got to complain about.

“Early morning flight / Press all day / City through a window,” sings Jen Cloher on ‘Sensory Memory’, from her new, self-titled, album. With an insider’s knowledge, she ticks off the details of touring’s less glamorous side in tight, 14-syllable patterns, delivered in a sing-song melody. Monotony rules. But the song’s disillusionment is complicated by distance: it’s told from the point of view of a musician whose partner is also a musician, and it’s the latter who’s away on tour. The lyrics of ‘Sensory Memory’ describe the gap, literal and emotional, that opens up between lovers when one of them is absent. Then the music, too, begins to unfold, with two guitars gradually diverging from the main melody like companions who have discovered new things to talk about. The wistfulness of the song’s latter half belies the narrator’s claim that she prefers home to the road; touring is a chore but it’s also an adventure, and she’s missing it.

It’s fitting that Cloher has crafted an album so concerned with the minutiae of musicians’ lives. In her adopted city of Melbourne (she was raised in Adelaide) she hosts workshops for self-managed musicians, and she also co-runs the independent label Milk! Records, which was founded in 2012 by her partner, musician Courtney Barnett. Milk! releases Barnett’s music, and Cloher’s, alongside the work of local acts such as East Brunswick All Girls Choir and Jade Imagine. The label’s roster is an argument in favour of rock music loosely played but deeply felt.

Cloher began her own career in a quieter musical fashion: her first album, Dead Wood Falls (2006), credited to Jen Cloher and The Endless Sea, was a collection of pensive, country-influenced ballads that earned her an ARIA nomination for Best Female Artist. Hidden Hands (2009), also recorded with The Endless Sea, had violin, horns and a choir, but Cloher’s third album, In Blood Memory (2013), released as a solo record, was simpler and bolder. “C’mon baby, let’s go back to your house,” she sang on ‘Name in Lights’, “And put on some vinyl / So we can make out.”

In Blood Memory was an album that sounded immediate, and for good reason: it was recorded in less than a week. “I wanted to write about what was alive in me,” commented Cloher at the time. The songs were shaped by love but shadowed by loss. ‘Hold My Hand’, the six-minute closing track, told the story of Cloher’s parents, both of whom died in 2011. It begins tenderly and ends defiantly, the volume raised as if to stave off mortality itself – not a new impulse for a rock song, but still a powerful one. The album was shortlisted, deservedly, for the Australian Music Prize.

Jen Cloher has been made with the same line-up of musicians: Cloher and Barnett on guitar, Bones Sloane on bass, and Jen Sholakis, a long-time collaborator, on drums. As with In Blood Memory, this is an album that captures the feel of a live band, and the playing is casually confident. No one shows off, but no one needs to. The arrangements are patient and steady. Cloher’s rhythm guitar threads the songs together, with Barnett providing modest embellishments; only occasionally, as on ‘Strong Woman’, which is reminiscent of early PJ Harvey, do things begin to feel haphazard.

Though one can find precedents for Cloher’s sound in artists like Harvey, Neil Young and Patti Smith, this is an album with a deliberately local lyrical focus. There’s a whole mythology, particularly in America, of the road-hardened musician who scrapes a living from town to town, but that sort of bohemianism has never been viable here. Our population is smaller and more dispersed, the distance between gigs more punishing. “I’m never gonna lose my head / To a setting sun,” sings Cloher on ‘Regional Echo’. The song’s reverberant guitar evokes the shimmering heat and light of the Australian road, but the mood is nevertheless resigned. “I’m never gonna dream of things / That just can’t be done.” It’s hard to know whether that’s a deadpan comment on the lack of ambition that can feel endemic to Australian life or if Cloher really means it.

Even if the resignation is sincere, the dream will continue, intermittently, to exert its hold. That’s what dreams do. ‘Great Australian Bite’ references a number of local bands – The Saints, The Go-Betweens, The Triffids – whose legends remain massive, though their careers were hard-fought. That kind of prestige, and, in particular, the recognition of a foreign audience, keeps the dream alive. There are exceptions, after all.

Courtney Barnett’s trajectory is another such exception. Four ARIA awards, a Grammy nomination, a Brit award nomination, American television appearances, extensive touring, acres of press both here and overseas: Barnett’s not yet 30 and she’s a significant success story.

In a speech she gave earlier this year on the importance of women in Australian music, Cloher was frank about the effect of Barnett’s career on her own self-worth. “I lost confidence,” she said. “Every great review from Pitchfork or public nod from Paul Kelly felt like a slap in the face. I was filled with envy and the worst thing was that this was my partner, the woman I should be celebrating and supporting.” But she got over it, and one of the results is the sourly funny ‘Shoegazers’, a song that does celebrate Barnett, while also taking swipes at fey young men “wearing glasses and sweaters”, critics (“pussies”), and the culturally white, musically retrograde indie rock scene. Sounding unimpressed with everything suits Cloher’s voice, and the rough, slinking guitar only adds to the cynical effect.

But just when a listener might be in danger of thinking that Jen Cloher is a catalogue of gripes, the mood changes. ‘Waiting in the Wings’, the album’s penultimate song, asserts the importance of being “truly kind”, while the final track, ‘Dark Art’, marks a return to the type of hushed acoustic setting that Cloher used more often on her first two albums. “Loving you is like a bright star,” she sings, over plucked guitar. “You seem closer than you are.” Distance never vanishes. You learn to live with it.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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