August 2017

Arts & Letters

On the road again

By Anwen Crawford
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 is The Monthly’s music critic.

Photo by Tajette O’Halloran

August 2017

From the front page

Big stick, no carrot

The Coalition’s fixation on energy prices distracts from wage stagnation

Image of Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu and Prime Minister Scott Morrison

How good is Gladys Liu?

Scott Morrison ducks and weaves questions about the embattled MP

Image from ‘Blanco en Blanco’

Venice International Film Festival 2019

Théo Court’s masterful ‘Blanco en Blanco’ is a bright point in a largely lacklustre line-up

‘Here Until August’

‘Here Until August’ by Josephine Rowe

The Australian author’s second short-story collection focuses on the precipice of change rather than its culmination

In This Issue


He will never stop

Tony Abbott seems determined to wreck the clean energy target

Under the covers

David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ successfully combines sorrow, absurdity and the supernatural


Debt. Recovery.

A parliamentary committee’s report on the Centrelink robo-debt debacle makes for damning reading

Foresters of the skies

The grey-headed flying fox faces a perilous nightly journey

More in Arts & Letters

Image of ‘Sex in the Brain’

Our largest sexual organ: Amee Baird’s ‘Sex in the Brain’

We know surprisingly little about how our brains orchestrate our sex lives

Detail of Yanni Florence photograph

Losing yourself

How can we be transformed by music if online platforms mean we will always remain ourselves?

Image from ‘The Nightingale’

Tasmanian torments: Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Nightingale’

The Babadook director talks about the necessity of violence in her colonial drama

Photo of Adam Goodes

Swan song: Documenting the Adam Goodes saga

Two documentaries consider how racism ended the AFL star’s career

More in Music

Detail of Yanni Florence photograph

Losing yourself

How can we be transformed by music if online platforms mean we will always remain ourselves?

Photo of Lil Nas X

Happy trails: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’

The gay country-rapper exposes the complex play of identity, algorithms and capitalism

Image from 'Mystify: Michael Hutchence'

All veils and misty: Richard Lowenstein’s ‘Mystify: Michael Hutchence’

The insider documentary that wipes clear the myths obscuring the INXS singer

Photo of Blackpink at Coachella

Seoul trained: K-pop and Blackpink

Trying to find meaning in the carefully formulated culture of K-pop

Read on

Image of Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu and Prime Minister Scott Morrison

How good is Gladys Liu?

Scott Morrison ducks and weaves questions about the embattled MP

Image from ‘Blanco en Blanco’

Venice International Film Festival 2019

Théo Court’s masterful ‘Blanco en Blanco’ is a bright point in a largely lacklustre line-up

Image from ‘Animals’

Girls, interrupted: Sophie Hyde’s ‘Animals’

This untamed depiction of female friendship moves beyond basic binaries of freedom and control

Image of Peter Dutton

Peter Dutton’s tyranny

On the minister’s treatment of the Tamil asylum-seeker family and his pursuit of power