With her current standing in Australian music, many younger listeners of Jen Cloher's probably have no idea that their electric lady was, once upon a time, the great hope of Australian folk-rock. As a part of Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea, Cloher was an ARIA-nominated troubadour with a firm standing in roots and Americana. Last year saw her debut album, 2006's Dead Wood Falls, arrive at its 10th anniversary. By re-releasing the album – making its debut on vinyl – and playing two shows with her original band, Cloher was able to gain a sense of real perspective on the next chapter – looking back in order to move forward.
“I got a lot out of doing it,” she begins, talking from her home in Melbourne. “First and foremost, it reminded me just how good of a band they were. It also showed me how great those songs were – while also showing me how much I've moved on musically and emotionally. I will say that Dead Wood Falls is an album that's very much about longing and distance – which is kind of funny, because those are things that are touched on with this record. It's in a very different way to that of Dead Wood Falls, though. A lot has changed.”
Indeed, the winds of change bristle on Cloher's eponymous fourth LP – even from the outset and literally on its face value. While Cloher's previous records all contained vivid imagery in their titles – 2009's Hidden Hands; 2013's In Blood Memory – this album is simply Jen Cloher, and nothing more. Artwork was also a big part of Cloher's last two records; whereas this one features a single photograph of Cloher herself on the cover, playing guitar shirtless with her back to the camera. “I guess having that combination of things does raise interesting points and questions,” says Cloher. “That photo is a very candid shot – it draws you in, but at the same time you're not really there.”
“That mixture of distance and intimacy is reflective of some of the album's overarching themes. This is the first time that I've spoken more about my view of the world. There's always been a spiritual element of that in my music, but this is tackling topics that are external and that have an effect on me. I talk about marriage equality, the music industry, feminism, middle-class white suburbia, apathy... I feel like I've really developed the confidence to write openly about these things. I wasn't worried if anyone disagreed.”
Jen Cloher was recorded with Cloher's backing band of five years – longtime collaborator Jen Sholakis on drums, former Immigrant Union member Andrew ‘Bones’ Sloane on bass and Cloher's wife, Courtney Barnett, on lead guitar. Cloher previously mentioned not holding back when it came to writing this album – and that included touching upon her relationship with a forthright honesty at points. This isn't a Carly Simon situation here – Barnett definitely knows this song is about her. “It's one of the things about being in a relationship with another writer,” says Cloher.
“Everyone draws from their life, whether they disguise it or not. I touched base with Court as we were putting this record together, and I made sure that she was okay with me sharing this sort of stuff about our relationship and my observations about her within the music industry. She didn't even flinch – it was just 'Yeah, fuckin' go for it!' At the end of the day, Courtney understands that I want to get as close to my truth as I can. She respects that.”
Cloher went full ‘Judas’, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan's history, on the In Blood Memory record; abandoning her acoustic guitar and playing an electric that was handmade by Jim Dyson, the father of acclaimed blues guitarist and former Cloher collaborator Mia. For Jen Cloher, however, there's more of a mix of guitars on the record. “I always start out writing on acoustic guitar,” she says. “For a few of these songs, that's where they stayed – it just made sense for them. Other songs got really loud. Sholakis actually brought in one of her own guitars that just had such a great sound to it. I just wish I remember what it's called. It's a Gibson guitar with a man's name...” A Les Paul? “A Les Paul!” Cloher exclaims. She laughs: “That could have been embarrassing.”
Jen Cloher is out on Friday August 11 through Milk! Records/Remote Control. She is touring Australia in August, for more information head to jencloher.com.