Jen Cloher’s life changed significantly over the past few years as her partner, Courtney Barnett, became a world-renowned, in-demand rock ’n’ roll artist.
On her new and appropriately self-titled album, Cloher wastes no time in painting an unflinchingly honest portrait of that life and those changes. “You’d been gone so long, you could have been dead,” she sings on opening track “Forgot Myself.” “Piles of books you bought but never read/Paint a still life of your side of the bed/Patti Smith poems, a hair tie, and some vitamins/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.”
“Forgot Myself” is just one of the songs on Cloher’s record that addresses Barnett’s success and the effect it’s had on their relationship. In “Sensory Memory,” she explains why she doesn’t tag along on all of her partner’s tours, and the closing track, “Dark Art,” ends with a sweet couplet: “You seem closer than you are/Loving you is like a bright star.”
“Courtney has had to spend a lot of time away from home and away from me, and that is tough in any relationship,” she says. “But we’ve worked at it and learned a lot along the way about how to be in a long-distance relationship successfully.”
To be clear, Jen Cloher is not all about Courtney Barnett. It is, unmistakably, all about Jen Cloher. Modestly recorded and remarkably self-assured, the album’s straightforward arrangements—jangling guitars (including some played by Barnett), taut rhythms, and a raw Rolling Stones-meets-PJ Harvey vibe—leave plenty of space for her plainspoken observations about love, politics, and life as an artist in Australia. Cloher doesn’t mince words, no matter the subject.
“The one thing I wanted to do with this album was to be as honest as I could be,” she says. “I wanted to have a direct conversation with the listener. I think that’s important at the moment, in music and art. We’re living in a time where people can feel like they don’t have a voice. I think when you let people in, when you talk about things that are meaningful to you, that it’s a great source of connection.”
Jen Cloher also offers wisdom and perspective from someone who’s earned plenty of both over the years. Cloher has released four solo albums and oversees her and Barnett’s busy label, Milk Records, as well as a music mentorship program in their hometown of Melbourne. She uses one song on the album, “Great Australian Bite,” to highlight the financial and logistical challenges that hamper Aussie bands trying to go global.
For example, Cloher says it costs about $20,000 per week to take a four-piece band on the road in Europe or America, and that’s if you’re frugal about lodging and travel arrangements. Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever for Australian bands to be heard, but according to Cloher, it’s as hard as it’s ever been for those same bands to tour new markets across the world.
“I’m not afraid to talk deeply about my experience in the music industry and what it’s like to be an artist in Australia,” Cloher says. “We live in this massive country with a small population, right down the end of the world. There is definitely a sense of isolation growing up here. It’s hard to make a career from the arts anywhere in the world, but I think Australian artists really have the odds stacked against them financially.”