When I started my “Show Me Your Riffs” series Jen Cloher was one of the first people I listed to be interviewed. Being a fan of her music has been one of the most rewarding experiences and I was thrilled at the chance of getting to interview her to speak about her creative process. I have always viewed Jen’s music as a vital piece of Australia’s musical DNA. Jen’s music has an incredible ache at the centre of it and it resonates quite deeply with me as a listener. There is a darkness swirling inside of her songs but there is also a beautiful space and starkness to it all.
When I set out to interview Jen earlier in 2013 my goal was to speak about the emotions attached to her music to try and find where the spark for her music comes from. Our conversation went for almost two hours and delved into so much territory and also became just a natural conversation as opposed to an interview. This made it easier for us both to understand where the other was coming from.
When our conversation started we talked in-depth about My Bloody Valentine who I had just written about and who she had just seen live. This was a brilliant starting point and gave us the room to move into all sorts of discussions about music we loved.
When I asked Jen about what influenced her when she wrote her music, she was quite direct in framing exactly where she draws her inspiration from:
“I am always influenced by what I happen to be listening to at the time. When I sit down to write my music it is always from a personal place. I understand that not a lot of people do that but I find it is the best way for me to communicate what I’m feeling through my music, for me it has to be personal. I can sometimes attempt to make it a bit more universal but it is always a personal experience that will fund it and that has always been quite an interesting experience and perspective to write from.
My last album dealt a lot with grief and the loss of my parents. It was the most personal I had ever been and it was incredibly therapeutic. It was also really tough to write about that experience, but regardless of the challenges of writing about what was happening to me at that point in time it felt like the right thing to do. So many people have approached me since that album (hidden hands) and said how much those songs helped them, so that was in some ways a reward I suppose for being so honest.
I’m a bit of a perfectionist and the last album was a bit layered so I wanted to free myself of that on my new record (in blood memory) and go for a real live feel with the band in the room. I hadn’t really done that before and I think the results showcase a deeper and more honest sound kind of like Neil Young and Crazy Horse or something like that. The music may be a bit more raw but it is still coming from that personal place.”
Being such an independent artist a lot of our discussion turned to her place within the Australian music scene and how she sees herself fitting in both these days and in the past. It was refreshing to her what Jen thought about this topic:
“I don’t feel like I ever really belonged to any scene really, especially in the current climate. What I’ve come to realise however from watching music in this country is that success is longevity. The ability to create consistently and always making sure you create challenging work for people. I mean it is really none of my business to tell people who or what to listen to but I sometimes feel that people want to feel safe when they listen to music. They don’t want to question anything and a lot of the time they want to know there place within whatever they are listening to and if they don’t get it then they reject it. I’m not interested in the listening experience, both as a fan and creative person, being a comfortable one and I like to challenge both myself and the audience.
If you look at contempory music culture it is hard to find modern artists any more who have that risk in their music and who are making a commitment to longevity. Artists like PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Neil Young were very young when they came up but they still maintained a very long and fruitful career because they were always challenging themselves and their audiences which is why they are still relevant to this day.
I think due to a lot of lazy journalism and lazy listening a lot of people are coming into an artist’s career with very little understanding of culture and as a result they are making very broad generalisations about an artist. They don’t dig deeper to get or source the understanding they need, they just want to be comfortable and as I’ve said they want to know their place within the music. The pressure of it all can be tough, especially for artists.
When I released my first album there was this new wave of singer songwriters (Clare Bowditch, Sarah Blasko, Holly Throsby and Missy Higgins) who all made incredible diverse music but as the media and industry tends to do they started to put the whole idea of this so called “sound” in a box it and gave the whole thing a genre tag instead of seeing it as a whole body of work and as a range of different artists making diverse sounds.
Part of what I’m doing on my new album (in blood memory) is a way for me to step away from any potential cliché that was attached to me by the music media and industry as a whole. This has allowed me to express myself quite differently which has been a positive thing for my sound.”
As our conversation travels to other discussion points about the music industry we bring it all back to what makes music so important. I was thrilled to hear Jen have such a spiritual outlook on music, I felt like it mirrored what I love about not just her sound but music in general. I think the best way for me to conclude what was a brilliant two hour chat, is with Jen’s response when I asked her about why she loves music:
“The main thing that I love about music is the physical, spiritual and emotional transcendence that occurs. It is a transcendental experience for sure, that thrill of expressing yourself with your instrument and your voice. There is something about music that allows you to go beyond yourself. It has the ability to change everyone around you and I need to be in that space fairly regularly because nothing compares to expressing yourself through music.
Sometimes it happens rather quickly but other times you have to take your time and just listen which is also very important because during those lulls you get to spend time honing your craft.
Music is so incredibly spiritual and my understanding of spirituality has always been that you are speaking about what’s alive in you. You can find that connection of spirit in anything really. It is all around us and essentially it is the connection we all have to life itself.
Music is like a ritual for so many of us and to have people standing in an audience and on a stage having very personal responses to the sound being made is always one of the most beautiful things ever.”
By: Dan Newton