Some things are more important than the music. That might sound a misguided statement to make on a music website, but for Jen Cloher the past couple of years have really elucidated that fact.
After the success of her first full length album with her band The Endless Sea, 2006’s Dead Wood Falls, the introspective musician dropped from the limelight for some time to care for her Alzheimer’s afflicted mother back home in Auckland.
It was, understandably, a trying time both emotionally and creatively for the Adelaide born songstress, but it prompted her to begin writing songs for her follow up album, the much more personal Hidden Hands, released last year. The dark, sweeping narratives of her debut album were replaced here with songs that were, for lack of a better phrase, truly from the heart.
For Jen the writing/recording/touring cycle for Hidden Hands has almost come full circle; she plans to take quite some time off to write more new material soon, but not before embarking on a national tour with fellow troubadour Jordie Lane.
It’s a union founded, it seems, in gastronomic heaven. When I spoke individually to both musicians, they discussed their shared love of good food (and each noted a nasty temper if they haven’t had any in a while… Jen calls it the ‘hangrys’). I spoke with Jen from Tasmania in the lead up to their national road trip.
Music Feeds: I read that you started playing guitar when you were 21. Were you always drawn to music, or was it something that you did only start to consider at that (relatively, mind) late stage?
Jen Cloher: I always loved singing so I learnt guitar so I could accompany myself. The first song I learnt was Rowland S Howard’s ‘Shivers’. It was simple – only two chords or at least my version of it was!
MF: Do you think that growing up in Adelaide has influenced your musical style? Is there something particularly unique about the city you find you’ve brought to music?
JC: I’m not sure if it does? Who knows, perhaps one day there will be the ‘Adelaide’ sound? Move over Dunedin.
MF: How did your experiences at NIDA help with your musical career? I’d imagine at least the dramatic aspect of that experience might have helped with stage fright =)
JC: I’m sure NIDA helped with coming to the stage with less fear, although I always get nervous before a show. If anything, acting brought some empathy of singing from a different perspective, seeing life through the eyes of someone else.
MF: I wanted to ask you about Hidden Hands. It’s been out for a while now, and I’m aware that a lot of the material was written at quite a difficult time for you personally. How do you look back on those songs now? The recording process was quite streamlined, so have you discovered more about where you were at, at the time, since you’ve been on the road playing them?
JC: The songs have definitely developed a lot more through playing them live. They feel more assured, I feel like I understand them better. The other thing that struck me is how important it was for me to write from such a personal place. It’s helped me to grieve and to move through a lot of traumatic stuff. Not in an indulgent therapeutic way but in a real – this is life – it’s bloody precious, get on with it way.
MF: Do you think you’ve been able to take something from that experience? Since writing that record, have you found that you’ve been writing songs that are more personal in general, or was it more a cathartic experience that was just right for that time, that you’re looking again more abstractly at ideas and emotions in your songs now?
JC: I’m not sure where I am going to go next lyrically. I have an inkling it will be nowhere near as personal but still very close to my emotional core. I’m curious to see what happens next…
MF: On that note, have you been writing much new material recently? Any new stuff to test out on audiences on the new tour?
JC: I recently wrote a new song for an upcoming Aussie feature which I will be unveiling on this tour. Other sketches of songs I have bee working on I am saving for when I have a new record ready to go. So this will be my last tour for a long time.
MF: I take it this upcoming tour will be sans the Endless Sea. Have you done much touring in solo mode? Is that a more confronting experience, having to carry the show yourself without the support of a band behind you? More intimate perhaps?
JC: That’s right, it’ll be little old me. I’ve definitely preferred to play with my band. Mainly because I find it interesting, playing with others, seeing what happens on stage each night. I really enjoy playing solo though. It brings the song back to it’s bones. There’s a strength to playing solo – it’s direct and immediate.
MF: Do you think it’s more difficult these days to be a successful independent musician? I’m often amazed at how much material artists are almost expected to give away for free before prospective fans can be drawn into buying a record. Do you feel the need to tour to get your music out there, or is that a happy offshoot of the studio process?
JC: I think releasing albums is still relevant and important. From an artistic need than anything commercial. Album’s make and break you! I think today the focus has shifted to having a two way relationship with your audience. “Here’s a free song” can translate to a whole bunch of sales when you release something new. Offering free material is a way of keeping people interested in what you are doing but I think it pays off, people want to support the artists they love. I do.
MF: Do you ever tire of being out on the road?
JC: When I tire of being on the road I know it’s time to come off it.
MF: You’re touring with Jordie Lane soon. What brought that about? Have you met or worked with Jordie much in the past?
JC: Jordie and I have always hung in similar musical circles in Melbourne, although we have never played together. It just felt like a strong double bill and good timing. A couple of months ago we were backstage at a music festival in Nannup which is about three hours south west of Perth. The setting was incredible, an outdoor amphitheatre in the middle of the bush, perfect summer night, full moon, ring-tail possums in the gums, bandicoots rustling about in the woods. We were eating a platter of fruit and amazing cheese and this seafood called maron – kind of like a prawny lobster thing – and we thought, yep time to tour together.
MF: What’s one thing about you that Jordie’s gonna have to get used to while you’re on the road together? Any annoying habits or eccentricities?
JC: I think we both suffer from the hangry’s. That’s angry when hungry. So food is going to be a big priority. I’m sure I am full of annoying eccentricities, you’d only have to ask The Endless Sea to get a running inventory of them…
Jen Cloher and Jordie Lane are touring nationally later this month. Click here to order tickets.