On the road again

An­wen Craw­ford on Jen Clo­her’s self-ti­tled al­bum

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX -

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 hard­fought. 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.

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