Funny that I’m revisiting this literally a day after seeing the lady in question live once again. I’ve known Jen for years, and I count her as both a friend and a great inspiration. This interview more or less started that, although we’d briefly met once before in 2007 at a festival featuring Xavier Rudd, Ash Grunwald and The Audreys. Man, what a time hey? Roots takeover! This interview came prior to the release of Jen’s second studio album, Hidden Hands, which was one of my favourite LPs of 2009. She doesn’t turn out records often, but when she does… look out, son. Them’s some hot rekkids.
This was one of my favourite interviews from around this time – more for what ended up on the cutting room floor, interestingly enough. We were supposed to have a 15-minute interview and we just ended up chatting for a good 30 minutes. She’s just such a warm and interesting person, and I can never be in a bad mood when I’m listening to her music or seeing her live. We’re fortunate to have women like this around, folks. Anyway, enough from me. Let’s read on…
– DJY, July 2013
Over the past couple of months, a familiar face has re-entered the collective conscience of Australian music after a momentary lapse into obscurity. For a while, nobody knew where Jen Cloher or her band, the Endless Sea, had gotten to. “I know, right?” the woman herself laughs. “People have been like, – ‘What happened to Jen Cloher? First she was touring and doing shows and then… she wasn’t!’”
The truth of the matter is that there is no big rock star meltdown story, or even in-band fighting. Jen simply took some time away from the limelight to visit her parents. “My parents moved back to New Zealand about fifteen years ago when Mum got work here – they’re Kiwis originally,” she explains. “I made the decision to spend some quality time with them and help out where I could.” Whilst in New Zealand, Jen also came to write the bulk of what would become the Endless Sea’s second album, Hidden Hands. The album’s title – from Cloher’s point of view at least – “sounds a little sinister.” There’s a lot more to it than that, however. “It’s based on a quote by Joseph Campbell, this amazing mythologist. – ‘Follow your bliss, do whatever you are meant to do on this planet. Doors will open where there were no doors before, and you will be lead by a thousand unseen helping hands.’ I love the idea that there are forces beyond what we can see that will help us on our quest.”
Recorded at Woodstock Studios in St. Kilda – which was, up until recently, owned by Joe Camilleri of Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons – Hidden Hands was swiftly recorded live over a period of seven days. The band chose once again to work with engineer Paul McKercher, who has also worked with artists like Sarah Blasko and Augie March. “We worked with him again because we were really happy with his work on the first album,” says Cloher. It is also interesting to note that Cloher herself, as well as singer-songwriter/touring partner Laura Jean, undertook the album’s production duties. “She’s a really great musician,” Jen enthuses. “I’ve stolen her to play some piano and sing, as an honorary member of the Endless Sea.”
Jean’s inclusion in the Endless Sea is one of three new additions to the Endless Sea line-up, which now tallies up as a septuplet. The others are Biddy Connor, a viola/musical saw player who also performs as part of Laura Jean’s Eden Land Band, and Tom Healy, a guitarist that Cloher met during her time in New Zealand. So what’s changed this time around for Cloher’s music? “The differences between the first and second albums are worlds apart,” she says emphatically. Elaborating on this statement leads Cloher to compare and contrast her two works back to back. “Our last album (2006’s ARIA-nominated Dead Wood Falls) was kind of based around lovelorn characters, and it had a distant romantic, blurred-around-the-edges kind of thing about it. It was very much your singer-songwriter album. You could hear that these were songs that I’d written by myself in my bedroom.” And now? “This record is much more of a ‘band’ album because we really developed our own sound a lot with all the touring that we did. When I was writing these songs, I was very conscious that I was writing these songs to a band’s strength.”
Conversation moves to what Jen was writing about during her time in New Zealand. “It’s not about romantic love or lost love. It’s about…” She takes a moment to attempt a vivid description, but shrugs and jokingly comes up with, “…big stuff”. By ‘big stuff,’ of course, Cloher means “mortality, relationships, family, friends, creativity… Really, when I was writing the album, I thought that the most important thing was that these songs were true to me right now.” With this in mind, it must be asked if there is a song that means the most to Cloher out of her sophomore batch. After a moment of thinking out loud (“They all are, so much,” she sighs), she chooses a song called Watch Me Disappear. Written about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, she says that the song deals with watching someone very close to you succumb to the illness. “It’s death itself,” Cloher states. “It’s watching someone lose their memory, their concept of time… it’s a really weird disease.”
Certainly, even with a fuller and more realised band sound, this is the sound of a singer-songwriter tacking very personal yet universal issues. If you haven’t yet already, don’t miss an opportunity to bear witness to two of contemporary Australian music’s most formidable talents and hear the beginning stages of what is certain to be a popular release of 2009, Hidden Hands.