Jen Cloher describes the experience of growing up in Australia as being a "crab in a bucket." "That's actually a real thing. I didn't realize," says Cloher. "You never have to worry, when you have a bucket full of crabs, that one of them will escape. Because the minute one gets to the top of the bucket, another will pull it back down."
Cloher uses this metaphor in her song, "Great Australian Bite," to describe the national psyche that she has experienced as a musician in Australia: "Don't get too successful, because if you are, we'll make sure to pull you down to where you belong."
Despite this hypercompetitive, somewhat isolating environment, Cloher has spent much of her adult life recording and touring as a professional musician, and is currently on a U.S. tour with her wife and fellow musician, Courtney Barnett, along with America's indie-rock sweetheart, Kurt Vile.
Although Cloher was always artistically inclined, her journey with music didn't start until her early twenties. She was attending the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney with the intention of being an actress when she bought her first guitar. "I would cut class and just sit in the girls' change rooms and play," Cloher remembers. "I started writing very simple songs, just a few chords ... I think it kind of took over. Over the next five or six years, I became obsessed with songwriting and kind of forgot about acting."
From then on, Cloher has written four solo albums, started her own business — I Manage My Music — and helps run a record label, MILK!, with her partner. Cloher emphasizes how important female guitar players and musicians were in her development as an artist. She cites legends such as P.J. Harvey and Björk as having a huge impact on her musical career and inspiration.
Much of Cloher's music focuses on her personal experiences and journey with finding her place in the world. As a gay woman who attended Catholic school for most of her childhood and adolescence, this was not always an easy feat for Cloher. "Catholic girls' school was not a place where I felt affirmed or included at all," Cloher remembers. "I think a thing about a lot of the education system is it's trying to shape and mold you into it's idea of what a young lady is or how you should be in the world. One particular song, 'Strong Woman,' is kind of acknowledging that I never fit in. I knew also as a gay woman that there was no place, there was no one reflecting back to me that who I was or what I felt was OK."
Even without a firm hand of reassurance to guide her, Cloher managed to shape herself into a masterful musician whose lyricism and storytelling abilities are as impressive as her guitar playing. The artist says her latest self-titled album is a very accurate depiction of who she is now. And it happens to resonate very strongly with the tumultuous socio-political climate in Australia and the similar one in our own country. "I didn't set out writing an album about social politics," says Cloher. "I just set out writing about what I care about and matters to me and that's translated into this really rewarding experience of playing songs to audiences that feels very connected to the present moment."
For instance, Australia is one of a few liberalized democracies that still does not allow same-sex marriage. After multiple rejected plebiscites, Australian government decided to send out a mass voluntary poll to the Australian people on Sept. 12 with the question: "Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?"
Cloher addresses this absurdity in "Analysis Paralysis" when she sings, "I'm paralyzed/ In paradise/ While the Hansonites/ Take a plebiscite/ To decide/ If I can have a wife./ I pay my fines/ Taxes on time/ But the feral right/ Get to decide/ If I can have a wife."
Although the song was written 18 months ago, it's still very much relevant to the activities surrounding LGBT rights in Australia, and Cloher empathizes with Americans that face a similar political climate. "I really hope that the amazing Americans that are kind of captive in this country fucking rise up and fight this bullshit that's going on," says Cloher. "Because it's fucked. I would just be so angry if I was living in this country."
Jen Cloher opens for Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile on Monday, Oct. 30; at the Royal Oak Music Theatre; 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980; royaloakmusictheatre.com; Doors open at 7 p.m.; Tickets are $36.