“I know that I went through a stage of actual despair, if I’m being honest with you,” says Jen Cloher. The Melbourne-based musician is sitting in her car, having just dropped off her partner Courtney Barnett at an appointment, and her voice sounds tremendously close.
“I went into a place of despair about the future of this earth and what humanity is doing to it. And we are the earth, so we are by extension watching ourselves dying. We came up through the earth – we haven’t just been plopped onto the planet out of outer space. And I was really challenged by all that; by what was happening to us.”
So Cloher turned to work, throwing herself into the day-to-day running of Milk Records, an independent music label founded by Barnett, as a way of coping. Thankfully, there was enough to do on that front to keep her active – she had posts to schedule on Instagram, and shows to organise, and press releases to send out – but still, as busy as she was, she couldn’t quite shake a deep, steadfast sense of guilt. “What could I do?” Cloher says. “I had to really think about it – about the difference that I could try and make.”
Eventually, she hit upon a plan. “I made the decision to get involved with a local environmental community group,” she says, “and I brought my skill set when it comes to independent fundraising to a project that they were working on to save the blue-banded bee, which is an Australian native bee.”
Along with Barnett and several other artists from the Milk Records roster, Cloher got to work organising a fundraising gig. She printed limited run t-shirts that she sold via a crowdfunding website that also offered a range of other purchasable perks, and she got down to the quiet, intensely admirable business of doing what she could.
She wasn’t saving the world, of course, in the way that none of us can ever save the world; in the way that we can only ever make the smallest, most imperceptible of changes. But it wasn’t nothing. And in a world of gradually accumulating atrocities, sometimes not nothing is enough.
“It was so rewarding,” Cloher says. “And it was so good for me. Because rather than living in despair I was actually going out and doing stuff. And sure, it may not have fixed everything, but at least I was putting some of my energy and my time into more than just me. And I think that, despite all the bad things that you read, a lot of people do that, all around us, all the time. I think it’s very important. I think it can keep you sane.
“Because that’s the thing – if you want to keep your heart open, you’ve got to stay sane. And that can be a challenge.” She laughs again. “To say the least.”
This month will see the release of Cloher’s new record, a self-titled collection of 11 songs about relationships, art, grand plans, Australia, and yes, despair.
The above in an excerpt from Joseph Earp’s long-form deep dive into the world of Jen Cloher. You can read the feature in all of its 4,500-word glory on Tone Deaf.