Addressing an International Women’s Day breakfast in March, Jen Cloher broke an unspoken taboo: she talked about envy. When the musical career of her partner, Courtney Barnett, took flight, her “own personal nightmare began”.
For two years she battled feelings of failure. “Stupidly I used [Courtney’s] success as a marker for my own musical worth,” Cloher told the crowd. “I lost confidence. I played some of my worst shows. I questioned whether it was even worth continuing. Her career was what success looked like.”
When Cloher and I meet in Sydney, I tell her I’d been grateful for the speech. Professional envy has dogged me too. Though, really, it was her admission of it I’d been awed by. Had she considered keeping it private? “Only if it would harm Courtney or anyone else, and I didn’t feel it would,” she says.
“There’s so much more power in being transparent and honest and open than in pretending everything’s OK. I did worry I’d never get over it and it would ruin my relationship but I try to stay pretty fit around my mental and emotional wellbeing. So I did the work and it went. And it hasn’t come back! It’s been a good three years since I kissed that story goodbye.”
We are lucky for that farewell kiss. In those years, Cloher cooked up her fourth and best album yet. Released next week on Milk! Records – the indie label she runs with Barnett – it was recorded and co-produced in rural Victoria by Greg Walker of Machine Translations, who also contributed overdubs Cloher describes as “slightly off-tune notes on a guitar, violin and keyboard, fused to sound really wonky”.
The bulk was written during a winter in which Barnett was off touring northern hemisphere summers. “Friends would say, ‘We’re going home to cook a stew and watch TV with the cat.’ And I’m there freezing my arse off in the middle of a Melbourne winter thinking, ‘Am I going to get through this?’”
Cloher had toured with Barnett a few…