Interview by Madeleine Dore
This article was originally published on Kill Your Darlings
Singer-songwriter Jen Cloher likens the life-cycle of creative work to seasons. ‘There’s sowing the seeds through the winter, then writing and making the album through the spring, and the summer is the release where you reap the rewards, and autumn you find rest.’
When I speak to Jen, she’s just about to hit the road with an Australian tour of her fourth album, before heading to Europe, UK and the States until the end of November.
‘It’s not really that different to the literary world,’ she explains, unveiling the parallels between song writing and literature, lyrics and poetry.
‘I really do see myself as a writer; I write songs,’ she said. ‘I’m very meticulous about lyric writing – that’s the work, the real work. I think the marker of a good song is that it can be read from the page – you can walk into a spoken word night and stand there and read it.’
In addition to her own songwriting, Cloher is an outspoken advocate for artist rights and is the co-founder of the independent record label Milk! Records, which was started by her partner (in life and business) Courtney Barnett in 2012.
Working alongside talent creatives combined with decades of her own experience, Jen has accumulated a wealth of insights about the creative process that she shares with us here – from how day jobs and side businesses can supplement your writing, to debunking the notion that there is a special key to creative inspiration. Perhaps most soul-stirring of all, she reminds us that ‘everyone’s the same’ in our day to day foibles and fears.
“Everyone has the same fears, everyone has the same doubts, everyone has shit days, everyone feels like a fool, a phony. Everyone has a really great morning where they write something fantastic and then look at it later and thinks it is just rubbish. Everyone puts stuff out and worries that no one’s going to like it. We’re all the same. There’s no one out there just sitting down gallantly every morning and writing for eight hours and just clocking off. That person doesn’t exist.”
I’m usually up around 7.30am. My daily routine isn’t that romantic – I sit at the kitchen table and I have a pot of tea and I write for two hours in the morning. Then I stop and go do business for the record label and do the stuff of life and run a record label and do the shopping and make sure the cat goes to the vet, or go for a swim – the things that we have to do to be alive in the world.
I attend to the label every day and give it time. But my routine is fairly flexible because I work from home, and my office is my home. It’s not that thing where I have to clock in at 9am and work solidly until 5pm and knock off.
But at the same time, I’ve had to be very firm about the times I’m working and tell friends I’m not available until after 2pm each day. Of course, I think there’s a social aspect to life that’s really important, but often friends don’t understand that just because you happen to be at home, you’re not available. It’s that thing of having boundaries, not having people drop around anytime, because those sorts of distractions can be really tough if you let them creep in.
If I need to have any kind of business meetings, talk to any of the bands on the label, or creative collaborators, then I’ll take meetings in the afternoon.
Then it’s usually dinner and hanging out at home, or going out and catching up with friends, or going and seeing a band, that sort of thing.
I don’t work much in the evening. I find that it’s a nice time to spend time with my partner Courtney and just wind down a bit. Sometimes I work if it’s a really, really busy time and I have the deadline looming, but I generally never do creative work at night.
I usually I go to bed around midnight. Sleep is very important – unbroken, uninterrupted sleep. I can say that because we have a cat called Bubbles who is a very needy, and for a while she was waking me up every few hours – I’m a light sleeper – whenever she’d get in or out of the bed. When Bubbles was removed from my sleeping environment, I was able to get a solid five or six hours of unbroken sleep, and I really noticed how my energy levels improved throughout the day.
Sleep is a great healer – it’s that down time for your body to heal and to take care of itself and do a whole lot of maintenance. The body knows what it’s doing, but we just keep throwing rubbish into it and breaking its patterns and steering it off course. When you actually let the body do what it’s meant to do, you realise how it’s much more intelligent than our own thinking.
INSIDE THE WRITING PROCESS
On having a day job or side business…
I think most writers in this country aren’t writing all day because we just don’t have the marketplace to support that output. Most of us have day jobs or other things that we have to do in order to pay our expenses. There’s a very small percentage of the population that makes their entire living from writing, whether that’s music or anything else. So it comes back to doing something while making sure you make time for writing. I think it’s very possible to fit it all in.
“I think most writers in this country aren’t writing all day because we just don’t have the marketplace to support that output.”
On returning to writing after a tour…
I think it can always be a bit of a shock getting back into writing again, because it is a muscle that needs to be exercised. When you’re right in the middle of writing – whether it’s an album, a screenplay, or a novel or a work of nonfiction – you’ve been in a routine for a while, so it can come a bit easier. You sit down and you feel like you are awake.
So when you first come back to writing and starting something new and approach the first blank page, as they often describe it, I think it’s really important to just put the time in, but to not judge the outcome.
On not pushing it, but doing a little every day…
My approach is to do a little bit every day when I can. I never really push my writing because I don’t think it works like that. If it’s a really busy week and I’ve got lots of teaching on, I’m not going to get up at 4am just so I can write for two hours. If I need to sleep, I’ll have it.
But when the time is there, I will sit down and usually make a pot of tea and spend the good part of two hours sitting with my guitar and notebook. Then as I get closer to completing the song, it’s usually about just really focusing on the lyrics and making sure that I’m saying exactly what I want to say.
On the myth of the ‘special key’ to inspiration…
I used to run around thinking I can only write until everything’s perfect, or when the sun shines through this window at a certain angle, or after I’ve read my spiritual guide – it’s bullshit. It’s rubbish. You just sit down and you do it. Whether you feel like a piece of shit that day, or whether you feel like a million dollars.
The people that keep writing great records, like PJ Harvey or Gillian Welch or whoever it might be, write great records because they sit down and they do it everyday. Not because they’ve discovered some special key to how to write a song. No one knows how to write a song. No one knows how to write a book. All you have is your creative inspiration. You can’t learn that. You tap into it just by sitting down, rolling your sleeves up and getting to work, just like someone out there lying pavement or building a house. It’s the same thing. A house doesn’t get built if you don’t roll your sleeves up and start building it.
“A house doesn’t get built if you don’t roll your sleeves up and start building it…if you’ve chosen to be an artist, well then that’s what you do.”
If you’ve chosen to be an artist, well then that’s what you do. You sit down and you write, and you don’t judge it.
On the uncomfortableness of writing and going into the unknown…
We can talk about routine and all the things that we do to write, but really at the end of the day, all it comes down to is: are you willing to sit down and go through the pain of realising that you don’t know what you’re doing and that actually you’ll never know what you’re doing, and that writing is a huge unknown quantity?
It’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable sitting down and facing the fact that you don’t know. Writing is about going into the unknown. You don’t know what you’re going to write. You don’t know what’s going to come to you on a given day. You can try and focus in on things and have all of these sorts of tools and ideas, but at the end of the day it’s about discipline.
On dealing with the exhaustion of touring…
It can be really tough touring because you have multiple late nights, and that can go for weeks and you never get that catch up of sleep.
But for me what helps it’s the little things. The first is just accepting it. Accepting that you’re going to be tired for a while, not railing against it and making it into this major issue and freaking out about it.
“Accept that you’re going to be tired for a while, not railing against it and making it into this major issue and freaking out about it.”
The second is taking those opportunities to rest when you can – go for a walk or a swim if there’s a pool nearby, and making sure you have one good meal a day that does something to help your body and your mind. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about what you can eat because it’s late and you eat the pizza because you’re starving.
Thirdly, yoga. I’m not an incredible yogi that’s always doing yoga, but I do a little bit every week and I found that when you first get into a hotel room or something, you just pop your legs up against the wall for ten minutes, and it does great stuff to ground you and just bring you back into your body and back into your breathing.
Finally, water. It’s just drinking a truckload of water because the nature of travel and being inside of air conditioning pretty much all the time is that your body becomes really dehydrated. Just drinking stacks of water can really help.
On the biggest impediment to writing…
There are always distractions. I think the biggest impediment to writing for people these days, are mobile phones. It’s very tricky because they’re so addictive and particularly if you’re having a bit of a rough day with the writing, you can just pick up the phone and scroll through an Instagram feed and half an hour later you haven’t written anything.
I haven’t got to a place yet where I am able to put the phone away for long periods of time. It tends to creep onto my desk. I’d love to be able to say to you, ‘Yes, I’m so disciplined and I put my phone down and I never get it while I’m writing.’ I’m sure it’s something to work toward.
On what she wish she knew earlier…
I think it’s that thing of just trusting your intuition and allowing yourself to have your own individual voice. When I first started out, I thought I had to be something or a character or be all interesting and mysterious and cool. I had all of these ideas about how I was meant to project myself to an audience.
Now I just think that it’s really about trusting that you have something to say and there’s only one of you. There’s only one person on this planet who’s going to say it the way you say it, and it’s really making space and mining that quality, the you-ness in your work that will make it stand out from the pack.