8 Mar 2024

Jen Cloher: Authenticity and embracing her origins

From It's Personal with Anika Moa, 5:00 am on 8 March 2024

Jen Cloher is a pretty big deal in Australia, where she's released half a dozen albums and won lots of awards, including Best Solo Artist at the 2023 Music Victoria Awards. She was also nominated for a 2023 Aria Award.

But she is less well-known here in New Zealand, the home of her Māori whanau. She talks to Anika about finding her roots and being authentic in the music industry.

Follow It's Personal with Anika Moa on YouTubeApple PodcastsSpotifyiHeart or wherever you get your podcasts.

Jen Cloher in studio with Anika Moa for the podcast 'It's Personal with Anika Moa'

Jen Cloher Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Jen's start in the music industry

"The major labels were starting to lose their power. They still had power. They were still giving out deals. But we slowly started to see the digital world rise up and it took a lot of power away from those gatekeepers. So it was an interesting time, for artists and particularly, wahine takatapui to navigate those worlds. And I think I just came through at a time where I was able to find independent partners in the music industry. Had it been 10 years earlier, I probably would have been signed to Sony or EMI, if they'd even look at me. I think that I'm not an easy face or body to market into a predominantly heteronormative landscape. So, I think my intersection with the music industry was well timed in order for me to even get a look in."

Her music

"There's always been a storytelling, quite a personal sort of approach. There's always been a very folky element. It's been 20 years. Twenty years of writing music, of being a part of different communities. As I gained more confidence, I'd always loved rock. I'd grown up listening to rock. Perhaps I didn't have the chops to pull off those rock signifiers. But as I became more confident as a musician, I was able to relax into bringing that side forward more."

"I love Velvet Underground and Patti Smith and just so many bands, I guess, from that sort of like, New York, 70s era, that sort of came through as well. So I think it's just been like an evolution. And where I am today is, I just feel like everything that I write and perform obviously comes through so much influence. But also it's my story. It's always my story. That's what I've always lent on."

'If you're authentic, you are timeless'

Margaret Urlich album cover Safety in Numbers

Margaret Urlich showed her cousin Jen that being a professional musician was a viable career Photo: Wikipedia

"The thing about Margaret that's so special is, for me, she was the first wahine in my whanau that showed me that it could be done, that it wasn't just a dream. That you could do it. I was like, 'Whoa, maybe this is an option'. And I think the other thing about her that's really special is that authenticity. She followed that. Because you look at her now, I showed her to a couple of my little cousins back in Melbourne. I showed them Escaping and they were glued. Because she speaks to today. Because if you're authentic, you are timeless. And I think that's the cool thing about Margaret, she hasn't aged because she was just being true to herself."

Being Māori in Australia

"One in five Māori live in Australia, so there's a quarter of a million of us living there. Many of us born there, many of us who had parents that moved there for one reason or another, usually mahi. I always knew that I was Ngāpuhi and my mother was very proud of it. But I didn't know what it meant. My only experience of Aotearoa was coming home at Christmas. Mum would take me up to the marae and I'd meet all of these people. I was like an alien put on another planet. It didn't make any sense. Those sorts of connections when you're not brought up here just didn't make any sense to me."

Reclaiming her reo

"I just had the most embarrassing trip back to my marae. It was in 2019. I had a few days off, so I went up north and then we're sitting in the marae and my uncle goes, 'Oh, get up and tell everyone who you are'. All I could say was my grandmother's Huriata, my great grandmother's Marara."

"And then when I went home [and] a First Nations artist, Wemba Wemba / Wergaia woman Alice Skye, asked me to produce her second album. And we're recording, she's singing in her reo and I was like, 'How come she's connected in. How come she's not disappearing her indigeneity, even though she had a Pakeha mum?' And I was like, 'What's happened? Why am I so whakamā? Where's this shame coming from?' And that started my journey. Then I realized nearly every Māori experiences this feeling of, 'Why don't I know more? Why can't I speak my language?' All of those sorts of feelings that come up. So it made me reach out and I was like, 'All right, well, I'm going to go and learn about my culture, about my language, and connect in with Māori' [so I did that] in Naarm, in Melbourne because the pandemic happened."

Jen Cloher in studio with Anika Moa for the podcast 'It's Personal with Anika Moa'

Jen began her te reo journey after an embarrassing visit back to her marae Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

"I think the beautiful thing is, because I have done a lot of that work when I come back home now, it's a stark contrast to 2019, where I'm like, 'Ah, I don't know anything. What's my awa? What's an awa?' to 2023 where I'm at our marae opening and I'm ready to get up and tautoko, my uncle, my Koro, with a waiata. And I know what people are saying, and I know who I am, and I know how I'm related to those lands in a much deeper way."

The importance of connecting

"I've got cousins who don't know who they are. They don't realise that they come through an incredible people. That they're not a disembodied white person, they're actually an indigenous person and they have a whole culture. And I nearly missed out on that. I nearly missed out on knowing this part of myself that is so important. That's not to disappear my Croatian whakapapa or my Irish whakapapa, but to have something so close, so alive, so right here, now that I'm sitting with a takatāpui songwriter from the same iwi. That doesn't happen everywhere I go. That's some special stuff, eh? And that's the stuff that I want to breathe into our space more."

Her album Ko Au Te Awa, Ko Te Awa Ko Au

"It's a big story. I guess, first and foremost, 'Ko Au Te Awa, Ko Te Awa Ko Au', is a whakatauki that was spoken by kaumatua out Wanganui way. I kind of co opted it and took it up north. I probably should have spoken to some Wanganui people before I did that. So I learned a lesson."

"But that's the thing, you can either be scared and not do anything and not become the fullest, wholeest version of yourself, or you can step into the ring and you can cop some shit and learn."


Ko Au Te Awa, Ko Te Awa Ko Au is Jen's fifth album. Photo: Marcelle Bradbeer

"So I went up to Matangirau, I got into the awa at about 05:00 p.m. In the middle of winter. It was raining. and then we got the photos and there was just that moment where you just surrender. And I was like, 'Yeah, man, this is the awa that my mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother and all of the wahine before me have played in, washed in and they all have stories about it."

"When I was making that album, I had no idea what I was doing. So there was no, like, 'Ah, yeah, this is going to hit'. It was like I was stumbling through, I was trying to work out how to pronounce kupu, get my vowel sounds sounding fluid. I really took my time. I did my research and I spent time building relationships because I think that's the thing that's really important, is that we take our time getting to know each other. We build that trust and now we're working together."

"Ko Au Te Awa, at the beginning, when I go, 'Hey, you, how you going?' Yeah, I'm singing that to you. I'm singing to our people. Specifically to our birthright of what we've come through, to never forget that, to never forget who you are, how precious you are. And this is the thing, and I know this is going to sound wanky, but I do just see myself when I'm writing this kind of a record. It's like you're just taking notes. You stay open, you bring your skills, you bring your crafts, and you just, whatever comes through."

Jen Cloher

Ko Au Te Awa is a song to Jen's people, reminding them how precious they are. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Jen Cloher will be touring later this year with music from her ARIA nominated album Ko AuTe Awa, Ko Te Awa Ko Au (I Am The River, The River Is Me).

Cloher is playing: March 15 at The Wine Cellar, Tāmaki Makaurau, March 16 at Space Academy, Ōtautahi and March 22 at Vogelmorn Upstairs, Te Whanganui-a-Tara.

Get your tickets at jencloher.com or Under the Radar NZ

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to It's Personal with Anika Moa

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)