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Jen Cloher talks new album, 'I Am The River, The River Is Me'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, new music from Australian singer-songwriter Jen Cloher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WITCH")

JEN CLOHER: (Singing) If you want to be my witch, lay it on me. Be the ride you hitch when you hit that perfect pitch.

MARTIN: That's the song "My Witch," which is not quite safe for work, but OK. And it's from her upcoming album, "I Am The River, The River Is Me." She joined us to talk about some of the standout tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WITCH")

CLOHER: (Singing) Yeah, you going to make me sweat. Give me what you've got, what you want to get. Pull me in and hold me down. Show me with a look what you're going to do now.

"My Witch" is very different to any kind of song that I've written before. I mean, it's quite blatantly about a sexual encounter. And I wasn't actually sure at the time whether this song would make it onto the album just because it's so different to the rest of the material.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WITCH")

CLOHER: (Singing) Baby, won't you take it slow? I don't want to miss any part of this, no. It's more than a feeling.

It feels immediately fresh. It feels catchy. It's in your ear straight away. There's this sense of intimacy, like the person singing - me - is sort of telling you something that no one else needs to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WITCH")

CLOHER: (Singing) Honey, there ain't no shame in getting what you want. Got to give it a name. It's more than a feeling.

The album recording process was a really different one for me on this album. I was on tour in 2020. Like many artists, that was cut short halfway. So we spent a lot of time at home. That actually worked in my favor because I had been planning to write a new album. And all of a sudden, I had months ahead of me that were free of social obligations and free of any kind of work obligations. So it gave me this opportunity, for the first time in my life, really, to just focus on songwriting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM THE RIVER, THE RIVER IS ME")

CLOHER: (Singing) I am the river is me.

"I Am The River, The River Is Me" is taken from a Maori proverb, what's known as a whakatauki. And in te reo Maori, we would say (speaking te reo Maori). It's the idea that we are part of. I am the river. The river is me. We're not separate. We are part of this beautiful, beautiful planet that we are living in collectively, all together in this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM THE RIVER, THE RIVER IS ME")

CLOHER: (Singing in te reo Maori).

My mother's side of the family are the Indigenous people of o te reo in New Zealand known as the Maori. And so I started to learn te reo Maori. Those words and some of those phrases and thoughts, feelings and ideas start to creep into my songwriting. It wasn't something that I had ever planned or expected, and I just went with it. I thought, OK, let's see where this leads us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTEST SONG")

CLOHER: (Singing) I am not a protest song, don't represent anyone. I don't even know myself.

Oh, yeah, so "Protest Song" is a big song. I think a lot of artists, a lot of songwriters, writers, people in the public eye who are used to putting work out into the public domain - over the pandemic, I think we were all really challenged with, you know, what am I saying? You know, why am I writing? What is my purpose? Why do I write music?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTEST SONG")

CLOHER: (Singing) One night after the show, a woman came backstage. Burst through the door crying, said, we need to do something. I nodded and felt helpless, like I often do. How do I put in words the hell we just went through?

That particular song references an experience that I had after the huge bushfires that swept through Australia at the end of 2019 into 2020. And I know the world was aware of the havoc that was caused by those fires. Billions of our native animals were destroyed in the fires, and we lost so many important parts of ecosystems or entire ecosystems.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTEST SONG")

CLOHER: (Singing) What do I care about? What are the things I love?

But it really got me thinking, you know, what is the role of the artist? Something that Nina Simone said that really struck me was the artist's responsibility is to reflect the times that they live in. And I love that she says responsibility, not role, not ambition, not something that you should aim for but your responsibility to reflect the times that you live in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE TOKA-TU-MOANA")

CLOHER: (Singing in te reo Maori).

The title of this song, "He Toka-Tu-Moana," is "Stand Steadfast Like A Rock In The Ocean." There's also, in the chorus, (speaking te reo Maori), which means hold fast to the words of your ancestors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE TOKA-TU-MOANA")

CLOHER: (Singing in te reo Maori).

The reason why I move between English and te reo Maori is because that's where I find myself. I'm not fluent in my native tongue. I'm slowly learning it, and so it feels honest to have bits of it in and bringing my native tongue into my music. This is my fifth album, and it's the first time I've ever had the confidence to do that. And it's really opened my life up in ways that I couldn't have imagined.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE TOKA-TU-MOANA")

CLOHER: (Singing in te reo Maori).

MARTIN: That was Jen Cloher previewing a few tracks from her fifth and newest album, "I Am The River, And The River Is Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE TOKA-TU-MOANA")

CLOHER: (Singing in te reo Maori). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.