“I remember at that moment being 19 and just thinking ‘how great would it be to sing and write your own songs, and play guitar’,” laughs songwriter Jen Cloher, describing the moment the idea of trying her hand at songwriting first crystallised in her own mind, “so I went out and bought one and very, very slowly started teaching myself how to play guitar – it took me a good six or seven years to get to a point of playing live and writing songs that were worth listening to. It was a slow process but ultimately songwriting definitely won.”

Speaking from the home in Melbourne’s Northern suburbs that she shares with cat Bubbles and wife Courtney Barnett (as the pair now defiantly refer to each other in spite of their homeland’s continued feet-dragging on the issue of marriage equality), Cloher speaks with the easy-going affability of someone reveling at how, four albums into career, she’s finally set to get the recognition and opportunities she’s been long overdue. As musical journeys go, hers had an unorthodox start via a stint at Australia’s National Institute for the Dramatic Arts (NIDA), the catalytic moment detailed earlier coming during her time there through a passing visit from her housemate’s friend. “My music is definitely built around narrative storytelling,” she says of the crossover between the two artistic disciplines “and it’s very rare for me to write a song that doesn’t have a little story going on at its centre. If you were to draw some similarities then it would be that I’ve used music to tell stories, and also as a performer who’s done a lot of stage performance I feel very much at home and comfortable performing on stage.”

Eventually chasing the Australian musician’s dream by relocating to Melbourne despite not knowing anyone there, she’d gradually assemble the crack squad – a backing band eventually monikered Endless Sea, who she’d perform with in one form or another until 2010 – that would form the backbone of her debut album, 2006’s Dead Wood Falls. Boxing clever to make the best use of her limited means (having made sure they had the songs nailed down first, Cloher and her band recorded them in a four-day blitz in one of the city’s best studios), the ensuing record gained her a best female artists nomination at that year’s ARIA Awards (think an Australian BRITs) and national support slots with the likes of Neko Case. But as things looked up so came the fateful phone call that would change everything, with Cloher’s father breaking the news that her mother had developed Alzheimer’s disease and requesting that the couple’s only child return home to help with her care.

Cloher would document the experience with powerful mix of dignity and poignancy on well-received sophomore effort Hidden Hands and would do so again on her third album, In Blood Memory, which documented the experience of losing both of her parents in the space of four months (she lost her mother on Christmas day, hours after they’d spent the day together at the care home she’d been residing at). Nominated for the Australian Music Prize, it contains one of Cloher’s most celebrated works in ‘Hold My Hand’ – a song that recounts a conversation she overheard her parents having while she was caring for her mother. “Dad told her the whole story of how they met,” Cloher recalled when speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald around the album’s release. “It probably went for about 15 minutes and it was beautiful. Then about two minutes passed and she said, ‘How did we meet again?’”.

“I’ve always been someone who writes from their own experience,” she says of her songwriting on those two records “and I’m inspired by the similarities in the human experience. When I listen to songwriters who aren’t afraid to show themselves that I really identity with them. I think it’s an identification with the human experience – we’re all a lot more similar than maybe we might realise.” But In Blood Memory also documented Cloher’s rebuilding process, no more demonstrably that on ‘David Bowie Eyes’, which detailed the Cloher and Barnett’s blossoming romance. But soon, even that was about to change…

“You’ve been gone so long you could’ve been dead,” sings Cloher on the opening words of both the self-titled album and lead single ‘Forgot Myself’, describing the personal loneliness that her wife’s stratospheric rise – which began not long after the release of In Blood Memory – has brought about, later adding “you’re riding round the world, you’re doing this and you’re signing that/The facts are that you’re there and I’m here, when you’re gone too long I become an idea…” Cloher’s never shied away from discussing the personal toll that Barnett’s touring schedule and absence has had, and she’s been equally upfront in talking about the professional jealousy it has incited too. “For the first two years of her career I grappled with my own feelings of failure. Stupidly I used her success as a marker for my own musical worth,” she said during a keynote speech at the inaugural Women In Music breakfast earlier this year. “I lost confidence. I played some of my worst shows. I questioned whether it was even worth continuing…Every great review from Pitchfork or public nod from Paul Kelly felt like a slap in the face. I was filled with envy and the worst thing was that this was my partner, the woman I should be celebrating and supporting.”

“I think what happened was that I kept comparing myself to Courtney – she was just received so well and it’s hard not to start comparing and questioning everything you’re doing,” she elaborates during our conversation, “but I think that if I didn’t have some kind of reaction and to some degree start questioning my own worth as an artist or become envious I don’t know if I’d be human… The great thing is that it gave me the opportunity to grow, and it was an area of my life that I needed to grow up in. I came to some peace around the fact that for me it’s about creating my best work and how it’s got nothing to do with Courtney. We’re two different people doing different things with fifteen years between us. I think those feelings – thank god! – blew over two years ago and since then I’ve not felt anything but pride and joy.”

But if some of the album focuses on the personal, other parts of the record have far wider horizons, offering commentary on the wider world including the current global political climate. ‘Kinda Biblical’, which references the Twitter-happy POTUS with final its coda of “bring my big blue bird down on you”, first surfaced on the Our First 100 Days project, whose mission statement declared it to be “one hundred songs that inspire progress and benefit a cause for change”. On the motorik 70s Bowie throwback ‘Analysis Paralysis’ Cloher turns her attention back to Australia as she takes aim at the political right and the issue of marriage equality as she describes frustratedly how “I’m paralysed in paradise/While the Hansonites take a plebiscite to decide if I can have a wife/I pay my fines/Taxes on time/But the feral right get to decide if I can have a wife…”. While she doesn’t feel that artists, even in this climate, have any obligation to discuss politics in their work (“it needs to come from a place of wanting to,” she says “and if you don’t want to then that’s OK too. Art can be political, it can be recreational, it can be whatever that person creating it wants it to be…”) she does feel as though she has “a privilege in that I have been given this platform to communicate and even though it might not be a huge audience that I’m writing for and talking to, it doesn’t matter. If I’m given the privilege of a platform then I want to say something that’s meaningful to me, and if it’s meaningful to me hopefully other people will find meaning from it.”

She sighs as she spells out the observations that have coloured the more wider-reaching aspects of the new record, declaring that “In Australia we’ve seen our government become more and more conservative-minded and globally there’s a lot of similar ideas coming to the fore – these conservative ideas governments closing borders and securing boundaries, viewing anyone from outside of the country as an enemy or a threat, making refugees out to be terrorists…it’s really sad to see the world become smaller even though we’ve never had more opportunities to communicate and be in connection with each other.”

The new album also features some of Cloher’s most evoctive descriptions of her environment (especially on the hauntingly beautiful ‘Regional Echo’), with talk of Mynah birds, scorching concrete, suburban barbecues and kangaroos sipping from pools all making an appearance. But, as she’s quick to point out, “I don’t think I’m celebrating much, to be honest”. If the relationship-based songs focus on romantic isolation, then some of the record’s more expansive moments instead document that of geographical isolation, “not to mention the financial constraints that that has on artists on our country. If anything this album is about the experience of being an artist in Australia very specifically.” She pauses, before adding that “if anything Australia has a hard time dreaming big as a culture. I’ve really thought about much until the last couple of years or so, where it really hit me in the face. You’re up against a lot in Australia, in terms of trying to make a living as a successful artist.”

The new record feels like one built on dualities – one one hand, there’s very specific domestic imagery at play (at various points she sings of nightstand contents and breakfast rituals) while elsewhere the album takes a far more widescreen, holistic viewpoint. “That’s an interesting observation, she says, when it’s put to her and she’s asked about the challenges of fusing those two sides of her songwriting together into a cohesive set of songs “and I think it’s an album that reflects what I was going through at the time – at home, writing a record, running the label, just doing the stuff of life while my wife was out in the world with a public profile and having a much bigger life out in the world. The songwriting is almost trying to make sense of those two extremes, watching someone having this big life out in the world while I had to be at home. I couldn’t be out on the road with Courtney while also continuing to develop and prosper as an artist and running Milk! Records in the way it needs to be, with an office and a space. The record I ended up writing came from the home, but also had an eye in the wider world out there.”

Alongside her musical projects, Cloher has also run Milk! Records, the label she started with Barnett, and has also spent the last six years running management workshops with Australian music figures. As such, she’s in a unique position to judge the current state of the Australian music landscape and its current viability. The workshops – entitled ‘I Manage My Music’ – are, she says, about “delving into how you can make a sustainable living in a country that’s so big and yet has such a small population” and claims that running them has led to a point where “there’s no illusion. I understand fully how it works on a business level in this country and how expensive it is to get out of here to tour.” As if to prove her point, she divulges how for her a two-week full band European tour will cost in the region of £30,000. Nonetheless she also believes that “definitely we’ve seen bands do some pretty big things overseas in the last three years, and we’re seeing more artists getting that bigger profile internationally and touring overseas.” More excitingly, she says, is the level of recognition and acceptance that musicians are now getting from international media outlets and tastemakers. The kickback for the music scene as a whole, she adds, is the creation of “a little more hope, and people in Melbourne are very proud of Courtney and King Gizzard because it’s just one of the gang and someone you’d see down the pub. Just knowing that something could happen for an Australian is great and it’s given people that belief to reach a little higher and to aim for bigger goals.”

“If I’m given the privilege of a platform then I want to say something that’s meaningful to me, and if it’s meaningful to me hopefully other people will find meaning from it.”

It’s cerainly something she feels has been true of Milk! Records, as she recounts how “when Courtney’s career really started to fly in about 2013, we both made the decision to put a lot of time and effort into the label because we could see that as Courtney’s career started to grow more and more people started to become interested in Milk! Records. As a result we’ve worked really hard over the past four years to build the label’s profile through tours, compilations, special shows and residencies and really create a family-like community around the label.” While she readily admits that Barnett’s success has helped fuel the interest, she’s equally keen to point out, with more than a hint of justifiable pride, that “it’s important to acknowledge that the quality of the music is really high. You can have an artist on a label who’s successful and people might check out the other music on the label but they’re not stupid and they’ll not stick around if the music sucks.”

Similarly, she concedes with a knowing laugh that “I guess people are curious because it’s Courtney Barnett’s wife and she’s not 30, she’s 43, she’s put out four albums….who is this masked woman? It has to come back to the music, and I spent a lot of time writing this album. I wanted to think about what I wanted to say and express myself.” She talks passionately with a mixture of joy and validation as she details the deep conversational topics the record’s incited during interviews, laughing at how she’s made album that doesn’t invite superficial, trite questioning. “It was going to be as honest as possible,” she says of her self-imposed mission statement when she started writing it, “and I was going to keep being honest and not hiding away. I think the biggest rewards on this album come from the lyrics and even open the seventh or eighth listen it still discloses things that will resonate”

“I think it’s been a process of finding out who I am,” she continues “and it takes a long time to find out who you are and to speak about it honestly and not be worried about what other people will think. I think that’s the point I’ve arrived at at the age of 43.”

Much like the record itself, the takeaways Cloher hopes will come out are a mixture of the personal and the political. Having dealt with former, and with our time coming to an end, she turns focus to the latter. “In the world right now there’s so much bullshit and deception and lies and bald-faced dishonesty every day – it wears you down and can be really disheartening.”

“People might feel hopeless in where the world is going on so many levels – environmentally, politically – so I hope that it gives people some encouragement and comfort and makes them think of not lying down and taking it, and to get out there and not give up.”

Read our review of Jen Cloher’s self-titled new album, due 11th August via Marathon Artists.

Jen Cloher plays The Lexington on 25th September.