Jen Cloher Is Embracing Their Heritage By Reclaiming Lost Indigenous Language-Culture

Jen Cloher's new album is titled 'I Am The River, The River Is Me'.
Willem Brussen is a proud Baramadagal Dharug man who has grown up and lives off-country, on Wurundjeri Country (Melbourne). He is an avid music fan with a special appreciation for Australian music especially First Nations artists. He has channelled this love and appreciation of music into music writing. He relishes the opportunity to interview artists, as a chance to learn and spotlight the stories that are so integral to the music which is created.

Jen Cloher and I caught up as two First Nations people living off-country, on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, in Naarm (Melbourne).

We had a kōrero (yarn) about their new album 'I Am The River, The River Is Me', which explores themes of connection and disconnection to culture.

Jen is a Māori – Ngāpuhi and Ngati Kahu, Takatāpui (LGBTQI+) – person from Te Tai Tokerau (The North Coast of Aotearoa), through their matrilineal line. They say 'I Am The River, The River Is Me' is about "being Māori and really being open about that. My allegiance is with First Nations people here, as a Māori person.

"I'm also Croatian and Irish, but I identify most with my matrilineal line as far as connection to land, water, sky, my responsibility. . . to those really important things; and that's the language that I'm currently repatriating."

Five albums into their career, 'I Am The River, The River Is Me' is a record Jen did not expect they would be making – but the power of repatriating language, remembering and proudly continuing culture runs deep.

"If you asked me in 2019, 'so you're gonna write a record about being Māori and write in te reo Māori', I would have gone 'absolutely not like, I can't speak a word of it'."

Jen speaks of their family's disconnection from language. "There were laws that were passed, that meant my grandmother didn't teach the language. My mother wasn't encouraged to speak the language at school."

It was discouraged in their mother's time at school, so much so anyone trying to speak te reo Māori would be punished physically.

"It only took one generation for the language to be lost in my family and so a lot of me learning the language and feeling so driven and passionate about wanting to do that in this life, is to. . . reclaim and bring back into my body what rightly was mine."

In 2020, in the midst of the world shutting down and long lockdowns in Naarm (where Jen lives), they "started to learn te reo Māori and I would just spend time every morning for an hour or so starting to learn the language".

By mid 2020 "it started to creep into the lyric writing. And I was like, 'Ah, sh.t, okay, this isn't something that I necessarily feel comfortable with'. I felt kind of freaked out initially.

"Do I have a right to do this, but what, if I get it wrong, or what if I make people angry – all of the fearful thoughts that I had, but I was just like, 'I'm gonna keep going and see what happens'."

What came of Jen's journey was the beautiful, powerful masterpiece that is 'I Am The River, The River Is Me'. Jen was not isolated in their creation of this album; they sought out and strengthened their ties to community.

"I think for me, there was a really lovely experience of connecting in with parts of my community that I haven't grown up with, or haven't been around, or haven't had the opportunity to connect with until this record, and really seeing myself as part of that community.

"I think that that's really the job of decolonising is to look past any of those feelings of like, 'I'm an imposter or I don't belong'."

Jen speaks about overcoming these imposter feelings many disconnected First Nations people feel on their journey to reconnection.

"I think that I spent a lot of time over the last three, four years. . . I've spent a lot of time around other Māori in consultation and in collaboration, dedicating my time and energy to learning more about my language and culture so that I felt grounded enough to be able to. . . put out an album and stand by it and not feel fragile about it."

A month on from the album release Jen is far from fragile, but rather exuberantly proud and grounded in their sense of self that comes from culture.

This interview occurred two days after they performed at Meadow Festival (regional Victoria) which was one of their first shows on the album tour run. Jen shares what it was like performing these songs live onstage.

"I was at [Meadow] on the weekend, playing in country Victoria on Wadawurrung land. I no longer look at an audience and go 'oh, they're all white people like'.

"I don't know but I would say the majority of people in that audience probably were not Indigenous, probably not Māori, being in regional Victoria, but they were standing in a field, singing Māori back to me, and I was just like, 'this is cool, this is how our cultures infiltrate, this is how our cultures heal'."

Jen explains the ancestral spirit they feel through their music. "[I] feel most present when I'm singing in language. . . I think the reason why I feel the greatest connection there is because it's a language that my ancestors spoke for 700 years before me, and then it was interrupted.

"Now I've picked it up again, and it's in my DNA. Think about how deep language goes; it's still in our bodies. It's in my body, in the bodies of my ancestors, it doesn't take that much to wake them up.

"It's hard to explain, but it's like, there's a part of you that was longing to be known that you didn't even know was missing."

Personally, tracing back this kōrero was particularly powerful to myself as a Baramadagal Dharug man of mixed cultural identity; perhaps the most powerful reflection by Jen was: "You know, your ancestors, my ancestors don't look at us and go 'they're not really my [descendant]. This person that's come through isn't really related to me, because that person bred with that person and that person bred with that person. And therefore, they've somehow diluted the mix. So I don't really see you as my great, great grandchild.'

"I think in that way that's a colonial paradigm to. . . lead us to believe that we don't belong. Because if you keep us separated from our language and our culture, then we live in the world that the colony wants us to live in, which is one we're not connected, where we're disconnected, where we don't know who we are, where the erasure is complete."

'I Am The River, The River Is Me' is a deeply personal account of what it means to be a Māori Takatāpui, but also can be seen as a triumphant moment for all First Nations people in repatriating language and reconnecting with culture as an act of decolonisation, but also a way of knowing oneself.

The final word belongs to Jen. "I think everyone is trying to find their way home; we're all here living on these lands. And, you know, we all have a responsibility to them, particularly as manuhiri, or guests."

Jen Cloher 2023 Tour Dates

Sat 6 May - Rechabite (Perth)
Fri 12 May - Princess Theatre (Brisbane)
Sat 13 May - The Eltham Hotel (Eltham)
Sat 20 May - Lion Arts Factory (Adelaide)
Fri 26 May - Anglesea Memorial Hall* sold out
Sat 27 May - Northcote Theatre (Melbourne)
Thu 1 Jun - Sydney Opera House

Let's Socialise

Facebook pink circle    Instagram pink circle    YouTube pink circle    YouTube pink circle

 OG    NAT

Twitter pink circle    Twitter pink circle