‘The work is waking up the memory’: Jen Cloher on immersing themselves in Māori ancestry

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‘The work is waking up the memory’: Jen Cloher on immersing themselves in Māori ancestry

Jen Cloher
Words by Jacob McCormack

Jen Cloher has been playing shows for 20 years and is partly responsible for establishing Naarm/Melbourne based record label - Milk! Records.

Just this year they released their fifth studio album entitled I Am The River, The River Is Me – a 10-track LP that pays homage to her Māori ancestry.

In celebratory and spectacular fashion Jen is playing at the newly renovated Northcote Theatre on Saturday May 27 to launch the album and showcase the merging of their rock shows with traditional Māori performance.

Keep up with the latest music news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

Jen Cloher on a journey of self-discovery in I Am The River, The River Is Me

“The Northcote Theatre show is an album launch,” says Jen. “I have chosen that venue because it is quite beautiful. I am going to have a lot of people coming through that night, there is a Māori performing arts group called T-honi.

“They wear kakahu, which is traditional Māori clothing. They sing across the album as well. It’s pretty exciting to have a Kapa Haka performing. Kapa Haka is huge in Aotearoa. You do Kapa Haka at school like you would play sports. Within Kapa Haka you sing, dance, do poi and it is really beautiful.

“Māori is such a visually rich culture, so to bring that onto the stage is really special. It’s my hometown so I am excited to put on a really good show, we have also got some brass, some horn players, we want to make it something unique.”

Jen’s exploration of their Māori lineage is a way of connecting the dots that connect her to the north of Aotearoa, specifically Matangi Rau, dating back at least 700 hundred years.

“I was born and raised in Australia, Melbourne,” they say. “I did live back in Aotearoa. Mum is from the far north, which is about four and a half hours north of Auckland. Dad was from the south island. He was from the West Coast, in a place called Hokitika. They call it the wild west because it is so far away. My mum has Māori lineage, and my dad is Irish.”

“It’s weird I kind of just got dumped in Australia, not that I see it that way, I mean I really love living here. It’s kind of like they had me and just left.”

Although Jen has definitely made Naarm/Melbourne their home, having spent most of their life here, they talk of an unbreakable connection to their land and that of their mothers and grandmothers that preceded them.

“I’ve been up north quite a lot growing up,” they say. “I remember my mum taking me up there, to where she was born, and my grandmother and great-grandmother were born, as well as many generations before them. The name of the place is Matangi Rau.

“It was here they took me to the Marae, which means meeting house. She [my mother] rolled this scroll out that was on the wall. It had all of my ancestors that went back to the first canoe, Waka, that arrived in Aotearoa 700 hundred years ago, I guess. It was pretty freaky; I was on there and I could just trace back 700 years all the way.”

The initial experience of witnessing their lineage in the form of an archival scroll was metaphysical. It has been the continual engagement with Māori culture over time that has resulted in Jen’s self-discovering journey to connect with their ancestry.

“It was a bit of an abstract notion because I didn’t grow up on my land practising my language and culture,” says Jen. “I always knew I was Māori, but I didn’t necessarily go ‘I am Māori’. That came later. The inspiration has come from learning the Māori language over the last four years which made me want to seek out more of my culture and seek out writing songs in Te Reo Māori.

“The way that Māori look at things is that if you have Māori ancestors you are Māori, there is no questioning or diluting that. [My elders] wouldn’t see it in that light, that is a colonial paradigm, looking at things in that blood quantum idea of Indigeneity.

“What happened for me was all of these steps; from knowing I was Māori, to starting to learn the language, to singing in language, to joining cultural groups, to going back home and being with family. It is like an immersion, and you start to fill in all those gaps. Then those names on the wall start to feel like a real connection, because you are seeing all these people around you who are living in the Māori world today.”

As Jen continues to immerse into their culture, their latest album I Am The River, The River Is Me weaves themes of ecological stewardship and anti-colonial rhetoric into the lyrics.

“The name of the album is I Am The River, The River Is Me,” they say. “That is a Māori proverb, or what is known as a Whakataukī. It really encompasses the themes of the album, which is that we are part of (we have just forgotten), that we are not separate from the earth, we are not a scourge on society, that we are not something that just needs to go.

Jen Cloher announces Australian tour for May

“Rather we have been here since the beginning of humanity, taking care, taking care of the water, sky and land. That is our responsibility as humans, to be caretakers, custodians, Kaitiaki.

“We have never felt it more than now: we are on the tipping edge of seeing the destruction of not just human life but everything else around us, and yet we have the capacity to turn it around. It’s pretty wild watching how ecocidal we are as a society right now.”

Jen refers to the Māori words Tangata Whenua, which literally translates to ‘people of the earth’. Ever since Naarm and its inhabitants were afflicted by lockdowns, Jen has set out to reinforce that approach in their own life. All the while sharing that story through her music.

“I was sitting in [Zoom learning Te Reo], reading books and I joined some cultural groups that are based here and also started to hang out more with other Māori. That all helped me to feel a lot more connected when I went back home last year. I went back to take the album photo cover and make some video clips and to also set my feet back on the land. I also wanted to see some elders and play them some of the songs.”

Despite a long-spanning career in music, Jen is constantly evolving their approach and practice. The new album acts as a significant landmark in that trajectory, but also allows for endless possibilities going forward.

You can see Jen Cloher perform live at the Northcote Theatre on Saturday May 27.