On the cover of their fifth album ‘I Am the River, the River Is Me’ Jen Cloher stands chest deep in flint-hued water. Arms open wide, they receive the freezing embrace of Te Tou Wai, their awa, or river, as it’s translated in Cloher’s matrilineal tongue, te reo Māori. The image is a homecoming of sorts for the musician, one of the final pieces created for the record – an album tied up in Cloher’s reconnection with their maoritanga, or Māori culture, traditions and way of life.
“When I get into that awa, I’m acknowledging 700 years of whakapapa [ancestral] genealogy that ties me to that body of water and that land specifically,” they tell NME. “I am part of this. This is where it began.”
The album’s title is taken from a whakatauki, or proverb:
Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko
(I am the river, the river is me)
“Inside of that whakatauki, you see the world view that we didn’t see ourselves as separate from, better than, less than we were… our stories and our language come through the water and the land,” says Cloher, a Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu and Croatian person on their mother Dorothy’s side. Te Tou Wai flows through Matangirau, at the top of Aotearoa’s North Island – Cloher and Dorothy’s ancestral lands. Cloher’s father Tom is a third-generation Irish settler born in Hokitika, on the South Island’s wild west coast.
Cloher was in fact born far away in Naarm/Melbourne, after her parents emigrated for work, and raised in Tarndanya/Adelaide. And Naarm was where Cloher began their career as a musician. They’ve tackled heavy themes in their bracingly self-reflective songwriting, like their mother’s Alzheimers on the 2009 album ‘Hidden Hands’. But Cloher is also armed with a brutally unsparing wit; on ‘Shoegazers’, from her acclaimed self-titled 2017 album, she observed of the music press: “Most critics are pussies that want to look cool.”
In 2019, Cloher finished their operational role at Milk! Records, the beloved indie label they’d founded seven years prior with Courtney Barnett. As pandemic lockdowns kicked in, they finally had time to engage with the heritage they’d always known but rarely investigated deeply. They wrote in their home office and bashed out demos in a social bubble established with their Milk! signee and bandmate Anika Ostendorf, who makes music as Hachiku. This is how Cloher ended up including lyrics in te reo Māori on an album for the first time.
Dorothy was a prominent Māori academic, but Cloher says deep immersion in their maoritanga wasn’t possible when they were growing up in Tarndanya. Cloher describes how a 1907 New Zealand Government policy led many Māori to abandon teaching their language to the next generation. Their great grandmother Marara Tupe would have spoken it exclusively, their grandmother Huriata Poata was bilingual, but Dorothy only spoke English.
“Learning my language and being around other Māori, practising our culture, having them on the album… I think those things have answered parts of myself that I didn’t even know were missing”
“It’s interesting when you think about how language can be lost just in one generation. And it often takes, they say, three to restore it,” says Cloher.
Across the stylistic shifts on ‘I Am the River, the River Is Me’, one gets the feeling Cloher’s leaning into new sides of herself. There’s joyous guitar pop on ‘Mana Takatāpui’, squawking funk on ‘My Witch’ and the heavy dirge of ‘Aroha Mai, Aroha Atu’. As well as learning te reo Māori, Cloher joined the Naarm-based Te Hononga o ngā Iwi kapa haka (performing arts) group. They began learning mau rākau (weapons-based martial arts) too, choosing to wield the taiaha, a pointed staff used for close-quarters combat. Members of Te Hononga o ngā Iwi composed and delivered a thundering haka on the track ‘Being Human’, performed in its video, and will tour with Cloher in May.
The “joy and playfulness” that’s palpable on the record, Cloher says, is a reflection of how they feel at this stage in their journey. “Learning my language and being around other Māori, practising our culture, having them on the album… I think those things have answered parts of myself that I didn’t even know were missing,” they add. “My heart is opening up to my culture. With that comes grief, unpacking trauma, and joy and connection. And probably more so than ever before I feel a far more grounded sense of who I am.”
Tracks were sent back and forth between Naarm and Aotearoa where the album’s producers live – Tom Healy and Cass Basil of Milk! signees Tiny Ruins. A total of 24 musicians worked on the album including Ruby Solly, who plays taonga puoro (Māori instruments). When it came to translating the lyrics into te reo Māori, Cloher collaborated remotely with Aotearoa musician Em-Haley Walker – a Waikato Tainui woman who performs under the monikers Theia and Te Kaahu. Together they sing the delicate song ‘He-Toka-Tu-Moana’.
Language frames the way we see the world, our understanding of others and of ourselves, too. For Cloher, a queer person whose exploration of their gender identity is ongoing, a Google search for the te reo Māori translation of “queer” unearthed a new way of identifying themselves – takatāpui.
Literally translated as “intimate companion of the same sex”, takatāpui has been reclaimed by Māori who identify outside of western cisnormative and heteronormative constructs: whakawahine, tangata ira tāne (men and women who live, act or identify as a different gender than that with which they were assigned at birth) and intersex people; as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people. Cloher now identifies as takatāpui.
The music video for ‘Mana Takatāpui’ stars Cloher’s takatāpui heroes. Greens MP Dr. Elizabeth Kerekere, whose PhD and accompanying whāriki (weaving) inspired the song’s title, dances on the steps of Wellington’s Parliament building, as does the inclusive Pōneke (Wellington) kapa haka group Tiwhanawhana Kapa Haka, which has provided a haven for the city’s takatāpui.
“I’m still very early in my language journey, but I really enjoyed learning how we have ia [in te reo Māori]. When we speak about another person, we don’t gender them. Ia is ‘they, them, theirs’,” explains Cloher. “I think those little clues can open a door into thinking about how we might have viewed gender pre-colonisation.”
Te reo Māori has been an official language in Aotearoa since 1987, but its uptake over the last 10 years in particular has been remarkable. The language has been injected into everyday life in a way that’s unrecognisable in colonial Australia, from broad use in schools beginning in early childhood, through to pop culture.
“Popular music is a really savvy tool to bring [the language] into mainstream culture and bands like Six60 have had a really big influence,” says Cloher. Still, as te reo Māori use has become more widespread, the way non-Māori use the language has increasingly come under scrutiny.
When Lorde released her 2021 EP ‘Te Ao Mārama’ EP, featuring five songs from her ‘Solar Power’ album sung in te reo Maori, the Pākehā (white New Zealander) musician faced criticisms of appropriation. Despite working with prominent Māori musicians behind the scenes, Lorde’s admissions of having had little engagement with te reo Māori in the past left some feeling the EP was tokenistic.
“I’ve heard a lot of Pākehā here saying, oh, you know, ‘it’s an amazing journey that you’re on’ and I’m like, ‘you can go on it too’”
“I feel bad for Lorde in some ways because she went in with the best intentions but hadn’t done the groundwork,” says Cloher, who suggests a better approach for Lorde would have been to use her status to platform Māori musicians first, and bring her own Celtic and Croatian heritage into the mix.
“Gaelic and Celtic languages are literally on the verge of extinction… bring your own culture into this collaboration. In knowing who you are, and where you come from, you’re actually able to meet other Indigenous people,” says Cloher. “First Nations people here often say, ‘don’t worry about us, find out who you are’.”
As Cloher sees it, the value of knowing one’s own history is something many settlers take for granted. For her, taking the leap meant discovering the literal and metaphysical connections to her sense of self, ancestors and their lands. They say the knowledge has connected them to not only their ancestral lands in Aotearoa, but to their current home on Wurundjeri Country, too.
“I don’t see myself as an Australian. I once did, because I was so naive. I hadn’t unpacked what it meant to be living on indigenous land as an indigenous person from other lands,” says Cloher.
“I feel more connected to these lands, not in that colonial idea that we own land, but from an appreciation of the rich history and culture and songlines that come through these lands, and that’s really enriched my experience,” they add. “I’ve heard a lot of Pākehā here saying, oh, you know, ‘it’s an amazing journey that you’re on’ and I’m like, ‘you can go on it too’. Everyone can go on this journey’.”
Jen Cloher’s ‘I Am the River, the River Is Me’ is out now via Milk! Records. They tour Australia in May and the UK/Europe in June – find more details here