For the last few years, Jen Cloher has been on a journey into their whakapapa. Their latest album, I am the River, the River is Me, is the culmination of the knowledge they’ve gained since.
I meet Jen Cloher at a wine bar in Ponsonby with menus written in both English and te reo Māori. It’s an accidentally perfect setting for the musician who’s spent a good part of the last few years straddling the worlds those languages represent – spending their time taking the plunge (both literal and figurative) into their whakapapa, te ao Māori and their tūrangawaewae in the Far North.
The cover of their latest album, I Am the River, the River is Me, shows Cloher bathing in their awa: Te Touwai, near Kaeo.
“That awa is where my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother all bathed, gathered food, watered gardens from. It ties me into that river, whakapapa-wise. On a metaphysical level, that river holds the stories of my matrilineal line. It remembers them.”
But jumping into Te Touwai on what they describe as a “freezing cold day” was the end result of years of mahi that led them to feel comfortable in that space. Starting that journey of cultural discovery from overseas in Naarm (Melbourne) wasn’t an easy task, Cloher says.
“Māori have to seek out their culture and their language wherever they are, but when you’re in another country, and you’re not on your lands, and you’re not around whānau, and you’re not part of things like going out to your marae, you have to work that a little bit harder.”
Two moments influenced Cloher’s decision to start carving out their taha Māori. On an Aotearoa tour in 2019, they acknowledged the tangata whenua during a performance and realised they didn’t feel like they were a part of that group.
“It was a disconnect. I don’t live here, I know I have Māori ancestry, but what right do I have to claim it? I don’t have the language or the culture.”
“That was the hard work,” Cloher says. “The real work was losing the colonised critical parent that was in my head going ‘you’re not enough’.”
So Cloher joined a Naarm-based Kapa Haka rōpū: Te Honongā o Ngā Iwi, to learn some reo and waiata Māori, and introduce themself to other Māori living away from home. They signed up for online reo Māori courses, and delved into the mahi of their mum, Dr Dorothy Urlich-Cloher, who was a Māori scholar and wrote a lot about Far North iwi.
The goal of this mahi was never to create an album, Cloher says, but writing music provided the perfect avenue to channel the energy and emotion that was coming to the surface.
“The thing about music is it’s such a direct and powerful communication. And I really believe that when I walk out onto that stage, I’m bringing a lot of stuff with me… Our language and our culture is looking for us as much as we’re looking for it. It’s waiting for us.”
Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.
– I am the river, the river is me. Whakataukī of Whanganui iwi.
Thus, the title of their new album: I Am the River, the River is Me. For Cloher, this whakataukī speaks to the deep connection between tangata whenua and Papatūānuku. It’s a connection they have observed in Indigenous culture with the First Nations people in Naarm too, a “deep relationship that we have with land, water and sky on these lands”.
And their music speaks to this respect for the whenua – the single ‘Protest Song’ is a response to the bushfires that swept through Australia in 2019 and 2020, a way for Cloher to channel some of that climate rage into their art.
“Something that’s become more commonly acknowledged is climate grief, and it’s heavy.
“We’ve got people’s houses in Grey Lynn being washed away. It’s not like it’s coming; it’s here. I don’t know the solution, I’m one person. But I think it’s really good to acknowledge it, and speak to it, and not pretend that it’s not happening,” Cloher says.
But it’s not only climate grief that Cloher channels through the album. The theme of identity swirls its way through many of the songs. As well as Māori identity, gender identity is one the singer leans into – though for them, the two are connected.
“I remember googling the Māori word for queer, and then this word came back: takatāpui. Then when I leant in and saw that it was all-encompassing, that blew me away.”
Hey, I know
I still got a way to go
But I think I see
Kei roto i a koe
– ‘Mana Takatāpui’
The term takatāpui has been used to describe queerness across the spectrum – and for Cloher, who uses they/she pronouns, it provided a new way of looking at their queerness.
“It’s amazing when you see your gender and your sexuality as part of something that also has a whakapapa, something that is bigger. One word that really describes my sexuality, my gender and my Māori identity.”
Cloher is now a passionate advocate for people learning about their own whakapapa, in order to learn more about themselves, their whenua, their language and their people.
“Something everyone can do is find out who they are and where they come from. There are so many ways you can find out a bit more. Go and read some stuff about Gaelic culture, the language, it’s so enriching to feel like you come through something instead of just this weird floating person.”
While touring and living overseas has them spending most of their time away from their tūrangawaewae in Northland, Cloher has their sights set on spending more time in Aotearoa in the near future. Dedicating some time to learn te reo Māori is the next big step in their journey.
“If you whakapapa Māori then you are Māori. But if you pursue your language and your culture, then you feel Māori,” Cloher says.
Connected and unbroken
Feel it on my tongue
It’s a hum
Kōrero i tāku reo
As we make to leave, Cloher throws out an invite to join them at kura rumaki reo in Ōtaki, in two years’ time. It’s a big commitment – a year of full-time immersive te reo Māori study, but no part of me thinks they don’t mean it. Cloher is letting the river guide their way – and it’s taking them deeper and deeper into te ao Māori.