Jen Cloher on the importance of the Barunga Festival, taking Milk Records to the next level & more

Today, the 2016 Barunga Festival kicks off for another huge year of cross-cultural celebration and collaboration. This year’s theme is all about ‘Celebrating Women’ and the festival’s music line up definitely fits the bill, with some talented ladies in the mix with some of the NT’s best.

Ahead of her debut appearance at the festival, I touch base with Jen Cloher before she and Courtney Barnett head north from Melbourne. It’s been a massive year already for the Milk Records family and with Cloher running the business as well as working on her own music, not to mention Barnett’s current strides in world domination, this is just the opportunity the couple have been waiting for to escape everything and experience something brilliant and new.

“It [Barunga] falls in a period of a couple of weeks where Courtney would normally probably take some time off before hitting the road again.” Cloher admits. “She’s just done six weeks in the U.S and then there’s another month in Europe and the UK up straight after the festival. I think that because it is such a unique opportunity and such an esteemed festival, it was a bit of a no-brainer for us to go, ‘Well we get to go out and be in community with other artists and musicians and learn from it as well’.”

“I guess it’s that immersive experience that has drawn us there and you know, taking some time after the festival to have some adventures and explore that part of the world! I mean, I’ve been up there before, touring with Mia Dyson and Liz Stringer, but that was a few years ago and it was fairly brief. We did go into some communities and we did play at Desert Harmony, which is an Indigenous-run festival, but I think Barunga is a much bigger event and maybe has been on the calendar for a lot longer.”


With a line up of musicians boasting the likes of the popular B2M from the Tiwi Islands, Wildflower, Eleanor Dixon and the Lonely Boys in amongst the acclaimed Gurrumul, Cloher is excited to find out more about the artists she’s not yet seen before and soak up as much as she can from being surrounded by this group of musicians.

“The most exciting thing for is seeing all these local bands and artists,” she says. “I’ve just heard that the festival really has its own kind of energy and vibe. I think it just sounds like it’s quite an immersive experience. It’s not just ‘another’ festival. There are some festivals like Golden Plains where you go and it’s a real weekend and it feels very whole. I like that a smaller, more focused festival, rather than those big, massive corporate events. For me, it’s the newness of it – I really haven’t seen any bands out that way, so it’s going to be exciting.”

“A lot of festivals, you’ll go along and it’s very white and it’s very middle class. There are lots of cool bands that have been played on cool stations and everyone is very cool. It’s all about what’s new and that’s all good and well, but I think there’s a lot more room for other things to happen in a festival space.”

The Barunga Festival celebrates its 31st year in 2016.
The Barunga Festival celebrates its 31st year in 2016.

Fantastic music is not the only thing Barunga offers this year of course, with a multitude of arts and crafting workshops available for attendees to involve themselves in, sports and tours of Barunga also on the program for the long weekend. As Cloher says, the opportunities to learn from our rich and ancient Indigenous culture are chances too often missed in the larger cities and events like Barunga are incredibly important because of it.

“I think a lot of people are really keen to go and learn more about Indigenous culture,” she says. “They’re just not quite sure about how to access that, you know? I think that something like Barunga is a really nice, relaxed and communal way of being able to come into community and just watch and listen. Absorb what’s going on. I think that’s why it’s so valuable.”

“A lot of my friends and a lot of artists would love to be more engaged with Indigenous music and arts but living here in Melbourne, it’s hard to find access outside of the bigger touring companies or performing arts companies. It’s such low-pressure, cool way of facilitating it; we’re all really of the same culture, we all live in Australia, but [it’s good in] understanding the intricacies of the culture that’s 40,000 years strong.”


Once Cloher returns to the east coast after some time off, it’s going to be business as usual – the growth of Milk Records over the last year has been exponential, as the Melbourne-based independent collective has continued to gain prominence. While 2016 has already seen the entire label tour together, Cloher admits that things are only going to get busier for herself and the rest of the Milk family.

“I think something had to change,” she says of the current industry and labels within it. “A lot of the old ways of releasing and touring music fell in apart in that those activities that were funded, fell apart. I guess it’s interesting to see artists stepping up and taking more responsibility for the business side of a musician. You have to be more engaged with it if you want to have a career in music now.”

“Gone are the days where there’s a manager and a record label and this machine behind the artist. I think that when you get to a certain point, that happens, but certainly in your early career of being more of the fringes and independent, that isn’t going to necessarily happen. It’s about finding ways to make and create opportunities so you can get out and play.”


Fans of Cloher’s music can expect her to be nearing the completion of a new album this year – balancing her own music commitments with that of the label has been one she’s been working through, but it’s all going well as of now.

“It’s like a consolidating year for me on the Milk Records front,” she says. “As well as getting some new music so that I can get out and play some shows with a fresh bunch of songs! Next year Milk is going to be pretty busy, I think there is going to be new albums from all seven bands on the label.”

“We did the big Milk Records tour in March with all the bands on the label. It was a big undertaking, taking 22 people out on the road! I vowed after that, to not commit to too much more than finishing my own album and just consolidating; there are lots of things that need to go on behind the business, making sure that online stores and websites and sign up forms, all of that stuff, moves to the next level as the business grows.”

Embarking into label territory while continuing to tour and write isn’t necessarily an orthodox experience, Cloher admits. The presence of Milk Records and other similar groups of artists though, is crucial to our industry moving forward, she says.

“It’s a pretty unique experience to have as a musician, to be part of a label that isn’t a traditional label, in the sense that lots and lots of bands are signed and lots of releases go out every year. There isn’t necessarily that interpersonal relationship between the bands and the label, or even that collaboration. That doesn’t happen all the time, so it’s pretty cool to actually work together and play together, help each other out. We are actually genuinely friends and comrades.”

“I think it’s very comforting as well. When you’re out in the music world, it can be very lonely and I guess we’ve banded together in a way of feeling that unity and that support. We get a lot of bands asking us to release their music and it’s not really about that for us; we’re pretty clear that it’s more of an artist collective and I’m always like, ‘Go start your own!’ The more of these things, like Milk Records and Chapter Music and Bedroom Suck, Skinnyfish and Elefant Traks, the more of that happening in Australia just strengthens the music community. I love that idea.”

The Barunga Festival runs from June 10th through until June 12th. To find out more, head HERE.



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