LIVE REVIEW: Jen Cloher, Tiny Ruins @ Red Rattler, Sydney


Jen Cloher, Tiny Ruins
Red Rattler Theatre, Marrickville, NSW Australia
20th September, 2018

A sold out Sydney show is a great way to kick off a solo tour for Jen Cloher and as she revealed during her set, this was her first ever solo headline gig. A surprising event given the career Cloher’s established over the last dozen years.

Hollie Fullbrook is better known as the central figure in Tiny Ruins but tonight she was performing solo, still in the hazy midst of jet lag following a European tour. It made for a fascinating set as she played old favourites such as Chainmail Maker, Me At The Museum, You In The Wintergardens and Hurtling Through, alongside her new single How Much, her first on Cloher’s Milk! Records label. Blaming the jet lag she admitted feeling nervous and at one point had a lyrical memory failure but recovered gallantly. It was a chance to see an artist at a transitional point with a new album pending, on a new label, singing songs we’ve never heard, stripped back to their essence.

Jen Cloher fitted into the Marrickville warehouse aesthetic in her green mechanic overalls. She was “at work, playing her block of wood”. It was more than work of course, as evident in the emotion she displayed when introducing songs with stories from her life. There were memories of her Jim Morrison teenage obsession, stealing money from her parents to fuel her Galaga addiction while pretending to be an 11 year old boy called Jon, a beautiful tribute to her mother who that day had been posthumously honoured at Auckland University as part of the Suffrage 125 commemoration and more. The stories were laced with humour and honesty and gave the songs context and added depth. 

With just an acoustic guitar Cloher transformed her more rock-leaning recordings into solo reveries that never lost their spirit and energy. It emphasised her strength as a lyricist, allowing the words to cut through in the acoustic setting, riding her near endless array of sweet and melancholic melodies. Tracks such as Sensory Memory, Kamikaze Origami and Strong Woman from last year’s self-titled album drew cheers from the warm and enthusiastic crowd but we were also treated to some dips into the back catalogue with David Bowie Eyes, Needs, Mother’s Desk and Eden With My Eve. 

Fullbrook returned to the stage for the encore and the pair played a touching version of Save Me From What I Want, a song that Cloher recorded with Mia Dyson and Liz Stringer. It capped off a wonderfull night of music. Songs stripped back to their simple yet detailed beginnings as stories, carried on the strings of acoustic guitars.

Chris Familton




Imagine traveling to a far flung part of the world like Zanzibar to visit someone close to you and with a head full of intrepid explorer ideas, hiring scooters and in the flash of an eye finding yourself at the mercy of a poorly equipped health system. That was the scenario for Tiny Ruin’s Hollie Fullbrook in October of last year and it left her with painful (but thankfully not life threatening) injuries which meant she had to cancel a run of live dates in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

“It was a reckless thing to do just before going on tour and it was all a bit of a disaster. I couldn’t get out of the country for ten days to get fixed up. It was hard seeing the fact they didn’t have bandages and basic stuff. There weren’t really any proper painkillers so it made me appreciate the NZ health system way more than I had before. In retrospect it was quite traumatic but at the time you just take it as it comes and try and stay positive and laugh about it. I came straight back to NZ and into hospital for treatment and discovered I’d broken three bones in my shoulder, foot and hand. It was a shock when I found that out as I hadn’t realised how badly hurt I was and that I was going to have to cancel a whole lot of shows. I had to sit in a wheelchair for a few weeks and not play guitar.”

Until that moment in Tanzania 2012 had been a hugely successful year for Fullbrook. Her debut album Some Were Meant For Sea received glowing reviews everywhere it was released and she backed it up with a busy touring schedule that received similarly positive responses from fans and critics alike. Most recently the album has also been shortlisted for NZ’s Taite Music Prize, the equivalent of the Australian Music Prize and the UK’s Mercury Prize.

“It’s fair to say that when I released the album first in NZ, and then Australia, my expectations were pretty low. I just had nothing to go by – it was all very new to me. To have been able to release the album further afield in the UK and (fingers crossed) beyond has been something I feel most thrilled about as it’s difficult for relatively unknown artists to get a foot in the door anywhere. I’ve been lucky with Spunk (Australian label), who have been gunning for me since before I recorded the album. Logistically, it’s hard to pull off, so I’m very proud of the whole team who have helped me get the record across the oceans. I also felt that making BBC World Service program ‘The Strand”s top five albums of 2011 was pretty special. I listen to the World Service a lot in my car, so to somehow feature in that realm was a real honour,” says Fullbrook.

As she settles into yet more touring and making up for the cancelled dates at the end of last year Fullbrook is also weighing up the idea of relocating to Europe for a short period to maximise her exposure there and though she has primarily been a solo performer she wants to take the opportunity to share the stage with other musicians.

“I’m looking at heading back over to Europe in May to support the Handsome Family and then if I’m there I’m thinking of basing myself in Berlin for a few months and playing as much as I can. If you go all that way and spend all that money you want to make the most of it – and avoiding the New Zealand winter is a good idea too! I’m trying to plan it all now and figure out who else is over there as the idea of hanging out with some people from home is appealing. I’m trying to convince my flatmate Cass Mitchell who plays double bass to also come along as we’ve been playing together quite a bit and to have that extra person involved on stage is what I’m looking forward to. I had Cass playing the double bass at some NZ shows around Xmas which was really enjoyable and having someone you know and trust up there on stage feels nice. It is good for the audience too having that other element up there and someone else to watch.

Fullbrook also a second album in her sights with some songs written and others either still forming or yet to appear. Her experiences of the last year are filtering into the themes and ideas for the next record and she expects it’ll have a different sound and feel.

“The first album touched on themes like distance and traveling but probably more in a fantasy kind of way. Maybe these new songs are more earthy and influenced a bit by living in Italy and being surrounded by mountains. One song especially is about mountains and relationships too. I hope to write a few more narrative style songs though as I think people are really drawn to those ones, they like the ones about characters and stories,” Fullbrook muses.

The evolution of Tiny Ruins is an exciting and fascinating prospect for Fullbrook and taking that step of opening up her music to other musicians is something that will both influence and be influenced by the next album.

“I often think it would be nice to have brass, like a trumpet or a trombone and I guess it does depend on the next album and how that takes form. It would be nice to develop the sound into a band feel from the last album and then expand the touring with the next album. It is easy and sustainable doing it on my own as I only have to worry about myself and budget-wise it is easier but you do want to grow somewhere. The songs on Some Were Meant for Sea were more suited to solo performance but these newer songs that are forming could do with a rhythm section and more dynamic and melodic things going on with Cass singing harmony parts. It is exciting going from writing songs with just me in mind, because I had no idea I’d end up performing them, to writing songs with other people in mind. It changes the writing process a bit.

The good news is that new Tiny Ruins songs aren’t destined to be hidden away until they are recorded, instead she will be road testing them across Australia and Europe before heading to the studio to begin recording album number two in the latter half of the year. As long as Fullbrook steers clear of motorcycles the near future looks set to continue being a creative and musically exciting time for Tiny Ruins.

this interview was first published in Drum Media