By now, the names Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher are familiar to anyone in Australia’s independent music scene. Cloher’s released three albums, the most recent of which, 2013’s In Blood Memory, saw her shortlisted for The Australian Music Prize. Barnett has been on a swift international ascent over the past 12 months, playing shows in the US and Europe that included Coachella, Glastonbury and a slot on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Last week, she collected Best Independent Single for Avant Gardener at the AIR Independent Music Awards. At the time of our meeting, Barnett had just returned from the US. She is sitting with Cloher at Thornbury’s Pearl Oyster, not far from their house. “It’s the longest I’ve ever been away,” Barnett says of her three-month trip. “I started to get homesick after a while.”
Although well-known artists, their latest releases have come out through their own label, Milk! Records. It’s a project Barnett began when she released her debut EP, I’ve Got a Friend Named Emily Ferris, and is run from their shared home. “For about a year it wasn’t much,” Barnett says, “and then it slowly grew when Jen started helping me.” Initial releases were digital only, but they soon started pressing vinyl.
Sitting quietly beside Barnett and Cloher is their friend Celeste Potter. It’s Potter who helped turn Milk! into more than just a record label. Potter is a musician (Ouch My Face) and illustrator who has worked with Sarah Blasko, Pikelet, An Horse and Cloher. She also created Barnett’s Anonymous Club video. “When we were overseas, we used loops of the animation behind the band,” Barnett says. “When people would ask what it was from, I’d tell them my friend made it! I love that opportunity to share stuff.” Potter also designed the second in a series of artist T-shirts that Milk! puts out to showcase the talents of friends who draw.
With Barnett and Cloher’s bustling music careers, how do they manage to run an independent business? “It’s a pretty portable business,” Cloher answers. “It’s literally a backyard operation and that’s what we want it to be.” Milk! has been approached by many bands to put out their albums, but Barnett and Cloher would rather nourish the good thing they have going than increase the workload and the stress. “It’s not about making lots of money, it’s about being self-sustaining so we can make the next fun project,” Cloher says.
The artists on Milk!’s roster are predominantly mates of Barnett’s, including Fraser A. Gorman, Royston Vasie and The Finks. The next release isn’t an artist-specific album, but a compilation on 10-inch vinyl. “It’s this cool opportunity to do something different,” Barnett says. “When one artist gets attention, it draws attention to the other artists on the website and the exposure trickles down.”
Although they put so much into Milk! while maintaining busy careers, you won’t hear any complaints. As Cloher says, “Not everyone gets the opportunity to make a sustainable arts practice in this country.”
Milk! Records 10" vinyl is out now.