Interview with Robert Forster

Ahead of his Belfast concert Folk & Tumble talks to Go-Betweens founding member Robert Forster about his life and career.

FT: How’s the tour going?

RF:  The tour’s going very well. We have been on a bit of a break over the weekend, and we start again in London tonight. It’s been great, we’ve been traveling by train, and there’s been train chaos, but besides that, it’s being well good on stage and it’s great meeting and talking to people. My son Louis is with me playing guitar and bass. We’ve never done this before, and it’s really wonderful and exciting to be playing together, it’s a unique thing. It’s come off the album. I didn’t think we would be recording together, and so that happened, the tour we are doing now is almost like a follow-through of the album.

FT:  Tour featuring a mix of songs from ‘The Candle and the Flame’, solo and Go-Betweens material?

RF:  Oh yeah it’s a complete go-through of all that has happened in the past. The show has got a certain atmosphere, of course, we’re playing songs from ‘The candle and the Flame’, but I’ve written enough songs in different periods, in my musical career to pick from.

FT:  The shows have been getting rave reviews, and the Belfast audience is really looking forward to it.

RF:   Oh thank you. I have never played Belfast, ever, so I’m really looking forward to it. It’s good because we’re flying in the night before, which means I get a chance to look around and see the city, which I rarely get. I’ve played Dublin quite a few times, but I’m keen to visit other places, so it was great to play Cork, and it’s great I’m playing Belfast.

FT:  Can I ask how Karen is? (Karen Baumler is Robert’s wife of 23 years. In 2021, she was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer)

RF:  I was just talking to her, and she’s going well. She is stronger, and fitter. There were nine months of chemo and medical procedures were a very difficult time for her, and she’s through that, and she is getting stronger and feeling better and doing more, and that’s really, really wonderful. And it’s allowed me to come away for these four weeks, and that’s great, she’s doing well.

FT:   And the focus of the album, ‘The Candle and the Flame’, by some strange quirk of fate can be interpreted as about Karen’s Health crisis. Songs like ‘Tender Years’ and ‘It’s only Poison’, sound of the moment, and yet, they were written before her diagnosis, Is that right?

RF:  Yeah, eight of the nine songs were written before the diagnosis. It’s extraordinary that those songs in varying ways, somehow reflected, or were connected to what had happened to Karen with the diagnosis. They took on another meaning or a deeper meaning, and that was extraordinary. I mean we felt it when we were playing the songs before we thought of doing the album. We could sense that they had this new meaning, and the further we went in the recording process, you go into rehearsing them, and then the actual recording, and they come out, and it really strikes you that these songs were… It’s hard for me to explain, but they were connected to the diagnosis

FT:  Have the songs almost become therapeutic for the family in some strange way Robert?

RF:  Well yeah, they have. The fact that the album got made, is really therapeutic, The fact that I’m playing them now with Louis is amazing. We didn’t want the record to be some sort of doom-laden affair, with strings and heavy synthesizer. It’s a lively, ‘Live’ album. Because we didn’t have time to do complex arrangements, and spend weeks fine-tuning it all, it all had to be in the moment. And I find the record, and Karen certainly wanted it to be uplifting and joyous.

FT:   And it is, It’s very life-affirming.

RF:  Good, I’m glad that you feel that.

FT:   I mean the song ‘She’s a Fighter’ is just a great song in it’s own right. You’ve said it’s the best six words you’ve ever written (She’s a fighter, fighting for good’). Its power, is in some ways in its brevity and that short repeated staccato phrase. I wonder in terms of being such a literate songwriter, was there a temptation to add to the lyrics and expand the song? It’s almost a  mantra for survival and unbridled admiration.

RF:  It has, It’s wonderful the way that you say that. The answer to writing more is no. I was happy for it to be as succinct. There was a temptation; there was talk to make the track longer, in an instrumental sense. But it would have taken it further away from the lyric, I thought. The length it was I was really happy with. It was just punchy. There was a combination of music and lyric, and the music didn’t override it.

FT:  It’s amazing that the strength of the song, lies in your restraint to know when to stop, to say, ’No that’s it’.

RF:   The only other way I could have done it, was to write a hundred verses, and really once Karen’s diagnosis came, I was putting song writing away. There was no idea we were going to make an album, that idea came a couple of months later. So I had actually put the whole thing away, but once Karen started talking about how she was going to go into Chemotherapy, and this huge, long, intense journey, and as she was gathering herself to go into it, the ‘She’s a fighter, fighting for good’, came to me, but not much more. It was like I couldn’t turn my songwriter brain off. I got those little words, and I knew that they fitted the tune I had written some time before the diagnosis. I knew in my head that the song was written. To start from scratch, and write lyrics and a melody at that time, I was not in a place to do that.

FT:  She sounds a remarkable woman. Not only wanting to be so involved in the recording but in wanting the message of the importance of early diagnosis in Cancer cases.

RF:  The recording studio was the only place Karen was going to, other than the hospital. It was always a joyous occasion going to the studio, it was like a holiday, it was such a different day for all of us, and Karen in particular, and that I think tumbled into the record too.  She was very much driving the record, and wanting to do it. It was important to her. And as the story has gotten out, that has resonated with people.

FT: Going back to the Go-Betweens, and bands with two or more writers, is there a competition between them, as to who produces the best songs?

RF:  I think there is. I feel it’s unavoidable, but it’s how you handle it, and what sort of scale that’s on. With Grant and I, neither of us were trying to be dominant over the other, it wasn’t in our personalities. It wasn’t ’It’s got to be my way, or no way’, on either of our behalves. We could work as a collaboration, although we worked separately, we played each other’s songs to each other for months, before we recorded them we knew what the album was before we started. And there is competitiveness, like who’s got the single, that was always there. That could be a lightning point in any band The single is the first that will go out from the new album. That’s the one that the video will be made around, the one that goes out to radio, that’s something you want to write. But it never tore us apart, that never happened.

FT:  Is there anything in the Go-Betweens vaults still to come to light?

RF:  There is. We’re actually working on it now. We had two box sets of our material, and I’m actually working on a third. There’s a lot. Compared to Volumes 1 and 2, there is a lot of unreleased material, which I’m really happy about, there’s a lot of demos done over the years in various places, and there’s also material that didn’t get on to albums, especially some Grant material, that never made it on to records. This is going to be a real reveal of how those three Go-Betweens albums came together.

FT: In a parallel career, you’re a music critic. So wearing that particular hat, can you place the Go-Betweens in a historical context, where do you see their place, given their huge influence over so many bands?

RF:  Yeah, which I’m very happy about. It happens you get a new band, and people will use the Go-Betweens as a reference point. That’s pretty good that a band’s music can be described in shorthand, by just naming us. It strikes me as an extraordinary thing. When I was covering Australia in the 70s someone would say, ‘Oh yeah, they sound like the Rolling Stones’ or She sounds like Joni Mitchel, and you got an idea of the sound. So the fact that people are saying, ‘Oh yeah, they sound like the Go-Betweens’ and that is the same shorthand that was around for me, when I was young. It just blows my mind you know. It’s sort of lovely that it’s got to that stage.

FT:  And you also developed a huge following in your name.

RF:  I’m happy about that! I have little control over it, all I try and do, is write the best songs I can, record as well as I can, and put them out. That’s really all I can do, that’s really all any artist can do.

FT:  Your work is hugely regarded, the new album will add to your own standing, and you can be assured a hugely warm welcome when you play Ireland. I think possibly because of our tradition of song and stories, and because your work is so literate, it hits a resonance here

RF:  Well thank you. Ireland is itself a place of great poetic tradition, Of great literary tradition, great song writing, and musical tradition, Ireland as an island punches miles above it’s weight in terms of what it has achieved with so many artists. So I’m pleased to be recognised by the people there, but I know there is a long-standing appreciation of the written and sung word. I am very happy to be a part of that Ireland has that heightened appreciation of storytelling. And the power of words, so it’s wonderful to be appreciated there.

FT:  Robert it’s been an absolute joy talking to you, and please pass on our best wishes to Karen.

RF:   Thank you. I will pass them on, and it’s been wonderful talking to you, and I’m really looking forward to playing Belfast.

Robert Forster plays The Belfast Empire on Thursday 23rd March.