In Conversation: Robert Forster

On his wonderful new album, and the legacy of the Go-Betweens...

It hardly ever snows in London, and when it does, the city can scarcely cope. That’s probably why Clash has found itself darting along slush-laden streets, attempting to weave in and out of frozen traffic in an attempt to track down Robert Forster. The feted Australian songwriter and Go-Betweens co-founder is passing through town on tour, supporting his excellent new album ‘The Candle And The Flame’. A song cycle prompted by his wife Karin’s cancer diagnosis, it’s a delicate, thrilling, poetic, and moving addition to a catalogue already peppered with such adjectives. 

When Clash enters the café Robert Forster has perched himself in he’ss still flushed with the energy of putting new art out into the world. “It never grows old,” he says. “The format changes, the way it goes out into the world changes. But the actual process is an excitement, all the same. When you’re making a record you just can’t guess how it’s going to turn out. And you equally can’t guess the reception it’ll get. The first time I hear it on the radio, it’s a thrill!”

Recorded live in the studio, ‘The Candle And The Flame’ is marked by the depth of songwriting, but also the subtle urgency of the playing – at times, it feels like we could be in Sun Records. Something new, it also taps into broader themes within Robert Forster’s work across the decades. “I haven’t changed my methods much. And I haven’t changed the style of music I make, to any great degree. But I feel like my guitar playing, and what I write about… it does evolve. And I have some control over that… but there’s also the element of surprise. And I’m happy doing that, and I’m happy with the standard of music I’m writing.”

In one way, however, Robert Forster has most assuredly broadened out – he’s putting Clash to shame, developing a two-decade long side hustle as a music critic. “Oh, I’ve always been like that,” he says. “Even when I listened to music in the 70s, as a teenager, I get the feeling that I was listening in an analytical way. This part of my brain which would chew over it. So when I got this opportunity, I was 47 – I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I knew I had the brain for it. I know the culture of music criticism, because I’ve always thought that way.”

Clash wonders if this gives him a tendency to over-think in the studio – not the case, he assures us. “Lots of musicians spend months or years in the studio, and have tonnes of recording gear, and are very technically minded. I’m not. I prefer to go in for a couple of weeks, and I enjoy it. But I’m not a tinkerer. In a way, it’s old fashioned. It’s no different, really, to what Chuck Berry, or the early Beatles, or Buddy Holly would have done. You write the songs, you rehearse them, but the first time you truly hear it when you’re recording.”

‘The Candle And The Flame’ sits in a wonderful lineage of work from the Australian songwriter, but for its maker it has unique qualities. “This is a really different record because it was brought about by my wife’s cancer diagnosis. A lot of this I just didn’t see coming. My son Louis is playing guitar all over this record, and I couldn’t never have envisaged that happening. He had his own band – the Goon Sax – and we were on different paths. But he’s all over this. And all the vocals are live. Everything had to be done pretty much live. The external circumstances created this record more than pretty much any record I’ve ever done.”

Drawing those closest to him together in the studio, the results speak for themselves. His new album is a beautiful experience, inspired in its honesty. “It’s what I wanted to write about,” he asserts. “That was the situation. That was where the record was. It’s where Karin was. And I’ve always done that… in a way. I don’t invent characters. It’s all pretty much near me. But this was nearer, it was a lot more charged.”

“At the same time,” he points out, “we wanted the record to be joyous. It isn’t some doom-laden thing. The material is autobiographical, but we recorded it live – it has this bounce to it.”

Sipping his tea and gently warming from the outside, Robert Forster seems contented in the position he’s found himself in. Continually focussed on the craft, he calls his recent work “the most consistent records I’ve ever made” before admitting to a self-analytical streak. “I can’t help it,” he says. “I try to re-write history, but without people knowing. I’m not obsessive about it, but I am aware of it and I do – when I can – shift perceptions.”

In a way, he’s still discovering himself. Robert’s role in the ongoing Go-Between box set project means that he is constantly sifting through the past, and contrasting it with where he finds himself presently. This time round, he’s embraced singing fully live in the studio. “I always thought I could, and there’s been songs sprinkled through the whole catalogue where you do a guide vocal, and you think: that’s it,” he smiles.

“This time, with Karin going through chemotherapy, there was no way I could leave her for two days to sit in a studio tinkering on songs that are already done. I was old enough, and confident enough, to think: I’m going to sing it all. We’ll get people around me, and keep it all. And I love it! I feel my singing has a freedom to it that I want to take on to the next record. If I make one!”

He’s joking, of course. Music is in his blood – from those initial single releases in the late 90s, through to his more recent work. Acting as custodian of the Go-Betweens legacy, he muses on the vagaries of life in music, and finds solace in the strength of the songwriting itself. “It won’t fade away,” he says. “All the ups and downs of my career… and there are some downs, when the spotlight wasn’t near me. I was always happy with the work I was doing. I felt it was good. I made interesting choices in who I worked with, and where I went. It’s not one slick record after another. It’s different countries, and different people. Everything is what I wanted to do. Unexpected paths sitting beside the standard of songwriting – which I’ve always been happy with. Given those things, I hope there will always be interest.”

Robert has spoken eloquently about the absence of Grant McLennan in numerous occasions. Co-founder of the Go-Betweens and a perpetual creative foil, his passing in 2006 has not diminished the guitarist’s impact on his work. “I do think about what he would have played,” Robert says. “I know it would have been good. I always hope that what we’re doing is as good as the way he would have played it. And that’s something I almost took for granted, at times. We knew each other for so long, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have. We’d go in the studio, and he always knew what to play. And now, when I play with other musicians, and they play his lines… it’s like, wow. It’s not Grant playing, but those parts… and guitarists love them. It’s like: jheez, he was good! And I think, well, I wish I’d told him that more at the time.”

Robert has his guitar case with him – he’s about to hop on the train, weather permitting, and open his British tour. The itinerary takes him to Scotland, and to Glasgow – the city that housed Postcard Records, and left an incalculable impact on the Go-Betweens. He’s not one to rest on nostalgia, though.

“It makes me excited,” he says, his voice bristling. “Glasgow is so special to me, and to the Go-Betweens. The time we spent there for two months in 1980 was unforgettable, y’know? Meeting Orange Juice, Josef K, Alan Horne… it was like walking in on this incredible scene. We learnt a lot. We saw a lot. Glasgow was right in the middle of it all – a great city, it was relatable, and it was beautiful.”

As we leave, Robert Forster talks a little of his current plans – more shows, more music, and potentially some writing, too. “I’m working on a novel,” he says. “Which I’ve been working on for a number of years. I love it, I’m glad I’m doing it. But the thing is, I’m learning to write a novel, and I’m writing a novel at the same time. There’s so much to learn. I had this story I wanted to tell. I didn’t really see it coming, and as I tell the story it changes… it’s become more autobiographical. It’s getting better. I just need to give it time, and keep working.”

‘The Candle And The Flame’ is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Stephen Booth

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