Picture by Bleddyn Butcher
A couple of late middle-age blokes are bantering about obsolescence, the realisation when the return calls take forever to come and the invitations dry up, that you may be yesterday’s man and better get used to it.
Without rancour, the far more talented and accomplished of the pair, Robert Forster, says “I’ve been yesterday’s man a couple of times, I know. I just put my head down and thought I’m just going to do the best work I can and keep doing it, and maybe people will notice.”
At the risk of sounding like some afternoon television philosophising – forget Dr Phil, try Dr Music! - you’re only yesterday’s man if you’re still trying to be the man you were yesterday.
If you are making music into your 40s and 50s, or 60s in the case of Forster who wrote his first song in the 1970s as a Brisbane teenager with aspirations to New York and Paris (or frankly, anywhere but Brisbane), at a time when albums just aren’t that important to most people, you have to ask yourself what are you doing it for?
The right answer, possibly the only answer, is because this is who you are and what you’ve done. This is your life’s work, and that doesn’t stop because a newspaper or radio programmer says you’re not young or pretty or now enough.
So, as he awaits the verdict today with the release of Inferno, his seventh solo album, his 16th all up when you include his two stints in The Go-Betweens, what is in it for Forster, making a record in 2019?
“I still think it’s what I strive for,” he says. “It’s exactly like what a book is to an author, or a film is to a filmmaker [or] an exhibition is when a painter thinks they’ve got 30 painting. To me it’s the same thing. It’s the form you use to get your work out to the world.”
And you have to believe?
“I’m not really ever going to stop writing songs. If it came crashing down and no one wants to put out my music I would probably still write 10 songs and do a private pressing of 500 albums, keep one for myself and sell the other 499,” Forster explains. “Because I believe in myself.”
There are still new things for Forster to do. For example, he has finally giving in to his inner Springsteen. That’s him penning road songs about being on the highway, where, in a typical Forster touch, he describes what could be a younger version of himself being happy to be overtaken; or two characters who are desperate to escape, born to run you might say, though it turns out only to a town a few miles away.
Actually, Springsteen might steal Forster’s Life Has Turned A Page for himself if the Australian doesn’t make his own Darkness On The Edge Of Byron first.
That said, musically and to a certain extent lyrically, you’re more likely to hear Lou Reed or early solo John Lennon on this record. A certain rawness, a definite clarity, a sense of frankness.
“I’m still getting over Darkness On The Edge of Byron,” Forster says, amused. “It wasn’t my story; friends told me his story [in Life Has Turned A Page]. What appealed to me was the idea of this guy in the early ‘70s, the classic scene of the Kombi and surfboards and going off to see the world with his girlfriend. They were going to drive as far as they can, and they just get 40 minutes down the highway and start a family, and that’s it.
“That appealed to me but in a way it was convenient: it was telling two stories at the same time. There is his story and then, because I’m telling it, I’m involved in the story. And it’s obviously a song that I wouldn’t have had the scope, or quite frankly the talent, to have written in my 20s or 30s. And the music as well is something I certainly would not have written in my 20s or 30s.”
It may well be true that sympathy and empathy are things that need to be learnt, as much as the craft of songwriting.
“Yes, which is maybe why my friends took me to meet this guy in the first place. They knew that somehow this is an interesting person to meet, beyond the fact he was standing in a room full of surfboards. The other thing that was interesting was he knew me through Surfing Magazines [a song Forster wrote for the 2000 “comeback” Go Betweens album Friends Of Rachel Worth] And that’s partly why he wanted to meet me.”
The subtlety of his storytelling touches is evident in several places across the album. For example, the central character in Remain, a filmmaker whose quality was never matched by his commercial respect, goes from saying “I did my good work while knowing it wasn’t my time” to saying in the verse’s last iteration, “I did my great work while knowing it wasn’t my time”.
That small, late change in the song, from good to great, is it self-delusion? And if it is, is that a bad thing necessarily for artists whose status may not align with their sense of self?
“That song goes back to what we were talking about the beginning: I was remembering a time when I was miles out of the spotlight, the late 90s. I was physically miles away, living in Regensburg, in Germany; my record company [Beggars Banquet] had dropped me; and I really did think I was totally in the desert,” says Forster.
“I thought of that time when I was writing the melody for the song. But it’s a playful thing, about ambition and career and your work. And a certain defiance, and humour with that defiance, I’ve always had. It’s not a feeling I’ve returned to in a long, long time, then suddenly it came up again.”
Even if there is some self-delusion in Remain, it is effective because there is a sense of someone reinforcing to themselves that there is value in them and their work. Whether they’re filmmakers or songwriters. Whether they are yesterday’s man, or today’s.
“A breakthrough line for me was when I mentioned at the start about films and screens. That gave me a lot of room. Because if I’d started to talk about songs, it wouldn’t have worked; it would have been one-dimensional and people would have seen through it, and I wouldn’t have been comfortable,” he says. “I was able to be bolder and more playful if I put in that veneer that I’m not talking about music here.”
As satisfied as he is with the songs here, Forster offers that his method of writing – slow, constant “quality control” revisions, years between albums – is “probably commercial suicide”. But then it is only commercial suicide if his deal with EMI expects him to sell 50,000 copies and fill a few arenas along the way.
“No, that’s Paul Kelly’s job,” Forster chuckles. “Or Troye Sivan’s.”
Inferno is out today.
My review of Inferno will be in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum on Saturday.