WHEN HE SINGS “I DON’T DO DRUGS, I DO TIME” on his superb new album, Robert Forster might be playing with a definite truth in his art. While the interruption and disruption of a life-threatening illness for his wife, Karin, colours our view of the record (as he discussed in part one of this interview last week), the passage of time, but, crucially, not its passing, lies at the heart of The Candle And The Flame.
But reminiscing or dipping in and out of the past is not something new for Forster: in fact, whether in The Go-Betweens or his own records, for him the past has always been very present. As he sings in the second single from the new record, Tender Years, “Memory is a servant/And I’ve been observant.”
He may have called his first solo album, Danger In The Past, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
“It’s been in my songwriting for a long time, going back probably to the late ‘80s. It just looms as subject matter and something that totally fascinates me, the intersection of past and present, and how it informs …,” Forster says, his voice trailing off, before he picks up the thread again. “I reckon in our daily lives, 30 per cent of every day is somehow intersecting with the past, whether you are thinking about something or someone says something. Here, right now, talking to you, we’ve been talking for decades and that’s part of my 30 per cent for this day.
“I see [the past] is very close, all around me. It doesn’t suffocate me, it just comes into my mind and comes into my writing.”
The Candle And The Flame takes its turns in the past in many ways, and in many circumstances and countries, from roads in Germany and a visit to Marrakesh to his childhood and his early days with Karin.
“The song The Roads, where I was writing about the German towns, I wrote the music while I was there, just before lockdown, Karen and I at the family home in the Bavarian countryside. When we are over there, Karin always drives and I’m in the passenger seat, so I’m looking out the window – which I never do over here,” Forster says. “A song like When I Was A Young Man, it’s inspiration, things that came to my mind that was suggested by the music.”
The music and a Radio National show where people are asked to describe a year that changed their life, feeding back into that music.
“In my usual ‘ego-less’ state, I thought what if I ever got asked to be on it. It was almost an intellectual exercise. And I thought what would be the year that changed me, and I thought 21: when I moved out of home, started writing my first really good songs,” he says. “That must have come to my mind when I wrote that melody, but I don’t know how that works, so, it’s connections.
“It’s what we’re talking about: songwriters can be afraid, they think the past is dead. They think they’ve lived it and there’s nothing there. But for me that’s fertile ground. There’s tons and tons of stuff there that is churning over in my mind, so why not investigate it in song?”
As any psychologist will tell you in your first session, if you think you can fix yourself in the present without dealing with the past, you are kidding yourself. That stuff never goes away; that is who you are. And that can be whether you have a problematic childhood, or, like Forster as he describes in When I Was A Young Man, a happy one. “Raised by mother raised by dad/Raised by my brother in the harmony that we had/I was never lonely and I was never sad/I was never lonely.”
Any seriously unqualified pop psychologist – oh, hello – would hear these words and think yes, that explains so much of what Forster has done in his life and career with an almost blithe ignoring of “sensible” pitfalls or reasons not to act. The idea that he couldn’t do things didn’t really exist.
“Yes, yes, yes. I was encouraged and I was welcomed, and this is something that I realise more and more. Karin talks about this as well, she is a psychologist, that I had an idyllic childhood and I don’t have to do process that, or issues from it, which is freeing,” Forster says. “When I was 17 or 18, I was lost and music found me and I found Grant [McLennan, The Go-Betweens’ other songwriter who was cajoled into music by Forster who was obsessed with Tom Verlaine, of Television, The Monkees and more] and we were away.
“There were lost years there, and that was a source of tension in the family, but not much. And from 0 to when I started to get a bit narky at 15, it was really golden.”
Some of us might be biting our tongues with envy right about now.
“I appreciate this because as you go through life you meet more people who have these things they are dealing with about childhood, and I do think it has allowed me to always just go ‘I can do this, I can make it, I’m going to stay with this’. It’s going to give me self-confidence, resilience to do what I’ve done, and it goes back to that,” he says.
“But as a sideways thing, you talk about songwriters, for me the great turning point came from Grant. When he wrote ‘I recall, a schoolboy coming home’, the first line of Cattle & Cane, I was like ‘fuck me!’. That had not occurred to me, that I could go backwards. Backwards is the wrong word, that I could go back in the past like that.”
What struck him so forcefully?
“You think of a line like that, ‘I recall a schoolboy coming home’, Bowie couldn’t have written that, Dylan couldn’t have written that, John Lennon couldn’t have written that. Well maybe John Lennon’s one person who could have, but you know what I mean, no one had done that,” Forster explains.
“So for me as a songwriter, although I didn’t really start to do that until later, when I followed Grant in that way, that was the door that opened for me. And I was there when he did it, and there was no set up for that. Grant didn’t write Cattle & Cane [versions] A, B, C, and then the one we know; that was no warning.
“So when you talk about songwriters looking into their past and having it as comfortable, available subject matter, there’s a starting point, for me at least. And maybe many others too.”
ON THURSDAY: in part three of this interview, Robert Forster dances in the kitchen, brings the family in close, and looks to add value to the world. “I hope I’m doing good things. That’s all I can say.”
The Candle And The Flame is out now. Robert Forster will be touring in May. See here for details.
YEARS BOTH TENDER AND BEAUTIFUL: read part one of this interview here
EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES AND FAMILY TIES: read part three of this interview here