(Photo by Stephen Booth)
POLITENESS MAY FEEL SAFER, but politeness doesn’t cut it really. While there is a new album to talk about, there’s something both connected to it and above it all to address with Robert Forster first.
It is 18 months since his wife, psychologist and occasional co-writer/performer, Karin Baumler, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. That’s 18 months of the kind of impositions, the kind of pressures and the kind of thoughts you can’t ever prepare for, either as a cancer patient or the family of a cancer patient. Even if the questions will keep coming for a singer/songwriter of nearly 40 years, and a partner of 32, like how is Karin?
“She is doing well. She is stronger, fitter,” says Forster. “We are walking every day, swimming, she is looking great. So we are going along happy that the medication is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. We have been living a very simple home life because she is very immune-compromised: we were a year and a half into Covid and the shrinking of life so we went even more intense into it with Karin’s diagnosis.”
The intensity isn’t without offshoots of course.
“We are both writing, we are both happy at home, happy to follow the course of the record and how it’s going in the videos and things,” he continues. “It’s a good time, a good time.”
And how is he?
“Thank you for asking. It’s been, it’s been … It’s gone well in terms of that Karin is responding to treatment and she has responded to the chemo and she can take her medication. It’s been life changing, especially the first 6 to 9 months which were very, very intense for myself and the children,” Forster says in his familiar hesitant/then rushed/then expansive manner. “I think in a way Karin’s diagnosis happened when I was 64 and I think that’s probably a good time of life, if there ever can be for this. I wasn’t in my 30s or 40s or 50s, I’m not in my late 70s or 80s; I’m fully fit and I’m happy to step back and give myself to what had to be done – I’m in that time of life.”
It’s interesting and understandable that again his answer pivots on Karin’s state and what he can do to be present for her, but it is important too that a cancer patient’s partner/support be mentally, emotionally and physically strong, for both people in the relationship. It was not an idle question.
“Really the person who asks me the most about that is Karin herself,” he says. “I’m fairly steady. The great thing is that – and this is to do with Covid as well – I work at home. I’ve lived and worked at home since I was 20. So talking about Covid in general and this in particular, this is how I’ve always lived, so it’s not like ‘whoa! I’ve had to give up my job’ because I’ve always been creating at home, building things at home.
"The change was watching Karin respond to the chemo and organising things around the house. Keeping the house going has been my job and as long as Karin is doing well a lot of my worries fade away, and I feel better.”
The work at home has produced his new album, The Candle And The Flame, to these ears his best record in a decade or more. It is also an album that intrigues for the clash between assumptions and reality. The curious aspect as a listener to the album is similar to that experienced with Nick Cave’s album Skeleton Tree which was written before the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, but sounded like and was read as a response to it.
While quite a few songs on The Candle And The Flame sound as if they address Karin’s circumstances and Forster’s state of mind – the sinuous declaration of love and history that is Tender Years; the medicine-referencing It’s Only Poison; the travelling circuit through Karin’s homeland, Germany, in The Roads; maybe even Go Free and There’s A Reason To Live – only one actually was written after the diagnosis, the album’s first single and its most lyrically brief, She’s A Fighter, which features not just Baumler but their children, Louis (of the band The Goon Sax), and Loretta.
And yet … And yet.
How about for the man himself though? Does the album in retrospect feel as if it is addressing his family’s situation, speaking to his life since the songs were written, in a way that couldn’t have been foreseen when he wrote them?
“Yes, it does, it does. As soon as we started playing the songs here in the house, with Karin and I and our son Louis, with no intention of making a record, just playing music in the house to get our minds away and take us into another world as a relief, the songs had a whole other meaning,” says Forster. “Karin, again, was someone who [said] ‘how did you do this? How did this happen?’. And as you say, it’s the business of the universe, something that I can’t really …”
It’s not even Covid that can be credited with the focusing of his mind on matters close to home.
“I only wrote two songs during Covid, before the diagnosis, so it played a small part in those two songs,” says Forster. “But Tender Years just staggers me that they now have this other meaning. I haven’t played any of them live yet, so that’s going to be a whole other thing as well, but what can you know? How does this happen? I really don’t know.”
The one unequivocal thing about these songs is it does reinforce the love, the connection, and depth of this relationship, separate from and existing before and after what’s happened over the past 18 months.
“That’s a really, really good point. I haven’t written anything since the diagnosis. I’ve got pieces of music that I’ve written, that I really like, but for the first time in my life I’m not writing lyrics. I don’t know what to say,” Forster says. “After the diagnosis, I just got those six words out: ‘she’s a fighter, fighting for good’, and it really just came to me in the way she was talking about, just before chemo, how she was going to approach this whole thing, and all of her strengths came through.
“These lines were so blatant to me, and how they – again we are talking about serendipity – fit into this piece of music is just extraordinary. That I could write, those six words at all … anything else, if you were to ask me, it was just so overwhelming, so big, that I couldn’t even begin to have written Tender Years or There’s A Reason To Live, It’s Only Poison. I could only have done it in ignorance beforehand."
“And I can’t write now because I don’t know where it’s going and we’re living month-to-month and things are going well, and I don’t want to write about that. But to come back to your other point, the songs do have that affection and love for Karin, and these parts of our story in there that were there before the diagnosis," he says. "And that’s how we felt about each other, the love we had for each other, right up until the diagnosis.
"So the diagnosis and how I felt about her was no big revelation. It’s an ongoing thing.”
NEXT WEEK: in part two of this interview, Robert Forster talks through the writing and recording of The Candle And The Flame, how the past is always present, and how so much of this can be traced back to a song he didn’t even write.
The Candle And The Flame is out today through EMI. Robert Forster will be touring in May. See here for details.
THE PAST ISN'T DANGEROUS, IT HASN'T EVEN PASSED: read part two of this interview here
EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES AND FAMILY TIES: read part three of this interview here