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An Interview with Robert Forster

Robert Forster - Songs to Play
18 September 2015

Robert Forster always intended to take a break from recording after releasing his last solo album, 2008’s The Evangelist, but didn’t necessarily expect it to last seven years. That’s not to say he hasn’t been busy. He’s lived entire careers in the time he’s been away, as rock journalist for Australia’s The Monthly, as record producer for local Australian bands, and as archivist for G is for Go-Betweens, a set of vinyl reissues of his old band The Go-Betweens’ entire catalog (the first volume came out in January). That catalog is the one his reputation’s built on, but it’s also one he appears eager to not let overshadow his other work. Songs to Play, out today in North America via Tapete Records, represents an opportunity for a clean break, especially after The Evangelist, recorded in the wake of his longtime bandmate and songwriting partner Grant McLennan’s 2006 passing, arrived heavy with the context of his past work.

Even as a solo artist he thrives on collaboration, and Songs to Play finds him energized among a group of younger musicians. The album’s title might read like a placeholder at first, but more likely refers to the playfulness of its performances. The music and lyrics suggest forward momentum, so it’s appropriate that the first song opens at a gas station. “Learn to Burn” echoes another album opener penned by Forster, 1986’s “Spring Rain,” but where that song was narrated by a prematurely nostalgic young man, remembering drives in his first car, the new one is told by an older man looking resolutely ahead, critiquing his own impatience. That sets the pace for an album that largely dispenses with the past and yields constant surprises.

Forster called me from the future, as it happens (Brisbane is 15 time zones ahead of mine), to talk about Songs to Play.

GS: It’s been a while since we heard from you so I wanted to ask how you came to be releasing a new album this year, as opposed to say last year or next year.

RF: It’s been seven years, and I guess after I made The Evangelist, I wanted to have a break. I wanted to just put some time down, basically, to let everyone know that I wanted to take a break and I knew that a new chapter of my career was starting, whatever that would be, or wherever that would take me. I just knew that I was going into another phase, and I thought the best way to signal that was just through time. So the seven years went by and I was doing other things like working as a music journalist, and I was producing bands here in Brisbane, and I was starting to work on the Go-Betweens box set that came out earlier this year. So I was doing a lot of things and I was hoping that the album would probably come out after about five years, but it sort of went to about seven. The box set took a little bit longer than what we thought, and so that’s just the way it panned out. Basically I just wanted some time to go by and I had plenty of things to do.

GS: This new record opens with a lot of energy and the title makes me think that you might be eager to get out on the road and play these songs live. Do you have any plans for a tour with this new album?

RF: That is very perceptive. I do wanna do that. The seven year break from recording also matches seven years away from being able to play one night after another. I have done one-off shows. So I am very much looking forward to touring, and the songs that are on this album, when I was writing them back in 2008, 9, 10, 11, I was thinking that I wanted songs that would just really connect and really fly off the acoustic guitar and really be immediate songs, without writing sugar pop or anything, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I went in with that attitude and I am looking forward to playing. At the moment I’ve got dates booked in Australia, about six, and about ten shows booked in Europe.

GS: You’re working with some younger musicians on the album. Do you feel they brought anything new to the material?

RF: Everybody that I work with is younger than me. That’s a state of life I’ve come to now. The main two people that I work with are Scott Bromley and Luke McDonald from a band called The John Steel Singers, who are a Brisbane band that I’ve produced. They’re musicians in their late twenties, they’re multi-instrumentalists but they’re very attuned to the song, they don’t get lost in virtuosity. They love music and they brought a lot of colors and a lot of ideas to my songs, which is what I wanted. I knew how talented they were and I wanted them to be involved with these songs. I had the songs written but I wanted them to feel free to bring all of their imagination and ideas to the songs, which they did.

GS: Especially with “Learn To Burn.” I like the way the violin and the guitars are all interlocking, increasingly throughout the song.

RF: It worked out very well. The violin is played by my wife, Karin Baumler, and we had a great drummer, Matt [Piele], who was in my last touring band back in 2008. I’ve known Matt since he was like a 14-year old boy. He’s a friend. I knew his parents, and so he played. So it’s a collection of people that I pulled from here and there, all for their particular abilities, and it feels very fresh and interesting, what we’re doing.

GS: You’re inspired by these younger musicians and then you’ve also been working on the Go-Betweens reissues, and I wondered if you found doing that was also inspiring for this new material.

RF: Not really. Most of the material was written before I got into the Go-Betweens box set. No, although bizarrely enough, I didn’t see it coming at all, some people have suggested that the new album sort of sounds like early Go-Betweens, some of the songs, some of the feeling of it. It was recorded in Brisbane, where very early Go-Betweens stuff was done, but I didn’t really think about that, it’s all just sort of natural to me. Now I can. I can see connections that I hadn’t realized or seen when we were recording or I was writing the material.

GS: I was reading an older interview you did, with Jack Tatum from Wild Nothing [in Under the Radar #44, Jan. 2013]. Do you remember doing that?

RF: Yeah, clearly.

GS: There was a little aside in there, he was talking about the difference between songwriting and poetry, but it wasn’t pursued too much. Then I found it striking that on the new album there’s “Songwriters on the Run,” which is quickly followed by “A Poet Walks,” and I wondered if you thought of the two as a pair, or what your take is on the difference between songwriting and poetry.

RF: I hadn’t seen that. I don’t think song lyrics are poetry. I think lyric writing and poetry are two really different things, and this is being brought home to me at the moment because I’m off to Dublin in two weeks and I’m doing two concerts that celebrate the 150th year of the birth of the poet W.B. Yeats. And so I’m trying to put music to his poetry and it just reminded me that it is hard, that they are two very, very different things. Although, like a lot of lyric writers, I enjoy poetry a lot. You can get a lot out of it purely as a lyric writer, because it’s image, it’s story, it’s word selection. You get a lot of nourishment out of it. So it helps, but I see them as two separate things. I think also subconsciously, maybe because I’ve been working as a music journalist and I’m also working on a book, that probably I’ve started to see myself more as a writer, and so I’m not just a lyric writer anymore, and maybe that’s bled into “Songwriters on the Run” or “A Poet Walks.” I had not seen that, that’s a fresh perspective to me.

GS: You mentioned working on a book, and recently a lot of musicians from the era of The Go-Betweens have been publishing memoirs. Is that something that has any interest for you, or are you happy focusing on your other projects?

RF: Yeah, it does. That’s something that I’m working on at the moment. But it’s like my songwriting, I don’t think in and out of the Go-Betweens. I don’t want to write some sort of standard band biography or anything like that, so what I’m writing has to sort of have a voice and a uniqueness that is in my music. I want to transfer into the written word. I am working on a memoir but it’s not the Go-Betweens story. That’s a part of it, but it’s a broader thing than that.

GS: I really enjoy your voice when you’re writing for The Monthly, when I have a chance to read those columns. You’ve had to keep up a lot with the recent music scene. Is there anything that’s been particularly exciting for you recently?

RF: No, I stopped writing for The Monthly about two years ago, because I thought I’d written myself out to an extent, and I just wasn’t getting around to other things that I wanted to do. The Monthly was taking up just a little bit too much of my time, although I enjoyed writing for it a great deal. So I stopped. Not really. I haven’t really listened to music in any great depth for a couple of years. I just don’t have the time. The greatest attention that’s drawn to it is probably through my son, who’s 17, and he’s sort of, “listen to this, listen to that.” So I sort of get things through him, but in terms of myself, not so much. That time will come again. What’ll happen is, I have to finish the book, which I’m hoping to in the next six months. I have to tour this record—although once you get out on the road, you suddenly get exposed to a lot—and then when I come off the road… You probably talk to musicians and they’re on the road for a year, year and a half, you know, I’m on the road for about four weeks. When it comes to writing songs again, which I will do sometime in the future, it’s almost like I’ll dive back into music again, and because I’ve been away from it, I’ll probably find it really exciting, and I’ll be refreshed I hope.

GS: Going back to the new record, I think it would be easy to describe it as really energetic and positive, but I feel like there’s some heavier stuff under the surface, and I wondered if you could talk about the last song on the album [“Disaster In Motion”], which even has the line “it all burst forth,” and it’s kind of about good stuff vs. bad stuff. What do you think wins out in the end on this record?

RF: We tried to record that song three times, and people perceived it as a much sadder song than it was. I really liked the song, and I was always trying to make it lighter, just the recording of it, because to me it was just a view of a town that was good and bad. I was just consciously trying to get the balance right in that song. I was very happy with the lyric and the music, but the recording, it was a very easy song to get darker than it actually was and so we had to sort of have a couple of go’s at it, so it wasn’t too dense. It’s a very easy song to put a lot of overdubs on, and it just sort of became more dirge-y, and with the lyric I just felt that wasn’t really what I was trying to do. But you’re right, I think that it is an energized, open, poppier record than probably I’ve made for a long time. But it’s not all sunshine and light, you know, I’m not that type of person or that type of songwriter.

GS: I definitely get a sense of lifting from the way the final take turned out.

RF: It goes out on a groove, and that’s something I wanted to do, because so much of my songwriting is, you know, there’s melodic turns and there’s choruses and then it goes back to verse and then it will go to a middle eight, and it all happens fairly quickly, is the way that it’s always been with me. With this song, I really wanted it to go out on those three chords, I wanted to stay on three chords and go nowhere for two, two and a half minutes. Lots of bands do it, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, they do it, the Velvets Velvet Underground do it, Neu! do it, lots of bands do this. Although I like all those groups, I’d never really done it, just sort of stayed on something and just let it vibrate, and that’s what I wanted to do, and go nowhere. And it was perfect at the end of the record because this was the end, this was taking it out all the way. We tried to sequence that song earlier in the album and the fade was too long, it just sort of slowed down the momentum, you had two and a half minutes in the middle of the record where it was just going around in three chords. Admittedly new stuff was coming in and it was working, and there were new, subtle ideas coming through in the mix. But it worked really well at the end, and so that’s where we put it.

GS: Then you have other songs on the second half with titles like “I’m So Happy For You,” “Love Is Where It Is,” “I Love Myself (And I Always Have),” and I felt with titles like that, either the narrator of these songs is a really happy guy or he’s deliberately pushing some heavier stuff to the side. Are those songs as carefree as they might seem to be on the surface?

RF: Yes and no. I’d have to go through each of them really quickly. “I Love Myself (And I Always Have)” is the idea of a jokey title, but it’s a serious song. It’s sort of like a manifesto that just works off that title, because I took the title seriously. It’s feeling positive about yourself and being unashamed about that. “I’m So Happy For You” is about someone else’s happiness. It is linked to my happiness but it’s about someone else’s happiness.

“Love Is Where It Is” is a little bit more genre. This chord progression came to me, people call it bossa nova. I like a few things that Paul McCartney did in the early 60s, “I’ll Follow the Sun” or “Things We Said Today,” sort of minor 7th pop songs he wrote. I really love those songs he wrote, those sort of very simple, but really melodic and not crunchy pop songs. I think bossa nova was coming through then, this early 60s type thing, samba rhythms or something, that The Beatles did. But that was just a phrase that came with that song. That’s a little more where the music’s leading that song. The lyric’s important but it’s more a musical thing, and when you’re in that sort of mood, you don’t want to get too heavy on people. I was going with the feeling of it. When I wrote the melody I wasn’t thinking about it, but it’s like “The Girl from Ipanema,” when what’s his name [quite a few to remember: music by Antônio Carlos Jobim, Portuguese lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, English lyrics by Norman Gimbel], when he wrote that he just knew that he couldn’t get heavy on a melody like that.

GS: The backing vocals add that breezy element to it as well.

RF: They do, they do, and you just sometimes gotta go with something, and just go, well, that’s the feel of the music, and the lyric has gotta go with that. So the three songs, quite different in what they’re doing.

GS: Thanks for talking about those distinctly. I didn’t mean to lump them all together like that. [Robert forgives me.] I think it’s interesting, here’s another Robert Forster album that’s ten songs and forty minutes long [like all but one Go-Betweens album and all but two of his solo albums]. Is that just a coincidence, or is that a kind of format you find useful to work with?

RF: It looks like a format that I’m happy with. We did record twelve songs. We left two of them off, and the two we left off were as good as any of the songs on the album. One of them was one of my favorites, which I just didn’t think we got. It wasn’t like I went in with ten songs and was like, well, we got eight of them really well and the other two I’m not too happy about but we gotta put them on anyway because we can’t put out a 27-minute album or something. These were the twelve of my favorite songs that I wrote, there were a few more but these were really my twelve favorites. Then I think it’s because the album was recorded on analog gear—I adore vinyl and so do the people who worked on the album—and vinyl puts you to about a 35- to 39-minute timeframe. All my songs average out about three and a half minutes, and so it sort of works out at around ten. I’m always up for breaking it, like I’d love to do an eight-song album if I had eight songs that were five minutes or one song that was 13 minutes. I love Station to Station with six songs. I’d love to do a three-song album or a 16-song album. Vinyl, if you’ve got your eye on that, you’ve got about 39 minutes, and so that’s the way it happened. I did think vaguely about trying to go for a double album, but I just think it’s a big haul and I didn’t really want to go down that avenue.

GS: So you have some songs in the backlog that could result in another album a little more quickly?

RF: I’ve got the two that I left off that I definitely want to do. Normally I write a song when I’m recording, because I’m in the studio all the time and I’ve got a guitar in my hand, and so I find downtime. While I’m waiting and while there’s mixing going on I’m off in another room playing guitar just to pass time because I really enjoy it. It’s like no one’s knocking on my door, and I’m not distracted. I’m in a studio, I’ve got instruments, they’re mixing, they want me to come back in an hour and listen to what they’ve done, and so I’m happy to go in another room and just play guitar and noodle, and so I got a song, maybe two. So I’ve got about four songs that I really like, so we’ll just see. As I said, I’ve got this book I’ve got to work on, I’ve got some touring to do. I think I’ll start to look at things next year and start building from there.


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