The Candle and the Flame is Robert Forster’s fourth album since the death of The Go-Betweens’ co-leader, Grant McLennan. Forster began playing solo after The Go-Betweens’ original dissolution in 1989, but he paused his solo project after he and McLennan revived the band in 2000.
McLennan died in 2006, and Forster’s four subsequent albums – including 2008’s The Evangelist, 2015’s Songs to Play and 2019’s Inferno – bear the unmistakable hallmarks of the songwriter who found a modest but rapt international fanbase with The Go-Betweens. This period of late-career productivity has also magnified the particularities of the Brisbane songwriter’s worldview.
Robert Forster – ‘Tender Years’
The Candle and the Flame is the follow-up to Forster’s seventh solo LP, Inferno, and his latest album was recorded after Forster’s wife and frequent collaborator, violinist Karin Bäumler, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The aftershock of this experience not only left a mark on songs like ‘She’s a Fighter’ and ‘Tender Years’, but both Bäumler and the couple’s son, Louis Forster (ex-The Goon Sax), appear prominently on the record.
Elsewhere on The Candle and the Flame, Forster reflects on significant events from his past, such as developing a fascination with Lou Reed and David Bowie as a teenager (on ‘When I Was a Young Man’), staying sober and relying on memories to transcend the present (on ‘I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time’), and using memory to motivate oneself to keep living (on ‘There’s A Reason to Live’).
Forster will take The Candle and the Flame on tour around Australia in May 2023. Music Feeds spoke to Forster about writing his first novel, writing songs about memory, and working with his family on The Candle and the Flame.
Robert Forster – ‘She’s a Fighter’
Music Feeds: The Candle and the Flame is out now. But you’re writing a novel, is that right?
Robert Forster: Yeah. It’s my first go at this. It’s a big effort because I’m writing a book but I’m also learning to write a book, which means it’s taking longer and I’m going down some dead roads. I think it will be published, but the amount of work that it takes and the amount of financial rewards, it’s a folly, it’s madness. But I want to do it. There’s a story there to tell and I’ll tell it.
MF: You’ve published a memoir and written loads of music criticism. But writing fiction is a completely different skill?
Robert: It is. And I got into it because I had the story in my mind and also because I’d done so much factual stuff that was just fact-checking and it was like writing history in a way. And I just wanted to break free of that and just make it up, basically.
MF: In contrast to making things up in the novel, you’ve said that The Candle and the Flame reveals more about your life and the people you share your life with than previous records. Was that a consequence of Covid?
Robert: It could be. Because there’s four years between records, it’s not like there’s a really tight group of songs and I’m like, “OK, the themes for the next album are going to be this, this and this.”
But one song must’ve led to the other – I must’ve gone from ‘Tender Years’ to ‘When I Was a Young Man’ and then to ‘I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time’. I must’ve felt comfortable in that area and liked what I was doing there. You know, travelling into the past and being more open with it and being more autobiographical with it.
MF: ‘I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time’ is about travelling through your memories instead of using drugs to transport you. Actively exploring memories of the past, has that been a more recent preoccupation?
Robert: No, I don’t think so. Obviously, as I get older, there’s more to look at than when you’re 20. But I find it fascinating to go over periods of my life, and also, I think it impacts on your daily life enormously. Think about the interactions you have with people, the thoughts you have, things that just pop up through your communication with people – about 25 per cent of your day is dealing with the past quite directly. Like, we’re obviously not living in an ever-present present where it’s just all now.
I wrote a song about 15 years ago called ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ that was set in Sydney in the mid-’80s – and I don’t know how I got onto that – but people [who I was involved with] during that time I’m involved with still. So it’s not like it’s this thing where I knew a lot of people there and we were hanging around in cafes on Crown Street and in bands and I never saw any of those people again. I do [see them], and so it’s still touching me and affecting me.
Robert Forster – ‘I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time’
MF: There’s a metaphysical aspect to the lyrics in ‘I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time’ – you’re seeing colours and experiencing a kaleidoscope of sensations. Is your recollection of the past generally quite transportive?
Robert: It’s certainly stamped on my mind. Also, I’m aware that I’m self-mythologising my own past, which I love doing. I love taking a scene and throwing the lights on it – and not making it bigger or grander or anything, but concentrating on these sort of periods, it’s mythologising my own past. To do that, the music has to be right. You have to have enough room and good music to do it.
MF: ‘I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time’ is a country song.
Robert: Exactly. It’s a three-chord country song. I love that melody, because it’s quite simple and just three chords. But to put something vaguely psychedelic on that, and – as you said – metaphysical, I find it enjoyable. It’s taking that musical structure and putting something that’s sort of mind-warping on it.
MF: You made this album with your wife Karin and your son Louis. Was that something you’d been eager to do? Or was it just a matter of circumstance?
Robert: Circumstance. I didn’t see it coming at all. He was on his path and I was on mine and Karin was doing what she was doing. And it was just once Karin’s diagnosis came, he cancelled a Goon Sax tour and was going to stay here six months to be with his mother and be close to the family. That opened it up – not that we saw [it like] that.
When he made that decision in July, we didn’t think that we’d be in the studio in the next couple of months. But it’s just that Karin and I started to play the songs here at home, late at night, like we’ve done for 30 years. And then he was visiting us and he joined us on guitar, and even then we had no idea that we were going to make a record.
So, it was very organic, which I think is the best way. But I never saw this coming, nor did Karin and nor would Louis.
MF: Does it feel special now that it has happened?
Robert: Oh, yes. Very special. And then we made the video for ‘She’s a Fighter’. That was very special. Also, because we have not exposed ourselves much as a family, so to actually make a video and have it go out as my first new music to go out in four years, and with the story with it, it was really stepping out.
Robert Forster’s new album The Candle and the Flame is out now.
Robert Forster 2023 Australian Tour
- Friday, 12th May – Trinity Sessions, Adelaide
- Saturday, 13th May – Freo Social, Fremantle
- Thursday, 18th May – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine
- Friday, 19th May – Brunswick Ballroom, Brunswick
- Saturday, 20th May – Memo Music Hall, St Kilda
- Sunday, 21st May – Archies Creek Hotel, Archies Creek
- Friday, 26th May – Princess Theatre, Brisbane
- Saturday, 27th May – Factory Theatre, Sydney
- Sunday, 28th May – Lizottes, Newcastle