Robert Forster: “Time is fluid. Everything we do during our day, we’re touching the past”

The Go-Betweens songwriter tells NME how music therapy for the love of his life became ‘The Candle and the Flame’, the most personal album he has ever recorded

Robert Forster is sitting in the living room of his home in The Gap, a bushland suburb on the fringes of Brisbane, although NME can’t say for sure. The 65-year-old former Go-Between prefers to have the camera off while speaking over Zoom. His approach to communication technology is cautious, but not disinterested: Forster posts long, sporadic updates on Facebook to his fans, more in the style of a family Christmas card than social media missive. In a recent post, he asked whether he should get Instagram.

“I have gone back and forwards with for years. Sometimes I think it’s a good idea, other times I shiver…I’ve never downloaded an App. Should i do it? Please tell me, yes or no…And if I do, I promise – NO photographs of my breakfast,” he wrote.

“I don’t want it to be some sort of content feed,” Forster says now of the would-be Insta account. “I want to be what I see and feel. I want the content to come exclusively from me.”

Robert Forster
Credit: Stephen Booth


Beyond curiosity, the songwriter is considering the move in order to document the touring of his new solo album ‘The Candle and The Flame’, the most personal release of his 45-year recording career.

Over the past three years, Forster wrote a series of unrelated songs in a haphazard workflow.

“You’ve probably done interviews with musicians, and they go, ‘We wrote an album in three months, or three weeks’. I’m lucky if I write three songs a year,” he explains.

The songwriter was concurrently whittling away at a debut novel, set in the music industry during 1991, after a decade of non-fiction writing as a music critic and a memoirist (“I’ve been writing facts and having editors fact-check me for years. And I just wanted to make it up”). But pages were left blank in July 2021 when Forster’s wife and musical partner Karin Bäumler was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“Friends of ours in their 50s, 60s, they’re still partying. I gave up alcohol at 40… This line ‘I don’t do drugs, I do time’ came to me, thinking about that”

“We were in a COVID tunnel, and then it just got more intense – a more intense experience of lockdown,” Forster says.

After long days ferrying between tests and treatment, music became the family’s only salve. In the evenings, Forster would strum the guitar and sing the songs Bäumler had heard him write in the house, and soon, she would join in. The only new song Forster could bring himself to write about the actual diagnosis was ‘She’s A Fighter’, a chugging acoustic exaltation with only one lyric: “She’s a fighter/ Fighting for good”.

“It obviously struck us straight away that a lot of these older songs had an added meaning and were somehow connected with what happened to Karin: ‘There’s A Reason To Live’, ‘It’s Only Poison’, ‘Tender Years’. I can’t remember writing songs where that flip in meaning could be read into,” he says.


Indeed, it’s almost too difficult to believe these songs were written before Bäumler’s diagnosis. ‘Tender Years’ is Forster’s impassioned love song for his life partner: “I see her through the ages / She’s a book of a thousand pages….I’m in a story with her, I know I can’t live without her”.

“I just had this idea of Karin, seeing someone through the ages, but making it mythical, like it was Shakespeare, with this vigour,” Forster explains.

Forster’s son Louis, the frontman of the recently disbanded Goon Sax, and Adele Pickvance, a former Go-Betweens bassist, were visiting in the evenings to bring over food and help around the house. They joined the lounge room sessions, and something began to build.

One night, when sitting cross-legged on the couch, after we had played a song, Karin looked up from her xylophone and said, ‘When we play music, i[t’]s the only time I forget I have cancer’,” Forster wrote on Facebook.

“We weren’t thinking of making an album,” he says now. “But we wanted a document.”

Bäumler had a major seven-hour operation set for September 28, and so, the family booked a seven-hour recording session at Alchemix Studios in Brisbane’s West End for the day before.

Robert Forster
Credit: Stephen Booth

“The four of us were sitting, facing each other like a campfire, and just performing… I said to the engineer, ‘I don’t want headphones, I just want to sing into a mic, we’re doing this live’. And then no one had headphones,” Forster says.

Hearing some of the words he had written, played in that ring of familial intimacy, was overwhelming.

“‘Tender Years’, I was playing it alone. I was just holding myself together,” Forster says. “I can’t remember an experience like it where I wrote a song that jumped in meaning so much.

“Karin loved it. It was the first time she’d been out of the house since July without going to a hospital or a doctor.”

Two of the songs (‘I Don’t Do Drugs, I Do Time’ and ‘It’s Only Poison’) would remain in that original “document” format, and the rest were gradually re-recorded as a studio album. Bäumler’s chemotherapy sessions were on a tri-weekly schedule, and so they recorded one or two days every third week when she was strongest.

Listening to the record, the connective tissue between the songs seems to be memory. ‘I Don’t Do Drugs, I Do Time’ is Forster’s attempt at flattening temporal perspective, à la Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up In Blue’: “I’m walking to school in ‘69 / The next day, I’m 35 / And one day we’re all going to go to Fez”.

“Friends of ours in their 50s, 60s, they’re still partying. I gave up alcohol at 40 because I had a Hepatitis C diagnosis,” Forster says. “This line ‘I don’t do drugs, I do time’ came to me, thinking about that: equating it to the cliches of drug-taking, like changing colours and hypersensitivity. That really spacey state where your thought process just explodes.

“It’s something I can tap into. I find the past and how it plays out in the present totally fascinating. The past always seems very close to me. I think time is fluid. Everything we do during our day, we’re touching the past. ‘Dive For Your Memory’ on ‘16 Lovers Lane’ [The Go-Betweens’ 1998 album] is probably the first time I really got into that.”

“That The Go-Betweens are one of those bands that is shorthand for how another group sounds, I find really mind-blowing”

Forster will tour the album through the UK and Bäumler’s native Germany in March, performing with the London-based Louis, taking the “spirit of that first seven hour session” on the road with them. The music Louis made with The Goon Sax often prompted comparisons to his father’s music, thanks to its bookish lyrics and jangly temperament. But his father maintains he takes more after his mother as a musician.

“There’s a lot more music in Karin’s family, there’s none in mine,” Forster says. “When he was very young, I didn’t really have to do much. I just showed him a couple of chords on a nylon-string guitar when he was about six, and he was away.”

But Forster’s influence via The Go-Betweens – who will mark their 50th anniversary in 2027 – on the rest of Australian music is undeniable. It is nigh-on impossible to walk into a Melbourne music venue on a Friday night without hearing at least one band mumbling and jangling their way through a Forster and Grant McLennan impression. The songwriter doesn’t have any problem with it either.

“That we’re one of those bands that is shorthand for how another group sounds, I find really mind-blowing. I’m very touched by that,” Forster says. “That term dolewave means nothing to me but… The Go-Betweens were on the dole for the first few years of their existence, so there’s that.”

Robert Forster (left) and Grant McLennan (right) from The Go-Betweens perform at the Melkweg in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 26th October 1988
Robert Forster (left) and Grant McLennan (right) from The Go-Betweens perform at the Melkweg in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 26th October 1988. Credit: Frans Schellekens / Redferns

Forster is in the midst of compiling material for a third and final volume of ‘G Stands for Go-Betweens’, the anthology series which contains remastered albums, demos, unreleased songs, live sessions and essays. The forthcoming edition covers the last era of the band before McLennan’s passing, from 2000 to 2006, when they reformed with new members.

“Off the cuff, there’s at least 75 to 80 tracks that have never been released before,” Forster says. “There’s songs of Grant’s that never got beyond the demo… because of the advent of mobile phones, there’s a lot more visual documentation of that time. A lot of things are going to be revealed.”

The period, which culminated in one of the greatest losses of Forster’s life, only grows in poignance the further he gets from it.

“I’m just happy we did it, in light of Grant’s passing,” he says. “The fondness I have for just that we had that time to work together and hang out, grows… I think we were really getting better too. Where Grant was when he passed away, he was writing his best songs in years.”

Like his friend, Forster’s well of creative inspiration doesn’t seem to be drying up. Music, he says, is the “other reality we [can] live in”.

“I’m getting older and moving through life. I really don’t have to look too far for subject matter. I just track my own changes through time.”

Robert Forster’s ‘The Candle and The Flame’ is out today via EMI. He tours the UK and Europe in March and Australia in May


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