AS TIME GOES BY
It’s taken Robert Forster nine years to move on, musically speaking, from the shock death of his collaborator Grant McLennan. That feels about right, he tells
Six weeks ago at the Splendour in the Grass Festival in Byron Bay, Robert Forster took to the stage — not to sing primarily, although he did do a couple of songs, but to reflect on his illustrious career. As he reminisced in conversation with broadcaster Robbie Buck about his early years in Brisbane and about the successes and failures of his band the Go-Betweens, the spirit of his long-time friend and collaborator Grant McLennan was never far away. Even the music spilling across the muddy paddock to the interview marquee was coming from the GW McLennan stage, which commemorates the life and career of Forster’s friend, who died in 2006.
Forster hasn’t been terribly prolific in musical terms in the nine years since that tragedy, releasing only one solo album, but there are a number of reasons for that and McLennan is central to one of them. “I wanted some time to pass,” says Forster.
Forster’s curriculum vitae has extended beyond his music brief since the final Go-Betweens album, Oceans Apart, in 2005. The singer has written award-winning music journalism for The Monthly and contributed to The Saturday Paper and other publications. He has done shows only occasionally, most often oneoff appearances at festivals here and overseas.
As a producer he has worked with Brisbane’s the John Steel Singers and Halfway. He helped promote the Go-Betweens anthology box set, G is for Go-Betweens, last year and has just completed the second draft of his memoirs. All that has been missing is new music — until now.
Immediately after the shock death of his music partner from a heart attack at the age of 48, Forster announced that the Go-Betweens, which had enjoyed a noughties renaissance after splitting up in 1989, could no longer exist. Instead Forster resumed the solo career he had begun in 1990. His next album, The Evangelist in 2008, included Demon Days, the last song he and McLennan wrote together. McLennan remained a powerful influence on that collection of songs. That album, says Forster, was a pivotal and cathartic moment in his life.
“It closed a chapter on a whole range of lev- els,” says the 58-year-old musician. “I knew I’d never make an album like that again.”
Step forward seven years and Forster is glad he allowed such a long period to pass before releasing another batch of songs. The new chapter in Forster’s solo career is Songs to Play, his sixth solo album, which is released on September 18. It’s familiar in its quirky pop, the singer’s mannered delivery and the sharp lyrics that have marked his band and solo oeuvres over the past 30 years, but its creator came at it from a different angle than the work that preceded it. While The Evangelist had its roots in Oceans Apart, Songs to Play is a fresh start, from a single vision.
“The Evangelist was very much a reaction to the last Go-Betweens album,” Forster says. “Grant passed away after we did Oceans Apart and then a year and a half later I went into another album that had some songs he had written and it was recorded in the same studio.”
When asked if McLennan is a presence on the new album, Forster’s answer is an emphatic “no”, although adding that “it was recorded in Brisbane so there’s always a bit of Grant floating around there”.
Indeed the album was recorded just outside Brisbane, in a tiny studio, Wild Mountain Sound, at Mount Nebo. Forster wanted to use old analog equipment to record the album and enlisted engineer Jamie Trevaskis to assist in the project, alongside the John Steel Singers’ Scott McDonald and Luke Bromley, drummer Matt Piele and Forster’s wife, Karin Baumler, on vocals and violin.
The songs on it, such as Let Me Imagine You, A Poet Walks and I Love Myself and I Always Have, creak with Forster’s sense of fun and irony, matched with his gift for floaty pop melodies. Some of the songs have been fermenting for several years. He planned originally to make an album two years ago, but his writing and the anthology got in the way.
“It took a lot longer than I thought it would,” he says. “Suddenly it was seven years had gone by instead of five.”
What has taken up a lot of his time in the past few years is his autobiography, which he is hoping will be published next year. Forster has warmed to the project more than he did to jour- nalism. He stopped writing for The Monthly in 2013 “because I thought I’d done enough”.
“Because I don’t have any formal journalistic training I’m a slow writer,” he says. “It would take me 10 days to write a 1500-word article and get it edited. I’ll do something again if it comes up. And I think I can do a decent job.”
The Robert Forster story begins in Brisbane, where he was born and raised, and takes in his schooling at Brisbane Grammar School and his student days at the University of Queensland, which is where he met McLennan. The history of the Go-Betweens, from those formative days as a duo, writing songs in their share house, through to that final album and McLennan’s death, is a complex one. After recruiting drummer Lindy Morrison, the Go-Betweens forged a
WE WEREN’T FIVE GUYS. WE WEREN’T THE STONES. WE WEREN’T ANYWHERE NEAR A TYPICAL BAND