Ahead of Record Store Day 2017 on Saturday April 22, RSD ambassador and Australian songwriting icon Robert Forster tells Joseph Earp about the motivation behind his own records.
Robert Forster is not a man to rush things. The musician, novelist, critic and now Record Store Day 2017 ambassador has sometimes left years between the release of solo albums, and the discography of The Go-Betweens – the band he led for decades along with friend Grant McLennan – is a curated collection of classics rather than some slapdash, last-minute assemblage.
So given his careful approach to making art, it shouldn’t necessarily be surprising to discover how long Forster worked on Grant And I, his fascinating non-fiction account of The Go-Betweens’ formation and rise. Still, hearing him actually say the words does take one aback.
“It took seven years,” Forster says in a soft voice. “I wasn’t going full speed writing it for the full seven years – the first two years were spent mostly projecting things and trying to find the approach. That was sort of the run-up, getting the framework in place. But then I just got into it suddenly.”
Of course, Forster does write his songs faster than his novels – but even those are formulated relatively slowly, over time. Songs To Play, his excellent 2016 album, was dropped a whole seven years after The Evangelist, the record that preceded it.
“I’m not a prolific songwriter,” he admits. “I’ll be lucky if I write two songs a year, although I’m trying all the time. You’re almost exhilarated when it happens. You’re like, ‘After all these months I’ve made something that’s good.’ I just walk around completely high for two weeks. It doesn’t wear off quickly when you write a good song. It stays with you. And it’s your secret, you know? It’s a beautiful thing – that’s partly what’s kept me at it for all these years.”
Even when he’s writing, Forster always has the performative aspect of his music in mind. As any punters lucky enough to catch him live can attest, he is a consummate onstage presence – a musician who beams artistic generosity, moving around with all the grace of someone doing something quite difficult as though it is the easiest thing in the world.
“I’m also in the position where I know these songs will be recorded, I know that they will be released, and I know that I will play them in front of people,” he says. “There are people writing good songs who don’t even know if they’re going to be recorded. But that just adds to the excitement, knowing that finally you’ve broken through and written something and that moves you one song closer to making the album and then playing it live.”
Aside from the live setting, Forster has a distinctly modern way of staying in touch with his audience. He is an active Facebook user, utilising his official page to talk to fans, receive feedback and even answer the occasional query. This level of artist to crowd contact is essential, he argues, a way of ensuring that he never loses sight of those he plays for.
“I’m not someone in my 20s or 30s who is constantly on the road or constantly putting out a record every year. So I don’t have that constant contact, that constant awareness of my audience. I’m doing other things – like for the book, for example – things that keep me at home, which is good for my time of life. But you can forget the connections that you’re making – it can all fall away quite quickly.”
He takes a moment to consider. “I find it fantastic and very affirming when people tell you what the music has done for their lives and how it’s affected them. I always find it very important to talk to people. For me, it’s nourishment.”