Living in Brisbane in the mid 1980s was an evocative time. My memories of that time all have a Go Betweens soundtrack, the music and the voice of Robert Forster narrating the essence of what it was like to live on the streets of that place at that time.
Fast forward to 2015, some thirty years later, when Forster has released an impressive new solo album Songs to Play, a clever and inspired suburban observation recorded in the sanctuary of Mt Nebo, just 20 minutes away from Forster’s Brisbane residence.
It’s been seven years since we’ve heard from Forster, who quietly prepared a Go Betweens box set, recorded Brisbane bands such as John Steel Singers and Half Way, and engaged in a stint for The Monthly as the music reviewer.
So why so long between songs?
‘I wanted some silence,’ says Forster. ‘I knew this record was going to be a first step in another part of my career; the best way to do that is to let time go by.’
In a culture obsessed with right now, with social media and riding the zeitgeist like some curling wave, a seven-year sabbatical flies in the face of 2016 cultural thinking. But I guess that’s the charm of Forster. He’s best in analog. He’s comfortable with the spaces in between. It’s a kind of self-assurance and confidence that oozes out of Songs to Play. This is not a musician looking for your approval.
‘I had faith it was the right decision, and it was tough financially, but I just thought it’s what I wanted to do, and the songs I had for quite a while – they were written between 2008 and 2010. I was working on a Go Betweens box set, which put it back a year or two longer, but by then I knew what I wanted. I had the songs and I had the musicians.’
Forster chose to record at Wild Mountain Sound in Brisbane’s Mount Nebo.
‘I knew the album was performance based, so we recorded in a house with different musicians in different rooms playing together. We wanted to come back in the room and look at the floor and listen, not watch the graph on a screen, but really listen.
‘The last two albums I did in 2004 and 2007 were digital. We were looking at the screen all the time. I am a singer/songwriter; the type of music I do goes with analog. ProTools is great if you are doing chopped-up R&B or something for the charts where you need the quick editing, which is fine for them.
‘Also the other thing with analog is that we only had 20 tracks. Some albums you hear it becomes really dense – the music is really thick.’
In the track Let Me Imagine You Forster requests, ‘please don’t twitter… Let me imagine you’. The track reflects the loss of romance, the place of imagining that exists without the instant gratification of Facebook posts and Twitter feeds.
‘I think there is less space for people to make unusual connections and to miss out on something – or to dream about something. You need space to make connections yourself. Maybe being blitzed with information is too much, and having blanks or not knowing things is maybe a good thing – you need room to think and you need room to come up with new ideas.’
That was also part of the reason Forster chose Mt Nebo to record his new album.
‘The great thing about Mt Nebo is that it’s an hour from the centre of the city but you feel like you are eight hours away. It’s an amazing feeling, it’s another world, it’s where I wanted to take the album because when you walk outside it’s just still, it’s a no-pressure situation to be in. It’s timeless.’
After recording their album Forster invited the John Steel Singers to be part of the process, playing and assisting on his new album.
‘It was good for them; they are 30 years younger than I. They had never done an analog album before. They are both students of rock history, so they have good knowledge of recordings from the 60s and 70s and a lot of the music they love is in the analog sphere. They were very hands on with the mixing. They really enjoyed it. I wanted them to get involved. There is already a hell of a lot of me in the album so I wanted Scott and Luke to bring their musical flavours, not just play bass and guitar.’
Forster is looking forward to coming to Mullum Music Festival where he will be playing solo. He says, ‘This is an album where I want to play all the songs. Every album you put out when you do a concert you might play four or five songs from it but Music to Play is an album that I want to play live. It’s something you could play with a band or on a one-string banjo and it would still sound good.’
Forster is also looking forward to coming to Mullumbimby.
‘I adore it down there. Last time I was there – it would have been eight years ago – I was in Santos and the only other people in the shop was John Butler and his wife; it’s that kind of town.’
Robert Forster plays Mullum Music Festival on Sunday at the Civic Hall.
For program and ticket information go to mullummusicfestival.com.au.