Formerly of The Go-Betweens, Robert Forster is juggling new music, and touring, with his wife’s cancer recovery
Karin Bäumler forgets she has cancer when she plays music with her husband, Robert Forster, the legendary Australian singer-songwriter.
“When she was going through chemotherapy,” he says, “the diagnosis was quite fresh, it was only a couple of weeks before. Then when we started to play songs, to play music, we were in another world. It’s so beneficial to her to be just concentrating on songs and singing. The world falls away.”
In July 2021, she was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer. Not long after, he wrote ‘She’s a Fighter’. The song contains only two lines: “She’s a fighter. Fighting for good.”
When the 55-year-old went into hospital in Brisbane in Australia to have an operation to remove the organs affected by the cancer, she requested the song was played when the doctors, as the Sydney Morning Herald put it, “scraped cancer from her body”.
When she woke up, in a phone-call to Robert, she told him: “I’m still here.”
In the subsequent video for the song, he sings the lyric over and over while Bäumler plays xylophone, their son Louis plays bass and electric guitar, and daughter Loretta on rhythm guitar.
“We decided it was just going to be the four family members playing on it,” he says.
“It’s a very intense song. It’s probably the most intense thing that we do. We haven’t played it enough on this tour yet for me to relax into it, because the song is so fierce. But, you know, to scream out ‘she’s a fighter!’ to a room of people is a really powerful thing and I enjoy doing it.”
Does it almost put pressure on his wife to be a fighter?
“No, no, no – she’s entirely capable of being a fighter. That’s just engrained in her. That was the moment she went into when she got the cancer diagnosis. That song is very much about positivity and mentally and spiritually being on the front foot. And that’s what Karin has done.”
Age 65, Robert is speaking to me from Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, where’s he’s currently on tour (he appears at Dublin’s Button Factory this Friday).
‘She’s a Fighter’ is one of the stand-out tracks on his new album, The Candle and the Flame, his eighth solo record.
Though it was the only song written after Bäumler’s diagnosis, listening to the record you’d be forgiven for assuming it was mostly written in the wake of hearing the bad news.
‘It’s Only Poison’ could be about chemo. ‘There’s a Reason to Live’ could be about willing his wife to beat the cancer.
‘Tender Years’ appears like a fragile hymn to a woman he loves and doesn’t want to lose – not least because of the lines, “I’m
in a story with her/I know I can’t live without her.” (As one critic put it, Forster is an “accidental clairvoyant.”)
“‘Tender Years’ has morphed into something bigger than when I wrote it in 2018,” he says.
“It was powerful then when I wrote it, but I didn’t really know how good of a song it was. It has surprised me a little bit as it has grown. Obviously, it’s taken on grander meanings with Karin’s diagnosis. It changed things quite a bit.”
“When I was writing the song,” he adds, “I didn’t really know where the song was going. I wrote the chorus and started to sing, ‘I’m in a story with her’. That was the breakthrough. The concept of being in a story with Karin just opened everything open.”
That story began in 1987 when they met at a gig of Forster’s iconic band, The Go-Betweens, which he co-founded with the late Grant McLennan in Brisbane in 1977. Studying psychology at Regensburg University, Karin was also a singer and violinist in German rock band Baby You Know.
“We were living together in this beautiful city on the Danube. She was going to Regensburg and I was writing songs. It was a very nice time.”
They married in May 1990 and lived in a farmhouse in Bavaria for a while. They divided their time between Germany and Forster’s hometown of Brisbane. Louis was born in 1998, Loretta in 2002.
Does he ever get depressed that his story with Bäumler could end? I say to him that while positivity is very important, cancer often doesn’t care how positive you are. He laughs charitably at my clumsy question.
“At the moment we haven’t really gone there because if we do, I think it would be too much. We are realistic.
“With statistics and all of that, we’re aware of where things stand. But now, with the medication, Karin is doing well. She’s still getting better. Yeah, we just go from one check-up to the next – which is every three months. We operate in that way.”
In the video (directed by Baumler) for ‘Tender Years’, a suave-looking Forster in a polo-neck can be seen whimsically dancing on his own in the kitchen.
“That is our actual kitchen in our house. The way I’m preparing the muesli is just a slightly exaggerated version of what I do every day. It’s such a big song and the video can be taken in many ways.
“What made it easy for me was that the camera person pressed the button and left. I was in the kitchen by myself. It’s a bit exaggerated, but I do play air guitar. It is a ball-park of basically how I am.”
Critics have described The Candle and the Flame as Forster’s most personal album in his 45-year career. Robert’s famous dry wit is evident when I point this out:
“It’s not like I’ve been writing science fiction and fantasy lyrics and then suddenly this,” he replies. “I’ve always written quite close to home, about the life around me.”
'‘I wasn’t the musician that David Bowie was. I couldn’t write ‘Hunky Dory’. What I had to do was suck up all of that inspiration and spit out something that was mine’
A new song, ‘When I Was a Young Man’, is about him being 21, a life-changing year for the young Forster – the year he met McLennan at a drama class at the University of Queensland and, along with drummer Lindy Morrison, started The Go-Betweens.
“It was the year that changed me,” he says. “Everyone has that year. The year that changed you can be when you’re 40 or when you’re 60.
“That was the year I moved out of home in Brisbane. I was writing my first good songs, our first record came out on our own label in 1978.
“Everything came together. I could sense it at the time that things were opening up. It was quite momentous.
“I was playing shows. I was standing on stage at 21 – and I hadn’t been at 18, 19 or 20. I was in a band. Suddenly people recognise you.
“It went to my head a little bit but it wasn’t like I was in New York and we had limousines and the high life. It was a small thing in a small town. It was nice.
“Later in the 1980s we left Brisbane and were out in the world and on our way. For the most part it was fun, but hard work.”
It was paying off artistically and critically, if not financially.
The much-respected US critic Robert Christgau would dub Forster and McLennan “the greatest song-writing partnership working today”.
The Go-Betweens were the darlings of the English music press for albums like Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express and 16 Lovers Lane (included in Robert Dimery’s book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die in 2005.)
“We were living in London for five and a half years. That was tough, because there was very little money.
“London was a tough town, still is a tough town, unless you have a decent amount of money. So that was difficult. We couldn’t be in Australia.
“We had to be in the middle of it in London, even though we were in poverty. We were getting about £30 a week. That just got you by. There was not one luxury. But I followed my own path.”
It was an opposite path to his father, who was a fitter and turner.
“He worked in factories. He did an apprenticeship in a shipyard. Obviously, my life and what I did was very, very different to my father.
“My father came out of school and started working in the middle 1940s, after the war. He was pre-rock ‘n’ roll. I was a teenager of the 1970s. That’s two different worlds, although everything was loving and good in our family.”
Did his parents get to see his success?
“Definitely, but you have to understand they knew nothing about the music business but they could see that in a way it rescued me – that I was driven, that I was satisfied with what I was doing.
“Although I wasn’t making much money I was following my passion. They could see I was surrounded by good people in the band and that we were on a mission.”
What was the mission?
“To make great art – and see where it would take us.”
He wanted to try and make albums that were as good as Marquee Moon by Television, Fear of Music by Talking Heads and Hunky Dory by David Bowie.
“There were hundreds of them. I knew I couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t write Hunky Dory. I wasn’t the musician or the character that David Bowie was. I wasn’t as good a guitarist as Tom Verlaine [of Television].
“What I had to try to do was suck up all of that inspiration and spit out something that was mine.
“And that’s the hardest thing for any young artist to do, to not be overwhelmed by your influences. No matter how basic and primitive it was – somehow it was me. I got lucky there.”
Long may his — and Karin Bäumler’s — luck last.
Robert Forster plays Dublin’s Button Factory on Friday, March 24. His album ‘The Candle and the Flame’ is out now