‘The best six words I have ever written’: Robert Forster on finding inspiration in his wife’s illness
Music has always been important to Karin and me; in fact, it’s how we met. I was in the Go-Betweens, touring Germany on each album we made. She played violin and sang in a folk-rock band from Bavaria called Baby You Know. They would come and see us play and we’d talk music and hang out after shows. And then, following the last Go-Betweens tour of Germany in the 80s, the band returning to Australia, I stayed on and moved in with Karin.
She lived with friends in a farmhouse in a village an hour east of Munich. It was a funky house, and while her band rehearsed in the kitchen, I’d be writing songs upstairs. The record player always on, music was our lives. So when Karin and I married in May 1990, we busked with violin and guitar on our honeymoon in Vienna, earning enough money, before the police moved us on, to buy Sachertorte and coffee in an old-world cafe.
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Over the next 30 years, living in Germany and Australia, we continued to make music together. Often at home for fun, or one-off shows as a duo; twice, we made demos for albums that never got made. With our two children older, Karin played and toured on my last two albums before the Covid pandemic hit, and she would have played and sung on an album I was planning to make in 2022. When she received an ovarian cancer diagnosis in July 2021, she was 55 years old.
We didn’t know it, but music was about to play an even more important role in our lives.
The weeks after the diagnosis were hard. As a family we were absorbing the news and implications of Karin’s situation, while she underwent hospital and doctor visits to determine methods of treatment. On 31 July, she began seven rounds of three weekly cycles of chemotherapy. Everything was being thrown at the cancer to allow Karin the possibility of an operation. Most days, she was in bed, knocked out by the medication. In late August, a fire on in our lounge room stove, a cup of tea on the table, I asked her if she wanted to sing a few songs with me.
Karin is the first person to hear my new songs. She is the barometer of their worth; the midwife bringing them to life. If I feel like playing something to her, I know it must be good. So she knew the songs I’d written over the previous three years, and by the fire we played a few of them, her voice a whisper. After each number we’d talk about its musical arrangement, she’d try a different vocal idea, and for the first time since early July we were venturing into another world. She walked back to bed that night stronger and straighter.
Our son Louis had cancelled a tour to the UK with his band the Goon Sax to be close to home. He had been visiting us most days and began playing guitar on the songs. We were a lounge-room, sitting-by-the-fire, three-piece. Then, former Go-Betweens bassist Adele Pickvance pulled up a chair and we were four. She was part of a cooking circle that some wonderful Brisbane friends of ours had put together, bringing meals to us in these first challenging months.
In mid-September, Karin was told she could have an operation. In celebration, and to document the music we’d been making, our little band recorded 10 songs in a studio over seven hours. Listening back to the recordings gave Karin and me enormous pleasure, as we bubbled over what we liked and what could be improved or tweaked. Two songs in particular that we played over and over again – I Don’t Do Drugs I Do Time and It’s Only Poison – sounded complete in their first take, no-overdubs state. Could we make a record like this? Karin thought so.
Over the next four months, in the most unusual of recording schedules – “good” days plucked from chemotherapy rounds, a Covid wave coming – other musicians, including former John Steel Singers members Scott Bromley and Luke McDonald, helped us greatly in the studio. Unable to play violin, Karin’s violin teacher Christine Dunaway played melody lines Karin had written a few years before for a song called The Roads.
On 3 March 2022, we finished The Candle and the Flame.
In the first days of Karin’s diagnosis, I put any idea of further songwriting or any form of creative endeavour aside. There wouldn’t be time and creating art in the face of the changes to our lives seemed obscene to me. There was however, like the buzz of a circling mosquito, the sound of a recent piece of music I’d written in my ear. It was a fast, clipped song that had little space for a lyric, but a lyric was needed. Watching Karin gather her vast spiritual and internal strength, vowing not to wallow but to fight for her recovery, the line “she’s a fighter” came to me. Days later, when sitting beside her in hospital as she took her first round of chemotherapy drugs, a second line occurred to me.
She’s a Fighter was the first single released from the album. In the video, Karin is playing xylophone, and our two children, Louis and Loretta, are on guitar and bass. As on the recording, we wanted the video to be the four of us. Karin, two months out of chemo, recovering, getting stronger as she is to this day, is pounding the xylophone. Surrounded by such charisma, I am happy to stand and sing the lyric. “She’s a fighter, fighting for good.”
The best six words I have ever written.
The Candle and the Flame is out now. Robert Forster is touring Australia in May