Carlos Forster creates arresting, visceral music in the tradition of songwriters who’ve gone mad—he is frequently compared to Nick Drake and Brian Wilson. On his latest solo recording, Disasters, Forster’s songs are defiantly inward-looking. They bypass superficial self-disclosure for a communication unhampered by narcissistic fantasies, but rather driven by a genuine desire for himself and his listeners to feel more, to be more open to life. His willingness to examine his own depressive episode after the loss of his father, and his subsequent training and practice as a psychotherapist, give him a unique ability—and perhaps a mission—to stand on what Emily Dickinson termed “a Plank in Reason.”
Listening to Disasters, one feels suspended over a dizzying drop. The looping, detuned keyboards of “Child on a Train” sound akin to Iannis Xenakis’s Metastasis, before the song coheres around its seemingly rescued melody and muted beats. The instrumental “Tim” offers another thrumming soundscape, its darkness penetrated by the plaintive high notes of a piano and a memorial trumpet. The record’s first song and its final two songs, “You’ll Survive,” “Marco,” and “Alice,” are like three bookends. They feel provisional, all the sonic elements coming apart, as though they were composed of colorful scrims arranged on an astral stage. Carlos’s voice performs its spectral drama here.
Underlying his songwriting is a deep concern with how artists and audiences dream each other into being. Forster described the fine balance he pursues between opening himself up to listeners of his songs, and the necessary boundary he must create with them, in conversation with the Rail.
Adam Klein (Rail): How has psychoanalysis played a role in your music? In what ways does it force you to consider your involvement and/or disinvestment from the music world?
Carlos Forster: I went through an extremely difficult time after my dad died and I think Disasters sounds the way it does partly based on this experience. If the songs are not directly referencing breakdowns and lost family members, they are fairly gloomy in tone. People I am close to have said Disasters is a depressing record. That is where I was at for much of my thirties. I don’t particularly use psychoanalytic discourse to guide or create my music but rather to help broaden my ability to stay “awake” to life and feelings. I ended up working with a therapist who worked from a psychoanalytic perspective. When I found someone who seemed to have an ability to help me make sense of my internal world, I was sold. In my early twenties, my music felt alive to me. As my defenses (alcohol, avoidance, sleeping, etc.) thickened into my late twenties, my music seemed to halt and become quite dead. Psychoanalytic therapy has been an ongoing process of basically dismantling my defensive psychic structure that has kept me from experiencing life more vividly.
I was listening to Father John Misty on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and he kept alluding to how before he took on the “Father John Misty” persona he was making confessional music that he was concerned was turning people off. I was very impressed with his thoughtfulness in the interview, though I thought about how maybe the expansiveness of his newer music—which I love—could potentially be a way of avoiding something more vulnerable. There is quite a bit to explore in this thought. Is it based out of envy of his success, his youth and beautiful voice? Am I trying to avoid narcissistic injury and some inevitable truth that ultimately he is more talented than me? Am I trying to act superior as a defense against the fact that I am not sure Disasters is listenable? At this point in my life I can take more responsibility for my envy and feelings of smallness.
Rail: D.W. Winnicott wrote about his psychoanalytic practice, “What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories and then, last of all, interest myself in looking to see where I stole what.” I wonder if this method resembles your approach to songwriting?
Forster: It does, actually! I have recently been thinking about how Winnicott said he did not read the psychoanalytic texts of the time because he did not want to contaminate his original ideas. In the past I was more rigid about following some type of “psychoanalytic structure” which now seems obviously more informed by my superego and defenses than how dynamic psychoanalytically informed work actually is. I try to approach music in the same way. I have to be open to the fact the song is likely not going to be the way I thought it would be. So a loosening of my rigidity is helpful in keeping from getting stuck in my writing process.
[Wilfred] Bion’s concept of “no memory or desire” is also useful, in that the impulse to treat a song too much like one I did before is liable to end up stripping [it] of its unique potential. There is a fine line between being inspired by somebody else’s art and mimicking someone else’s art, or complying with what art is [supposed to be]. My approach seems to loosely pay tribute to the structures set forth by pop musicians such as Brian Wilson and Brian Eno, while staying firmly interested in developing my own “Carlos-ness.” I am always working on my songs, and liken them to Winncott’s transitional objects; meant to cope with, and make sense of, aloneness and primitive anxieties.
Rail: Thomas Ogden, in a summary of Winnicott, writes, “The analyst must be able to love without fear of the toll that his love takes—for if the analyst is frightened of the destructive effects of his own love, there is little chance of his analyzing the patient’s fears of the taxing/destructive effects of his love on the analyst.” I wonder if you find yourself considering this relationship with your audience?
Forster: I often notice myself theorizing my patient’s depression as a defense against experiencing more destructive/aggressive impulses involved in love and dependence. In regards to what Winnicott said about the therapist’s internal world, the problem remains that many therapists unconsciously reject their own depression and are “out of touch” with their patients. The patient may even enact a kind of “loveless” marriage with the therapist and stay with them to protect the feeling-less status quo. Regarding my audience, ideally I hope to find a shared connection in the emotions evoked in living less defensively. Without a doubt, there is also a narcissistic part of me that gets high off the admiration, and I am always working on developing more capacity to need this less.
This is an incredibly strange time in history. With social media, fans can basically contact artists directly. I feel conflicted about this. I distinctly remember playing with M. Ward in Rock Island, and after the show a fan asking him for a piece of his clothing. It is difficult setting limits and the last thing I imagine [M. Ward] wanted to do after a show was set limits with a fan. Being an artist with an audience is a thing to be handled thoughtfully and carefully. The rock’n’roll world is a hotbed for these kinds of narcissistic relationships and I have a lot of respect for artists who can stay grounded. There is always tension and movement between more generative and destructive elements in a person and hopefully the balance swings in the direction of being generative and less destructive.
ADAM KLEIN is the author of The Gifts of the State: New Writing from Afghanistan, Tiny Ladies, The Medicine Burns, and is the singer and writer for the Size Queens. Their latest release, To The Country, is an epub that includes contributors Rick Moody, Jim Shepard, Lynne Tillman, Joy Williams, and others.