Interview with Colin Hay

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Colin Hay at The Variety Playhouse – Tomorrow 3/11/11

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Colin Hay may be best known as the lead singer for Men At Work, the platinum selling Australian band that topped worldwide charts in the 80s with anthems like “Down Under,” “Overkill,” and “Who Can It Be?” Hay’s justifiably proud of his  place in pop history, but since moving to Los Angeles in 1989, he’s made 11 solo albums and he reckons that Gathering Mercury may be the best of the lot.

CHECK OUT THIS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE BACKSTAGE BEAT AND COLIN RIGHT HERE

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“These are some of the strongest songs I’ve ever written,” Hay says from his home studio in the hills of Topanga Canyon. “The loss of my father last year brought an extra emotional contingent to them. I don’t have an idea of an afterlife, but I do feel like I had his help when I was writing this album. He wasn’t a songwriter himself, but he was a good singer, so I put myself in his place and wrote songs like he might have done.” Hay recorded and produced the ten songs on Gathering Mercury in his home studio, with the help of his touring band and friends like bass player Jimmy Earl and pianist Jeff Babko from Jimmy Kimmel’s band, drummer Randy Cook, Cuban percussionist Luis Conte (Madonna, Ray Charles) and his wife Cecilia Noel on backing vocals. The arrangements feature Hay’s quizzical, instantly recognizable tenor supported by acoustic instruments and mellow electric guitar accents.

“Send Somebody,” the album’s first single, was co‐written with guitarist Michael Georgiades, who provides the understated solo that sets up the song’s touching bridge. The hypnotic pop melody is augmented by Chad Fisher’s work on piano and xylophone. The tune was inspired by a late night phone conversation. “You call tech support one night around midnight and actually get a human being on the line,” Hay explains. “The unexpected connection with a stranger is often easier to make than one with people you know. It brings up the longing for connection we all feel.”

“Dear Father” is a poignant folk‐like tune with Hay’s 12‐string guitar and melancholy vocal taking center stage. Cellist Oliver Kraus overdubbed the burnished string section. “This song was written and recorded almost instantaneously, a gift from beyond, if you will. The night my father died, I was in Glasgow on the river Clyde, about 20 streets away from where he was born. There’s some kind of bleak poetry in that; it inspired the song.”

“Far From Home” has the gentle reggae lilt of a Men At Work tune. Hay wrote it with some input from Ringo Starr. Jeff Babko’s Hammond B3, Cook’s one drop drumming and Hay’s rhythm guitar add to the melody’s syncopated feel. “I don’t know if it’s reggae as such,” Hay says. “When I play electric guitar, the rhythm I feel is that offbeat pulse that’s used in reggae. It’s my natural default.”

Other standouts include Michael Georgiades’ “Half a Million Angels,” given a subtle Latin tinge by Conte’s percussion and Babko’s piano; the country flavored “A Simple Song,” which deals  with the complexities of long term relationships with Hay on mandola and the buoyant vaudeville tune “Where the Sky Is Blue,” a song Hay imagined his father singing to his mother before they married; his twang heavy guitar solo adds to the song’s sunny vibe. The tunes on Gathering Mercury are deeply affecting, but never maudlin. Despite the often serious subject matter, they’re full of Hay’s usual optimism. “It’s not a conscious thing and may have to do with the Scottish mentality. We deal with darkness by making light of it. It doesn’t diminish the charge of the feeling, but it’s more pleasant to talk about your feelings if you stick with what’s going on today without dwelling in the past.” Although he’s one of Australia’s best‐known exports, Colin Hay was born in Kilwinning, Scotland. “I wasn’t in bands as a boy,” he recalls, “but I was surrounded by music. My mom and dad had a music shop, so there were instruments everywhere. The Hit Parade list came in every Monday morning, so I knew The Beatles, Screaming Lord Sutch, even Gerry and the Pacemakers. I started on guitar when I was 12. “My father and mother had music in their DNA; they passed it on to me. My dad was a singer and dancer on the vaudeville stage. As a teenager, he was in a duo with another guy. He later became a piano tuner. My mother was a great singer and there were many people in my extended family known for their singing abilities. When I heard The Beatles and read (John Lennon’s) Spaniard in the Works, I knew I wanted to be part of the music scene.”

Hay taught himself to play guitar and, when the family moved to Melbourne in 1965, he found himself in the middle of a thriving musical community. “The late 60s and early 70s were remarkable, a golden age for Australian rock music. There were lots of places to play, fantastic bands and lots of great musicians. A lot of them never saw the light of day, but they were all brilliant.” One of those musicians was Ron Strykert, a 12‐string guitarist. Hay was impressed by his musicality and technique. They started playing as an acoustic duo and Hay began writing songs. “We liked the jazzy, roots music of Ry Cooder, John Martyn and Nick Drake, but I wanted to be in a rock band. We recruited (sax player) Greg Ham and a few other guys and started Men At Work.”

Men At Work built up a strong local following and got signed by CBS Australia. Their first album, Business as Usual, released in 1981, went 5X platinum within the first year, won a Grammy, topped charts all over the world and ultimately sold more than 10 million copies. Their second album, Cargo, went gold and moved five million copies, but inner disputes put an end to the original line up. Hay and Ham finished one more record as Men At Work, 1985’s Two Hearts, then went their separate ways. “I made a solo rock album for Columbia called Looking for Jack in 1987,” Hay says. “When it didn’t duplicate the success of Men At Work, the label dropped me.” Hay went back to his original musical inspirations for Wayfaring Sons, an album with Celtic folk influences for MCA. “I’d moved to the States in ‘89, and soon realized I’d have to work harder for more modest returns. I started my own label, Lazy Eye Records, and set about building a new audience for Colin Hay, the songwriter and singer. I went from an audience of ten million to an audience of ten, but I kept at it.”

Hay has released nine albums since founding Lazy Eye in 1990. Peaks & Valleys (1992), an outing for solo acoustic guitar and voice; Topanga (1994), a rock album that featured “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin;” Transcendental Highway (1988); the acoustic Going Somewhere (2001); Company of Strangers (2002); a collection of newly recorded Men at Work hits and some new songs called Man At Work (2003); Are You Lookin’ at Me? (2006); American Sunshine (2009) and the current Gathering Mercury. Since 2003, Hay’s albums have been released by Compass Records and he’s slowly rebuilt his name recognition. “I went from playing for 50 people a few years ago, to 500 and 1,000 seat venues. I’d like to speed it up a bit, cause I’m running out of life,” Hay quips in fine Scottish style, “but I’m happy to be on the road and still making music.”

Hay and Greg Ham toured with backing musicians as Men At Work from 1996 to 2002, and played to an estimated audience of 3 billion viewers during the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. He’s also toured with Ringo Starr’s All Star band in 2003 and 2008 and took part in the 2008 All Star TV special. Hay’s music, most notably an acoustic version of the Men at Work hit “Overkill”, as well as more recent works such as “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” and “Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get over You”, has been featured on TV shows including Dawson’s Creek, Judging Amy and Scrubs. His song “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” was included on the soundtrack of the Zach Braff film Garden State. Today, he’s most at home on stage, singing his songs with an acoustic guitar. “I started off playing acoustic; it’s my natural game, if you will.”