Monday, March 13, 2017: Iconic singer / songwriter Colin Hay who came to fame as the voice of Aussie 80’s sensations Men at Work has just finished up sound check for his second night at The Birchmere – a 500-ish capacity venue just outside of Washington, DC. that is beloved by locals and artists alike.
The night before, your author took in Hay’s solo acoustic show not long after stumbling upon a brilliant / funny / moving / inspiring recent documentary about his most interesting life. The film, called Waiting for my Real Life moved him to seek out Hay, as it opened his eyes to how valuable his 30-plus year body of work has been and remains. A call is scheduled.
Oh, and a few nights before that, Hay released his thirteenth solo album, Fierce Mercy to much acclaim. Pretty big week for the both of them. So a nice conversation ensued, which your author has chosen to post unedited and its entirety to preserve the flow. Behold:
CJ: Colin Hay!
CJ: Hiya! Sorry I’m a few minutes late. I was waiting for my shirt to dry.
CH: Oh were you now! (Ed note: Hay was late to the stage the previous evening due to a slow-to-dry shirt).
CJ: As you know, I was at the show last night. Really a nice evening. I’ll tell you the reason I wanted to write this piece. I grew up with Men at Work, which I’m sure is something you love hearing from a middle aged man. And I kinda had lost track of you. I did see you in an airport many years ago looking very sad and walking with just a guitar and a bag. I was going to say hi, but you just looked really unhappy.
CJ: Yeah. So anyway a couple of weeks ago I came across the documentary on Netflix or wherever, and I watched it. And in it you talk about a particularly difficult period and it made me think perhaps that was when I saw you in the airport. Regardless though I thought the documentary was so wonderful, and it reminded of how invaluable you are as an artist and how you’ve been in the background of my whole life both with the band and on your own. And it turns out you were playing a few weeks later right here in my backyard. So that’s how I ended up at the show last night.
CH: I wonder why you felt that I was unhappy.
CJ: I think it was around that time you spoke of in the documentary when you said you were having a lot of difficulty.
CH: What time would that have been, do you think?
CJ: It was several years ago. I don’t even remember. You weren’t very visible at that point. I just recognized you because, you know, rock god. But whatever. I was so happy to learn from the documentary all of the good things that have happened to you in recent years. How are you feeling? Your latest album is out just a week ago, and you’re on the road.
CH: I’m very, very unhappy.
CJ: Well obviously. You poor, poor man.
CH: Yes. Very sad, very sad, very unhappy.
CJ: Even after your second sellout night at The Birch? It’s a small club, but it’s not that small if you know what I mean. Serious fans fill that room and it almost makes it feel like an arena.
CH: The thing is that things don’t happen like this just all of a sudden. I can remember playing at the Birchmere on a Monday night probably fifteen years ago and it sold out. I’ve been on the road for probably over twenty-five years, since basically—since around ’91, ’92. It’s just been a slow build. I spent thirteen years without a record deal, and I’ve been with the same little label for a number of years now. A lot of people—although you, as you say, knew of Men at Work—they were unaware of what I’ve done until quite recently. Fortunately for me, there were a lot of people who didn’t lose sight of what I was doing and continued to come to the shows, which is very gratifying for me. Yeah. The Birchmere has always been a very good place for me.
CJ: They’re very loyal, aren’t they?
CH: I always do well here. It’s sometimes you do the same thing, I think that the records are getting better. I was doing a similar show ten or fifteen years ago. I had an audience then, and I have an audience now. It’s just the audience now is probably—I used to make a little bit of—not a gag, but I used to say that wherever I went in the world maybe a couple of hundred people came. But now it might be up to maybe a thousand people on a good night, somewhere around there. Yeah. I like the record that I made. I think I made a really good record. So I’m enjoying myself.
CJ: Okay. If I have this wrong, correct me. I thought that you had said something about a period of time where you had difficulty getting people out to shows. Is that inaccurate?
CH: No, it’s not inaccurate, but that’s probably twenty years ago.
CJ: Right. Okay.
CH: In the early ’90s when I started to go out on the road, there were sometimes 20, 25 people, 30 people in the audience.
CJ: Yeah, okay. That’s the period of time I was thinking about.
CH: I should clarify that I was never unhappy. I might have looked unhappy, but I have a pretty great life. It’s not like now that I’ve got a thousand people coming to see me now I’m happy, and when I had thirty people I wasn’t happy. Actually, some of those gigs I remember it being amazing. If you have thirty people in the audience, you deal with it. It’s not particularly—you think, okay, do I do this or do I not do this. If you decide you’re going to go stage for 30 people, they deserve to be entertained such as much as 30,000 people do. It’s not like now I feel happy and years ago I wasn’t happy. That’s kind of not really how it works.
CJ: Yeah well that speaks to your artistry. There are people who would be very angry if they went from headlining the US Festival to looking out at thirty people.
CH: I thought it was more curious than anything else about how extreme it was. Looking at it from just observing it that you go from being one of the most successful bands in the world to nobody noticing. But, I mean, you just said it yourself. You said well I was unaware of what I’d been doing after Men at Work was over because I wasn’t particularly visible to you. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t doing a lot of things. It just means that you didn’t notice. [Chuckles]
CJ: Yeah. Well I’m not the sharpest fella…
CH: Whereas a lot of people did notice.
CJ: Oh yeah, yeah. I think part of it probably is also about that same time, people like me who had sort of come of age with Men at Work were going off and getting married and having children and kinda losing track of all kinds of things. And then you see the crowd last night. It was a bunch of people about my age. A lot of forty-year-olds. Probably their kids are a little older, and now they can get back into stuff and go places. [Laughs]
CJ: So tell me, then—I’m not going to write a lot about small crowds or anything like that. It was just a conversation starter.
CH: Oh, I don’t care what—
CJ: I know you don’t. I’ll leave it in then.
CH: I talk about that myself. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
CJ: You joke a lot about it. The thing about the show that really struck me—and I got some of this from the documentary, obviously—is you have the timing of a standup comedian. You’re unbelievably funny. Have you always done this storytelling bit in your shows or is that more of recent thing? Were you always aware of what a gift you have in terms of comedic timing? [Laughs] It really surprised me a lot.
CH: My father was funny. I think I got it from him. But no, I started doing this, telling the odd tale between songs, again, when I didn’t have people in the audience. I think in some ways audiences were a little bit embarrassed for me when they would see how few people were there in the audience. And so I started to just tell them sometimes what had happened to me. I just started to talk to people.
Actually, in Australia, strangely enough, when I started to—the band really broke up—in the end of ’83 it was really over. People say 1985. We did a third record. But really Men at Work was done by the end of ’83. And we did another Men at Work album that never worked. And then I did a solo album, Looking for Jack, which never really did either—I never toured on that one. So I went back to Melbourne, and I did solo. I played at this club in Melbourne. It was called Madigan’s. It was run by this guy called Paul Madigan.
CH: Yeah. He was pretty nutty. It was a beautiful place. A fantastic place to play. It was like an old druid club that just hadn’t been used for anything. It was like the masons or something! It had old furniture and a nice little stage. And so I would play there. And literally there’d be like five people in the audience, ten people sometimes. And then it kinda built up to maybe forty or fifty or something. They were some of the best shows because it was just kind of oh, it was just literally like starting again.
And then I thought oh, I just have to get out of here. I have to leave Melbourne because—in many ways Australia kind of responded in different ways to the song “Down Under.” It wasn’t embraced by everyone. But the song itself doesn’t really express what a lot of people think it expresses. A lot of people get a little bit upset by the cultural cringe aspect to the song. So Men at Work in a lot of ways for Australians is a band that people didn’t necessarily embrace because they saw us as being light or a novelty act or something.
CJ: Also, you are Scottish.
CH: Right. So I just thought to myself that I have to get out of here. I just didn’t think I could stay anymore, so I just left around ’89. And realized I was gonna have to start again, so that’s what I did.
CJ: Yeah. And this is where you go to LA and start playing at the Largo and so forth?
CJ: Yeah. Cool. I don’t want to take up too much of your time as I know showtime is approaching, but I want to make sure I cover a couple more things. Another thing that struck me last night after the show was—well first of all, your little Sting monologue was hysterical, as was the bit about The Edge. You know Sting was literally playing like two miles away at that very moment?
CH: [Laughs] Yeah.
CJ: He was right across the bridge. The thing that I noticed and that a lotta people around me in the audience noticed is just how extraordinary your voice remains at sixty-three. You haven’t lost a step. That’s so unusual. There’s a lot of people who at sixty-three still sound just fine or can do it, but there’s not many who sound just as good, if not stronger vocally.
CH: Not trying to blow my own trumpet and all, but I think that at the moment my voice is the best it’s ever sounded.
CJ: I get that.
CH: I know my voice, so I know what I could do then and I know what I can do now. And I think it’s a little bit better than it’s ever been. It’s hanging in very well. I’m very glad about that.
CJ: It was really exciting. I think my appreciation of that comes less from being a fan than from being a singer. Part of it was because it was sort of an intimate room, and it was an acoustic performance. But your fearlessness with some of those notes that are very high notes when you were doing some of the Men at Work stuff and so forth, most people as they age take it down a step or even a couple steps. But you just went right for them and nailed them. What do attribute that strength to, that vocal strength?
CH: Well it’s just what I have. It’s what I have.
CJ: But seriously do you do anything in particular? Is that any kind of routine or do you just sing?
CH: No, I just sing.
CJ: That’s amazing to hear because I’ve always been the same. And I catch shit from other singers for saying things like that. I’ve never had much time for rituals, voice lessons, intensive warmups…just unleash the beast when it’s time and use common sense with it when it’s not.
CH: Well, I’ve just always had that range. So if you know you can hit that note, you might as well hit it. If I didn’t think I could hit the note, I wouldn’t go for it. But I know I can get there. And I know I can get there with relative ease. I just sing them because they’re the notes that I know I can sing.
CJ: Amen. You did it with ease. You had room to spare. It wasn’t even a stretch. It was really, really impressive. I just want to tell you that as a person in the audience just how really beautiful that was to see and to hear.
CH: Well I had a really good night last night too. I enjoyed singing last night. And sometimes the room makes a difference. The sound was good in my ears last night, so I could relax. And you just kinda get inside the song. It’s a pleasurable place to be when that happens.
CJ: Such a gift when everything is working as it should and you can just give everything you have purely. I also thought it was pretty neat how receptive they were and how the audience was not impatient for Men at Work songs, how receptive they were to your solo work. And the new solo work that just came out, singing along to the opening track. Everybody was singing along and everybody was into it. That must be really rewarding for you.
CH: Well that’s something where I’m lucky. Someone like yourself who’s never been to a show before, that’s what I’ve experience in the last twenty years is that people who—I’m always going to play those Men at Work songs because they’re big songs and they work and people like them. But for the most part, most people who come along to the shows, they want to hear new material because they’ve been before. They know the Men at Work songs and they like them, but they want to hear what I’m doing now.
Most people that come to my shows are not there to reminisce. If I was going out playing for people that wanted to—like you say, grew up with Men at Work—I would stay home because it’s not really what I want to do. I’ll embrace the craft and bring it into the presence. But if I was going out every night just doing shows where I was reliving the past, I would stay home. I’m not interested in doing that.
CJ: Yep. It’s also funny. Most people who have been around a while, you go to see them solo or whatever, and three-quarters of the room is wearing tee shirts from 1984. I don’t think I saw one Men at Work shirt in that 500-plus crowd. That, too, was interesting.
Speaking of the new music, just tell me a little bit about Fierce Mercy. I think you indicated that you’re very happy with it, that you feel like that they just get better. It sounds like there was a lot of reflection in it. Your mother’s passing had a lot of impact, it sounds like, on the record. Tell me in a couple of sentences about what Fierce Mercy is to you.
CH: Well Fierce Mercy is the best record that I’ve ever made, so I know that.
CJ: Wait, what? The best ever?!
CH: Whether other people will realize that or know that is of no real concern to me. I know that it is. And Michael, the guy that I wrote most of the songs with, he knows that as well. So that’s a very rewarding thing just personally. That’s why you do it. You just keep trying to refine things and make it better. That’s your responsibility, that’s your job is to do that. And that’s what people who come to see me and have been coming to see me over the years expect that. They expect the bar to be raised. They don’t want to hear the same record again; they want to hear something better, and so do I. Otherwise, why bother. That’s it, really.
CJ: I hear you. That was just a surprisingly definitive statement. The best record you’ve ever made. That’s great. Cool. So you’re touring now for how long? Are you doing all acoustic or are you doing any band gigs going forward?
CH: I just played a few weeks with a band just prior to these last couple of gigs. And then I go to Ireland and the U.K. solo, and then I go down to Australia, which is also going to be solo. And then I come back and play some stuff in the summer with a band.
CJ: Oh good.
CH: And then I’m going to do a fall tour, but I’m not quite sure whether that’s gonna be solo or a band yet. But I’ll be on the road for basically the rest of this year with the odd break in between. But basically on the road for the whole of this year.
CJ: So the readers still have plenty of opportunities to catch you in the flesh.
CH: Yes, I believe so.
CJ: Yeah. I’m about to wrap up here for you. The documentary, I just want to touch a little bit on that. How did that come to be? I hope you think I’m not just kissing your ass telling you how great everything is, because I really do believe it. The documentary was one of the best I’ve seen in terms of a musical—
CH: Well that’s good. There are a few of them out there, so yeah. We were trying to make a statement which was going to be interesting for people as opposed to just a documentary about some guy from the ’80s. Hopefully there was a little bit more dimension there, a little bit more depth to it that people can relate to in some ways. Everyone has ups and downs and moments in their lives where they think that that well that’s going to be it, they’re gonna have—spend the rest of lives being fabulous, you know. And most of the time that doesn’t really happen. It came about because they approached me three or four years ago thinking that I was open to it, I guess.
CJ: So Pennebaker came to you?
CH: The filmmakers approached me, yes, and I guess I was open to it. I thought that it would be an interesting story. It’s good because the documentary means that I don’t have to tell people so much about what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years. You know what I mean?
CJ: My questions would have been very different—and ignorant--had I not seen the documentary.
CH: Exactly. So it’s kinda like, well, there you go. It kinda tells the story pretty well of what I’ve been up to.
CJ: Sure does. So you were pleased with it and whatnot?
CH: Yeah, yeah, I think it’s good. It tells the tale.
CJ: You covered a hell of a lotta ground, that’s for sure.
CH: And it was cut down enormously, too. It was originally like I think well over two hours long. They showed it to me and I thought this is way too long. And that’s the only real input that I had was that I just kept on trying to make it shorter.
CJ: A couple more and I’ll free you. I just read that your niece is Sia? Is that correct?
CH: Yeah. She’s not my blood niece, but I’ve known her all her life. She calls me her uncle, so I’m her uncle.
CH: I know her parents. I’ve known her parents for a long time, and I’ve known Sia since before she could walk.
CJ: Huh. Do you enjoy her material?
CH: She’s extraordinary, yeah.
CJ: I agree. I was really interested to read that. Okay, well listen, I know you’ve probably got to get ready for the show. I’m sorry I’ve kept you so long, but I’m really grateful for your time and in awe of your talent.
CH: No worries.
CJ: It’s very nice to talk to you, and I hope that the rest of your tour and this album is a tremendous success.
CH: Thanks very much, man.
Follow Colin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ColinHay