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Following the Songs: A Conversation with Colin Hay

Mar 24, 2017

Colin Hay has had one of the most improbable second acts in rock ‘n’ roll. With his band Men at Work, the Scottish-born/Australian-bred singer/songwriter enjoyed a handful of massive hits in the very early 1980s, including the gloriously paranoid “Who Can It Be Now?” and the unofficial Aussie national anthem “Down Under” (which introduced Yanks to the concept of a “vegemite sandwich”).

In 1985, the group disbanded at the height of their success, and Hay quickly established himself as a solo artist. Reviews for his albums were often better than their sales, but they presented a songwriter with a penchant for sharply observed lyrics, graceful melodies, and wry asides. In the 21st century, Hay began attracting some famous fans, including actor/filmmaker Zach Braff who secured Hay an acting gig on Scrubs and a berth on the best-selling Garden State soundtrack. Quickly, he vaulted from cult figure to mainstream artist, and a range of younger musicians have cited him as an influence, including the Lumineers (who were barely walking when “Down Under” was a hit) and Metallica (no, really).

His music has appeared on the soundtracks to countless TV shows and films, which seem to inform Fierce Mercy, his 13th album. Featuring some of his most elaborate and ambitious arrangements to date, songs like “Come Tumblin’ Down” and “Secret Love” marry his sharp lyrics to lush arrangements; while, drawing on old-school Hollywood scores to lend the album a cinematic quality, “Frozen Fields of Snow” is a small movie unto itself. “It’s a soundtrack to a movie that hasn’t been made,” he says, “or something like that.”

Fierce Mercy is a new chapter in a story that began with not wanting to get a real job. “I’ve tried to avoid having a job for a long time. That’s what music was for me: How can I avoid the workforce? I had a band in 1972, I think it was, or 1973, back when I was a teenager, and I thought, ‘This is it. This is going to work out.’ When it didn’t work out, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have to go out there in the world.’ But then I discovered that I could go to university. I’ll do that. That’s going to take up three or four years where I don’t have to put on a tie. Men at Work came out of that.”

Men at Work came out of not wanting to be a man at work?

Well, I had nine-to-five jobs. I always worked. I worked when I was 14, because my mother and father made me. When we had school holidays, I didn’t have a school holiday. They made me get a job. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but it was good for me. It was record stores or department stores, only for two or three weeks at a time. It was good having your own money, because you could save up to get a guitar and stuff like that. But having a job for two or three weeks is very different from having a job for 40 years and then getting a gold watch when you retire.

You’ve been doing this for more than 40 years.

I actually started playing in bands in 1968, at school, when I was 14 or 15. I started playing folk clubs in ’69. I wanted to have a band, but I worked by myself until Men at Work. I wanted to play original music, and it seemed easier to play on my own. Then I met Ron Strykert. I’d known Greg [Ham, multi-instrumentalist] for years. But when I met Ron, there was a creative light that went on. He was an inspired musician.

As a solo artist, do you miss being in a band?

I don’t really miss it, but I do miss the immediacy of it. For example, if you get the spark of an idea for a song, you can start playing something in a rehearsal room and people start playing along and, all of a sudden, you have a song. I miss that gang-like spirit, that clubhouse vibe. All for one and all that. I had that, and it went away quite quickly. Or maybe it was never there. I’ve never figured that out, because you have an idea of what something is and you think everyone else has the same idea. But they don’t. Bands are weird like that. But I still like the idea of having a democratic … or I guess you’d call it a socialist band, in the sense that everyone has a say. In the end, Men at Work didn’t work out that way. Well, it worked in that we became immensely successful, but it didn’t really work in the long run. We didn’t go the distance. There wasn’t realty the soul of the band that I thought was there. When that’s not there, there’s not much point.

You’ve been playing with your current backing band for a long time. Does that give you the band dynamic that you need?

Absolutely. This band is great. It’s a different dynamic, though, because it’s an employer/employee situation. There’s still a lot of camaraderie and a lot of great musicianship.

I noticed you co-wrote a lot of the songs on Fierce Mercy with Michael Georgiades, who used to play with Bernie Leadon.

He’s my friend. I met him in 1993. He’s been around since the ’60s, so he’s a bit older than me. I met him in a guitar store called Westwood Music, and we became friends. We didn’t really write songs for many years. We just hung out now and again. He used to come around to my house, and he would pick up whatever guitar was lying around. I played him an idea for a song, and he said we should finish it, so we wrote this song called “Prison Time” a few albums ago [off 2009’s American Sunshine]. Why didn’t we do this before? We wrote a few more together for the next record. He would come around with an idea, and it was always a great musical idea. Or he’d ask what I had on my iPhone, and I would play him something and we’d work on it. It was a very … what’s the word? … synchronistic thing.

Are you thinking about arrangements when you’re writing? Do you have these sounds in your head, when you’re thinking about lyrics and melodies?

Yes and no. Some of these songs are in a C tuning, which Joni Mitchell used a lot. When you have just voice and guitar in a C tuning, it sounds huge. Really full. So when you do an arrangement, you have to be careful about what you put in there, because sometimes you can crowd things in a bit. We would record those songs with just a vocal and a couple of acoustics, and they sounded great that way. And then we would add things to them very carefully. Tempo is very important for me, as well. I always try to get the tempo right before we record the song. I usually lay down a rough guitar and vocal, mainly just as a guide so I have something to play to. Then I’ll bring in the other musicians — drums, bass, keyboards, whatever happens to be there. We cut the tracks live in the studio, so all the rhythm tracks are done in a relatively old-fashioned way.

I did ask Fred Kron, who’s a great musician and a friend of mine, to do some kind of orchestration. We put strings on four tracks, which gives a lot of beauty to the songs — a fullness and a richness to the sound that was not really there at the start. That usually developed as we listened to the songs: “Ah, this would be nice with a string arrangement.” The song was speaking to you. You have to listen to songs and follow them. Sometimes they tell you how they want to be heard, and you respond to that, as opposed to dictating too much. Sometimes you just have to get out of the way and let the song have its own life.

That really gives the songs a cinematic quality.

Well, there are personal things that the songs do. There’s a song called “Frozen Fields of Snow,” about a guy standing in his kitchen. He appeared to me when I was in the studio. He just came into my head when I was working on another song. I had this little piece of music, but I didn’t have anything to go with it. This little phrase “frozen fields of snow” came into my head, and then this elderly gentleman appeared out of nowhere. He was standing in his kitchen looking out into the frozen fields of snow and trying to figure out what to do with this house where he was born and grew up. The specifics change day by day. Sometimes I think he came back to he house reluctantly because there’s no one left in his family. He’s just looking out the kitchen window, and that struck me as a nice image. The song just appeared.

To me, it’s a short film, but also a very simple idea that we all sometimes get to these moments in our lives that we don’t expect, especially with family. You think your parents are always going to be in the driver’s seat and you’re always going to be protected — if you’re lucky enough to have parents to protect you, that is. But then you lose them. On some level, you knew that would happen, but you’re not prepared. That seems to be true with most people. I didn’t think I would cope very well with parents passing and, by God, I was right.

I appreciate the open-endedness of “Frozen Fields of Snow,” which seems like it might still reveals new facets the more you live with it.

Hopefully. I like that idea. James Taylor talks about that: Sometimes it takes years for you to realize what a song actually means. Hopefully it means you have an open mind to what is happening and what can happen to you. I like the idea that they can inform you as time goes on. I like the idea that songs can have secrets and they don’t reveal themselves all at once. Even if you sing songs every night, even if you can get inside the songs, one way of performing them and not making them boring is to get away from thinking, “Oh, I’m singing this song.” With an emphasis on the I. You want to be the medium through which the song speaks, but you can’t input too much of yourself. I find that rewarding because the song can constantly be reborn. It can mean many things, and you’re not turning it into what happened to you that day or what you happen to be feeling. It’s got nothing to do with you. It has to do with the song. It’s a small, enlightening thing just to get out of the way and let the song speak for itself.

Sometimes it can be challenging because even putting the strings on a couple of songs, I was thinking they sound pretty good the way they are. There’s always that desire to put more things on it. “Oh, this is a great idea. That’s a great idea.” But, no, sometimes a song wants to be heard this way or that way. So you have to be a little brutal with your ideas. It’s good to have two or three people you can trust to listen to the songs. I have a couple of people I trust. I’ll play songs for them and they’ll say, “Why did you put all those guitars on there?” “Well, I like them.” “But get rid of them!”

That seems true especially with songs that seem so personal, especially “She Was the Love of Mine,” about your mother.

I was lucky enough to spend quite a lot of time with my mother in the last year of her life. It was a very sad time, because she knew she was not doing well. And yet, she was brilliantly in denial of it. She was almost 90 and she was, in many ways, still a little girl, really. My sound guy, he adored my mother, and she just loved him. I think she wanted to have a little bit of a fling with him. That was not to be, but she was still a flirt at age 90. She was so lovely, like a film star who never did any movies.

I had a great photograph of her and my father on their wedding day in 1944, which had all these people in it. There are probably 100 people, and it’s toward the end of the second World War. During the last year of her life, that photo was the screensaver on my computer. We’d have coffee in the morning in my flat in Melbourne, where you can watch the ships pull out of Port Melbourne, and we would sit there together and I would point to someone in the photo and says, “Who’s this person?” “Oh, that’s Ethel.” And she would tell me this person’s life story: “Ethel had an affair with her sister’s husband.” I treasure those times, and I love knowing who those people were.

“She Was the Love of Mine” really came out of a memory of my mother when she took me to the hospital. I was three years old, and she was wearing a green dress. That’s the first memory I have of her, and she had beautiful red hair and this green dress. I was going to the hospital because I had a hernia, and I remember her being very protective of me that day. She was a very, very important person in my life — and she continues to be. I think mothers are for everyone, to varying degrees. Even though she’s gone, I still feel very protected by her in a very real way.

It seems like you would have to trust the musicians around you to handle a song like that sensitively and honestly.

I never really think, “Can I trust these musicians with this material?” I never really question that trust. I just trust them. I co-wrote the song with a guy named Rich Jacques. He came over to my house and I played him a bit of it. “Oh, that sounds fantastic. Let’s work on that.” Fred played piano on it, and I think Garry West from Compass Records ended up playing bass. And then Fred did the orchestration, which is really beautiful. And then this young lad named Leiser Tito played trombone on it. I thought that would be an interesting instrument to have on the song, because it reminded me of Sunday in Scotland, when we would be walking up by the Salvation Army. It has such a lonely, mournful quality to it.

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