An Interview with Colin Hay of Men At Work
“The Beatles created a world I wanted to belong to…” says Colin Hay while he prepares to embark on a West Coast tour of the United States.
While the singer names Bob Dylan and Booker T. & the M.G.’s as being amongst the performers who made him want to play music, he explains that the Beatles and his parents owning a music shop and the constant presence of music around him growing up that really influenced him.
Cut to the present; Colin Hay has 13 solo records and continues to write and tour constantly. He is subject of a documentary film. His wife, Latin singer, Cecilia Noël, is a part of his touring band, along with a group of musicians that Hay mentions feels quite solid and stable to him. If emphasizing this stability seems like a funny way to describe his band, it takes looking briefly into Hay’s past to understand why.
Cut to 1984: Men At Work, the band fronted by Hay who had released songs like “Who Can It Be Now?”, “Down Under” and “Overkill”, was in the midst of lineup changes on its way to ultimately breaking up following tumultuous squabbling within the band. This would lead Hay to set off as a solo musician, putting out his first recorded solo material two years later.
“I enjoyed being a part of Men At Work. A lot of people don’t get to experience that, but our potential was probably not really reached. There’s a sense of incompletion about it, you know?”
Setting off on his own in his home of Los Angeles in a pre-internet era where record labels seeking mainstream domination was amongst the only outlets of getting your music heard, Hay was dropped from his label when his new musical sensibilities and approach didn’t seek to recreate the path of his former band. So he set out touring to get his music to his audience. Over time, his shows have taken on an intimate joking air, with his colorful stories of the pieces put together to form the final puzzle of his song lyrics.
“It’s not that I set out to tell stories, but I started to tell the audience because there was a time where there weren’t very many people in the audience. It was kind of conspiratorial.”
Hay also mentions finding an appeal in blues folk guitar player, Leo Kottke’s storytelling during his performances. “He’s a beautiful storyteller, just an interesting guy,” Hay describes.
Hay’s 13th solo record, Fierce Mercy, comes on the heals of a documentary film called Colin Hay; Waiting For My Real Life which beautifully captures the drama of the songwriter and the tapestry of his musical path weaving from youth until the present, a period throughout which creating and playing music remain one of the only constants.
“I’m struck by the similarities in places and people, that’s my sense of geography in a way,” he says referring to his way to writing, much of which occurs during his time on the road. “It’s not a cerebral process, it’s more like these ideas pop up, and you follow them.”
And though the music is constant, the expression of it continues to weave into different territory. In describing the song “I’m Walking Here” off of his Fierce Mercy album, Hay talks about the subject matter, the murder of Trayvon Martin. “I was incensed. There’s something horribly barbaric about that, that you could be walking and be attacked. It’s a tragedy of modern American life, or maybe I should say just American life.”
The song features hip hop artists Deploi and Swift. While Hay admits he’s not connected to the hip hop world, his wife Cecilia introduced him to the artists who she had worked with previously, and he felt their rhymes worked well with the track.
Though it may be unlikely that we’ll see Hay rapping their lines when he performs, he nevertheless expresses appreciation for being where he can add new elements to his music, he can smile at his past and relate a past lifetime of anecdotes with his audience, and he can continue to tour with and perform with his wife and a band that feels stable.
Keep up with Colin Hay at colinhay.com
or head to KWNKradio.org to listen to Nocturnal Transmissions and other freeform programming for the Reno area.