Gearing up for the Tuesday release of his twelfth solo album Next Year People and a series of three live shows at City Winery, I spoke with singer-songwriter Colin Hay about the level of difficulty involved with forging ahead in a solo career following time in a band like Men At Work as well as the level of exposure brought to his solo career by appearances in the hit sitcom Scrubs...
The type of whirlwind success that came to define Australian rock band Men At Work - three studio albums between only 1982 and 1985 that have sold over sixty million copies worldwide - has destroyed many a career. When that level of success proves fleeting, it can be hard to pick up the pieces, let alone move forward in any sort of fulfilling way.
But Colin Hay is the optimistic type. It's clear fast in conversation with him and it's a strategy he quickly brought to his solo career, releasing his first solo album Looking For Jack in 1987 after the breakup of Men At Work in 1986.
And he's never looked back, releasing eleven albums since, the latest of which, Next Year People hits shelves this Tuesday. While touring arenas with artists like Fleetwood Mac has given way to filling clubs armed only with a guitar, Hay has proven adept in his ability to adapt. "Find your audience" he frequently advises.
Colin Hay's songs come from a personal place but at the end of the day, they tell a story. In the rich tradition of his native Scotland, Hay's storytelling has consistently struck a chord with a devout group of fans that has consistently grown over more than twenty-five years. An "old fashioned" approach as he calls it but one that would prove immensely successful in an era when developing a tight bond with the audience is crucial in terms of sustaining a career as a touring musician. In retrospect, it's almost like Colin Hay was writing the book on how to exist in the new music industry landscape about twenty years before anyone else even knew they'd need it.
The hardest thing for an artist like Hay, 61, to do as he continues to release new music is continually replenish his audience with a younger demographic willing to turn out for shows in the live setting. But he continues to expose his solo work to a crowd likely unfamiliar with Men At Work as his appearances in the hit sitcom Scrubs continue to live on in syndication. A relationship with actor/director Zach Braff continued with the placement of a song in the film Garden State. That exposure had a profound impact on his career that continues to manifest itself.
Prepping the release of his twelfth solo album Next Year People, Colin Hay returns to Chicago for three shows next week at City Winery. We spoke about the level of difficulty involved with beginning a solo career following the success of a band like Men At Work, how his involvement with Scrubs took shape and the art of telling a story through song...
Q. How difficult was it initially to look forward post Men at Work as you forged ahead in a different way as a solo artist? Really, at that point you were kind of going back to your roots… but that’s not necessarily how fans viewed it…
Colin Hay: Well, it wasn’t really that I was… I mean, you could say that’s what I was doing, going back to my roots, but it was very circumstance more than by design. It wasn’t a conscious thing of, “Oh, I’m going back to my roots!” I found myself back at my roots and I said, “Oh. Here we are. Here we are again.”
Because there was very little overlap between the Men at Work band and my solo endeavors because I think that Men at Work was very much… We kind of swept through like a hurricane in a way. It was very, very fast – or it was perceived to be anyway. A very radio and video band and once that was over it was kind of like it just disappeared.
When the dust settled, you kind of had to pick yourself up. And people were really unaware of who I was. There was very little name recognition. People didn’t really know who I was. So I was playing to very few people for quite a long period of time. So it was very challenging.
Q. I’ve heard you recommend to artists that they find their audience. You did that and, I suppose in some ways, you still are. Was there a certain point along this career second half as a solo artist where you thought to yourself, “Ok, I’ve found my audience?”
CH: My audience were the people who were sitting in the seats, you know? They found me. We found each other in a way. By the fact that I came to a town and played there and whoever turned up to see me play was my audience.
And it’s still growing. It’s still in definition in a way. It’s not a static thing. It’s not something that just stays the same. Luckily, it’s going in the right direction in the sense that the audience is growing. I’m not complaining about that. It’s very slow growth but it’s a kind of very old fashioned approach, in a way, to go out on the road and just keep doing that. It’s not for everyone. But it is working.
When I think back on it now – if you play a show and ten or fifteen people turn up and they go home feeling excited and happy by the fact that they came to that show, well that’s successful. It depends which way you look at it. I had to look at it that way because otherwise… it’s better to avoid madness if you don’t.
"I never really understood the music industry as an industry. I really didn’t. I just understood it as a bunch of people who were kind of running around with nobody really actually knowing what the f-ck they were doing – but they call it an industry. I feel more kinship with travelling salesmen, I think, than musicians."
Q. You've built your audience and still are - but in the process of doing that, you've also managed to accomplish what a lot of artists in your position have a hard time doing and that's kind of also replenishing that audience with new, younger fans. You've done that by the inclusion of both you and your music in the sitcom Scrubs. I’ve read that it wasn’t necessarily the star of that show, Zach Braff, initially that was the link but the creator of the show Bill Lawrence. Where did that relationship between you and Scrubs begin?
CH: Yeah, it was both of them. It was Zach who first brought… I knew Zach – a little bit, not well. But we had a mutual friend and he came to see a show a couple of times and took my CD’s into Bill Lawrence. Actually, I think Bill Lawrence’s wife was aware of me as well [Editor's Note: Bill Lawrence's wife Christa Miller played Jordan Sullivan on Scrubs and also acted as the show's Music Supervisor]. So Zach brought Bill Lawrence down.
I remember talking to [Bill] and he was really quite shocked by the fact that, you know, he was unaware that I had new songs and he was unaware of the fact that I was even working. He couldn’t understand why the songs weren’t played on the radio. And I thought, “Well, I’m not going to bother even trying to explain that one to him!” (Laughs) And he said, “Well, I’m going to use your songs on my television show and see if we can make a difference.” So that’s what he did.
It was very, very kind of him and he didn’t have to do that. But it was one of those situations where somebody who was in a position of power was able to do something - and then he did - and made a very, very big difference to my live audience, you know?
I feel like in a lot of ways the story of your solo career should speak volumes to up and coming musicians now – it’s almost like you were figuring out how to exist in this new music industry landscape twenty years before everyone else...
CH: Well, again, that was by circumstance - not because I necessarily had any kind of great business acumen or was going, “Ok, I’m going to create a model here.” I was just trying to keep my head above water. I mean, I say that – I wasn’t poor. I had enough food to put on the table. It was survival of a different kind. It was trying to survive in the world in which you wanted to live.
Although, I didn’t really feel like – once the old band was over and I got dropped by MCA – I didn’t really even feel that I was part of the music industry anymore - though I never really understood the music industry as an industry. I really didn’t. I just understood it as a bunch of people who were kind of running around with nobody really actually knowing what the f-ck they were doing – but they call it an industry. I feel more kinship with travelling salesmen, I think, than musicians. I suppose I was lucky in a way. I was doing the only thing that I really knew how to do.
It’s funny… Sia – who’s not my blood niece but I’ve known her all her life and can relate to as a family member in a way – she’s interesting because she’s hugely successful and extremely, extremely talented. And, really, in a way, I know she doesn’t envy what I do. She thinks it’s a very old fashioned thing that I do, I think, and is not particularly impressed by going out on the road. And she’s got a point! She decided to stay home, stay in one place and write songs and co-write songs with people and become monstrously successful and let the music do the work for her out there on the airwaves. And there’s a lot to be said for that.
I was thinking that I was going to stay home, write songs with people and maybe get involved with film and television and all that. And I have friends who do that and they would say to me, “No, no, no, no. Don’t do that. Just keep doing what you do. Because there’s not very many people who can do what you do.” And I think that that’s one of the main reasons why I just - when I started to go out on the road I got such great response from people. But it’s a bit of an addiction, a bit of a habit. But it’s something that I can do which makes me feel a certain way when I do it. It makes me feel useful in a strange way. It makes me feel like I have some function in the world that people feel better for. At least that’s what they express to me. It feels real.
There’s a combination of things for me that I have to do: I have to keep writing what I think are good songs and better songs and songs that I’m quite happy to go out and play on the road. And people respond to those records in a really good way and that’s where it grows: People know that the music is getting better, that I’m trying to make better records. And I think that they are better records. And [fans] recognize that. So, in a sense, you’re kind of travelling along this road with people in a sense. Because they kind of get it. They kind of get it more than say the industry in which I’m trying to exist does. It’s a direct relationship, which is quite… almost conspiratorial.
Q. Let’s talk about the new album, Next Year People [which comes out this Tuesday, February 17th]. Before you moved to Australia you grew up in Scottland where your parents owned a record/music store. On the new album, you wrote about some of your early memories in that shop, particularly in the song “Waiting in the Rain.” Can you talk a bit about some of those memories and how they influenced this album?
CH: It was a great way to connect with my parents – both of my parents for different reasons. My mother in the shop because she did this extraordinary job of raising three children. We lived in the back of the shop so she had three children plus she ran the shop. She had my sister who was 1 year old. A 1 year old child and I think I was 5. So between the time of 5 and 14, I was in the shop or at the back of the shop and my brother was 9. So she had three children under 10 that she looked after plus she ran the shop. So I would help her a lot in the store after school, and so forth, even when I was young.
But my father, late at night more. My father would be in the store doing things – maybe he would be polishing the pianos – but he would listen to records as well. And that’s where my father first played me the Beatles. He would say, “Have a listen to these guys. They’re quite good! I think they’ll do well.” So I always remember having those few moments with my Daddy before I’d go to bed, listening to music, which was kind of a cool thing.
Q. The song “Next Year People” itself really carries with it a sense of optimism through its telling of the story of Depression era farmers who kept hanging in there hoping for better. And it feels like that story could kind of act as a metaphor for your career in a a way too. Was that sense of optimism something you wanted to get across in that song?
CH: It wasn’t something that I specifically wanted to get across but it was something that I thought exists in people innately. It exists in me.
I watched that documentary. I was on tour at the time and I thought, “What a remarkable people.” You can look at it in different ways too. You can think of the old cliché of doing the same thing, expecting a different result, being a recipe for madness. But at the same time, the rains did eventually come and they did eventually have bumper crops. It took ten years but it did happen. But during that time there was madness, there was death, there was hardship. But somehow the people who hung in had this belief that things were going to get better.
And I think that’s the thing that I latched onto – unconsciously or not – the fact that whenever I go out on the road – when I first started to go out on the road – I mean, it was kind of horrendous in a way. I’ve made kind of a joke of it but it is kind of a fine line between character building and soul destroying. Sometimes I just thought I was being stupid. I thought, “What am I doing this for? Am I just doing it because it’s a habit that I don’t know how to break or am I just scared to do something else?" I think they were valid questions at the time. And they always are when you’re asking yourself how you want to spend your life or how you want to spend this particular day when you’ve had your breakfast and think, “Ok. What am I going to do now?”
But I do feel a sense of optimism about everything – which is quite difficult in a way. It’s getting more and more difficult when you look around at the madness of the world. Because most of the people who run the world are just f---ing barking mad. And it’s very difficult to get that sense now because people just seem to be galloping toward oblivion.
"I love a compelling story. I love getting involved in a story that takes me somewhere and I can be enveloped by – that creates a world that you become involved with."
Q. What I’ve always admired about your work as a solo artist is that you manage to eschew some of the expectations I tend to have of the stereotypical, self-indulgent singer-songwriter. And what I mean is that, while sure your songs can come from a very personal place, by and large they’re used as a vehicle to tell a story. At the end of the day, is simply telling a compelling story the most important part of what you do now as a solo artist?
CH: I’m not sure, really. I don’t really know the answer to that. I like stories. I love a compelling story. I love getting involved in a story that takes me somewhere and I can be enveloped by – that creates a world that you become involved with. I like that myself.
It’s not something that I really set out to do in a way. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m going to write something which is a great story.” I think it’s just something that ends up being a byproduct of who I am and where I’m from in a way. Because my father can tell stories. If you’re from Scotland, there’s a lot of people that tell stories. It’s in your DNA. So I think there’s that to it as well. Where I’m from, there is an art of telling a story and there’s also an art of listening to a story – which is almost just as important. People know how to listen to a story or how to be involved with it. So I like being involved with that.
So, in a way, when you go out on the road and you play to people, you’re creating this world where they tell me they’re happy to go on this journey with me. I think that the story is really important and I think that it’s probably more important than the truth of the story. People often want the story to be true – they want it to be what they want it to be. People argue with me all the time about what a song is about. People write to me and say, “What’s that about?” And if I tell them… I’m reticent to! Because often they don’t like the answer or they think, “No, no. It’s not that. This is what it is.” And I think, “Well, fair enough. That’s what it is, that’s what it is! Yes, you’re right!”
That's an interesting distinction - people trying to place their own meaning on a song regardless of your meaning or where your head was at when you wrote it. I believe I heard Michael Stipe of R.E.M. say that one of the reasons they were hesitant to include song lyrics with their albums is because they knew fans would think about songs in their own unique ways and didn't want to discourage that.
CH: Yeah. Sometimes I think that James Taylor is interesting too. I remember him talking – When I went to see him play one night he was saying, “Sometimes the meaning of a song doesn’t really even become clear to [the artist] often until years later. Sometimes you don’t realize what a song is until twenty or twenty-five years after you’ve written it.” I think [that’s] a very interesting idea.
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
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(Details on three upcoming Colin Hay shows below)
Friday, Feburary 20, 2015
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Doors open at 6PM, Shows start at 8PM
Tickets: $35-55 SOLD OUT
Click HERE to purchase tickets