Friday, October 8, 2010

Interview with Colin Hay

A version of my story originally appeared in the North County Times and can be viewed at the link below. Photo courtesy of Compass Records.

To many people, Colin Hay’s name is synonymous with “living in the land down under.” But for the past couple decades, the ex-Men at Work leader has resided in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon. 

“I drove through it one day and was drawn there because it reminded me of parts of New South Wales and Victoria in Australia. It had some relief, trees and little gulleys and wasn’t just flat,” said the Scotsman, who emigrated to Australia with his family at age 14. 

The Golden State inspired “Oh California,” the graceful opener on Hay’s impressive studio album “American Sunshine,” released last year. Half the tracks were done in the studio of his Nashville-based label, Compass Records (which also just released Hay’s first concert DVD, “Down at the Corner,” shot in Australia).

That change of recording environment resulted in a breezier, organic vibe, with occasional forays into blues and country sounds.

For the twangy “I Can’t Get Up Out of This Bed,” Hay collaborated with award winning country tunesmith Hillary Lindsey (Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift). They met at a songwriters convention.

“She had the chorus; I really liked it and completed it,” explained the singer/guitarist in a recent interview before a Costa Mesa gig.

Rocking “Sunshine” standout “Pleased to Almost Meet You” – describes unusual fan encounters and sports a humorous quality often prevalent in Men at Work numbers.

“People really say [unusual] things to you. If you see a famous person, you often find yourself going through that same head process, thinking, ‘he’s quite short.’ It’s a fairly natural response when you’re used to seeing someone who’s larger than life.”

Hay definitely fell into that category during Men at Work’s heyday. Their 1982 debut “Business as Usual” topped the album charts here for nearly four months, went multi-platinum and spawned consecutive No.1 singles with “Who Can it Be Now” and  “Down Under.” The accompanying music videos were in heavy rotation at a nascent MTV and the group won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

“We had aspirations of being an international band,” Hay recalled. “That’s why we signed with CBS, which became Sony. We wanted to be successful everywhere and we were to a large degree. America was the last country that picked up on us.”

Follow up effort “Cargo” spawned the top 10 singles: “Overkill,” “It’s a Mistake” and also went platinum. By the third album “Two Hearts” though, half the band left and everything stalled. 

Hay put out a succession of low key solo records on various labels in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and did tours under the Men at Work moniker (with original sax/flute player Greg Ham). “We never did anything new; I just got bored with it.”

Eventually, actor Zach Braff caught a solo show at L.A. nightclub Largo and the pair became pals. That led to TV appearances on NBC comedy “Scrubs” and a featured song on the Grammy-winning, platinum-selling soundtrack to Braff’s acclaimed 2004 film “Garden State.” Hay even turned up on “The Larry Sanders Show” and “JAG.”

Last year, Compass reissued three previously out of print Hay titles (the acoustic “Peaks & Valleys,” plus full band efforts “Topanga,” “Transcendental Highway”). All are highly recommended folk/rock music gems.    

“I was on my own for 12 years. It’s very difficult to manage a career and just stay in the game. That’s what I’ve been trying to do…I’m with a label now that has a lot of passion about music. I’m very happy there.”

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