Mention the name Colin Hay to any casual music fan and the response will almost certainly have something to do with the hits produced by Hay’s group Men at Work. Of course, they had their heyday in the 80s and broke up in 1985.
1985. That was 30 years ago, and if you’re still thinking of Hay as the “Men at Work guy,” oh, how you’ve been missing out on some great music. His latest album, Next Year People, was released in February and it’s had him on the road for a tour that hits NYC’s Town Hall tonight. And if anything, while many of his peers from those chart-topping days have either stagnated creatively or have opted to become nostalgia acts, Hay is just getting warmed up.
“You always want to think that you’re getting better as you do things more, and as you get older, you’d like to think that you’re doing better work all the time,” he said. “If you make cabinets, or whatever it is that you do, you’d like to think that you get better at making them the more you do it.”
That doesn’t mean he dismisses the work of his old band. Far from it, as he still plays the old hits along with his solo work, and why not? Those Men at Work songs have stood the test of time.
“If I take a song of mine like “Overkill,” for example, I would put that up with anything that I’ve done since then,” Hay said. “I think that’s a song that stands up through time to be a lasting song.”
But what of life after being in one of the biggest bands of its era? If you weren’t around then, you don’t realize how the Australian group was everywhere – on the radio, on MTV, on television shows. They were inescapable, and then…it was all over. So what did Hay do? He went back to work.
“When the band broke up and I started going out touring, I just did it by myself because that’s the only thing I could think of to do,” he said. “And it’s also what I’ve been doing since I was 14, so playing solo was something that felt like my natural game, so I kept going and kept trying to write better songs and tried to get better. Every record you do, you try and make it a bit better than the last one.”
There are highs and lows in the music business though, with the lows hitting even harder when it’s just you taking the bad news. Hay has not been immune, but when the tough days came, he left his music in the hands of the people, and they lifted him back up.
“When I got dropped by MCA Records in 1991, it was both a blessing and a curse, because when you get dropped, it’s rejection, so it’s upsetting,” he said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to be where you’re not wanted. So I just went out on the road because it was the only thing I could think of doing to stay involved in music. The only thing that I really had was a live audience, and live audiences tend to be very honest. They come along and they see you play, and they like it or they don’t. If they like it, they come back and they bring friends, and if they don’t like it, they don’t come back.”
Ten albums have followed his break from MCA, and he remains a critical and popular favorite, as well as a must see act on the road. That’s good enough for the 62-year-old Scotland native.
“Because of the fact that I haven’t had any machine behind me and I haven’t had any particular kind of push or hype or promotion or any of that kind of stuff, it tends just to be word of mouth, and so if your audience is increasing, it really is an indicator that you have something to offer people and they get something out of coming to see you,” he said. “It’s very simple, yet quite a nourishing and powerful affirmation for what you’re doing.”
What should be even more reassuring is that Hay’s songs hit in the all the right places, with his ability to reach everyone with poignant reflections on life and its twists and turns a rare gift.
“It depends on how separate you feel from everyone and everything, and I don’t feel that separate from anybody, really,” he explains when asked how he’s able to take personal topics and make them universal. “So whatever I’m feeling or going through, the chances are that somebody else is. And also if somebody else is going through something, then you feel it. And in a lot of ways, if the world’s going through something, everybody feels it. So a lot of the things I write about or try and make sense of, is senseless in a way. It’s a way of coping with the inevitable.”
In Hay’s case, writing about his parents and his way of dealing with the loss of them was cathartic and also a way of keeping them close to him through song.
“You lose people you love, and I had a very lucky upbringing where I was close with my parents,” he said. “They were quite strict people, so it wasn’t that we could do anything we wanted to do. But I always felt secure and I never questioned their love and support. That was quite a rare thing and when I became an adult, I thought to myself, when these people die, I’m really gonna have a lot of trouble with that. And I was right. I had a lot of trouble with that, and still do. So in a way, when I write about my parents, it wasn’t a conscious thing really, but it’s something you can’t ignore. And it’s a selfish thing in a sense as well; it’s a way of keeping them alive, it’s a way of feeling connected to them, it’s a way of taking them with you on your daily escapades and I find that a very helpful thing.”
As you’ve probably figured out by now, there’s more to Colin Hay than “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” Thankfully, a world of listeners already know that, and Hay is glad they’re along for the ride, so expect his best when he takes the stage.
“What I really try and do more than anything is my job,” he said. “And I’m always concerned with doing my job well. You always want to feel like you’re improving. My father always said that to me. And you want it to be as good as it can be. That’s what I like anyway, and I like to be part of that and try and do what I can to foster that feeling where people are connected, as opposed to disconnected.”
Colin Hay plays The Town Hall in NYC tonight, November 19. For tickets, click here