Colin Hay Still a Working Man

May 10th, 2012  |  Published in Events

By Pete Roche

Colin Hay’s gruff tenor is known to millions as the voice of multiplatinum 80’s pop-rockers Men at Work (“Down Under,” “Who Can It Be Now?”).  But only diehard fans are aware Hay was born in Scotland, and that the creativity and grandeur of his solo output eclipses his work from the early 80s.

The material on Going Somewhere, Company of Strangers, and Transcendental Highway is the stuff of which Grammys are made.  Although Hay spent a fair amount of time in Melbourne, Scottish sensibilities still inform his rootsy, acoustic-based songwriting.  His latest Compass Records release, Gathering Mercury, furthers the tradition; it’s another musical kaleidoscope with bluegrass strings, Americana chord progressions, and Latino beats.  Some of the fuzzy lead guitar work even recalls George Harrison during his Abby Road days (think “Octopus’ Garden”).

The loss of Hay’s father shaped some of the material on the brilliant 2009 disc, American Sunshine.  The meditation continues with Mercury—and those caught off-guard will find the plaintive “Dear Father” an absolute tearjerker.  Grief can be a lifelong process.   Here, that emotional exercise is recreated by Hay’s 12-string gryphon guitar, Oliver Kraus’ strings (cello and viola), and Chad Fischer’s mellotron.  Luis Conte decorates “Half a Million Angels” with his imitable percussion.  The track also benefits from Jeff Babko’s tinkling ivories—and backing vocals from Hay’s wife, Cecilia Noel.  Colin gets calypso on “Far From Home,” a catchy traveling song that’ll please fans who loved “It’s a Mistake” and “Don’t Be Afraid.”  Hay’s crunchy, wet chords establish an island pace while Joe Karnes (bass) and Randy Cooke (drums) cook up the reggae-pop rhythm. “Goodnight Romeo” is a gem of a steel-string guitar instrumental with an ambient assist from the harmonium department.  It’s a shimmering, dreamy denouement.      

The CD version of Mercury includes four bonus tracks—unplugged editions of “Send Somebody,” “Invisible,” “Where the Sky is Blue,” and “Half a Million Angels.”  A newly-pressed 180 gram vinyl edition is now available via Hay’s website (see below). 

Despite an enhanced profile (with appearances on TV’s Scrubs), Colin hit some rough patches over the last three years.  His father passed in 2009.  Then a highly-publicized court case saw Hay and other Men at Work members being sued over mega-hit “Down Under,” whose recognizable flute riff was taken from an old Australian campfire song.  The author of said original tune never had a problem with Men at Work’s musical tribute; it wasn’t until the rights were sold to Larrikin Music that its greedy new owners decided to contest past and future royalties.

The case had a devastating impact on flautist Greg Ham, who feared the litigation would overshadow his Men at Work contributions.  It also left a bad taste in Hay’s mouth. 

The bitterness only worsened when Ham passed away last month.

“He was a beautiful man,” a sullen Hay said in a press release.

Colin’s last jaunt through the Buckeye State brought him to the 20th Century Theatre in Cincinnati on April 27th and The Valentine Theater in Toledo on September 23rd.  Northeast Ohio fans hoping for a Cleveland date will have to wait; Hay’s Kent Stage appearance on May 16th is the only Ohio date this time around.

Hay is definitely worth the drive, weeknight or not.  His guitar skills are considerable, his songs are crafty, and his singing and storytelling add just the right personal touch.  Plus, Hay’s between-song monologues will leave you in stitches.  A recent DVD, Live at the Corner, gives an idea of what to expect—but there’s no substitute for catching this act in person.  The Cleveland Sound rang Colin recently to talk about his songwriting and stagecraft.    

We caught him in a jovial mood; Ham passed away a few days after our chat. 

THE CLEVELAND SOUND:  A bit of your last record, American Sunshine, concerned your relationship with your father.  Songs like “Water Over You” and “Family Man,” either seem to be about him—or about how you’re assuming the role he once had in your life.  You know, how they say “I’ve become my father.”  Now, with Gathering Mercury, there’s a continuation of that, with “Dear Father” being a tribute to him.  Can you talk a little how your father’s passing affected you and the songwriting?

COLIN HAY:  Well it was a weird time for me a couple years ago, because my father had died right before I made this record.  So it was different from the other albums in the sense that it was the first time I was every struck with personal tragedy.  I’d lived a charmed life up to that point, really—I hadn’t lost someone I was so close to before.  So it was an emotional time.  And it’s not as if all the songs on the record are about that; but that was the context behind it.  “Dear Father” addresses it, in that I was on the road when he passed away.

TCS:  A lot of people mistakenly assume you’re from Australia, not knowing you came from Scotland.  Do those two places still influence your music?  The cultures popped up in old Men at Work songs, but still occasionally come into play for you, like with “Melbourne Song.”

CH:  I’ve never really consciously thought about it, how it affects my songwriting.  I was just trying to write songs, so whatever you’re really thinking about….  I didn’t necessarily care where they came from, just as long as they came! 

TCS:  Can you discuss your approach to guitar?  I first caught your solo show like eight years ago and was floored by how good a player you are.  You’re underrated, really.  Where do you get some of these song ideas—like the solos from “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake.”  They’re both fairly long, a little dark, and have a lot of nuance.

CH:  Just from messing around, really.  Improvisation.  I think it’s really about finding a sound that is an inspiration, melodically.  I wouldn’t necessarily copy other guitarists I’d heard, I was more into finding sounds that worked for songs.  Consequently, I’ve never developed what I would consider a high proficiency or definite sound, really.  If I’m underrated I suppose that’s a good thing; it means there’s someone out there still listening enough to rate me at all!  But I’m a bit of a fringe dweller in all styles, if you know what I mean.  The guitar can be a very personal instrument, and I just really love to play.  And not necessarily to write songs all the time; I just enjoy the challenge of it.  It’s really a lifelong thing to try and get somewhere with it. 

TCS:  The deluxe edition of Gathering Mercury has a couple bonus songs, stripped-down acoustic versions of the album tracks “Send Somebody” and “Half a Million Angels.”  You have a history of taking songs from your catalog and reworking them or doing unplugged versions like that.  The original versions are good, but the acoustic versions demonstrate that the essence of the song is still there even without the big arrangements. 

CH:  Some songs don’t necessarily lend themselves to that kind of treatment.  But some songs that were originally written on acoustic, yes, they tend to.  It’s a consequence of having songs already written, and then going into a studio and having all these options.  You take away the big arrangement and see if it still works.  Playing guitar and singing—that’s really my natural game.  Technology gives us choices, but writing is like going down different roads.  I’ll follow groove or start with a beat.  But what often happens is that I’ll be in the studio and find that I’ve got 40 or 50 songs for ideas—but I’d never really finished them!  So I’ve learned to write a song and finish it before I start playing around with it.  That’s ultimately the most successful way for me. 

TCS:  Seems like you’re always on the road.  I’m always surprised when you drop a new album, like Gathering Mercury, because it’s a wonder where you found time to record with all the gigs on your calendar.  What’s it like traveling so much?  Ever get used to it?

CH:  It’s a constant…there are a lot of factors involved.  A lot at home, as well.  You just live in a different way.  When you go out on the road—even before you leave—you look at all the things on plate and you think, “Do I really need that?”  And you visualize being on the road for a couple of weeks, and the things you might bring with you, you see yourself not using them.  So then you end up leaving with only half the things you might’ve taken.  Just because you’re trying to shave a little weight off yourself, with all these things you take.  I don’t know if you ever really get used to it.  I wouldn’t say I’m used to it.  And it’s necessary.  It’s a little like a drug, really; I’m getting a lot of support and the audiences are nice.  So it seems to be going in the right direction.  The people who come to the shows—that’s been the main thing for me.  With me, it’s the Men at Work stuff and a two or three songs since then, so you’ve got to keep working it.  The only way to make it these days seems to be with live performance, so you’ve got to respect that.  That’s why I feel good, because it’s been going in a positive direction. 

Colin Hay returns to The Kent Stage (175 East Main Street, Kent OH 44240) on Wednesday, May 16th.  Tickets are $20.50.

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