Colin Hay’s career is a rarity. As the singer and chief songwriter for Men at Work, the Australian band that burst onto the scene in 1982 with a debut album that spawned two iconic mega hits (“Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?”), he and his bandmates looked to be poised for massive and long-term success. The band, however, seemed to fall apart just as quickly as its members became stars. Before the decade was over, Hay was left without a band, major label or even a fan base. What he did next — pre-Internet no less — was almost groundbreaking. He simply began to play solo in small venues, and over the years built a small but loyal (and often well-connected) fan base. Throw in some massive TV and film placements and Hay, who just turned 64, is riding a career high. As popular as he’s ever been and with a tremendous new record, Fierce Mercy, he’s far from the nostalgia act that many of his contemporaries have become. The Reporter caught up with the longtime L.A.-based singer/songwriter to talk about his curious career.
You’re getting ready to play the Libbey Bowl, an outdoor venue in a park no less. Given that you write such intimate music, do you feel that it translates the same in a large outdoor setting?
Well, I never really set out to write intimate music. I think that I just set out to write songs that have ended up being perceived that way because most of the time I play solo with an acoustic guitar. When I play Libbey Bowl, I’m going to be playing with a seven-piece band, so I’ll be playing everything from Men at Work songs to what I’m doing now. So it’s basically a rock show. There are songs with elements of acoustic, but it’s basically a full-band show. I love the idea of playing outside, especially in this part of the world, where you can usually be pretty assured of a balmy night. So I’m looking forward to it.
What’s touring like for you now, as opposed to back in the ’80s. Is it a vastly different experience?
Well, I can’t remember it now. I wish that wasn’t true. Sadly, it is true. I really don’t remember all that much about touring back then. I mean, I remember some of it. Things were moving pretty fast then. I know I had a good time. I still have a good time now though. Touring is really different now. It’s much more of a cottage industry then it was then. I have to pace myself a lot more now ’cause I’m older. I still do lots of shows and I go to many different places and I’m probably enjoying it more now than I ever have.
You began to have a lot of success, with TV and film placements giving you a new audience and exposure, but it was at a time when the music industry as we knew it was starting to fall apart. Was it strange to have success while a lot of your contemporaries were experiencing the opposite?
I felt like I started that process many years before that. I started trying to continue to make a living playing music in the mid- to late-’80s when my old band was over and then when I was dropped by MCA records around 1990. I started just going out and playing solo music. It was a slow build. It probably took 10 or 15 years before someone like Zach Braff came along and saw me play. He just got the gig at the TV show Scrubs, and said he’d take my CDs in and see if he could get them placed. So it wasn’t like I was sitting around waiting for something to happen. I felt like I put in the work for something good to happen and, indeed, something good did happen. So I didn’t feel any sense of guilt about that at all.
You were ahead of the curve in taking it to the road despite no label, and building a fan base, especially in the pre-Internet days. You were constantly playing small venues like Largo, almost on a weekly basis. Did you have that vision of building a solo career grass-roots or was it just wanting to still play live?
I wish I could say that I had some kind of vision, but I really didn’t. All I was really trying to do was to find my audience. First of all, it was to stabilize. I was trying to find a creative home. Where you could go and play and try some new songs and not be partially judged. That’s what I found at Largo. It was thinking that if I only ever play at Largo again from now until I pass on, then fine. [It] felt like a good position to be in ’cause at least when I played at Largo, and when I still do, I know the people that are there want to be there, and they want to see what you’ve come up with last week, not necessarily what you came up with 30 years ago. To answer the question, though, I was literally just hanging on, and playing was the only thing I could figure out to do.
It’s always interesting to hear a new artist say, “I want to have one of those Colin Hay careers.” By that they mean building a loyal fan base, getting a lot of songs in TV and movies and the independence and freedom you’ve had as a solo artist. On the outside it looks enviable to lot of singer/songwriters.
Again, I think a lot of people say that. And I can understand in some ways why they say that, because it’s not so bad playing to 1,000 people. To be by yourself solo and play a show to that many people, it’s fabulous. But at the same time it took about 20 years to get to that point. I guess I would like to have a Colin Hay-type career, though. It doesn’t sound so bad. (Laughs).
Colin Hay plays on Sunday, July 30, at the Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. For more information, visit www.libbeybowl.org.