Colin Hay

by Carl Wiser

Colin's band Men At Work was one of the biggest acts of the early '80s. In America, their debut album Business as Usual spent the last seven weeks of 1982 and the first eight of 1983 at #1, halted only by the irresistible force that was Thriller. They did it with constant airplay on MTV and a hit song about their native Australia: "Down Under."

Their second album, Cargo, was also a big hit, selling over 3 million copies in the States, but by 1986 they were done. "As soon as you bring in the potential of large sums of money, things get weird," Colin explains.

In 1987 and 1990, Colin released solo albums in the Men At Work mold, but they went nowhere. Dropped by his label, he decided to start over. Relocating from Melbourne to Los Angeles, he played regular gigs at a small club called the Largo, where up-and-coming acts cut their chops. In this intimate setting, he excelled. Armed with an acoustic guitar, Colin proved a mighty raconteur, able to captivate crowds with songs and stories. He released a series of independent albums while he built a fanbase that included Zach Braff, who got him on three episodes of Scrubs and placed him on the soundtrack of Garden State. In 2003, he signed with Compass Records, where he's been ever since.

That year, Colin told us the stories behind his biggest hits for Men At Work, including what it means to be traveling in a fried-out Kombie with a head full of Zombie. Most big-name artists wouldn't "do web" back in 2003, but Colin could appreciate a small but receptive audience: Before his resurgence, he sometimes found himself playing to single-digit crowds.

His 2017 album Fierce Mercy is his 13th as a solo artist. The title comes from Track 6: "The Last To Know," which deals with the quickening of time as we get older, and the idea that uncertainty and danger abounds (fierce), but there is still time to do something about it (mercy). The album cover is rather unusual, with a kangaroo, a Westie and a rocket ship all part of the scene. We'll start there.
Carl Wiser (SongFacts): Colin, what's going on in the album cover of Fierce Mercy?

Colin Hay: Good question. It came from a dream that I had years ago, which involved traveling to the moon. So, I explained the dream that I had to Robert Hakalski, who designed the cover, and that's what he came up with. It could mean many things but it was really more just to do something which we thought was evocative in some way and people can get what they want from it.

The dream's quite long-winded. When somebody tells you that they've had a dream, you immediately start to stifle a yawn, but if I think about it, if I try and sum it up succinctly, it's difficult. I suppose the word gratitude springs to mind.

Songfacts: Do you often get inspired by dreams for songs?

Hay: No, but it has happened. I used to remember my dreams more than I do now. I don't know whether it's a function of getting older or not. Sometimes I would get beautiful melodies in a dream and I would wake up and sing them into my phone and then go back to sleep. And I would wake up, listen to them, and they weren't quite as beautiful as in the dream. But in the dream, they were simply marvelous.

Songfacts: Has the ability to write songs ever left you?

Hay: Well, when I finish a record I always think that I have nothing else - that that's it, I probably will never do another record again because I can't imagine really having more songs. Sometimes there's a feeling of depletion and then what sometimes happens is that I play little games with myself where I pretend to my subconscious that I've given up what I'm doing and I'm looking around for a job as a short order cook because clearly this is not working out. And then my subconscious rebels and these ideas start popping up after a few months.

So, you kind of wait for the ideas to somehow present themselves, but at the same time you're doing things to encourage the ideas. Practicing helps. I find that practicing playing the guitar helps with songwriting. You know, pretending that you're not writing a song, you go in and you spend two or three hours just messing around with chord shapes and scales and different things that you should have learned properly when you first started to play. And then some songs often start to present themselves, or song ideas anyway.

But, no, not really. Not for any length of time.

Songfacts: You talk about taking a job as a short order cook. I know it wouldn't come to that but if it really was to the point that you couldn't make a living on music, what would you do?

Hay: Panic.

Songfacts: Have you ever had a job outside of music?

Hay: Yeah. I've had many jobs but it was before Men At Work. I've worked in jobs since I was 14 years old in what I call the "straight world." I worked in department stores. My mother and father didn't force me to get a job but they very, very strongly encouraged me to work during my holidays instead of having a holiday. They suggested that I go out and make my own money, which is what I did.

I worked in record stores because we had a record store in Scotland before we left there, so I knew a little bit about how to do that. [Colin's family moved from Scotland to Australia when he was 14.] So, I worked in record stores and I worked in department stores and then I drove trucks and I worked for the city in the parks and gardens and I did whatever I could do. I put up outdoor blinds for a guy... quite badly, I have to say. He liked me, he felt a little sorry for me, but I wasn't a good assistant with that.

Yeah, I did many jobs but mainly just to make some money to pay the rent. And then I went to university for a few years and that was when I started to plot and scheme. I knew Greg [Ham] and I met Russell [Deppeler] who became the band's manager during that time, and Jerry [Speiser] the drummer. And then I met Ron [Strykert] just after I left university, so everything started to fall into place around '77/'78.

But I don't know what I would do really. There's things I could do, probably, but I can't think of what they are right now.

Songfacts: In "Beautiful World," you deal with your newfound sobriety, and you have a line in there where you try talking to Jesus but he puts you on hold. Can you talk about that?

Hay: Yeah. I suppose it's... I don't know, what do you think that is?

Songfacts: I think that you spoke with a preacher and you did not get a sufficient answer to your question.

Hay: It's interesting. It would seem that most of the world has some kind of faith based in religion, which to me is just mad. It's insanity. So, I'm in a minority, definitely, in terms of looking for, at this point in time, what does religion give us? To me it's more divisive than anything else. But, at the same time, when you're getting sober, when you go to meetings it's very God-dy. They talk about God a lot, which always get that internal reaction from me, and at the end you say OK, surrender to a higher power.

So, that's challenging when you don't really believe in God, which I don't. But when I was sitting out in the backyard having just given up the drink, trying to sit and meditate in some way, shape, or fashion, I became aware of my place in the universe, if you like. You don't tap into it, and it's not even really that you do anything. It's a state of being, which is not that you know anything. You just feel a sense that you're part of some kind of universal consciousness – whatever you want to call it. There's a benevolence to the universe which I hadn't felt before.

So, I would talk to Jesus because I always had, even when I was a kid, but he was a person. He wasn't the son of God, he was a guy who was misunderstood, but I felt a connection. So, it's almost like he was a kind of a physical representation. He was like an imaginary friend.

So, talking about sobriety is interesting because the drink was the thing. I remember one day, in particular, where it was a small step. Often, when you try for years and years and years to stop something and you eventually do, it's not like a large step you take. The final step you take into, say, not drinking is a small one, and when I took that step I felt connected. I felt my feet on the ground.

It's a simple thing, and if I stretched up my arms I was connected to the sky. So, I just felt my place and I didn't really want to get fucked up anymore and get outside myself. And I just thought, "OK, now I can go forward and be OK with not drinking." But I didn't want to make a big deal of it. It's just, "I'm OK now." I always knew that I was OK but it was almost like stepping into yourself.

Songfacts: Is the song "Maggie" about a real person?

Hay: Yes, the person is real but the story is fiction.

Songfacts: Who's the person?

Hay: Well, the person was this girl that I knew when I was young when I lived in Scotland. I was sitting in my house in Los Angeles about 20 years ago. I hadn't written a song for a while, and I was feeling a little guilty. I was feeling like I hadn't really been working on songs like I should have. It was a Sunday and I thought, "Well, it's unlikely that I'm going to go to church." So, I just thought, "I better write a song. I'll try to write a song."

I sat down on this chair and I had a guitar. I just thought about this girl that I knew when I was young. She came into my mind and then I just wrote down the song in about 40 minutes. And while I was writing the song, the verses, I was weeping convulsively.

So, it was just a story that came from somebody real, but the actual body of the story is fiction. I don't know what happened to her. I don't know what happened to that person in real life, but the story is based on someone real.

Songfacts: Can you tell me about the song "Looking for Jack"?

Hay: I arrived in Los Angeles in 1986 to work on my first solo record after Men At Work had split up. I was writing songs there, finishing songs and doing some pre-production with Robert Miller – a great English record producer. When I was in Los Angeles I was driving around and I was aware of the fact that everyone was looking for something in Los Angeles. I wasn't sure what they were looking for, but I knew they were looking for something.

I couldn't sum it up: why people go to Los Angeles, why they take that trip. I knew a lot of people go there to realize their dreams and to get famous or whatever it is. People are drawn to that particular city for some reason and they all seem to be looking for something.

I couldn't finish the song. I had that idea and I had a little bit of music for it. Then I went to a concert and I saw Jack Nicholson standing in the audience, and he was standing next to me at the mixing console. I said, "Excuse me, Mr. Nicholson, my name's Colin Hay. I just want to say, I'm a great big fan of yours." And he said, "I can't hear you."

I got a little bit embarrassed and I went into the green room. I was talking to these girls and Jack came into the green room and he came right up to me and said, "I just want to say, I'm a great big fan of yours too."

So, I got excited by that because I had just met Jack Nicholson and then he walked off. The girl was still talking to me but I was distracted and I kept looking over her shoulder. She said, "What are you doing, Colin?" and I said, "Oh, I'm sorry, you'll have to excuse me, I'm just looking for Jack." And she said, "Yeah, everybody's always looking for Jack." So, I said: "Excuse me, I have to go home and finish something."

Songfacts: What's the hardest part of writing a song for you?

Hay: Finishing it. The song ideas are easy. There's many, many ideas, but the equivalent of writing "The End" or just finishing the song is where the work is.

March 21, 2017. Get Fierce Mercy and tour dates at
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Comments: 2

  • No Audio from EthernetNo Audio/Podcast/Whatever? Digital recorders are cheap!
  • 'berta from St. LouisThanks for the heads-up about this release. Colin Hay has one of those instantly-recognizable voices, and Fierce Mercy appears to be the kind of tuneful schtuff I like to listen to.
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