COLIN Hay is truly an artist without borders.
As singer-songwriter for Aussie band Men at Work he had a string of hits in the ’80s, including unofficial national anthem Down Under. Yet he still sports a thick accent from his native Scotland, and now lives in LA.
“I’m quite lucky, I feel Scottish and I feel Australian and I’ve been in America for the last couple of decades, so I feel like that’s home as well. I feel like I’m going home wherever I go!”
But the Australian visits are fewer and further between nowadays.
“I was coming down here quite often when my parents were still alive, but they’ve both gone now — my sister is still here — so I do come down here less because of the fact they’re gone,” Hay says.
Right now he’s Down Under again, touring on the back of his 12th solo album Next Year People, which runs the gamut of emotions and tempos, from the upbeat pop-rock of Trying to Get to You and If I Could Be a Better Man, to the stark hope-against-hope of the title track and the mystical reflections on mortality of Scattered in the Sand.
Of course audiences are going to expect the Men at Work classics, but that’s not really an issue for Hay.
“I don’t feel any expectation from audiences to do that, and nor would I feel particularly inclined to respond to that kind of expectation,” he says.
“(But) it’s not like I all of a sudden stopped playing at least a few of the songs that I did with Men at Work. They’re big hit songs but they’re also good songs, so I still enjoy playing them.”
Not only did Hay lose his parents in recent years, but there was also the death of Men at Work bandmate Greg Ham, who had battled depression and was devastated at a Down Under copyright ruling.
Hay says the sense of loss doesn’t directly influence his songwriting.
“Having said that, when I made the record Gathering Mercury my father had just died and … whether my brain was playing tricks on me or not, which was probably the case, I just imagined that he was in the studio with me a lot of the time, and I felt like I was making the record with him there as well,” he recalls.
“And in lots of ways that loss, as opposed to you writing specifically, it informed you in a very poignant way.”
Also, Scattered in the Sand from the new album had a poignant background.
“(Co-songwriter and producer) Michael Gee had the first little guitar lick and he had the line ‘scattered in the sand’, and he said that’s all I’ve got,” Hay says.
“And my mother had just died and his aunt had just died within a day of each other, and she was someone that he was quite close to, so that was the impetus for that piece. But it kind of developed a life of its own after that.”
Meanwhile, the title track of Next Year People is about farmers in the US Dust Bowl of the 1930s Depression, and their undying optimism against all odds.
“I wrote that song and I had a set of lyrics that I wrote after I saw a documentary about Dust Bowl farmers,” Hay recalls.
“A couple of years ago when I was on tour I saw a Ken Burns documentary which was very affecting, and it spoke to me somehow about the human condition of doing the same thing and hoping at some point things will turn out right.
“So I just wrote down that set of lyrics and I had that lying around for a couple of years, and then towards the end of the record I just started playing the chordal structure to it and quite liked it, so I just recorded it there and then and pretty much just kept it like that.”
Next Year People also features some emerging Cuban artists.
“I stole all of those musicians from my wife,” Hay confesses.
“She has a band, her name’s Cecilia Noel, and she did a record this year of covers — songs from the ’80s which were recorded salsa style — and a couple of the musicians that she worked with — one in particular, a guy called San Miguel Perez, who was a young Cuban guy — he had relocated to America and she found him and brought him over to LA. And there’s another called Yosmel Montejo who’s a fantastic bass player.
“So she was working with them in her band, so they were hanging around the house a bit, so I said, what are you guys doing, can you come downstairs, I’ve got a song I want you to play on, so it was more convenience than design, and it worked so well.”
So what can concertgoers expect if they catch Hay on tour?
“Put it like this,” he says.
“If people come along to the show it’ll be like if they go to a party. And when they get to the party there’ll be lots of people there that they don’t know, but sprinkled among those people there’ll be some old friends.”
Colin Hay plays the Enmore Theatre (Sydney) May 9, Canberra Theatre Centre May 14, The Tivoli (Brisbane) May 15, Empire Theatre (Toowoomba) May 16, Byron Theatre (Byron Bay) May 17, The Forum (Melbourne) May 20, Regal Theatre (Perth) May 23