Colin Hay has a superb new album, Now And The Evermore, out this Friday, March 18. The collection is an interesting one thematically as it finds the gifted singer/songwriter reflecting on his past.
No, not the Men At Work days, which Hay does talk about. But as Hay tells me the intimate, retrospective Now And The Evermore finds him going back to his unique childhood, one that found his parents moving his family from Scotland to Australia when he was 14.
But, as Hay explains, that was only part of what made his upbringing special. Another part was his parents ran a music shop from 1958 – 1967, shaping a huge part of his identity. And as he’s gotten older he is only now understanding the significance of those days.
It does influence this album, like take the track “Man Without A Name,” premiering here today. The joyful rootsy rocker, an incredibly festive track, was inspired by the idea of Elvis Presley’s ghost.
I spoke with Hay about the song, how moving to Australia at the age of 14 inspired the Men At Work smash “Down Under,” the new album and how hearing the Beach Boys led to his California dreams.
Steve Baltin: I’m a big believer in how environment affects writing and music, so do you feel the ghosts of Topanga Canyon in this new record?
Colin Hay: I’m not sure whether specifically in this new record, but you do get a whiff of it when you’re driving across the Canyon. But I know Neil Young lived up here, and I don’t think that Joni Mitchell lived up here, but I always, for some reason, think about her a lot. Ry Cooder, I don’t think he ever lived here, but I think he’s always been in the area. I write songs with a guy called Michael Georgiadis, who lives up the road from me in Topanga, and he’s Californian, and he was around, he made a record with Bernie Leadon. So I get a lot of history from him. He opened up for the Doors and so forth in 1968 and stuff, so I love all that stuff.
Baltin: There’s a sort of romanticism of places that you didn’t grow up. So for you, growing up in Australia, did you always feel an affinity for California and the music scene?
Hay: I spent the first 14 years of my life in Scotland, in southern Scotland. My mother and father had a music shop, so I remember the first time I became very intrigued with California was when I first heard [the Beach Boys] “Good Vibrations.” I was sitting at a little cafe. I think I was maybe 12 or 13, and I was having a Coca-Cola at the Eglinton Cafe, and they were playing “Good Vibrations.” And I thought to myself, “Well, I don’t know where that music’s coming from, but I want to somehow get there.” So I went on a very big round trip to the other side of the world before I actually made it over here. But in a lot of ways, going to Australia wasn’t too dissimilar, in my mind, anyway, to going to America because it was huge and expansive and full of color and full of light. And even things like the cars had similar shapes because the parent companies were General Motors and Ford, so a lot of the car designs were similar. And that was very different from Scotland too, because in Scotland you don’t really have a car until you’re about 36 years old. And when I first arrived in Australia, all my friends who were 16 and 17 would drive down the coast, and so it was a completely different way to live. But, yeah, I didn’t really plan on coming to live in California, but everything seemed to conspire for that to happen for me at the end of the ’80s, when I came over here and I got offered a deal by MCA. I just came here for about six weeks, and I ended up just staying more or less. So I’ve been here for like 32 years or something.
Baltin: At what point did you realize that this was the place for you?
Hay: I think that I realized it pretty fully when I did Rock in Rio in 1991. I had a ticket that took me back to Australia, but it was coming back via Los Angeles, because I had to stop here for a couple of different reasons. And when I arrived in Los Angeles it felt like, “Oh, okay. There’s no real reason for me to keep going on this journey. This is where I’m supposed to be at this point.” And I’ve said this before, but it’s a strange place in a way, because it really shouldn’t have a population like it has. It doesn’t really have any water, it’s a desert and people have made it their home. And I’ve been driving down the 101 freeway and I get hit with brief but very powerful fleeting moments of euphoria, and I still get them just because I’m here for some reason and I’ve been here for quite a long time. And you know what it’s like, time goes very quickly. But people come and go, people come and then they leave, and it’s a very difficult place to leave, even if you’re thinking about it. And you’re right, I think that really important things happen to you, not really by design, but more by circumstance. And even when I got dropped by MCA Records very soon, in 1991, actually I didn’t really have a record company that was interested in me, I didn’t really have any agents booking shows or managers or anything like that, so I just found myself on my own here in Los Angeles and I thought, “Well, I’ll just start again.” So that’s kind of what happened to me. That wasn’t by design, that was just circumstance. And so I just started going out on the road and making records, and it was fantastic. My experience was that it was a very kind place to me when I arrived. And you could say it’s relatively rarified circumstances, ’cause I wasn’t poor, I had money to put food on the table, so I was lucky in that regard. But professionally, there were a lot of challenges in the early ’90s for me.
Baltin: How did you respond to those challenges?
Hay: I had to just figure out, “Okay, what do I do now?” And so again, that circumstance comes into play where I just started going out on the road and playing on my own, solo shows, and sometimes to 40-50 people, hardly anybody, and it just kind of built from there. And so that’s how I saw a lot of the United States really, flying well under the radar, so to speak. But I got to know the place pretty well, and the people in it, and from the audiences that came to the live shows, and so that’s really what’s sustained me more than anything else over the 30 years or so.
Baltin: We’re premiering “Man Without a Name,” and as you’re talking about this, I do feel like there’s a little bit of this story in the song.
Hay: Yeah, well, the vast majority of people still don’t know who I am. And that’s okay. I don’t really have a problem with that. It’s just really a question of, “How do you stay creative and continue to do what I really love to do, which is to write and record music and go out and play it?” So, I just realized that the Men At Work thing was very powerful in some ways, but what I was trying to do was something which was quite different. So in a lot of ways it wasn’t like I was trying to ignore what had happened to me, because it was a very big commercial success. But the road that I was traveling in the early ’90s, it was quite a solitary one and happily so, I was quite happy to be on my own. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll just go out under my own name and we’ll just see who turns up.” And it just built very slowly under its own steam. But it’s interesting what you’re saying about the song, I hadn’t really even thought about that as being about me, that song, “Man Without a Name.” It was really just an idea I had whenever I played the little musical idea that I had initially, which was just like going from a major chord to a sixth. It just reminded me of Elvis. For some reason, I kept thinking about Elvis, but then I just had the idea of it being about Elvis as a ghost who is wandering around and knowing that he was very, very powerful and iconic, but wasn’t quite sure of all the details. I quite like that idea. And I think with a lot of songs, you just kind of, like you say, you put things out there and people travel down little different roads that the song takes them to. So it’s quite a vague idea that that song in particular, it’s not about anything specific, it’s just like little ideas that that perhaps people can make of it what they will.
Baltin: This is a very important question. When you picture Elvis as a ghost, what era Elvis is it?
Hay: It’s not the late ’50s, you know, early days on all those shows that he was on [Ed] Sullivan and playing his J-200 with Scotty Moore and just the three or four-piece band. It’s more the Hawaiian shirt-wearing early ’60s, making movies Elvis. When you’d see him he had that vibe of he was doing it, but he’d sometimes look slightly perplexed.
Baltin: And if you could have Elvis’s ghost sing one song to you, what would it be?
Hay: On a personal level I think an obvious one, like “Hound Dog,” would be great because it’s such a great song and it’s such great guitar playing in it. And I came to Elvis later on because when I was growing up, I was a little bit young to have picked up on the early phenomenon of Elvis. It wasn’t until later that I went back and re-examined those songs when I had, more of a brain that I actually realized the genius of those songs and where they came from and just what he offered the world. And in the broader term also the revolution of youth, changing of the guard, if you like.
Baltin: Are there things in Now And The Evermore that surprise you when you go back and look at it as a complete work?
Hay: I think there are a lot of ideas about my childhood in there, which is a recurring thing with me, the way I was brought up, my parents and the idea of mortality and what happens to people and the sadness and the yearning you have for those that you love that you’ll never see again. Perhaps I only see them in dreams, which I relish when that happens. But I had such a different [upbringing], I really haven’t met anyone else who was brought up in a situation where between the years of 1958 and 1967, I was in a music shop surrounded by some of the greatest music that’s ever been produced. And I think that as I grow older, I’m just still actually realizing what that meant and how amazing it was. Like my parents decided to go to Australia, that blows your mind. And the fact that if I hadn’t have gone to Australia, I probably wouldn’t have written a song called “Down Under” and all the things that happened from that.
Baltin: Do you feel like it’s become a more recent phenomenon for you where you’ve appreciated the impact of your childhood, and do you see it more in your music now than you would have maybe 15 years ago?
Hay: Yeah, I think I recognize it more now. It was probably still occurring then, but I think I recognize it more now. There’s a song on the record called “Starfish And Unicorns,” which is about spreading my mother and father’s ashes in this particular place where they used to go swimming in the bay, in Melbourne, Australia. And my brother and sister and I spread the ashes. They settled on a family of starfish under the water. But they were very special people. Not everyone’s parents are kind people who give a lot of security, the security and love to their children. But I was lucky in that regard. My father and I had a very complicated, tempestuous relationship. And it’s only now that I’m okay with the fact that’s what it was. I don’t wanna sugar-coat the relationship we had or make out that it was something that it wasn’t. What I’m left with when I think about my father is this deep love and hilarity. And the other things that happened, the complications or the locking of horns and the difficulties were there, and they’re still there, but I decided to have a relationship with my father in real life when he was still alive, which was perhaps on the superficial. I couldn’t get any depth with him in life, but I have that since he’s been gone, because I realize his struggle and what he did. So I feel like I’m still having a relationship with my father, which is still developing. It’s not something which is a dead thing. It’s something which is always constantly surprising to me, and inspiring to me as well. He pops up in all kinds of different ways. And I’m very grateful for that at the end of the day. And I love that particular song. That’s probably my favorite song on the record because of that. Because when I’m living here in California and I’m driving up the Boulevard late at night, he still comes to me, and we can have have some kind of interaction which is meaningful.