To There From Here:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Many successful musical careers follow a fairly similar path – an artist starts out playing dingy clubs and begins to build a grassroots following. This hopefully leads to a record deal and some level of commercial success with their debut album. If the artist is extremely lucky, they’ll build upon that success with even more hit albums and become enormously popular all around the world. It may sound like a fairy tale; however, it does happen to a chosen few. Yet, in Colin Hay’s case, this whole ‘career path’ theory got turned on its head. Achieving huge worldwide success with their 1981 debut album, Business As Usual, Colin’s band, Men At Work was one of the most successful Australian acts of the early ‘80s. Hits like “Down Under,” and “Who Can It Be Now” helped define the era and are still being played on the radio today, nearly 35 years later. Their 1983 follow-up album, Cargo, contained the massive hits “It’s A Mistake” and “Overkill.” But two years later, the band’s third album, Two Hearts, failed to maintain the momentum. Men At Work – down to the duo of Hay and Greg Ham by the time of Two Hearts’ release – ceased to exist a short time later. Colin’s first solo album, 1987’s Looking For Jack, was a promising start for a new phase of his career, yet the album didn’t attract much attention and Hay and CBS parted ways. Signing with MCA, Colin released Wayfaring Sons in 1990 to critical success. The album embraced Hay’s Scottish roots – he was born in Scotland and emigrated to Australia with his family when he was 14 – but the album didn’t connect with an audience and he was soon without a major label deal again.
At this point, most musicians in his position would have either left the music business entirely or hopped on the nostalgia train and continued playing their old hits in package tours for the next few decades. But not Colin Hay. Instead, he went back to square one and began to rebuild his solo career. While he didn’t turn his back on his days with Men At Work, he certainly didn’t rely on his past successes to advance his solo career. Beginning with 1992’s Peaks & Valleys, Hay has continued to release a series of albums that are either filled with all the conveniences of modern recording technology or the warm sound of just an acoustic guitar and his distinctive voice. Many of his solo songs, including “Waiting For My Real Life To Begin” and “Beautiful World,” have become fan favorites over the years and receive as much fervent applause as his Men At Work classics. His songwriting has continued to be humorous and thoughtful, warm and heart-breaking. With each album, Hay’s audience continues to expand. It seems as if that whole ‘career path’ theory might be pure malarkey, and Colin Hay has forged a new one – start big, go long and circle back.
In February, 2015, Colin released his 12th solo album, Next Year People. The album finds Colin at the top of his game – his voice has never sounded better and his songs are more focused and emotional than ever before. “If I Had Been A Better Man,” “Trying To Get To You,” “I Want You Back,” “Mr. Grogan,” “To There From Here,” and the title track are some of his best songs yet. “Did You Just Take The Long Way Home” is the most heartbreakingly beautiful thing he’s written in his long career. The album strikes a perfect balance between his sparse acoustic outings and his full-band recordings. It is rare for an artist to release his finest work some 34 years after his debut album, but Colin Hay has defied the odds. Next Year People may not have a hit single like “Down Under” or “Who Can It Be Now,” yet the songs here are just as engaging as old classics like “Overkill,” “It’s A Mistake,” ‘Children On Parade,” and “I Can See It In Your Eyes.” Not only is this one of the best albums of the year, it is most definitely the best album he’s ever been involved with. A stunning effort indeed.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Colin about Next Year People and his career so far…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Next Year People is now available. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction to it so far?
COLIN HAY: Well, the reaction so far seems to be very, very good. I’m very excited. I’m always cautiously optimistic in a way with records because I’ve been in this situation before and every record that I make I think it’s better than the one before. I think that’s true to a large degree. I’m very happy with what’s happening so far.
SPAZ: With this album, it seems like there’s a renewed energy or sense of purpose. What inspired this album?
COLIN: One thing that I had, which I don’t normally have when I’m making a record, was an extended period of time where I was at home in Los Angeles, and I wasn’t on the road. So, I could go downstairs to the studio most days and work on the record. I have a friend who lives up the road, a guy that I co-wrote six of the songs on the record – Michael Georgiades, who has been around since the ‘60s and he made a record with Bernie Leadon from the Eagles. He opened up for The Doors in the ‘60s. He’s a great guitar player/songwriter. I met him in ’93 and I think that I’ve met probably three people in my life where I had a great songwriting partnership with. For whatever reason, it really works. So, he was around a lot and he would come over and go, “I’ve got this idea.” And so he’d play me a musical idea and then I would sit there and I would just write these words out. Sometimes we’d have a song in 45 minutes or an hour. So, I think that’s one of the things that happened. You have to be able to react to what is happening as opposed to being necessarily in control of it. I remember this period when I was with the old band (Men At Work), I think it was ’79, ’80 or that period where we were just about to make records. You kind of feel like the planets have lined up or something and that you can’t put a foot wrong. I was very lucky. I had the band as a vehicle so I would write a lot of songs. So, sometimes you’re just reacting to situations that are already present and you’re pulling things out of the air. You’re not really quite sure where they come from, but I’m just happy that they appear.
SPAZ: What inspired the title track?
COLIN: I was on the road and I saw a Ken Burns documentary on the Depression and all the troubles of the farmers, and it was very affecting to me – just that human condition that continues to do the same thing even if there’s withering results. And then I just wrote down these words, which became the song “Next Year People” and I never really did anything with it until I rediscovered those lyrics again. I wrote the music to that one day, and that became kind of a linchpin for the record in a way – just that feeling that hope seems to be the last thing that leaves us. We always seem to have that. There’s a small parallel with what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years I suppose because, you know, I had a lot of success and then it all kind of dissipated and then it was like, okay – you start again and you build from the ground up and you build these musical foundations and relationships with people and you travel all over the place hoping that you’re actually on the right path, thinking that you are, but never being completely sure. So, there was a kind of parallel with doing the same things all the time and hoping that you get a better result over a period of time.
SPAZ: Is your songwriting process pretty similar to what it was back in the Men At Work days?
COLIN: Well, it’s different in the sense that I have all these toys now. I mean, I taught myself how to engineer to a point. I can turn machines on and work from them and record myself and other people. So, there is a danger there of turning the machines on and messing around with ideas, because you end up with 40 or 50 ideas that you don’t actually finish. I think the best way for me to write a song for the most part is to actually write the song and finish it. Write the chords and the structure and the words before you even record it. And I find that to be a much more pleasurable experience. I think it’s much more pleasurable for musicians who come up and play with you. I keep going back to that – I finish the song before I actually commit it to some kind of recording.
SPAZ: You were born in Scotland, moved to Australia, and then moved to California. Do you think that you’re environment or your surroundings inform your songwriting?
COLIN: Yeah, I think that where you are does inform you, but you always have your imagination to help, to inform you also, which I think is probably much more effective in a way rather than just relying on what you can actually see. I think that what you can imagine is much more powerful. I remember I wrote that song, “Mr. Grogan.” I was doing a sound check in Hamburg, and I was looking outside at the tram tracks and this character sprung to mind, and I just kind of wrote that down about some kind of craftsman who’s kind of an elderly gentleman and falls over on his way home from work. We really don’t know what he does, but I just liked that little idea for a song. He has this dog, and of course the dog was waiting for him. Originally the song ended with him falling over in the snow, and then I thought about it and thought about my sister, because she’s got one of those dogs, a Labradoodle and I thought, “Well she’s not going to be happy with that. What happens to the dog?” So, I had to give the song somewhat of a Hollywood ending.
SPAZ: I’m always fascinated by your lyrics because they seem so honest and straightforward, but also you never know if they’re coming from personal experience or if you’re putting yourself in somebody else’s situation. Which side do you prefer?
COLIN: Oh, I don’t really have a preference. I think there are always elements of yourself in the songs. I like writing songs because it’s really open-ended. When I first came to Los Angeles, I took some acting classes because I had aspirations of being an actor and so forth. It was incredibly interesting, and the teacher was fantastic, a guy called Harry Mastrogeorge. He would tell his students, “Okay, you’re not putting yourself in this character. You’re empty, you’re blank, and you let this character inhabit you.” I found that a fantastic approach. It’s not like, “Oh, you have to drag up some experience you had when you were young and put it into the character.” No, the character exists. It has nothing to do with you at all, and you find out who the character is through the conditions and circumstances of that person that you’re playing. You know, it’s different when I’m writing a song. I think if I base songs just on my personal experiences, it’s very limited because I tend to do the same things all the time. I don’t drink anymore, so I’m not getting fucked up, you know? I’m not putting myself in situations which could potentially be dangerous, although I used to. But you still have your imagination. For example, “Did You Just Take The Long Way Home” – that was a song I wrote with Michael. He came over, and he just started playing this set of chords and I thought, that’s really good, but then I kind of added some chords. Then I said my mother always used to get lost at the five ways in Melbourne when we would go for a drive. We would come to this intersection, which had five ways you could go, and my mother for some reason always took the wrong way at the five ways. That sprung in my head and then the idea for the song came – the guy is sitting on top of a hill, living in his house, and his wife is gone – she’s left him. She’s not coming back. In the verses, he knows that because he’s dealing with it, but then in the chorus, he kind of still holds up this slight hope that she may come back, because she always took the wrong turn, so maybe she’s just taking the long way home. I noticed when I played that song for people in its acoustic form, before we’d finished recording it, we’d play for people and it had a strong emotional resonance with people for some reason.
SPAZ: On the record you work with a couple of young Cuban musicians. What inspired you to work with them?
COLIN: Well, for one thing – I stole them, really. They’re really musicians that play with my wife, Cecelia (Noel). She has a band in Los Angeles. She did a record called Havana Rocks in Cuba. She met San Miguel Perez when she was over there making the record. Then she came back to LA. She went back there and she tried to find him again to do some work with him and they said, “Oh he’s in Tampa.” She found him in Tampa and said, “Do you want to come to LA and work on some songs with me?” So he did and he’s an extraordinary musician. He had a friend who had just recently stayed here from Cuba, bass player Yosmel Montejo, who was in Albuquerque. So he said, “I’m coming too.” So he came to LA and started working with Cecelia. I just brought them into the studio. They’re incredible. They’re fantastic musicians, and they’re lovely lads and they can play anything. It’s incredible. I just brought them in and then I had other musicians come up and play. Charlie Paxson, who I’ve been working with for years, who is my favorite drummer I’ve played with. He played on the tracks and I recorded it all. Then I just took it down to my friend, Chad Fischer, who’s a much better mixing engineer than me, and he mixed it. So, the Cuban influence was really just the fact that they were around a lot. They were like coming up to the house and hanging out because they’re here by themselves. “Alright, you hang out, you have a bowl of pasta and when you finish that, come downstairs ‘cause I want you to play this bass part.”
SPAZ: Do you have any particular favorites on the album at this moment?
COLIN: Yeah, I like “Next Year People,” and I like a song called “To There From Here,” which is really also Michael’s idea. He came over and had this chord structure and he played it for me. (Lyrically), it’s a ‘we’re all in this ship’ kind of thing. We’re all just kind of spinning around trying to gain some kind of understanding of what the human condition is, and we would really like to kind of live in some kind of raised consciousness, and how do you do that? How do you get to there from here? That’s kind of where that came from.
SPAZ: You’ve got an amazing catalog of solo records. Does it get frustrating at times if people only want to hear the Men At Work songs or has that become a less common occurrence over the years?
COLIN: Oh, it’s much less common now, absolutely. I don’t mind playing the Men At Work songs. I like the Men At Work songs, and there are a lot more people who know my (solo) songs like “Waiting For My Real Life To Begin” and “Beautiful World.” There’s probably between five and ten songs since the Men At Work period that people like. But yeah, it is very frustrating not being able to get your music out to more people. That’s always been frustrating in the last 20 years. I think it’s true for a lot of people. I know that I’m doing the best work that I’ve ever done and I have no real understanding of the music industry. I probably tried to avoid it more than anything else. I don’t really understand it. I don’t really understand radio. All I really know is it’s extremely difficult to get new music played and so what I’ve done is a very old-fashioned approach – to just go on the road and try and connect with people that way and, obviously, through the internet and all those more contemporary ways of reaching people… which is what I’m doing. It’s been fulfilling and frustrating. I do have more people than I did ten years ago, so what I’m doing is definitely not going in the wrong direction.
SPAZ: Now, what’s next for Colin Hay?
COLIN: Soundcheck. (Laughs.) You know, I always want to take time off and learn how to play guitar better. That’s really what I want to do more than anything.
SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your CD, record, DVD, or Blu-Ray Players?
COLIN: I’m watching Peaky Blinders on Netflix. It’s fantastic. Great music, too. What am I listening to? The last record that I listened to most of the way through was Sia’s record just because I knew she was up for a Grammy. I’ve known her all her life and so she is family to me.
Thanks to Colin Hay