Is This the Real Life?
Colin Hay is best known as the frontman for Men At Work, the Australian ‘80s icons behind hits like “Down Under,” “Who Can It Be Now,” and “Overkill.” But that band broke up in 1985, and he hasn’t had a major hit since then. Yet Hay recently sold out all three shows at Atlanta’s City Winery.
The native Scotsman built his audience the old-fashioned way. He kept writing great songs such as “Waiting For My Real Life to Begin” (featured on Scrubs) and “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You (featured on the Garden State soundtrack), and toured his ass off.
Here the veteran journeyman talks about his long and winding career road, how the music industry has changed, and his new album, Fierce Mercy.
We’ve lost a number of ’80s icons in the last year. So my first question is, how are you feeling? Are you taking good care of yourself?
It’s tricky work. You’ve gotta pay attention to it, but you can never really tell. But I’m doing the best I can, and I’m feeling good!
You’ve had a fascinating career. The band that made you famous, Men At Work, was only together for a few years in the early ’80s. And yet here you are, still relevant more than 30 years later. Was it difficult to carve out your space as a solo artist?
Not really. You have to figure out how to stay in the game, but I was very fortunate that I managed to have success with the band. It’s not without its frustrations, because you have to find your audience. But I wasn’t poor, which enabled me to keep food on the table and keep making records rather than having to do something else for a living.
Garden State and Scrubs gave your solo work a broader audience 20 years after Men At Work broke up. Do you find that you have a multigenerational audience because of this unusual career arc?
Yes, there are different people who know me from different periods. But there was a long time between those two eras when there was very little interest from the music industry– agents, managers, record companies… So I went out on the road and I developed an audience. My live audiences will always be very important to me.
One of my favorite live clips is you performing “Waiting For My Real Life to Begin.” You talked about how odd it was to learn that people are using that song for weddings. Is it strange to see how your music is used by your audience?
No, I think it’s great. I tend to write whatever I feel, put it out there, and move on. How people interpret it is the randomness of the Universe, and out of your control. I’m just glad people like them and feel some sort of emotional resonance with the songs. Otherwise, why would you bother?
You sold out all three of your Atlanta shows. You mentioned the years when the industry didn’t care about you. Is your career even more rewarding now that…
[Interrupts] The industry still doesn’t really care. I’ve always played live, and it’s been a word-of-mouth sort of thing. People discover you and tell other people. I’m very happy that the shows are selling out: It’s fantastic. It wasn’t always that big. I’ve been working with independent record labels since 2003, so it’s not like I don’t have people helping me. But it’s not a large corporate machine. It’s about people who really care about the music and are trying to spread the word. It feels like it has a strong organic feel to it.
Can you talk a bit about how the music industry has changed since your Men At Work days?
That’s a big subject! Mine is more of a cottage industry. The Internet was important for me because it enabled people to be able to discover you. It meant that you didn’t just drop off the earth if you were dropped by a major label. That was a big thing. It’s still a slow process: If you want to have a sustaining career, you have to work at your craft and tour regularly. But it is a very different period, and people consume music in a very different way. Buying an album used to be an event– you would count down the days for it to come out– but those days are long gone.
Has the way people consume music in the Internet era changed the way you approach making records like Fierce Mercy?
No, it’s still pretty much the same. I’m a creature of habit. I still like albums, and having every song on the record count as opposed to having a few good songs and the rest is fluff. It’s still fun to tell a story with a full album. Who cares if people don’t get it? It’s still fun doing it.