Colin Hay has found a unique balance. The former frontman of Men At Work has somehow created legitimacy as both an ’80s icon and a solo artist with some “indie credibility.” A founding member of the Grammy-winning Men At Work, a band that sold 30 million albums, Hay has also continued to release albums as a solo artist, inspiring a wide array of musicians, from Metallica’s James Hetfield to John Mayer to heavy metal’s Mastodon. One gets the sense that, listening to his work, Colin Hay has lived through some mistakes and isn’t afraid to dredge them up in his lyrics (check out “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You”).
Hay is back in front again with Fierce Mercy, a collection of songs that showcase the vocalist/guitarist’s ability to say simple things in heart-wrenching ways. There are songs about growing old alone and songs about being a better person and songs about getting stoned. There’s even a dash of hip-hop.
Hay recently took time out to speak to us about getting older, the scary state of our planet and why I love “Overkill.”
Folio Weekly: You’ve said recently that “there’s ferocity and mercy in everything.” Do you see this every day, or have recent events sparked this in you?
Colin Hay: There is a sense of anger and a whole lot of feeling about what is going on internally and with the world, and when you get older, it becomes a little more pressing. We get messages from the universe in all sorts of ways, even environmentally. Big governments — especially the new government — are seemingly oblivious to the fact that we are in very dangerous waters in terms of climate change. We have all these fierce warnings but there is also mercy, in the sense that we are all not destroyed yet. In the next 20-25 years, we may be in trouble. I could get hit by a truck tomorrow or could still be working around in 20 years. What happens in the world won’t affect me too much but I do care about the injustices and the gross stupidity from people who should know better.
How much have you been thinking about mortality and legacy lately? It sounds like Fierce Mercy is full of sentiments about the passing of time and the organic end of things.
I wrote the songs on this album with a friend of mine, Michael Georgiades. He’s about 70 and is a great songwriter. I’m 63 and it’s not like there is a conscious thing where you realize you are running out of time. I just write songs that come to me, that speak to me somehow. There’s a song on the album called “The Best of Me” where Michael came round to my house and showed me a song he was working on about how to not be such an asshole, and I thought it was a great idea. There is another song, “Frozen Fields of Snow,” that was one of these tunes and I had the structure for and this guy just popped into my head and I wrote the words. This gentleman appeared and I liked him and I wrote down his story about coming back to his house and there is nobody left in his family and so he has to figure out what to do with his house and the only constant in his life was his frozen fields of snow.
What forces were at work to inspire you to write “A Thousand Million Reasons”? It seems like there’s something spiritual happening in the song.
It has nothing to do with what happened in Paris [the first line of the song mentions waking up in Paris]. The song was written before the events in Paris, but my friend had an idea and I asked him to keep playing it and I just wrote down what ended up being on the record. I think I was reading a magazine article about Paris. If you look up into the sky, you are aware of the fact that there are billions of reasons reminding us we are not alone, but the evidence at this point is that we are, and there is joy in both of those ideas. We are probably not alone. So we can take comfort in that, but at the end of the day, we are always alone, we are born alone and die alone.
What is the story behind “I’m Going to Get You Stoned”? To whom is the narrator speaking?
Somebody younger who is infatuated with the past. I meet a lot of young hippies who get nostalgic about an era they didn’t get to experience. I thought things were going to change for the better back then. But then the hammer comes down and you realize things are really the same and people’s consciousness is not going to be changed by LSD or hemp-inspired culture. The thing about LSD — I haven’t done very much of it — it actually changes things on a molecular level; you get a sense of where your place in the universe is. I stopped doing it because I didn’t want to do so much of it, but you look at Cassius Clay and what he had to put up with and how he conquered that, that was the reality of the day. Ali was vilified by so many people in the country and he persevered to become one of the most loved people in the world. I think it’s always dangerous to romanticize about the past. It was just the past, and it was special. We can pretend it is 1967, it was glorious and it was hopeful and you had Hendrix and The Beatles, it didn’t get any better than that. It’s different now.
One of my very favorite songs — not just by you, but ever — is “Overkill,” and I hope it’s still on your set list nightly. What does it feel like to have written a song — many songs, in fact — that make people smile and sing and cry, even years later?
It feels warm and woolly. It’s a great thing. I loved it when I wrote it and I’ll love it when I drop. I remember when I came up with the melody, I thought it had a certain beauty to it, I was very happy with it, but I was worried what the band would think. I took it to Men At Work and I got no reaction whatsoever, but they were being typical guys and keeping their cards close to their chest, so I didn’t think it was that good at the time. But I ended up believing in it, so I recorded it myself and I thought if the band breaks up, I could have a career as a songwriter.