Colin Hay Still Finds His Dance
In the 1980s the Australia rock group Men at Work, burst onto the scene. The band may no longer be together, but front man, Colin Hay is still making music and touring around the world. Hay’s most recent record is Gathering Mercury. On his current Finding my Dance tour he blends songs from the course of his career with a range of stories. In the following conversation Colin discusses Gathering Mercury, his live show and what’s yet on the horizon.
What can you tell us about your latest album, Gathering Mercury? Would you say there is a theme to it?
Well, I can tell you a lot of things but I always find it difficult to talk about albums because hopefully they speak for themselves. I never set out to have a theme for an album but I think if you are in a particular state of mind or a particular state of time sometimes things develop over a course of a record without you even realizing it. The main big event that happened before I started recording that record was that my father died. I wasn’t consciously trying to write about that but that was just the emotional context of that time, so really that impacted the record.
That’s very interesting because the album definitely has a softer feel to it and one of my favorite songs is “Dear Father.” Can you talk about your songwriting process?
It is a stumbling process really (laughter). I do not really have a process to speak of. I have a lot of different ways I write. Sometimes they come very quickly and sometimes I really have to work on them for a while. I always try to get ideas for songs no matter where I am, whether I am on the road or in dreams or however they come. It’s not really that difficult to get ideas for songs but the more challenging thing is to finish them. To sit down and work on them is where the hard work comes in. Sometimes it can take a short amount of time and sometimes it can take years. I tend to write songs on acoustic guitar or electric guitar and I have a studio in my basement and I tend to get ideas while I am in the studio but I try to finish songs before I start recording them. Otherwise you end up with a bunch of half-finished songs and I find that usually the songs are better if you finish them before you record them.
A lot of great musicians say they struggle knowing when a song is done. How do you know when you’ve reached that point?
Knowing when a song is done is one of the most important things. There is a big difference between writing a song, recording a song, and arranging a song, because they are all different things. For example, a song I wrote, “Overkill” and it was a hit but now you listen to it and it’s just guitar and voice and it works just as well. So the song is done with just guitar and voice, you don’t need anything else on the song. What you do with that song is a whole other thing, how you produce and arrange it. But if you are songwriting you need to know when it’s done and then say, “Okay what am I going to do with it?” You can read the books by producers like Geoff Emerick who worked with the Beatles. John Lennon came into the studio and played “Strawberry Fields” and Geoff said that he didn’t need to do anything besides record it with guitar and voice because it is such an amazing song, and they did and so the song was done. But then everyone in the studio has to work together to make a song as good as it can be and then that finished product is what we hear on the record.