Colin Hay Is Still at Work, 25 Years After "Down Under"

Colin Hay, the Scottish/Australian singer/songwriter and former Men at Work frontman responsible for such enduring '80s pop-rock classics as "Who Can It Be Now?" and "Down Under," sounds refreshed on the telephone. And it's no wonder he's relaxed—he's just returned from a Caribbean cruise, in which he soaked up the sun and wandered around the Bahamas and British Virgin Islands.

Hay needed a break, having just recently finished his 11th solo studio album, Gathering Mercury. The recording was an emotional victory, a revitalizing turnaround from a rough couple of years that saw Hay battling a lawsuit (the flute melody from the 1981 Men at Work hit "Down Under" was ruled to have been pilfered from the Australian children's song "Kookaburra") and grieving from the death of his father.

"It's simply one of the biggest things that could happen to someone," Hay says of his father's death. "If you've had a relationship with your father all your life, it's obviously impacting in every way possible. It's definitely a very big tragedy in my life.... It wasn't something where, after he passed, I thought, ‘I'm going to write about my father,' but it was unavoidable because it was just such a big event. So it factors into everything—it doesn't really matter what you're writing about; it's in there, as well as a pretty large component of whatever else is going on."

But instead of making an album that sounded like a man in mourning, Hay envisions Gathering Mercury as an uplifting album, maybe more of a New Orleans-style funeral march than a dressed-in-black visitation.

"There are songs on there that are clearly directly related to him, and there's also a couple songs where I imagined him singing, so they are written in first person—with him singing the songs, which he never did, obviously," Hay says. "But there's also a pretty large celebratory aspect, celebrating his life, which also had a big impact on me."

On the new disc, Hay has stumbled upon some of his finest post-Men at Work tracks. The music is as hooky and well-manicured as anything he's ever recorded, including the bouncy, Beatles-esque highlight "Family Man," which features a gorgeous, Lennon-style piano progression and some joyous whistling. It's an eclectic album, much of which, Hay says, was inspired by his father's old show-business career.

"He was a great singer and dancer when he was a kid, and he was part of a traveling vaudeville show and so forth, so there are a lot of styles on the album that harken back to the '40s more than anything else," he says.

A nomadic lifestyle seems to be part of the Hay DNA. After Men at Work's 1986 break-up, Hay hit the solo acoustic circuit, gigging across Australia and playing for dismal crowds of as few as 30 people—working, as Hay puts it, as a "traveling salesman." Audiences were confused at first, unsure of what this former pop star would be able to bring all by himself. But playing the material in a stripped-down, intimate setting isn't one he finds unusual. "I've basically been writing on and playing acoustic guitar since I was 14 or 15, so it's a fairly natural process to play the guitar and sing the song," he says.

While his first decade and a half as a solo performer did bring a couple of very minor hits (including the vaguely African-influenced "Hold Me" from his debut album, Looking for Jack), it took years of persistent performing and recording for Hay to find his niche. A lucky TV break didn't hurt—he reworked an old Men at Work classic, "Overkill," for a 2002 episode of Scrubs called "My Overkill"; he even appeared in person during a montage sequence, serenading indie-nerd heartthrob Zach Braff on his acoustic guitar, only to have it smashed. More of his tunes were later incorporated into the show, and he eventually landed more brief on-screen appearances—major exposure for an artist entrenched in cult status.

But his success can't be traced back solely to luck. Unlike many '80s artists who had trouble adjusting to the '90s alt-rock explosion, Hay has basically steered clear of popular music trends altogether, quietly releasing album after album of his singular brand of heavily melodic pop-rock. To the public at large, he may always be remembered as that guy who did "Down Under," but Hay seems grateful just to be where he is today: playing music for people, whether it's for audience of 30 or 800. At one gig, he says, a disappointed fan called out that he forgot to play "Down Under," so he simply took his acoustic down to the merch table and serenaded her on the spot. "[The hits] are no bother for me because they've been extremely good to me over the years—put a roof over my head, food on my table," he says. "All those cliches are true, and I'm forever grateful."