Colin Hay never set out to be a singer-songwriter.
Sure, he played around with that genre as a young man in Australia. But by 1978, he’d co-founded the group that would become Men at Work, which burst onto the global scene propelled by catchy pop hooks and clever videos aired on the then-revolutionary cable channel MTV.
The late 1980s, however, found Men at Work split up and Hay living in the U.S. That’s when he unintentionally became a singer-songwriter.
“I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a record label, so when offers came in for me to play, they were rather exploratory and meager, and I couldn’t afford to take a band with me,” he said by phone from his home in Southern California, the burr of his native Scotland only slightly softened by years living in Australia and the U.S. “I would go ahead and do gigs by myself, and people responded to that. So it was circumstantial rather than intentional.”
A chance meeting with the actor Zach Braff of the sitcom “Scrubs” helped expand Hay’s audience. Braff took Hay’s music to show creator Bill Lawrence, who liked it so much he wrote the 2002 episode “My Overkill.” Hay plays a troubadour haunting Braff with an acoustic version of Men at Work’s hit song, “Overkill.”
Area audiences will get to hear what Hay has to offer when he brings his one-man show to Sandpoint’s Panida Theater on Saturday. The set list will include songs pulled from his solo works and the Men at Work catalog.
He’s recorded 11 solo albums, including 1998’s “Topanga,” which allmusic.com calls “a good choice for those seeking intelligent songwriting and timeless songs,” 2003’s “Man @ Work” – featuring reworkings of Men at Work’s biggest hits, “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” – and his most recent, 2011’s “Gathering Mercury.”
“Gathering Mercury” was in part informed by the death of Hay’s father. He didn’t set out to write about his father’s passing, he said. It just happened.
“That was ever-present in the room, the fact that he was gone,” he said. “Because he was a singer and a dancer and was one of those guys who was in a sense an unexpressed and unfulfilled musician – that was not the path he followed but he was a talented guy … in many ways, I felt like he was helping me even though it may have been just a figment of my imagination. He was there in the room. It was also a selfish thing for me, when I was writing songs, I could bring him back to life.”
“Gathering Mercury” has an easy feel to it. One track, “Far From Home,” is reminiscent of Men at Work. Hay said that wasn’t what he was going for. In fact, the song was born when Hay was touring in 2008 with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. Starr considered recording it, Hay said, but ultimately urged the songwriter to do it himself. “It’s your song, you wrote it,” Hay recalled Starr saying, putting on Starr’s trademark accent. “You should record it.”
Over the years – Hay will turn 60 this year – he said his biggest goal in his songwriting is to keep getting better. And while he sometimes misses the immediacy of writing with a band – where bandmates can hear a new song, learn it, and play it that night on stage – he does enjoy working by himself, and in working out a song completely before he goes to record it. “I think there is a lot of merit in not recording a song until you have a song,” he said. “I don’t record half a song, or an idea for a song. It’s fun, but it is indeed a distraction. Sometimes you end up with 30 or 40 ideas and none of them are finished songs.”
Hay plans to spend a lot of time in the near future writing and traveling, but not touring. He hopes to have a new record out in 2014. His discussion of his songwriting process takes a quirky road, giving local fans a hint at the humor they’ll experience on Saturday.
Is he the kind of writer who writes all time, or does he have to lock himself away? “Both those things. I don’t lock the door, but I do go down steps,” he deadpans. “I think that’s very important. I think if you’re going to do anything serious, there have to be steps involved. I think going down steps is good.”
And then he laughs.