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Colin Hay of Men at Work on Why He Became a United States Citizen

Colin Hay plays a solo show at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, March 14.
Colin Hay plays a solo show at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, March 14. Sebastian Smith

In 1979, Colin Hay formed Men and Work and wrote the music for “Who Can It Be Now?” while staying in the town of Cobargo, about 400 miles northeast of Melbourne, Australia. There wasn’t much to do except sit around and play guitar.

“It just kind of popped out,” Hay says. The chords came. The little chord run, and then I started mumbling a few things, and forty minutes later I had the bones of a song.”

Hay’s girlfriend at the time thought he had something special — his first hit. She was right. Two years later, "Who Can It Be Now" was the band’s first single, and a smash in Australia that helped propel the group to stardom in the United States the following year.

Proceeds from meet-and-greet packages on Hay's current solo tour, which stops at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, March 14, will go to a fund to help recovery from wildfires in Cobargo.

“I was just trying to figure out the best way to get it directly to help in the immediate time,” Hay explains. “The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has got lots of cash, and donations have been immense. But they don’t have the infrastructure to deal with how much money they’ve got. So the money is still not really, perhaps, going where it could go in the short term. It’s a little bit of a system that has to be a little more than tweaked, I would say. They’ve raised millions and millions of dollars, but they don’t have the infrastructure to actually dole it out quickly. I figured they had enough money to go on with. This other recovery fund [for Cobargo] made more sense.”

While Hay is playing a few Men at Work songs on his current tour, the bulk of his sets focus on his prolific solo output since the band first split in 1985. He's also gearing up for a new solo album, the followup to 2017’s Fierce Mercy, which he hopes to release this summer. He and collaborator Michael Georgiades, who has worked on Hay’s past four albums, finished around fourteen songs over a couple of months.

“We seem to have a little bit of a vein where these songs just started popping out,” Hay says. “He had lots of musical ideas and would come ’round and say, ‘Hey, I've got something’ and come over. And it was really good. So we’d finish the song and record it.”

When Hay pens a song, he wants it to move listeners, to make them feel something.

“That can mean many things,” he says. “It can instill feelings of revolution, or it can just make you feel warm and fuzzy; I’m not quite sure. What I like when I’m writing a song or trying to come up with things, I like a song to take me somewhere. And the best songs kind of develop a life of their own so you feel like you’re writing the song, but you also feel like you’re being carried along by it, as well. It’s a nice thing. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s good when it does.”

Hay, who also toured internationally with three versions of Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band and wrote the title track for the drummer’s latest album, 2019’s What’s My Name?, says he’ll sometimes find a lyrical rhythm in a song even before there are lyrics.

“And sometimes it just comes from the way that the music informs about what kind of lyrical rhythm there is,” Hay says. “You kind of go from there, as opposed to having a specific lyric. And then sometimes you just have these mumblings, and you kind of listen to your mumblings while you’ve been playing something. It suggests just phonetics. It suggests some kind of title or line, and you just stumble up on it that way.”

Hay, who has been living in Los Angeles for the past three decades, says the current state of affairs in the United States seeped into his new material in more obscure — but not preachy — ways.

“It’s a big subject," Hay says. "It’s a difficult thing to really try and articulate. What is going on at the moment’s so dark that it’s kind of hard to even really talk to people about it or try and even give an opinion about it, because it’s — we’re in really uncharted waters in a sense that the guys that put this whole thing together back then, you know, two or three hundred years ago, when they said, 'Okay, let’s put together a system that creates elasticity and can survive diabolical corruption by any one branch. We’re going to set it up so that can’t be abused.'

“Then along comes a guy who’s figured out a way to do that," Hay continues. "In many ways, I think those guys back then thought that the person that would do that, or the people that would do that, that could perhaps threaten the system, would be incredibly smart, and instead you have this idiot who’s figured a way to do it. It’s through kind of sheer intimidation. He’s managed to figure out a way how to just to intimidate his way into dictatorship.”

When Hay made the decision to become a United States citizen in 2016, he wanted to do it while President Barack Obama was still in power.

“There were a number of really tedious reasons why, to do with advice from people who look after my affairs,” Hay explains. They were saying: "'Look, you know, this is not a good situation for your wife [singer and Peruvian native Cecilia Noël] if you fall off your perch.' So that was the instigating factor, saying, ‘Listen, you really should think about this, you know?’”

Hay also thought about the benefits of voting and the identity of being a U.S. citizen.

“I was born in Scotland, and I lived in Australia and still feel a close affinity to both those places,” Hay says. “Then I feel a really great affinity with the United States, because it’s been very kind to me as a place. Generally speaking, it’s been a place I feel very warm toward in many ways."

When Hay first moved to Los Angeles, following the massive success and then breakup of Men at Work, he was struggling, both professionally and personally, while starting a solo career and dealing with alcoholism.

“I came to California and started a new life, really,” Hay says. “So I thought, ‘I live here. I’m part of this. So I wanted to become a citizen and participate.'”

Colin Hay plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 14, at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place. Tickets are $45 to $65 and available at Altitude Tickets.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
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