Colin Hay is keeping busy, on record and onstage
There was never any question about what Colin Hay was going to do with his life. Growing up surrounded by the instruments, records, and sheet music in his parents’ shop in Scotland, the former Men at Work frontman was destined to be a musician. “My mother could sing, and my father was a great singer and played with bands when he was younger,” says Hay on the phone en route to Ithaca, N.Y., on a tour that brings him to the Wilbur Theatre Saturday. “It was just a path that was there that I followed, rather than having to make a conscious decision about it. They had the shop between the years of 1958 and 1967 — incredible years to be at a shop with all that music being made.”
Massive success would follow after Hay relocated to Australia and hooked up with his bandmates in Men at Work. The group became an MTV staple in the ’80s and scored the best new artist Grammy with enduring hits like “Down Under,” “Overkill,” and “Who Can It Be Now?”
After the group disbanded, Hay continued to tour — including two stints with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and a partial Men at Work reunion — and record, drawing critical acclaim but much smaller crowds. The road became thornier as his songwriting deepened. A battle with alcoholism, since won, made it harder for him to find a place in the industry.
But through a string of increasingly strong solo records, the most recent being the superb “Next Year People,” and some acting work — including memorable appearances on the sitcom “Scrubs,” thanks to fan Zach Braff — Hay found his way back.
“If I look back even 10 years ago, I couldn’t get a gig in Boston, not like a proper gig,” says Hay. “I’d be playing for 60 people at some kind of frat party in some hall, and thinking why am I doing this? I always suspected that I had an audience, but sometimes it’s very difficult either to find them or for them to find you.”
Sitting in hotel rooms alone, Hay pondered whether he’d become addicted to touring — or punishing himself. “But I keep on doing this thing, and hoping that it’s getting better,” he says. “One thing I suppose that has kept me going all these years was the fact that when I started to tour live, I didn’t really have anything else. I didn’t have a record deal. I couldn’t really think of what else I would do, so I just went on the road. And people kept on telling me — even at those shows where there were only 60 people in the audience — ‘Please don’t stop doing this.’ So, in a way, I was just listening to them.”
He was also listening to his friend Mark Flanagan, proprietor of the revered Largo nightclub in Los Angeles and a supporter since the early ’90s.
“I had to really go out of my way to explain who he was and what he was up to [to skeptics],” says Flanagan. “Once people saw him it was immediate, but it was a tough start. I think when I lived in Boston he couldn’t have sold out the Paradise, just in terms of where he was in his career after the demise of Men at Work. It took him a long time to build to this, and I think he’s really enjoying it.”
A new film, “Waiting for My Real Life,” is documenting that enjoyment. Recently screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, it includes testimonials from musicians as disparate as Mick Fleetwood, Serj Tankian of System of a Down, and Hay’s niece, pop singer-songwriter Sia.
That fandom stems from the songs, says Flanagan. He recalls that when he heard the title track of Hay’s latest album, “I couldn’t even talk afterward. He’s written songs that’ll stop your heart, but with this [album] I think he’s gone outside of his zone a little bit. He was always a good lyricist, but it’s becoming more profound, and I think that makes him more interesting.”
Indeed, “Next Year People” is a rich mix of character study (the nearly Dickensian “Mr. Grogan”), jaunty pop (“Trying to Get to You”), and craftsmanship blended with contemplation, as on “If I Had Been a Better Man,” which juxtaposes a cheery groove with a rumination on romantic wreckage.
Hay still performs his Men at Work hits, and says he is constantly stopped by fans who are both surprised and delighted that he’s still making music.
“That conversation happens all the time,” he says. “The Men at Work thing was so incredibly powerful — not only when it happened, but the legacy of that. In many ways I’m quite happy with that, because it was a very powerful time in my life, and I still enjoy playing the songs. Having said that, if I was going around touring and playing only Men at Work songs, and that was the only thing people were interested in, then I daresay I’d probably just stay home, because that’s not very appealing to me. Fortunately, he says, most of his current listeners appreciate his more recent material.
“Strangely enough, there’s a lot of people who have rediscovered me through their children,” Hay adds, laughing as he recounts a story of some older fans who came to a recent show at the behest of their 9-year-old daughter. “That was kind of lovely.”
At Wilbur Theatre, Saturday at
8 p.m. Tickets $30-$40. 800-745-3000. www.ticketmaster.com