Darren Hayes Popular Single UK

Christine Sams

Darren Hayes has had heady success and felt the sting of failure. Now he’s back with a new album and a Popular single but fame can still be a lonely state of affairs.

Flashback to 2001, to the back of a Tarago. Darren Hayes, whose name then - as now – was often followed by “You know, the guy from Savage Garden”, was in Sydney to promote his first solo album, Spin. After sporting jet-black dyed hair for much of his career, the singer had drastically altered his image post band break-up, with longish bleached hair and mirrored shades. Whizzing towards the airport, surrounded by a fawning entourage, Hayes was acting as though he was too busy and important to be interviewed anywhere other than en route.

Back then, the singer was confident he’d sell more than 10 million copies of Spin. After all, he’d been the lead singer of duo who’d sold more than 20 million albums in four years, a pop band whose ballads Truly Madly Deeply and I Knew I Loved You were ready-made for radio, dripping sugar from stereo speakers in countries from Britain to Brazil.

But despite the startling cover image of Hayes with the newly blond hair and sunglasses (or perhaps because of it), Spin was a flop. It sold fewer than 2 million copies globally and although it scored gold in Australia, the album was considered a failure by many in the music industry and by Hayes himself.

Three years later, the 32 year old singer from Brisbane has no doubt who he’d be if the album had been a success. “Probably an arsehole, probably a monster,” he says, leaning forward inside the tiny, low-lit recording studio in West London. “It was such a self-conscious record and made with so much pressure and, I think, probably a certain degree of arrogance. I can admit that now, having felt that I really did fall from grace.”

He describes the Spin period as “a blur” (of vanity rather than excess – the singer says he’s never touched drugs, nominating carbohydrates as his greatest addiction). “I was coming off the back of the most successful band in years from Australia and I guess there was so much smoke being blown up every possible orifice by the record company.”

Hayes had embraced the life of a high-profile pop star. He formed friendships with Elton John and Kyle Minogue. At US awards ceremonies, he strolled the red carpet without Daniel Jones, who tended to avoid celebrity appearances. “You wouldn’t be surprised if someone accused him of taking himself too seriously last time around,” says Dean Buchanan, DMG Radio Australia group program director. But Hayes admits it didn’t take long for that fame bubble to burst. “To be honest, I got over the attention probably in the first year of being famous,” he says. Jones confirms that “some days Darren would jump in headfirst without looking, the next day he was shying away from it all.”

The singer says now that he was devastated by the way he was portrayed locally after Savage Garden officially broke up in 2001. “I felt like the Yoko Ono of Australia’s Beatles, I wanted to stand up on top of a mountain and say, ‘This is not what happened.’ I would have been in Savage Garden for the rest of my life (he gets tears in his eyes at this point). It was not my idea (to end the band). I got stones thrown at me for continuing on.”

Hayes was viewed as the one behind Savage Garden’s split, after he revealed the break-up in a Melbourne newspaper interview. Later reports even suggested that Jones learnt of the split on reading the article. However, it was Jones who had initiated the break-up, slowly removing himself from band duties more than a year earlier and leaving Hayes to pretend everything was hunky-dory to the public and the media.

As Jones won admiration in Australia for turning his back on celebrity to open the low-key recording studio Meridien Musik in Brisbane, Hayes doggedly pursued fame in the US. “I think Daniel was really smart – he worked it out in the beginning,” says Hayes. “I kind of got crucified by the notion of being a hero.”

Spin’s failure to turn Hayes into a big-league solo star led the singer to two years of soul-searching. He even sought the advice of his pop elders. “I remember talking to Kylie Minogue about how I felt during that period,” he says. “She said to me, ‘You just have to keep your chin up. You have to go where the sun’s shining.’

Hayes also recalls a 1998 meeting with Bono – whose music he worshipped as a young fan. The pair met backstage at a Sydney performance for U2’s PopMart tour. “Savage Garden had first peaked, we’d had our first number one in America,” he says. “Bono said, ‘How are you coping?” and I said, ‘I’m good, I feel really grateful, I feel really blessed. But sometimes I’m on stage and all I hear is the girls screaming and I just want them to listen to my voice.” And he grabbed my hand and put it on his heart and he said, ‘If the music comes from here, then it’ll scream louder than all the voices.’

“It took me years to work out what he meant by that,” says Hayes, who will release his new solo album, The Tension And The Spark, next month. But I’ve realised now I’ve made a record where I don’t need accolades. I really love it; it’s the first time I’ve made a record where I’ll sing along to it. I’ll play it in front of my friends.”

Not only that, Hayes insists that with his new album, he has finally been honest. There are dark, anxiety-ridden pop tunes (Darkness and Unlovable) coupled with raw, dirty and tongue-in-cheek tracks (Ego and Popular). Even before it was released, Popular was the No. 1 most-added track to Australian radio. Robert Conley, an American producer, a close friend of Hayes (he’s married to Hayes’s manager, Leonie Messer) and a key collaborator on Tension, says the creative shift was vital.

“We were always listening to a lot of music that was cooler than the music he made – bands like Basement Jaxx, U2 and Depeche Mode. And artists like Madonna – people who change and have the careers they want. I thought, ‘Why do you want to keep writing the same songs over and over again?’ I know he can write a million love ballads – he could come in here now and in 15 minutes give us a love ballad. But there’s no fun in that; he doesn’t get any joy out of it. So I thought, ‘You’re cooler than that. You can be one of those artists that evolve and shock everybody.’ It took a while to convince him.”

These days Hayes looks very relaxed. At just over 177 centimetres, he’s smaller in person than you’d expect and his body is muscled and lean from the two hours of exercise - mainly yoga and weights – he does daily. He’s also smart (he studied journalism at the University of Queensland, “hated it” and moved into teaching). And funny, mimicking Brazilian TV dancers and doing a half-decent George W Bush impression.

For the past five years, he’s lived in Sausalito, on the fringes of San Francisco, sharing a house that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz with his English cocker spaniel, Wally. (For the record, Hayes has retained his Australian accent with no northern hemisphere affectations.) Conley, who lives in the next suburb, says Hayes enjoys a quiet life in the Californian city. “It’s very sleepy, very nature-oriented. We ride mountain bikes and go down to the beach.”

Right now, Hayes is in England promoting his new album – a sure sign of a change in his target market. And he’s temporarily living with most of his closest friends: manager Messer, Conley, their baby son, Calvin, and Hayes’ personal assistant, Sharon Millington. And Wally the dog is expected to arrive in London at any moment.

But for all the people around him, he’s on his own and he remains coy about his love-life. Despite lyrics from one of his new songs, Love and Attraction, that include the line “I want her, she wants him, he wants me, I give in”, Hayes won’t cop to being straight, gay or bisexual. “Someone said to me once, ‘At the end of the day, all people care about is how big it is and where you put it,’” says Hayes with a cheeky grin. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s so crass’ but it’s true. If people think I’m gay, that’s fine. If people think I’m not, that’s fine. I’m old-fashioned. I think there is a certain mystery and mystique and a performer should be somewhat of a blank canvas. I’m happy for anyone to project whatever they like onto that canvas.” Hayes gave me the same “blank canvas” answer – almost word-for-word – three years ago.

Whatever his preference, friends say Hayes, a self-confessed “hopeless romantic”, is still searching for true love. The singer was married at 22 for four years to fellow Queenslander Colby Taylor and still counts his ex-wife as a confidante. (Taylor, who lives in Brisbane, did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.) Hayes’s high-pressure career was blamed for the break-up but he has never spoken about the reasons behind the split.

There have been other lovers since but “I’ve been single for two years now,” says Hayes. “Ultimately, I haven’t been lucky in love because I haven’t been at peace with myself.” These days, “he’s not as in-demand as you’d think”, says Conley, who has known Hayes for about five years. “I mean, he’s a good looking guy with a great personality. But he doesn’t put himself out there much – so it’s hard for him to get into relationships. He’s looking for the right person who’s got the right intentions. When you’re in his position, it’s hard to know what people’s intentions are. Sometimes you get taken for a ride. He’s definitely aware of that.”

Hayes has reason to be guarded. He talks with great fondness of his older sister, Tracey, 38, a mother-of-two in Queensland who runs his official fan club and with whom he talks, without fail, every day on the phone. (Hayes also has a brother Peter, 35). Growing up in Woodridge, a satellite suburb south of Brisbane, he and Tracey would walk down to Woody’s music store, where Hayes later worked as a teenager. There was no money in the family. “Tracey and I would go down every weekend and look at vinyl and talk about stuff. We didn’t have enough money to buy new records but we got a lot of secondhand ones or hand-me-downs and she got me into Fleetwood Mac and Motown.”

But behind Hayes’s cherished recollections, there is a strange air of sadness, even caution, when he talks about his early family life. The singer is close to both his parents, Judy and Robert, and his siblings – he goes home for Christmas every year and his family members often fly to visit him – but he admits things weren’t easy when he was growing up.

“I definitely had a very turbulent family life,” says Hayes. “It was something as an adult I’ve blocked out. I think I compensated through having this extraordinary job where I though the whole world would clap and cheer for me and that would make me feel OK. And it didn’t.” He slowly shakes his head. “Obviously issues in my childhood, all those feeling of inadequacy. There’s a difference between saying you forgive someone and then saying you forget about something.”

Hayes won’t elaborate. He rarely discusses his childhood in interviews and seems genuinely uncomfortably when revealing personal details. “This interview is terrifying, to be this open, because there are certain parts of me I’ve wanted to keep to myself. But I couldn’t talk about my new music without admitting it comes from a very personal place.”

But, he says, “I don’t want to have one of those articles that is like, ‘Oh my God, my tortured life, my tortured childhood.’ I definitely had some issues growing up and they were all dealt with. I love my family now. We’re completely sorted out. (But) I’m a 32 year old man now and I guess I used a lot of that darkness, a lot of that angst, on this record. I’ve been hiding it for years.”

After the release of Spin, Hayes was far from keen to get back into official recording mode. Conley says Hayes, who is already a multimillionaire (the singer compares his fortune to “winning Lotto”), isn’t consumed by his career. “His entire focus definitely isn’t music. He turns it on, then he turns it off. He’s a real movie buff; he goes to the movies almost every night (often by himself). He doesn’t go out a lot besides that – he’s a lot more antisocial than you’d think; he’s sort of any anti-celebrity. He turned all that down.”

Even during this post-Spin years of soul searching, while he was experimenting with different instruments, including guitar and piano and building tracks with Conley at his home studio, Hayes wouldn’t admit to his record company – or even himself – that he was working on a new album. He was so fearful of the immense pressure involved. But, firmly steeped in electronica, The Tension And The Spark, is already creating a buzz in the music industry.

“I’m not nervous,” says Hayes. “I’m just happy there are no gold trumpets and red carpets. People are preparing to be underwhelmed and I like that. It’s a great position to be in.”

Thanks to Keri at All Around Darren Hayes Net