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As the vocalist for the Australian duo Savage Garden, Darren Hayes became one of the most famous pop stars of the 1990s thanks to worldwide hits such as “Truly Madly Deeply,” “I Knew I Loved You,” and “I Want You.” After that band ended in 2001, Hayes launched a solo career, releasing four albums by 2011. By then, he had become disillusioned with the music business, due in large part to the pressure he’d been under to hide the fact that he’s gay. He has unquestionably rectified this situation with his latest album, Homosexual (released in October via his own Powdered Sugar Productions Ltd label). With exuberant, catchy pop songs and insightful lyrics, Hayes is finally able to fully express himself without any filters. He’s equally candid when he calls from his L.A. home to discuss what inspired him to finally show this uninhibited, joyful side of himself to the world.
How did you know it was the right time to do another album?
DARREN HAYES: I went to see a movie, Call Me by Your Name. I had a really emotional reaction to the film because it was a positive queer story and it was set in the ‘80s, which is when I grew up. My whole relationship to being gay was so fraught with sadness and the opposite of what that film was. Even though it was a movie about first love and heartbreak, the central character’s story was so full of love, and his parents loved him, and it wasn’t the experience that I’d had. And it certainly wasn’t the experience I’d had when I was at the top of my game when I was in a big pop band [Savage Garden] and I had all of that fame and attention and success. And I was in a period of retirement, really – I had kind of left the music industry, although I didn’t announce it. I didn’t really have plans to come back. So I saw that film and I was filled with such grief, really. I came back into my home studio with this urgency, and I wrote the first song on the record, “Let’s Try Being in Love.” I had this real feeling of wanting to reclaim a chunk of my life I felt had been stolen.
It’s surprising that such an exuberant-sounding song came out of such emotional turmoil.
DARREN HAYES: Yes, it is, and it’s because the other thing that was going on is that I’m fifty now, and there is something that happens at midlife. It happens more with women, I think, than it does with men, but I think gay men really have a similar experience to women. There is this unspoken rule that we are supposed to just disappear and fade away. There’s so much importance [placed] on youth and beauty in our culture, in general, and once your youth disappears, your value in society decreases. I think I was starting to feel less important, less valued, and in that song, there is almost like my raging against the dying light. There’s that feeling of me saying, “No, I want to be vital, I want to be alive, I want to be passionate.” That’s why I’m begging, “Let’s try being in love.” I think I felt really free on this album.
What kind of feedback have you gotten about this album so far?
DARREN HAYES: It has been the best-reviewed record I’ve ever had in my whole career. It’s been a lesson in how being authentic is the key to really connecting with people, because I can never, ever compare my career to what it was, commercially, partly because I made a record that completely disregarded any commercial considerations. It’s a sad thing to admit, but ageism is a real thing, and pop music is youth-driven. I’m not complaining about that. I understand that I benefited from that when I was younger. But that’s just a fact. I mean, you rarely hear a new Madonna song on the radio, for example. It’s just what it is. So I can’t compare any commercial success with this record to the past. But in terms of how it’s resonating, how it’s been reviewed, how fans have spoken to me, how it’s been received on social media, it’s been over the top. It’s been so validating. It’s a beautiful feeling because I went through so much hidden inner struggle with the major label when Savage Garden ended. I was in a band with someone that, at the top of our game, decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. Which was his prerogative, but it was certainly not part of my career trajectory. I remember thinking, “What am I supposed to do now?” Being a solo artist had never really been part of my plan. But regardless, I continued on. But I was under so much scrutiny at the major label just because I was gay, and it was not very marketable. It was something that they struggled with internally. I was micromanaged. Every aspect of my image was pored over, and it was suffocating. All these years later, I made a record that I thought, “No one’s really going to be interested in this.” [But] I had a friend who I had known in marketing in record labels for a long time who convinced me to actually do a proper release, and I hired him for a little while as a consultant. That’s why this ended up turning into a proper release, because thankfully somebody talked me [out] of just throwing it out there. It’s been really amazing.
When you write and produce your own work, as you did on this album, how do you know when to stop so you don’t overwork the songs?
DARREN HAYES: I’m really not a virtuoso. It took me 25 years to get to this point where I could produce and compose and program the whole record on my own. I made these rules for myself which were, “If I can’t play it, then it can’t be on the record,” which gave me these really cool creative limitations. So, guitar solos for example, were me singing into a guitar amp and distorting my voice. I think that limitations are really important for art because they stop you overworking something. And the other thing was, I’ve been married for 17 years. My home studio sits a floor below my husband’s home office, and I knew something was good when he’d open his door and yell out, “What’s that?” And if he didn’t say, “What’s that?,” I’d be thinking, “Hm, maybe that’s not good.” So that’s the process.
With your solo career as well as with Savage Garden, what do you think it is about your music that’s connected so strongly with your fans?
DARREN HAYES: I think that I’m an emotional person, and the sort of person that maybe twenty years ago, we would have said, “That type of personality is too much.” Now I think we live in a time where we create men who are so unable to process their emotions that they turn to violence. Violence against women, violence against schools, with guns. I think there’s a value now that we place in expressing emotions and having access to them. And I think that from a young age, I was always a very sensitive person. I have a way of putting that into lyrics and into music. The people that like my music tend to say, “Oh my God, that’s so true. I’ve felt like that.” [They] feel that I’m speaking for them. There’s an underdog feeling, maybe, because I was bullied when I was a kid, and I grew up in a home that was violent. I always was writing music because I felt alone, and I felt like I wanted to be loved. Then when I first went out onto bigger stages and I looked out into the audience, I recognized that it was like I was looking in the mirror. I felt like a lot of the audience reminded me of myself. So maybe we have something in common. Just to be frank, I haven’t always had the highest regard for myself. I think that one of the most unexpected delights of putting this record out was finding out how many people had been waiting and have had my back all these years.
Hopefully this means no more talk of retirement for you!
DARREN HAYES: Well, I definitely know that being an artist and having an artistic expression is a huge part of my happiness. And so that has to continue, for sure. Ten years of not doing that created a deep sadness in me that I wasn’t aware of. So for sure, the faucet is back open.
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