“Although I’m not technically an American citizen, I’ve been living here for twenty years,” reflects Colin Hay from his home in California. “I like it here. You look up at the sky, and there’s no evidence of anything. It’s amazing to think that, under that sky, there is so much horror going on here…but it’s so beautiful at the same time.” Hay’s new album American Sunshine is marked by several sideways glances at the American dream – that perilous balance between potential and reality – along with knowing ruminations on the transformative effects of love and the passing of time, set to some of the purest pop, hardest rock, and most emotionally bare acoustic balladry Hay has yet laid down. Curiously, the America of American Sunshine is profoundly shaped by two very different dream factories on nearly opposite ends of the country: California and Nashville.
“Oh, California” – all smog-kissed sunlight and lingering, still-untapped possibilities – opens American Sunshine with a perfect blend of awe and cynicism, exploring an idea of the west that began with the pioneers and persists well into the present. When Hay tells of how “The sons and daughters / Followed all the signs to paradise / drinking only dreams and promises”, he could be describing the region’s earliest settlers or tomorrow’s American Idol hopefuls. “There’s a broken dream in every grain of sand,” Hay observes, “but it’s as close as I can get to the promised land.”
American Sunshine’s title track, which concludes the album, is an evocative instrumental that counters the decaying glory and bittersweet compromise of “Oh, California” with widescreen glory and the inspiring vision of an endless horizon. “It began in my head as a surf song,” Hay explains. “Not that I surf…but the Californian experience has a lot to do with surfing. It just has a liberating, free kind of feeling. I had this musical idea that I was playing in the studio, and when it came time to attach a name to it, I thought of my wife’s cousin Mateo, who lives in Lima. He has a nickname for me. My wife was down there in Lima and she was on the phone to me, and she said ‘Mateo, say hello to Colin,’ and he picked up and, through his thick accent, said ‘Colin, Colin, lindo – American sunshine.’ He’s one of the only people I’ve ever met who has a genuinely pure spirit…” Hay’s wife, dynamic salsa vocalist Cecilia Noël, provides harmony vocals throughout American Sunshine, and co-wrote the touching character study “The End of Wilhemina.”
Themes of redemption and renewal come naturally to Colin Hay, as he is in the midst of a remarkable renaissance. While his voice and visage are still familiar to millions from his tenure as frontman, principal songwriter, and lead vocalist of pop sensations Men at Work (“Down Under,” “Overkill,” “Who Can It Be Now?”), the past ten years have found him quietly re-introducing himself to new generations of fans. The frequent use of his music on soundtracks – including the hit television show Scrubs (on which he has also had several cameos) and the sleeper-hit soundtrack to the film Garden State – has proven the timeless appeal of his songs’ personae: quizzical, curious, cynical yet open-hearted. Combine that with tireless touring and an ongoing successful partnership with Nashville-based indie Compass Records, and Hay is poised to enter a new phase in his already storied career.
Most artists who have experienced the levels of success and adulation Hay has would be content to sit back and earn a living walking to the mailbox and back. Yet Hay is restless, eager to move forward and continually hone his craft while continuing to challenge himself. While the resultant performances have an easy-going clarity and honesty, the process behind much of American Sunshine was actually designed to take Hay out of his element and try working methods that were at once classic and unfamiliar. “Six of the songs,” he says, “are from a two-day session in Nashville.”
Having never recorded in Nashville with local studio musicians before, Hay intended on cutting three songs and had them prepared in advance.“We had all three done before lunchtime, the first day,” he says, laughing. “I had to scramble back to my hotel room and bring in more material.” A constant and consistent songwriter, Hay dug through his notes and returned with more songs – all of which were cut live, on the floor, and only subtlety fine-tuned after the fact. “They were such good musicians,” he said of the crack Nashville band assembled for the session, “that we did nine tracks in two days. It was like the old days: you’ve got the song, you show it to everyone, and then the drummer counts it off and they play like they’ve been playing it for ten years. I played guitar and sang live with the band. I did a few overdubs, but I didn’t labor over it. I tried to keep it fresh. It’s an old way of working,” he says, “but it seems new again. Overall, there’s very little machinery on this record. It’s real instruments and real musicians.”
“My last record [2007’s Are You Lookin’ At Me?] was the first new album I’d done in a long time,” Hay continues. “In a way, it felt like my first solo album. I’m still learning, and I learned a lot on that record. This one is definitely a step up in terms of the quality of the songs and the sounds we captured. Dare I say, there is something a little more effortless to this record.” The vibe established by the Nashville sessions – spontaneous, heartfelt, immediate – is carried through the rest of American Sunshine, which was recorded at The Washroom, Hay’s well-appointed home studio, with similarly timeless methods: a lot of live tracking, minimal overdubs, and without an over-reliance on technology.
Much of the stripped-down energy and unflinching clarity of American Sunshine can also be attributed to Hay’s endless tour itinerary, which consists of both solo and full-band shows. Just prior to the release of American Sunshine, he traveled for a little over a month, playing 28 solo acoustic shows, 26 of them sold-out. “It was, honestly, the best tour I’ve ever done,” he says – no small claim from a man who has performed in every possible situation, from packed arenas and enormous outdoor festivals with a full band to demanding, intimate shows in small rooms with just his guitar. Hay’s solo shows intersperse classic and new songs with hilarious, poignant, and downright surreal stories drawn from his often unbelievable experiences over the past three decades. “I’ve been doing these solo tours for a number of years,” he explains, “going back to the same places and building audiences by doing the best shows I can. Judging from this last round, it seems to be building to a critical mass.”
“Sometimes you do all these things 3 tours, TV, all that – and no one thing pushes you over the top,” he concludes. “Success becomes a point where everything you work on converges. I equate it to a boxer in a match. It’s very difficult to knock someone out with one punch – it’s usually a series of combinations over fifteen rounds that wins the fight."