“Some of the songs had been around for a little while, but most of them are pretty new songs [written] in the last year,” Hay says, speaking of his new album by phone from his Los Angeles home. “I record primarily in my basement, and I have a big clock down there. I give myself a hard time if I take too long and I charge myself extra.”
On Saturday, March 5, Hay will return to Workplay for an 8 p.m. performance. Anyone that has seen him perform live knows that Hay’s between-song banter can rival the songs themselves. Armed with an arsenal of off-the-wall stories, the Scotsman, by way of Australia and California, has turned his sense of humor into an integral part of his shows.
“I think you play to your strengths,” he offers. “I never really think that it’s a necessary thing. If I go see somebody play, it doesn’t really bother me if they don’t talk to me. If they want to just speak through the songs, that’s fine as well. For me, I just started to do it, and I enjoyed the silliness of it, and it started being an energy release. You finish a song and it’s hanging in the air and sometimes you can break it up by taking the energy somewhere else. People seem prepared to follow me through that, and it’s a cool journey to go on.”
As an artist that began his career during a watershed musical movement— the birth of music videos—Hay has seen numerous changes in the industry and now functions in the age of iTunes, YouTube and satellite radio. I ask Hay how he views the current climate of the business given his lengthy perspective.
“There is a lot of clutter and a lot of product that gets released and you have to wade through it to find what you like,” he says. “People seem to make sense of it and the youngsters seem to know what they like. I’m of the mind that it doesn’t really matter what you think or feel about something—the reality is that you have to deal with what exists. You have to adapt, roll with the punches, and you have to figure out how to stay in the game if you indeed want to stay in the game.”
Hay sees performing live as the equalizer to offsetting lack of radio exposure when it comes to building his fan base.
“I have a very old-fashioned approach, I must say,” Hay explains. “When I got dropped by major labels, I just decided to go out and find my audience and hopefully let them find me. I just started going out and playing live, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. It’s hand-to-hand combat because that’s also quite competitive as well. But my audience seems to be growing, and that’s an area that you can’t replicate. You go out and play live—it’s a simple approach but it seems quite effective. Some people don’t like touring, but I’m not in the position where I can release a record and sit back and let it do what it’s going to do, because I don’t really get played on commercial radio. I also think that every record I release is going to be a massive, huge hit, so I retain that innocence, if you like, believing that my work is strong enough to get out there.”
But while commercial radio isn’t giving Hay his due, television and film are paying attention to his music. Making a fan out of actor Zach Braff, Hay has found his songs featured in Braff ’s projects, including Scrubs and Garden State.
“I had a song on the Garden State soundtrack that Zach Braff liked called ‘I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You,” Hay says. “It’s a really slow, mournful song from my album Transcendental Highway. No one had heard it and if I took it to radio, no one in a million years would play it. But the fact that it gets released on a soundtrack on a big label, people actually hear the song and respond to it. So I know in my heart that a lot of my material is strong and people would respond to it if they were exposed to it. It’s like an obstacle course—you’re trying to find your audience and access them and let them know what you’re doing.”
From a musical perspective, I ask Hay why film and television have been more open-minded and adventurous than commercial radio.
“It’s one of those mediums that are placing more emphasis on having music interface with visuals in a really positive way,” he offers. “A lot of people that run television shows are music fans, but they’re not in the music industry so to speak. They come at it from a different standpoint and say, ‘That song really works there.’ It might be the kind of song a radio station wouldn’t play, but it works over that visual. You are correct—the people running those shows have more vision than the people running radio, but I don’t pretend to know who’s making the decisions for radio.”
But despite lack of radio airplay, Hay is more pragmatic than bitter about the state of his career. As someone that has landed in the Top 40 on multiple occasions, he opts to respect the artists that currently garner radio exposure instead of criticizing them.
“That’s a dangerous one to get into,” he says. “If you make music and think to yourself, ‘That song’s crap and it’s on the radio.’ I don’t tend to make many judgments about other people because they’re trying hard and if they get on the radio, hats off to them. I never feel resentful about anybody else who’s on the radio. I think my stuff is strong enough, and I don’t really understand why people at the radio level can’t hear it. But if they can’t hear it, they can’t hear it. It doesn’t mean to say that they’re right and I’m wrong because I don’t think they are right. But how am I going to change their minds?”
In closing, I ask Hay how he keeps his older hits— the ones that fans to expect to hear each night—fresh to him?
“It’s not really an intellectual process for me,” he says. “I think that the more you put into a song, the more you get out of it. It’s not something that takes energy—it has to do with approaching the songs with some level of innocence. You let the song be what it is. If you get out of your own way, the song keeps on going and it never gets old. I think there’s something to be said for not thinking about it.”
Tickets to the 18+ show are $20 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.