Business as usual

Even as an independent contractor, Colin Hay remains a man at work

Yes, Colin, we’re lookin’ at you.

Yes, Colin, we’re lookin’ at you.

9:30 pm Thursday 5/24, $22. Harlow’s, 2708 J Street; (916) 441-4692;

Colin Hay’s distinctively accented tenor crackles over the phone from his Topanga Canyon home. “Sometimes, when you drive through the canyon,” he says, “you can still hear Neil’s voice, you know, coming through on the wind.” The Neil of whom he speaks, naturally, is Neil Young, who recorded his immortal After the Gold Rush nearby. Topanga Canyon’s rural setting, eerily remote despite its proximity to downtown Los Angeles, has attracted a surfeit of musically inclined residents over the years. And where they lived, they worked—the area’s basement recording studios have a history of producing great records.

Even in jest, the exaltation of Young sounds less like hyperbole than simply the beginning of another song. It’s precisely that lyrical sense, marrying the odd and the ordinary, which keeps Hay’s music so engaging.

The former Men at Work frontman’s latest album, Are You Lookin’ At Me?, radiates the wit that’s to be expected from the author of “It’s a Mistake” and “Overkill.” It’s his first album in five years, and most of it was recorded in Hay’s home studio. “Well, you could technically say it’s in the house, but it’s really under the house,” he points out. “I think it’s important to have to leave home to go to work. In my case, I have to go out and down some steps, so it’s like I’m going to the office.”

Hay’s songs always spoke very directly to the listener, but the new tracks feel intensely intimate. That may be inherent in his recording process. “I’ve been working by myself for the last couple of years,” he explains. “Before that I tended to work with an engineer. When you’re at home it tends to be more solitary, sitting around surrounded by machines.”

That most of Hay’s concerts now are solo gigs only seems to reinforce the songs’ intimacy. “When I went solo, I really couldn’t afford to have a band. The only thing that made any sense was to play acoustically by myself. People took to it. They liked that format, so I developed a bit of a following for that. The band thing came back later, and that’s a different animal. I don’t have a preference, really, though I love performing with the band—there’s more camaraderie; it’s more raucous than the solo thing. But the solo shows give me a chance to be silly with the audience, to tell the odd story here and there.”

Without stooping to saccharine earnestness, some of the new songs even seem confessional. It would be easy to take Hay’s lyrics for a sort of a musical diary, reminiscences put to music. But that’s not exactly so. “I don’t tend to see the songs as particularly autobiographical, but I think actually they are,” he says, laughing at the contradiction. “The way I think about them is probably wrong. Some people specifically write about themselves or their personal experience. I tend to shy away from that. If you draw on other people’s experiences, on what you observe, then it’s a bit more interesting. But there always tends to be a context of ‘who you are’ in a song.”

Who he is, apparently, is a musician comfortable in his own skin, who admits that it took time to stop waiting for the next hit. The album’s title track does describe Hay’s own journey—his childhood in Scotland, his family’s move to Australia at age 14, and his ’80s superstardom. More than just a biographical sketch, though, “Are You Lookin’ At Me?”, like many of Hay’s songs, extols the very simple joy of living. While the boy at the beginning of the song dreams of becoming The Lone Ranger, soccer great George Best or John Lennon, the man at the end is better pleased with his own very real adventures. Experience in Hay’s songs trumps aspirations without discounting their importance.

It’s been 25 years since Men at Work hit No. 1 in the United States, and obviously Hay’s got plenty of stories left to tell.