Growing up in Scotland, and after he moved to Australia with his family as a teenager, Colin Hay was always a keen observer and admirer of American culture.
So he was more than a little shocked when he came to the United States for the first time in 1982, riding a huge wave of success as the front man for the hit-making Aussie band Men at Work, to discover that that respect was not in the least reciprocated.
“There was so much cultural arrogance,” he says on his cell phone from New York. “A lot of people seemed stupid. They knew nothing about where we were from. People would say, `You speak such good English’ and I would be thinking, `Are you a moron?’ “
Decades later at 54, Hay is still making music, albeit with less fanfare. His latest endeavor is a solo acoustic tour, “Colin Hay Live.”
Hay has lived in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years, but you can still hear his Scottish upbringing in his voice.
“I used to have two accents,” he says. “There’s the Scottish accent I’ve always had. But I developed an Australian accent just to assimilate. I would talk Australian out on the street, and at home with my parents, I would speak Scottish.”
His father owned a music store in Scotland, and so Hay grew up surrounded by music. “We always had pianos and guitars and records laying about,” he says.
Precociously, Hay began playing at folk clubs in Melbourne soon after moving there at 14. “I wasn’t really a folk artist,” he admits. “I used to do a lot of Beatles songs and occasionally try and throw in a couple of my own. I loved pop music and I was playing pop music on acoustic guitar.”
That has remained his approach, as you can hear on albums like 2002’s “Company of Strangers” and 2007’s “Are You Lookin’ at Me?” Hay’s metier is the resonant, personal pop song. Once in a while, he’ll toss in an acoustic cover of one of the Men at Work hits like “Overkill.”
A core group of fans followed him from his band days to his solo career. “There are a lot of people that I’m completely grateful to, people who didn’t lose touch, which is very meaningful to me,” he says. “They’re the ones who just kept coming to see me play in small places. They’re the ones who kept me going.”
Not that it isn’t discouraging to go from arenas to small clubs. “You do get very exasperated when you know you’re doing good work and the industry you’re part of is turning a blind eye and you can’t get on the radio,” he says. “But I’m lucky in that I had my shot and I won. First cab off the rank. I’m fortunate compared to 95 percent of the people out there. I have no right to complain.”
A few years ago, Hay experienced an unlikely renaissance when a couple of key Hollywood figures discovered his polished songcraft.
Actor Zach Braff used Hay’s songs prominently on “Scrubs” and in his film “Garden State.” He also had Hays strolling the hospital halls in a couple of episodes of the NBC sitcom as a wandering troubadour. J.J. Abrams, executive producer of “What About Brian,” featured Hays’ music in the ABC series.
That exposure has brought the performer a new generation of fans at his shows. “It’s a big mixture of people who are fans of the old band and people who have just discovered me,” he says. “From 18-year-olds to 60-year-olds. The audiences are very surprised by each other. They look around, and they think they’re at the wrong show.”
But after all this time in the business, Hay is rarely recognized in public. Throughout this interview, he is walking the streets of Manhattan and not once does anyone call out to him.
“Some people recognize me,” he says, “but most of the time I just wander about.” Sometimes they just think they recognize him. “My favorite one is when people think I’m Al Bundy.”
Mostly, he’s grateful for the quiet, music-filled life he gets to lead. “When I’m home I’m in the (recording) studio in my basement or hanging out with a couple of my ridiculous friends who have a love of music,” he says. “We frequent guitar stores and try not to cause too much trouble.”
“Or else,” he adds, “I’m in the kitchen messing around, trying to figure out something interesting to do with a brussel sprout.”
Sounds like the makings of a song. What rhymes with sprout?