October 10, 2011
Interview: Darren Hayes unlocks Secret Codes
It is not dramatic to say that four years in pop music is a lifetime. Since Darren Hayes released his last album, the double-LP This Delicate Thing We've Made, lesser careers have come and gone. Rihanna's been through multiple hair colors and a certain alien-like New Yorker has taken over the pop world. Throughout all of it, Darren has been creating his fourth solo album, Secret Codes And Battleships, out October 21/24 worldwide.
Just as I put together this interview with Darren, Apple's legendary leader Steve Jobs died. I thought about how my iPod is always a few feet from me, day and night, and how that little device tells my own life story through other people's voices. Steve Jobs' impact on the emotional experience of music reminded me that Darren Hayes is also a music fan at heart. It clearly pervades how he approaches his career...
XO: Darren, this whole project seems like a dream version of a what a fan would want. So few artists are able to deliver that 20 years into their career. It's in the way the singles have been revealed, the b-sides, mixes, the special collector's items, attention paid to fans and, of course, the final album itself. You've had a long time to think about this and prepare it as a full... experience.
Darren: I am a fan first. I understand what a fan wants because it's what I want: respect, attention to detail, blood sweat and tears. If an artist isn't giving me that, it shows and I lose respect. I have made a point of ensuring that there is a physical world to counteract our disposable digital world and how that affects music releases. The games, the interaction, the codes, the colors - all of it had been meticulously planned and designed and I wanted to engage and involve my audience as much as possible. Doing things like creating physical versions of the artwork on the code pages (and sending them out to those who deciphered them) flying a winner to London, making real treasures to hide around the world : these were the tangible things I wanted to offer up. Not in place of a virtual digital release but in spite of and in addition to. I feel like this way there is something for everyone. The collector's edition and special addition bonus tracks are really album quality songs - almost a whole album worth of 'more' stuff. Stuff that didn't quite make the record but finished with a degree of respect and admiration for my audience. The bonus material isn't just cobbled together junk of no value: it's the album and then some.
I get the sense that you approach each project as if it's your last. You even sing about the "last night on earth" on Roses.
I do approach every record like it could be my last because, honestly, each one could be. Who knows?
But, after being your own boss for several years, did you worry that a major label wouldn't play along with how you envisioned this music and the marketing of it?
Let me clarify this very clearly: no one has messed with my vision. Not in the songs, the marketing, the videos, the singles choices. Nada. I got in to bed with Universal in Australia and then EMI, in the UK, precisely because they respected me and our vision and in fact were inspired by it. The president of Universal in Australia uses our album campaign as an example to show new artists what a really great campaign is. Maybe for newer artists, or in the past, people had this idea that a record company runs it all and controls things (and perhaps this is the case with less involved artists), but from my experience everyone was thrilled I had such a clear vision.
You've referred to this as a "pop record." Wasn't your last album, Delicate, a pop record too? ... Although I'd say that was like your own Sign O' The Times. A sprawling opus. What is it that makes Secret Codes "pop"?
When I say this is a "pop" record, I mean literally that it is refined and polished and I paid attention to stripping away anything that was unnecessary. Sometimes I get taken out of context and it appears I'm apologizing for my previous work. Not the case at all. I'm so proud of The Tension and The Spark and This Delicate Thing We've Made, but this was a new challenge. I might want to do a completely different record next time, or a strange side project or whatever takes my fancy. It just so happened that I wanted to make something that was "classic" pop. Pop like the kind I used to make, but with all the texture and color of the experience gained form the last decade of experimentation.
When did you actually start the album?
The first piece of music was written, I believe, at the end of 2007 and the first song recorded in mid-2008! So it's been a long, long process.
Four years later, it's about to be heard in full. Was there ever a fear that, by the time we reached this point, your feelings about it might change or that you might start to tinker with the music? Or maybe that your own taste would change in that span of time?
No, I never worried my taste would change. I only worried that if I waited too long the music would sound dated. I'm lucky that it's not a particularly "trendy" record so it escapes the comparisons to what is "hot" at the moment. Also delaying the mix and going back and tweaking things allowed it to still feel fluid and unfinished until it absolutely had to be delivered.
I remember thinking, as you released those Making The Album videos a few years back, "WHAT IS SONG S? WHAT IS SONG D?!" or whatever you called them. It drove me nutty, because I knew it would be a long time before we fully got the references, or - heh heh - secret codes. Were you just going medieval on us? Did it make you impatient to keep it secret?
I genuinely only have good intentions when it comes to the very little I reveal about details before songs are released. I'm trying to involve the audience in the process and in my excitement, but at the same time I'm trying to protect the surprise element which I still think is crucial in music. Leaks are so dull and frankly ruin the fun. Forget the commercial aspects and arguments pro and con - when an album leaks or a demo leaks early, it's a joy kill for an artist because it takes away the bit I most love about releasing an album: the journey. Because we live in a culture of instant gratification I understand the need to have something yesterday, which is why I use blogs and social media to involve everyone as much as possible, but I'm old school in that I still want there to be some mystery and something to marvel at, on your own, on release day. The fun part for me on this album was that I was leaving clues very early on. For example, I wore an anchor on a necklace during my New Years Eve show in London 2 years ago and my twitter background page for the longest time had been a painting of a ship in distress.
There was a point [during the making of Secret Codes] when someone - who? - told you something to the effect of "This album is not done" and you went back and did more. What was missing?
My managers at the time - although I'm now managed by just one of them, Cathy Oates - said, essentially, that the record was brilliant, but was lacking the defining career moment. Just that. No big deal right? Just go write one more career defining classic song!
Oh... just pop it out. And what was the result of that?
The song was Bloodstained Heart. I rest my case.
I actually tweeted to you that I feel like it's a "watershed" song for you. There's also been a great response to Black Out The Sun. It's natural that a fan would look for clues about their favorite artist inside a lyric. Some of the songs on Secret Codes are about depression, the collapse of relationships, loneliness. Is there a message you want to give fans about those particular songs?
Everything I do is deeply personal, to the point of sometimes feeling too exposed. Hurt is about me. I am that guy. All I can say is - if there's darkness, it's mine and I own it. But I want my audience to read themselves into the music and the stories so as I get older, I'm less and less inclined to explain the meaning. Read in what you will. The only thing that is absolutely not to be taken from the record is that my own love life is or ever was in crisis. The break ups and the heartache on the album were a result of what I saw and felt around me, and a betrayal of trust in a long long friendship that just about broke me. But it made for wonderful songs.
Black Out The Sun:
I wasn't "going there" on that [your relationship], but when I heard Talk Talk Talk and Nearly Love, I did wonder if people would read into the lyrics. Tori Amos recently said, outright, "My husband and I are still together, don't worry!"
It has come up a lot and, even before it came up, I was prepared for it because I'm quite a personal songwriter so people tend to read everything literally which, if you know anything about my music, you'd know about half of it is literal and the rest shrouded in metaphor. The trouble with being open about your private life is that it exposes it to speculation or judgment. The only reason I'm even slightly open about my marriage is that from a civil rights and social responsibility point of view, the fact that I have a beautiful relationship is evidence that there can be a happy ever after for folk like me. But we're certainly not a celebrity couple and I'm certainly not a celebrity.
Is that curiosity, or even - as you say - judgment, hard to accept?
When I wrote these songs and this album I did have that conversation with Richard and said, essentially, everyone is going to think we're breaking up or we're in crisis, which was clearly not the case. We sort of didn't care, but at the same time I certainly didn't want to ask for that hideous cursed bony finger of tabloid pessimism invited into my home, because I'm extremely protective of my relationship. It's a tough one, because I also hate explaining songs. In some ways who cares if people think we're happy, sad or adopting babies? You have to have a sense of a sacred place in your life that is immune to gossip in this business and for me it's my marriage. I'm the luckiest man in the world. If anyone is looking for clues as to my marriage on this album it's in the references to joy. The record is about two major themes. Love - how important it is to hold on to it when you've got it - and how easily it can slip away. It's about being lost and forgetting who you are - and the journey back.
Talk Talk Talk:
Your fans talk about how much they appreciate your honesty; that you express feelings they have that might normally be hard to speak about. Many of your lyrics over the years have dealt with dark feelings [watch Darkness]. Going back to the new song Hurt - which is a favorite of mine - it seems so self hating on some level: "I can make you hurt. I can take you down so low, I'll make you want to cry... you'll be better off when I'm not around." So when you tell me, "I am that guy," it's hard to square that darkness with your persona today.
Well that is a tough song. I think people have a view of me that is one thing - but the reality is of course I have a side to me that still feels utterly unlovable. That song is obviously an extreme moment in a snapshot of a nanosecond of my life some days. I'm rarely that person. But he's still a part of me. In a weird sense, showing people flaws makes it easier to avoid the expectation to be perfect. It's why I publish not-so-flattering iPhone shots of myself on twitter. I like to avoid the expectation to be a hero. I still laugh when I'll post a new picture and someone will write, YOU LOOK TIRED!! GET SOME SLEEP!!! I often write back, "Oh honey I'm not tired. I'm 40. This is what 40 looks like." [smiles]
Ha! I am your age and I think that too! But here's the thing about the sad songs: You merge those lyrics with music that is often uplifting. It may not surprise you to hear me say it, but the sudden flourishes of strings are my favorite thing about about this album. I think they are defining sound of Secret Codes.
I love that you said that. I think my focus on the record was melody - and using strings to score music in the way my favorite albums did like Hall And Oates records, even Daryl Hall's Three Hearts In The Happy Ending Machine album. Motown, Quincy Jones and E.L.O come to mind. Big bold beautiful symphonic celebratory strings. Even in the darkest moments.
Which brings me back to Bloodstained Heart, which has an anthemic quality. The video's got a twist; it's not quite what it appears to be. Apparently people are arguing over its meaning on message boards. When you leap off the building, what is the message?
Again, I don't like to explain it. The video is definitely meant to make you watch it a bunch of times and come to your own conclusion. I don't think she ever gets up from that hospital bed is all I'll say. I think the minute she gets up and I follow her is about ascent. I still find the video incredibly moving and the relationship portrayed describes precisely the one that inspired me to write the song in the first place.
This is one of many songs you wrote with Carl Falk. I told you that when I heard you were working with him, I looked him up and was like "Huh?" I thought "Errr, where is this going?" But he turns out to be a sort of William Orbit to your Madonna and, unexpectedly, his collaborations with you anchor the album...
My connection to Carl was incredibly accidental - put together to write songs for a boyband - I too had looked at his CV and thought that he was clearly not someone I would want to collaborate with on my own material. How wrong I was. We never did deliver a song to that boyband, but boy did we deliver between us. He and I both think Bloodstained Heart is the best thing we've ever done. And that's the truth. So wonderful to be able to say that at my age and this point in my career.
You're online a lot, or appear to be. What has Twitter has meant to your career?
This might not be the answer you seek, young Jedi, for my jury is still out on twitter. It has pros and cons for me. The positives are obvious: I get to interact with my audience in a really casual but personal way. I get to reconnect with other people in the music industry and media. It is a source for an instant up to the minute temperature reading of pop culture. The downsides are pretty significant though. In order to be real and be present on twitter, you have to try to read what people are saying to you and there is of course no filter so every now and then you are confronted by a rudeness and a self righteousness that astounds you. It's a careful balance and I try to keep enough of a distance that I can retain a sense of perspective but, at the same time, I would hate for my facebook or twitter to be some junior in a back room of the record company pretending to be me. So it's me. On a bigger scale, even though I think I'm known as someone who is very much a part of social media and have been from the beginning of my career (there is an old interview with me in 1996 when in answer to the question 'What do you like to do in your spare time?" I replied, sincerely, 'I just bought a computer and I'm quite enjoying going on the internet') I still find the culture of being glued to our devices quite draining. There is a huge part of me that would like to become a luddite and move to the countryside and do a Kate Bush. Maybe. Someday!
Yes or no: Is there a Star Wars reference on this album?
We could go on - or I could - but let's stop with the part where you called me young Jedi...
Follow Darren on Twitter (and follow me... why not?). Also check out my 2009 interview with him, among other posts.