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Colin Hay, enjoying the dappled sunlight of a Topanga Canyon afternoon, does not have an inflated sense of his place in the world.

This despite some of the biggest hits ever by an Australian artist and being 40 years into a career that looks in no danger of ending any time soon.

"If there is a disaster, your house is burning down, you're not going to call the songwriter; you'll call a fireman," says Hay, who it seems must always be described as the bloke from Men At Work who wrote and sang Who Can It Be Now?, Overkill, Downunder, even though that hugely successful band occupies less than a decade of his working life and ended 31 years ago.

"But I think I'm useful to a point: if you've got a campfire, someone will eventually say give us a song."

Ah, but if the house burns down, the records and CDs burning with it, a songwriter can always come over and replace the music for you. You won't get that from a firie.

Actually, the 63-year-old Hay has a few more uses and it's never more evident than in the artistic enclave on the fringes of Los Angeles where he's lived since 1989 and which once housed Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Stephen Stills.

"It's one of those curious things where it's becoming [creatively vibrant] again, with the youngsters, those in their 20s – I don't know if they are in their 20s but they certainly look younger than me - moving in and doing very interesting things," he says. "These beautiful guys and women who look like refugees from the Civil War."

Pretty much like Fitzroy or Surry Hills then. So are some of these people the ones who, to quote a Hay lyric on his typically satisfying new album Fierce Mercy, he's been taking aside and getting stoned?

"No, no," he laughs. "That was just a little piece of fiction that I amuse myself with. Ever since I was in [the cult comedy TV show] Scrubs I get a reasonable contingent of young hippies who would ask me about what it was like in the '60s. There is a high level of intrigue about that time if you are young hippie alive now.

"And at the moment it reminds me a lot of the early '70s in Melbourne in places like Clifton Hill that I used to play when I was at Latrobe University."

He does appear to have a genuine sense of excitement about what the creative life he has around him, what is coming up in the generation behind him, and how they can feed each other's creativity.

"It feels lovely at the moment and I'm not sure about the reasons for why that is as I've been going pretty much along a straight line in the past 25 or 30 years recording what I think are the best tunes that I've got and meeting different people."

Most of his friends in LA are 15 years, or more, younger than him "and that keeps you on your toes with different ideas coming in, it's very nourishing". And what they really appreciate, even more than his stories about the old days, is the fact he is still working and writing and not just resigned to the hits and memories circuit.

"I didn't really have a master plan; I just followed the path in front of me [but] there's a lot to be said I think for the doing of it," Hay says. "Sometimes it doesn't seem like it's worth it for you do it but you do it anyway because you just trust that it's better than not doing it."

His niece Sia Furler has a completely different approach to him, eschewing live performances for writing and recording, a moved which has made her both phenomenally successful and almost completely unknown. It seems smarter in some ways, certainly less wearing, but in truth Hay has never really considered giving up playing.

"I think it came in more recent times, 26 or 27 years ago, from giving up the drink," he says. "Drinking is an activity that takes up a lot of time, it was social, it was cultural, and if you don't have that anymore you gotta do something after breakfast you know.

"So going out and doing a tour gave me purpose and made me feel useful."

Useful, even without becoming a fireman.

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