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(Photo by Paul Mobley)

NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES, not all recipients of music career achievement awards earn it just with songs.

Colin Hay, once of Men At Work for seven hit-filled years – with one of the all-time great Australian songs. No, not the more famous Down Under or Who Can It Be Now?, but the brilliant Overkill – and much longer a solo artist with a deep and rich catalogue, has been named as one of this year’s recipients of the Ted Albert Award, for outstanding services to Australian music.

Also receiving the Ted Albert, posthumously, is ground-breaking agent and promoter, Colleen Ironside.

Officially, the award presented to Hay by the publishing and songwriting representative body, APRA, is for a career that has sold more than 30 million records, had US and Australian number one singles and albums, collected a Grammy, and maintained a live presence of wit and distinction.

Unofficially, it also recognises his presence, from a home in Los Angeles – a city he says “I find a strangely spiritual place in many ways” capable of creating “this very strange sense of euphoria” even after 30 years there – as a kind of Australian music wise elder. He’s been a sage to the famous such as his goddaughter and mega-successful songwriter/performer, Sia Fuller, and many more aspiring Australians landing in the city of only occasionally realised dreams.

“I tend to run into people more than anything else, I don’t really feel particularly wise,” Hay says deprecatingly of his career advice, even while rocking a wise man beard and strong remnants of an accent from his birthplace, Scotland. “It’s a process of trying to become really. I don’t think you ever do go ‘okay here I am, I have this sense of enlightenment’. You can always make things better, you can always learn something else, you can always practice a little more. Everything you do is a process of stripping away things, trying to become more essential about what it is you are trying to say. It works in all kinds of ways.”

Is that what Sia did? Well, eventually.

“Sia did come and stay with me [first] when I was in New York, when she was 11. That was a beautiful time actually,” he says. “I remember I used to try and get Sia to clean her room and I would say, if you clean your room we will have a Haagen Dazs ice cream and watch David Letterman. That was the deal. Then 15 years ago I saw her on David Letterman and that was a great moment: she was looking right down the camera and I knew what that meant.”

Wait, did he get an 11-year-old to clean her room?

“Yes, she did,” he says. “It was a bit of a token effort, but she did.”

Not just wise but effective: that alone deserves a Ted Albert Award. Maybe it’s in keeping with Hays’ response when told of the impending award that “I think services is the key word here. It’s important to realise at some point in your life that it is a valuable thing to be of service. To be of some use.”

You could say he’s been of service, been of some use.

“In 1991 I got dropped by MCA Records and that ended my tenure with major record labels, so I felt a lot of rejection. I didn’t have a record label, I didn’t have an agent, I really had nothing going on at all, so I just started going out on the road playing shows,” he says of a time when, after filling arenas, he might only have been playing to 60 or 70 people in “conversational, conspiratorial” gigs

“I came to realise the people who came to see me play got a lot out of it and would tell me that they did, and ask me to please not stop because they valued its greatly. So I came to see it is of being of some use, yeah. It made me feel useful. It still does.”

Part of the service obviously is he brings joy he brings pleasure, but it ought to as well give him a reason to respect himself. To see the value in himself. To see there is honour in doing what he does.

“I absolutely agree with you. There really is,” Hay says. “To me was about the sharing of the struggle really, trying to figure out what it’s like to be alive and to get through each day and to go through the trials and tribulations we all go through. That was the connection I felt, the currency if you like.

“It’s an incredibly valuable thing to have in a society: individually, and together as a group. I don’t know where we would be without it.”

And, let’s be honest it also helps you meet some famous folk along the path to enlightenment in LA.

“When I first went there in 1986 I wrote a song called Looking For Jack which was really about Los Angeles because everyone seemed to be looking for something but I couldn’t figure out what it was they were looking for. Then at a concert I saw Jack Nicholson standing by the mixing console and I went up to him and said I’m a great big fan of yours and he said ‘I can’t hear you’, and I got embarrassed and went into the Green Room. He came in when I was talking to these girls, he came up to me and said ‘I just want to say I’m a great big fan of yours too’ and I got very elated and very excited because I just met Jack.

“This girl kept talking to me but I was distracted, I kept looking over her shoulder. She said ‘what are you doing Colin?’. I said I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, I was just looking for Jack. She said ‘yeah, everybody is always looking for Jack.’ And I thought, yes, thank you very much, that’s who they want to be: they want to be like Jack, because Jack is cool.”

The APRA Awards will be presented on April 27, in Sydney.

A version of this story was originally published in The Guardian.


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