Gathering Mercury marks singer/songwriter Colin Hay’s eleventh studio album in just over 20 years—a hallmark for some, but if you asked Colin, he’d tell you he’s just getting started.
Though leading Australian band Men At Work and gaining a coveted spot in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band are certainly career highlights to name a few, his charming songwriting hasn’t lilted in the slightest. In fact, Gathering Mercury is among his strongest work to date. His performance last Wednesday at 3rd and Lindsley spoke volumes, but above the communal laughter and hushed orders for 3rd Avenue Angus Burgers, there emanated an otherworldly sense of inspiration.
Before heading to the show, Colin spoke with me about where his inspiration comes from, the songs on Gathering Mercury, and how his songwriting process differs from the streamlined, in-house approach for which Nashville is famous.
“There’s some kind of uniqueness to songwriting,” Colin explains, “you don’t wanna culture or tailor that because it comes off as too studied or too contrived.” As he says this, peering across the polished marble floors in downtown Nashville’s historic Hermitage Hotel, a sense of urgency echos in his voice. The subject matter on Gathering Mercury varies from jovial anecdotes to desolation; the celtic-folk influenced “Dear Father” is about Colin’s memories of his recently deceased father, a man who had a large impact on Colin’s exposure to music growing up. It’s a very poignant tune, and one that he unfortunately chose not to perform last Wednesday. However, the story behind the song yields some insight as to why. ”I was sitting around the studio a lot, and kind of selfishly, it was a way to bring my father back,” he says. Indeed, the emotion behind such a song can’t be easy to conjure on a nightly basis.
Whatever decision lead to excluding “Dear Father” from the set, it didn’t affect his performance. Not only is he a great songwriter and guitar player, but an incredibly talented story teller. Over the course of the night, he completely transformed the vibe of the venue to feel more like a cozy living room. As he told his stories, his audience listened intently. As he sang, his audience sat silently. He takes his listeners to another place, which is often where his inspiration comes from. ”I find if the song is based upon my experience, it’s somewhat limited by my life experience,” he explains. “You kind of get a bit bored with that. That’s what’s great about having imagination—then that takes over, and it’s limitless. I think it’s good because it opens up more possibilities, as opposed to just being, oh, another song about what I’ve gone through. Who fucking cares?” [laughs]
That’s the kind of personality that continues to bring listeners to his music, and the material on Gathering Mercury is chock full of it. Among the best are “Send Somebody” and the title track “Gathering Mercury,” which were both played during his set. Though the album sees contributions from various musicians, they were just as strong acoustically. Hay’s enormous singing voice totally took the spotlight during “Gathering Mercury,” completed by an echo effect that trailed his voice into obscurity. “Send Somebody” also mesmerized the crowd; though it was co-written with Hay’s good friend Michael Georgiades, he completely owned it on stage. He describes the process of writing with Michael, “I don’t really co-write with very many people. My friend Michael G [Georgiades] is a great guitar player and songwriter, and what he does just works for me without having to communicate much. Lyrically, there’s more of a conversation.”
Nashville is a mecca for co-writing and factory-line hits, and when asked how his songwriting style compares to it, Colin’s unsure of how he would fare. ”I’ve never really thought about it. I wouldn’t mind trying that. Maybe, I dunno, coming to Nashville and doing it with more of that business approach might be a bit too much like work. It might work, and it might not. If someone wanted me to come up with a song between the hours of 10 and 2, I might not be able to do that. The only thing I might be able to do is make a very nice cup of coffee in that time.”
Of course, Colin knew people wanted to hear a few Men At Work tunes, and he was happy to oblige. “Who Can It Be Now?” appeared early in the set, with the original saxophone riff transposed to acoustic guitar in a manner that sounded like an eerie Twilight Zone melody. As the bridge approached, the entire crowd naturally sang the background vocal melody, creating a special moment between audience and performer that won’t soon be forgotten. Decades after the song’s release, it’s amazing how it’s stood the test of time. However, Colin’s philosophy towards songwriting would suggest otherwise. ”I often find that a song kind of gets up and goes: ‘Hang on a minute, this is the kind of song I am.’ And before you thought ‘Oh fuck, I thought you were like that,’ but the song says ‘No no no no.’ You have to listen to that.”
It’s impossible to convey the full effect of a Colin Hay concert in words, because half of the enjoyment comes from listening to him tell stories—whether they’re about a bizarre dream where Bob Dylan attempted to fix his car, hosting Sir Paul McCartney at his home for dinner, or how the original version of “Who Can It Be Now?” clocked in at about four hours. Even if the last one isn’t true (or is it?), he made the crowd laugh and pulled at their heart strings simultaneously. The Scottish-born songwriter proved that he stands among the ranks as some of the world’s best, and the underrated Gathering Mercury is a testament that the best is yet to come.
Though the album came out last year, Compass Records will release Gathering Mercury on vinyl on April 24th. Be sure to keep an eye out; we’ll be giving away a copy to a lucky reader in the next few weeks! In the meantime, you can stream the entire album.
Photos by Grant Husselman