The world is more than ready to embrace the authentic Darren Hayes. After a decade out of the spotlight, the former Savage Garden frontman has a new album that is both acclaimed and making the industry sit up and notice.
Homosexual is a cracking album in its own right, but it’s also enabling Hayes to achieve success on his own terms, freeing himself of the traditional record industry model yet still making it into the charts with no radio play. To say he’s instrumental or hands-on wouldn’t even begin to cover it.
The journey with the 14-track project sees Hayes and a limited team working almost round the clock to promote the record. Unexpectedly to some, it also sees dealing with the nuts and bolts of touring down to learning how much a truck costs as he prepares for a string of international shows in early 2023.
I caught up with the artist-turned-businessman to find out about his business plan, why he isn’t rushing back to a major label, whose advice he took, and why music videos are an expensive luxury that have proved vital in his triumphant return.
Simon Thompson: You recently tweeted, “I have no manager, no label, and no airplay. All I have is my fans.” You also have considerable success with Homosexual because of those things. How does that feel? Is that a validation, and what does it tell you?
Darren Hayes: I had a conversation with someone I consider to be my mentor, Willie Williams. Willie is my stage designer, he was the best man at Richard and my wedding, and he’s a longtime collaborator with U2 for their shows. Right now, he’s on tour with Bono doing a book tour, which is the tiniest thing they have ever done. Willie will go from playing, to quote This Is Spinal Tap, the Enormodome with U2, to playing these little theaters with me because when I was in Savage Garden, I wrote him a letter. It was at the peak of Zoo TV, and it was this fan letter, and I just knew everything about all the industry stuff. Willie was curious and impressed, and because we both lived in San Francisco, he met with me. He designed the Savage Garden world tour, and we’ve been thick as thieves since then. My career went from the biggest it could ever be with global domination to eventually just becoming this more obscure solo artist. Willie and I have played the tiniest gigs in these small theaters, which Bono’s book tour is mirroring, which is funny. When I made this record, I had walked away from the music industry, written a musical, and thought I wasn’t going to do anything. Various reasons brought me back, mostly passion; there was this artistic deficit in me, I was sad, and I didn’t know why, but it was because I turned off this creative tap. It was an arrogant thing to do for an artist, but I thought I could do that. I made this record with no commercial expectations, didn’t think about radio or anything, and it resonated. I wasn’t thinking about trying to be cool or fit in, how it will trend, or if it’s a certain length so it can to get played on the radio. I wasn’t thinking of any of that, and Willie just cut to the chase and said, ‘When you’re authentic, it works.’ The journey to being authentic is difficult because we put a lot of hurdles in our way. Because we all think it can’t be that simple. It took me a long time, and maybe a lot of failure, to have everything taken away from me until I had nothing else but authenticity and the need to express myself. To have that validated is enormous.
Thompson: So, where did you start with this? You created the music for yourself, but at what point did you decide that you wanted a return on that journey? Did you start with a business plan?
Hayes: I watched the controversial Marilyn Monroe film on Netflix recently called Blonde, and I identified very much with the idea that, like some of my favorite pop stars, there was a part of me that has a wound. Being a performer, writing music, and performing are soothing balms for that wound in some ways. I saw the movie Call Me By Your Name, which had a profound emotional effect on me. I remember running back to my home studio, and I wrote a song. It was at that moment that I knew I was coming back. I said to Richard, my husband, ‘I’ve written a song,’ and he said, ‘And?’ I was like, ‘No, I’ve written a song. I think I’m going make a record,’ and that was this Oh moment because that means so much in our life, and our life was going to change dramatically because I’d been gone for ten years. At that point, I planned to do what Beyonce or Taylor Swift had been doing: the unannounced drop and just put a record out. I knew someone in business, Tim Potter, and Tim had been a friend in various record companies in Australia, Universal Music, and Sony Music, for a while, and he’d been a consultant on The Voice. I wrote to Tim and said, ‘Hey, I’ve written a record. What’s your advice?’ We had toyed around with maybe him managing me, or he didn’t really have time to do that, but the short story is that I said, ‘Look, I’m just going to drop the record,’ and he sent us sort of like, ‘Whoa, don’t do that! Do you have a marketing plan? Would you mind if I just hear the record?’ So I sent him the record, and he was so excited by it. He consulted with me for a little while, and he did convince me to do somewhat of a rollout, which was, teasing some music, making some music videos, and things like that. He did talk me off that ledge, so I did have a marketing plan, and he’s a genius in that respect. Tim worked for me for almost a year in the shadows, so Homosexual had been finished for a year. I hired him as a consultant, and we did a distribution deal with Ingrooves out of Australia for the rest of the world, and I have a long-standing relationship with Absolute in the UK. They’ve had all my previous solo work, and the plan was to produce a beautiful vinyl record. That was torture for me because I had the record done, and I just wanted to drop it, but the plan changed, and people were like, ‘You could make some money from this record if you just have some patience.’
Thompson: Did you take it to any record companies or, because of previous experiences, did you not want to do that again?
Hayes: Never, yeah. I now have a better relationship with Sony Music because Sony Music Australia purchased Savage Garden’s entire catalog for the world. There was someone working at the label that I had known since I was 24 and worked at various record companies in the Australian music industry. His name was Clayton Doughty, and he was suddenly the person in charge. They knew I was making a record and wanted it, but I had no plans to give it to them. First of all, I knew what I had. I knew that I needed to be able to tell a story about what had happened to me at a major record company. A lot of what I had to talk about was about my identity and how a major label handled my sexuality at the peak of my fame. It was under that umbrella, so I thought, ‘You don’t know it yet, but I don’t think you’re going to want this record, even if you say they do.’ Also, all of the songs were extended cuts, very long, and I had a very kind person, Henry Semmence, who is the MD and co-owner of Absolute, laughingly say to me, ‘You’re sort of beyond management at this point.’ I couldn’t imagine anyone telling me or A&Ring this record. Maybe at some point, if there is someone that I adored, or if I got put into the studio with someone like Jack Antonoff or someone that I loved and trusted, but I think the idea of me having any label or anyone telling me what to do with this record was just so off the table.
Thompson: Your shows in the UK have been selling out, your US shows have been selling well, you had a phenomenal response in Australia, and the album has done very well with no radio play. Because you don’t need the record industry now, has that made the record industry want to come back and knock on your door?
Hayes: Other things have been happening. They’re ancillary things that I can’t talk about yet, but I’ve had other offers and stuff I’ve always wanted to happen. That’s because of the stories I’ve told on the record because of some of the journalism I’ve had access to. It all stems from the record but I’m not badly spoken, I went through the Groundlings program and did improv for many years, and all these things have helped make me less of a cliche of a celebrity. I don’t consider myself a celebrity. I’ve done a few things recently that were incredible. There was this Guardian interview in the UK where I got to recreate a photograph from my childhood, and these types of chats that I’ve been having on this record, I’ve never had these in my whole career. I’ve had publishers and other interests, which has been fascinating. In terms of the record industry, it’s very strange. I’ll be blunt. The first single was six minutes long, so no one will play them on the radio. The second single, ‘Yeah, this is easily radio-friendly track so let’s do a radio edit.’ But it was hard because the system disheartened even people I had employed to promote the record by saying, ‘We can’t get this on the radio. There’s no way we can get this on the radio.’ I remember having a come to Jesus moment, even with my team saying, ‘Guys, they are the gatekeepers, but we’re independent. It’s just you and me now. I get that someone will tell you no, but you don’t have to tell me no. Go and ask them.’ I remember with “Poison Blood,” I was going, ‘Okay. Let me tell you a scenario. 25 years ago, I had a song called “I Want You,” which was in the era of grunge. No one was playing music like mine. No one wanted to play that song. No one ever wants to play a song on the radio. It’s your job to go there.’ Now we are in an era where format is King. The song isn’t King anymore. It’s about a whole industry that is about content. This isn’t cynicism, by the way; this is fascination. I have a fascination with how programming works. To answer your question about our labels knocking down my door? Well, no, because I’m not a content provider. I made an album, so what’s what people are responding to now is an album. If you look at responses to this record, I’m getting exactly what I wanted: people making these statements about it by saying, ‘Oh, my God, I listened to your album. That’s an album,’ and they’re having those kinds of reactions to it.
Thompson: I’ve seen many people on Twitter saying they don’t buy CDs anymore, but they’ve bought Homosexual. Incredibly, people who don’t usually engage with the format are buying it to own physically.
Hayes: I spent a lot of time cherishing that. I even went back to the first ever cover designer I ever worked with. So Aimée Macauley is the person who designed all of this artwork, and she designed the first ever Savage Garden record. I thought so much about nostalgia and about that physical feeling. I chose the Pantone color of that peach, and it’s intentionally that color because it reminds me of when I first picked up Sign o’ the Times by Prince, and I was fascinated with the back cover. It says produced, arranged, composed, and performed by on the back because that’s what it said on the back cover of Sign o’ the Times. It was a challenge for me to do that. I wanted these lyrics in the booklet to be something you could pour over. I wanted the vinyl experience and the gatefold to be just a thing of beauty, like an authentic art piece, and a collectible thing. I have to give it to everyone I worked with, especially Absolute, as a label services company that understood what people value. That push toward vinyl is very real, but I was shocked when I came back and was like, ‘So we’re just going to do vinyl, right? And they were like, ‘No, you’re going to make CDs, and people are going to buy them.’ And they have, and I’m surprised by that. I’ve had complaints from people who were like, ‘Why are you only signing the vinyl?’ That’s a lovely complaint to have.
Thompson: Did you have a business plan? Or was it a case of spending money and seeing where it goes?
Hayes: No (laughs). I’ve learned some lessons from this process. I wouldn’t have made music videos if I had a business plan. Music videos are expensive, but my business plan was to invest in myself as a return to people’s consciousness. In many ways, making music videos was the only way I could get exposure. I knew I wouldn’t get any airplay, so this has been the most useful tool for my PR. No one really spends money on music videos unless you are that top tier. If you’re Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Megan Thee Stallion, and those artists, you spend money on music videos. If you’re not, you don’t, but I decided to. Also, I’m fascinated with film. I’m surrounded by filmmakers, and I wanted to stretch those muscles and the acting muscles, but it was also for me; I think it was important from an artistic point of view to do a lot of things that I wasn’t allowed to do. There was a cost to it, so it’s a luxury that if I were strictly doing this for money, my God, I would not have made these music videos. They cost a lot of money.
Thompson: Are you at least seeing a return on what you’re putting out there, or is that something you’re using to judge Homosexual‘s success?
Hayes: (Laughs) This is a bit grim, but I see it as an investment down the road. It would be quite profitable if I had not made music videos. I didn’t spend any money making my record. I think part of the joy of getting to the point where I could entirely make the record on my own is that I own all the songs, publishing, recording, and the masters. All I paid for was some mixing and mastering. I was fortunate to have no points or anything like that on that deal. Everything I did when it came to things like the artwork is a buyout which is so important, so I own all this content in its mine forever. I have to sell a few more records to pay for the videos.
Thompson: You’ve also got the live shows in early 2023, where you can make some money on merchandise.
Hayes: Again, I’m being honest with you. Our industry is facing a crisis. Take me out of it, and I’ll give you an example. Even with sold out shows, which I have, and I’ve had to add some in the UK, it’s a struggle to make a profit touring at the moment because of increased costs. I love that I know this now, but things like a truck that used to cost £3,000 a week now costs £7,000 a week because of the war in Ukraine, Brexit happened, inflation, all things like that. You’ll notice in our business there have lots of artists who are either pulling out of tours, postponing or canceling tours, or significantly scaling them down. If you’re a Harry Styles or Lady Gaga, the model now tends to be to park yourself at a venue, play there lots of nights, and they are artists that are stadium artists. The traveling show? Not a great model at the moment, and I’ll be honest about that. Again, as an artist who has been away for ten years, I’ll probably make a little bit of money. I’ll break even. I’m just being frank with you because I think it’s important to be honest for struggling artists looking up to this. If I’m an artist who has had a pretty stellar month, it isn’t what it used to be. There are similarities with the film industry at the moment. I remember reading an article that Matt Damon was talking about why we’re not seeing so many diverse or interesting films being made because of how much it takes to recoup a movie. It’s similar with music. The lesson to be learned here is that at the moment, I am in a privileged position because I came up in an era of physical product, I am independent, and I have been able to self-fund this, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons. I think next time around, I probably wouldn’t spend as much money on music videos, which is heartbreaking because I love making them, but I also know that my audience, ultimately, really wants my songs. They like the sound of my voice, and they want me to be authentic and honest.