There are a few basic facts that you probably ought to know about Darren Hayes.
Darren was the singer in Australian pop duo Savage Garden. He was the writer and singer of the kind of evergreen worldwide smash hits that will be played as long as AC has a spot on the radio’s dial. They were neither fashionable nor critically feted, but Savage Garden was an enormously popular operation. From the four albums that he has crafted so far – two with Savage Garden, two solo – Darren Hayes has sold more than 25 million records. He broke the record he himself set with Truly, Madly Deeply as most played record on adult contemporary US radio with the further release of 1999’s I Knew I Loved You’. There is not a country in the world that enjoys English speaking pop music that he has not had a hit in. Darren Hayes has dined with Madonna and duetted with Pavarotti. He is the third most popular Australian musical export of all time. Only INXS and Kylie trump the pop Midas touch that few give him proper credit for.
These are just a few of the basics you probably ought to know about Darren Hayes. What may surprise you in all this is the motivational key that unlocks his astronomical, globe-straddling success. Before his last set, 2004’s The Tension and The Spark, Darren had a major life realisation.
“My whole career as a big commercial pop artist was fed through self-hatred, basically. It was all about escapism in a fraudulent way. I became a pop star because I knew I had to become something extraordinary to escape”.
If you trace a line through the work of both Savage Garden and Darren Hayes solo, there is a recurring theme of being unloved and unlovable. It is part of what connects him at his most popular to a mass audience. If Darren is a master at articulating the simple sentiment of what it feels like to be rejected, it does not come without its own poignant back-story.
Darren grew up in the working class suburbs of Brisbane. In the early 80s, on the run from his father’s violence and alcoholism, he was just 10 when his mother took him and his siblings to live in a caravan to escape regular scenes of violence. His relationship with his father has been both the making and undoing of Darren Hayes. His father having long since recovered and redeemed himself (sober for 25 years) – the childhood clearly left an indelible mark on Hayes. It was his need to please that propelled him to invent a life as a pop star. The fame came but could not fill an emotional hole.
This particular pop cloud has a silver lining, though. It arrives neatly at a point when he is ready for success on his own terms and in his own time. He is also, handily, at full creative throttle. Darren has just completed his third solo record, This Delicate Thing We’ve Made. This daring, theatrical, wise, wounded and wonderful epiphany represents his true maturation as an artist. At 35 years old, Darren Hayes has turned into just the pop star he always wanted to be. Himself. Who knew that that would sound like the lost younger brother of Kate Bush, the one who eschewed his sister’s whimsical folksiness in favour of a chrome-plated, 80s driven pop edge? Who further knew he’d start to look like the hottest gay in the village?
A little pop cultural context prior to the making of This Delicate Thing We’ve Made.
Every proper pop artist has a period that you might like to now call ‘doing a Rudebox’. It is the moment a pop star sheds their generic skin and develops some idiosyncratic corners of their own. Kylie did it on her Impossible Princess years back in the mid 90s. U2 did it with Pop. Robbie is the new president of it. Generally, ‘doing a Rudebox’ will go down like a commercial lead balloon.
Darren’s Rudebox was The Tension and The Spark. In the advent of it being his first record not to reap multiple commercial rewards, it was suggested at record company boardroom level that he should be farmed out to hit-makers to collaborate on the follow-up. He worked with The ‘Complicated’ Matrix and Rob ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ Davis. “All the usual suspects,” he says now, wryly, “and they were great!”
The sessions were swiftly abandoned. Darren’s own inner journey was taking him in a less corporate direction. This was all part of another big life decision. “I’m not Justin Timberlake. I think there was a part of me that thought three years ago that I was a contender for that role, whatever it is. Maybe Enrique is about to become it again. Whatever that machine is that conspires to make a big, mainstream, male superstar, I thought I wanted it. Letting go of that was essential to this record. What I realised with this record was that I didn’t really want it at all.”
As an alternative course of action, Darren went through a sanguine split from his record label, Sony. “This record was born from a stand off with my record company. They didn’t understand me? That’s OK.” He began hatching plans for This Delicate Thing We’ve Made by himself, with the aid only of a programmer, in Phoenix, Arizona. It will be released on Darren’s own record label, Powdered Sugar, and will come as a double set, defying all pop logic and reason. The funny thing is? It’s worth it.
This Delicate Thing We’ve Made sits at the very precipices of a pop culture that has taught itself to embrace genre over any sense of personal artistry. Yet while its brace of potential hit singles will sit perfectly happily next to Natasha Beddingfield and Maroon 5 on the radio, they come replete with their own dangerous factor for a genre-led pop field. They are built from truthful sentiment and a sense of their own individuality.
Darren Hayes got married last year, for the second time in his life. The only difference this time round was the gender of his partner. It is no coincidence that This Delicate Thing We’ve Made is the first record that Darren has made as an openly gay man, enjoying his first stabilising partnership. He came out to a quiet fanfare on his website last year, again coinciding with no commercial decisions. It is furthermore no accident that the record is his first to embrace the redemptive power of love and comes with such a real upbeat edge. He has never sounded as on fighting form as he does on the I Feel Love indebted Step Into The Light, the brilliant, cerebral white funk strut Me, Myself and I and particularly first single, On The Verge Of Something Wonderful (it should come as no surprise that all three double up as accidental yet potential ecstasy anthems).
Elsewhere the kaleidoscopic pop triumph ventures into more abstract arenas, whilst still retaining the pure, joyous release of what a great pop hook can and should do. The central crux of the record – How To Build a Time Machine, A Hundred Challenging Things A Boy Could Do, The Future Holds A Lion’s Heart and Waking The Monster – were first fashioned at the Phoenix sessions. Darren didn’t know that what he was going was lunacy or bravery.
“I phoned [his partner] Richard up and said ‘I’ve either completely lost my mind or I’ve made possibly the most exciting thing that I’ve ever been involved in.’”
The rest was completed at his new home in Notting Hill, West London. It was made using a temperamental Fairlight synthesiser that the singer had acquired off eBay. Unsurprisingly, the standout tracks, Time Machine, Verge, Casey, Me, Myself and I, The Only One, have a warmth and beauty to their pre-digital age sonic construction. There is meaning to the loosely conceptual time travel theme at the heart of the record, as the hero travels back to the 80s with respectful, modern sincerity.
“My attachment to the 80s and its music has got a lot to do with my life and childhood at that time being quite horrific and so my imagination was automatically vibrant. Music and fashion all chimed together for me to become this release. Sociologically, 80s pop stars were so ideas driven. The 90s was cold and beige and white and minimalist. It was the last time that pop music was synonymous with escape. The truth is that until Richard, and it makes me sad to admit this, honestly the 80s were the last time I was really happy.”
If you can listen to this audacious and brilliant, epic and widescreen album without feeling a wealth of pathos towards its protagonist, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.