By John Aizlewood
“At the age of six, I knew I wanted to be famous more than anything. At the age of 23 I was a star, but I saw through the facade pretty quickly. Now, I’m my late-thirties and I still know I was born to do this. And I know too that this new album, Secret Codes & Battleships is, beyond any doubt, right up there with the best I can do. I’m back at my fighting weight.
After two phenomenally successful albums with Savage Garden, three pioneering solo albums and 26 million sales, Secret Codes & Battleships is singer-songwriter Darren Hayes’s first proudly mainstream pop album in four years and it might just be the best of his career. “It feels like I’ve woken up from a coma,” he chuckles.
What a long, strange, sometimes despairing, mostly magical trip it’s been. The kid from the trailer parks of Brisbane who loved Star Wars and Michael Jackson always knew he was going to make it, even after he turned down one of Australia’s most prestigious stage schools to stay with his girlfriend: “She dumped me four months later; probably for the best since I turned out to be gay”.
He flirted with journalism, he taught pre-school kids, but once he and Daniel Jones became Savage Garden and their self-titled debut album went 12x platinum in Australia, 7x platinum in the US and 4x platinum in the UK, the world was theirs. As experiences go, there can have been few more bitter-sweet. “I was airbrushed within an inch of my life, but at the end of it all, I’d written songs which people genuinely seemed to love”. Then, in 2001, they imploded and, for Darren Hayes, things really became interesting.
2002’s album Spin (“It was supposed to do a George Michael; it didn’t, but it did quite well”) set things off nicely. Two years later, The Tension and the Spark was a poke in the eye to those who assumed Darren was merely a pop poppet. Dark, angry, but life-affirming, it wasn’t a huge hit, but more to the point, “It saved my life. It was a record about overcoming depression. Consequentially it was very difficult to make.”
In 2007, This Delicate Thing We’ve Made was the first on his own label Powdered Sugar and it was a double, both inspired and flawed. “I knew that, even as I was recording it,” admits Darren, “but it’s a record I had to make to get to where I am now.”
Since then, near-silence, although the hardcore fans who ensured his most recent British gig at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007 was a sell-out know and adore We Are Smug, Darren’s eccentric but rewarding download-only outing of 2009, (“it wasn’t an official release; think of it as my Black Album,” he chuckles). The final track, The Pressure, celebrated not merely the end of his San Francisco sojourn, but, for all the wonders of his work since Spin, the beginnings of musical renewal. After all, as Darren notes: “it’s easy to be strange, there’s no discipline and it’s a bit of a cop out”. It was time to get back to work and time to merge the boundary pushing with Darren’s ability to move people with a humdinging pop song…
On one level, as Darren says, it’s about “holding on to love as everyone around you is breaking up. I’ve found somebody who completely gets me: I never thought that would happen”. The string-laden (courtesy of Mattias Bylund, whose father arranged Abba’s records) first single Talk Talk Talk, Don’t Give Up and Hurt tingle spines, touch hearts and tighten stomachs with the melodic flair and searing honesty that is Darren’s calling card. And he’s never done it better.
On another level, it’s about the things we don’t say to each other, the secret codes of the title. It’s an album packed with seafaring imagery (Darren’s alcoholic father was a merchant seaman) and it’s a deeply personal journey from despair (“I’d forgotten how to dream,” he admits) to hope. As with all journeys, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end.
Bloodstained Heart concerns the “worst day of the worst month of the worst year, but it says I will pick up your pulsing, bloodstained heart from the gutter and we will get through this, together”, while Cruel Cruel World stems from a time “I was in LA feeling so lost and disjointed I just wanted to crawl home”. It’s a special record from a special songwriter.
“I want to know if I’ve still got it,” he insists. “I’m so tired of people asking me if I still make albums. I look at people I admire such as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel and I want to emulate their longevity. I’m not made for making records that are secret: I’m not very good at that. But I am good at playing for thousands of people and I am good at saying things we all have in common. It’s easy to pretend you don’t care and you don’t want to write more songs for a generation. I do care, I do want that and I do know I’m not done yet.”
Album: Secret Codes & Battleships out 17th October – Powdered Sugar Records
October Tour Dates
15th 02 Liverpool
16th 02 ABC Glasgow
18th 02 Birmingham
19th 02 London