Darren Hayes’ new album marks a return to his ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ pop roots after his sprawling magnum opus, 2007’s divine This Delicate Thing We’ve Made.
Secret Codes and Battleships, out this week in Australia,
is arguably the most concise pop record he’s put his name to since the days of Savage Garden.
“With this record, I almost felt like I was training for the Olympics — it was all about trimming off the fat,” Hayes told the Star Observer from the London home he shares with his husband of five years, British animator Richard Cullen.
“I wanted it to sound unmistakably me, but with all the extra fat trimmed off,
“Truthfully, I think it can be a lot easier to not be edited. Even some of my favourite artists probably could’ve used someone at certain points in their career to tell them ‘You know what? You need to shave two minutes off that song’.
“That’s what happened on this record — I was with people who weren’t afraid to say ‘You can do better.’
“I think it’d probably been about 12 years since someone had had the balls to say that to me in the studio,” he laughed.
Given this new concerted effort to write radio-ready three-and-a-half minute pop songs (check current single Bloodstained Heart, which starts as a tender ballad before morphing into a Coldplayesque anthem), Hayes was eager to refute any notions he’d ‘sold out’.
“In my career I’ve had some really lucky moments — most of them with Savage Garden, some of them solo — of commercial success. I’ve had commercial disasters, too.
“But the beauty of having those commercial successes is that every decision I’ve made has been a creative one. With the last record, I didn’t care [about sales] and I wasn’t trying for that. I knew only some people would understand [This Delicate Thing], and that was cool.”
Once he started writing for Secret Codes, though, he realised the songs deserved a wider audience. This brought about the unusual decision to re-sign with major labels, having been an independent artist since parting ways with Columbia Records in 2006.
Was he nervous, re-entering the beast that spat him out after the less-than-stellar success of his underrated second solo album, Tension and the Spark?
“I had lots of reservations, sure. But what I found difficult being independent was the ability to be heard, really.
“You have to pay for the marketing machine part of it, and that’s not something I really know about or can afford to do all by myself — and I learned that the hard way last time.
“I thought to myself, these songs have a shot at breaking through to the mainstream and they deserve to be on the radio.”
And despite the major label budget, he’s still operating with an independent spirit. Ever mindful of his loyal fan base, Hayes is peppering the Secret Codes campaign with a litany of goodies — from an international treasure hunt for fans to lovingly assembled deluxe editions of the album.
“I’m a fan with a capital F. I love that journey to a record being released. I think about Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna, and the mystery of the slow reveal before they’d release an album, which we don’t have today at all,” he sighed.
Speaking of her Madgesty, fans devoured his recent cover of Madonna’s ’80s album track Angel, which served as the B-side to lead single Talk Talk Talk.
It’s the second vintage Madonna track he’s covered in recent years, which begs the question: has coming out given Hayes more freedom to pursue his (sometimes uber-gay) creative interests?
“D’you know what? It’s refreshing to hear that asked as a positive. So often people phrase that type of question as ‘Has coming out hurt your career?’.
“Truthfully, I actually think my creativity’s always been intact. My creativity was my outlet, and I never censored myself there. If you listen to Affirmation by Savage Garden, I sing the line ‘I believe you can’t control or choose your sexuality’. And there was another song [Chained To You] on that record about my first kiss with a boy: ‘Acting like a mover shaker dancing to Madonna then you kissed me’.
“So it was always there. I think I was working myself out through my music.”
Hayes worked himself out in what he refers to as his “messed up” years, at the height of Savage Garden’s fame. Struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, he separated from and eventually divorced his wife of six years, makeup artist Colby Taylor, in 2000.
“I was pretty messed up for a long time. I was probably the most homophobic gay man you could meet, because I just didn’t like myself. My initial coming out really saved my life.”
Then followed a few rocky years as a single gay man (“I was rubbish at dating. Just rubbish. If I was a celebrity, I’d be Jennifer Aniston,” he joked), as he gradually came out to family, friends and colleagues before meeting Cullen in 2004.
But why the decision to save his public outing — to fans, the media and the world at large — until a month after the couple’s 2006 marriage?
“If I’d called some big dramatic press conference earlier in my career and announced it, I don’t think I would’ve coped. I think I would’ve crumpled under the pressure,” he said.
“I guess I always assumed someone would out me in the media, but no one wrote about it. I thought, ‘This could be awkward’. If a journalist finds this out, they might assume it’s a big secret.
“So I finished my concert tour, I had nothing to promote, and I wrote that blog — ‘I’ve married my boyfriend’ — and hit ‘send’. It was so liberating.
“It felt like there was a great dignity in it, in letting the world know I’d married my partner and my partner’s name just happened to be Richard.”
INFO: Secret Codes and Battleships (Universal) out now. Hayes plays Melbourne’s Forum on November 2 and Sydney’s Enmore on November 3. www.darrenhayes.com