In one corner of Darren Hayes’ recording studio is a Fairlight CMI, a synthesizer that made one its earliest appearances on Kate Bush’s 1980 album Never For Ever. The Australian built CMI, which stands for Computer Musical Instrument, was the piece of cool equipment in the first half of the 1980s. It was essential to the production methods of Trevor Horn, who produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ABC, & Grace Jones, and was built using the same microprocessor Apple would employ in it first generation of Macs.
Darren introduces it with a note of pride, and this is because it proved to be a key component in an epic tripartite project that began with the double album, This Delicate Thing We’ve Made; continued with The Time Machine tour with its accompanying DVD; and completes this month This Delicate Film We’ve Made, a 5.1 surround sound DVD featuring animations to accompany 13 tracks from the album.
In talking about the making of This Delicate Thing We’ve Made, an album that is about time travel and rediscovering the joy & innocence of childhood, Darren describes the Fairlight as “the final piece of the puzzle”. The defining track, he said, is ‘How To Build a Time Machine’, and the key year 1983. “That song was based on a dream I had when I was staying at my sister’s house in Australia. I woke up and for a second I had this displaced feeling, like déjà vu, and I thought ‘this smells and feels like it used to when I was a kid’. I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if I could step out of my bedroom and it would be 1983.”
It was the process of coming out, and then meeting his partner Richard, that started Darren thinking about what he calls “wasted years”, the time when he was at odds with himself concerning his sexuality, a time when “I guess I was homophobic. I hated myself.” When he emerged on the other side of this “I went through a period of mourning where I missed my innocence, and the part of my life where I was considered famous. It was all lost to me, and it was quite sad, so I was interested in the idea of going back in time, and finding joy again.” The result “wasn’t at all a record about love, it was a record about lost joy, the joy I used to feel as a child.”
“I became obsessed with going back in time to the point that I read up on it a lot, I spent a couple trips back to Australia where I would physically retrace steps.” This retracing saw him walking to his old corner shop or past old friends’ houses. “At the same time I was rediscovering records that made me want to be a pop star. Sign ‘O’ the Times was one of them. Hounds of Love was another.” And that is when the Fairlight, the sound of which punctuates Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, entered the equation.
“I felt like that was my time machine, that I would go back and pick up where I left off, pick up where she left off, pick up where my joy left off, and …” He pauses to think, then continues, “not rewrite my past – that’s the point of time travel, that you can’t – but maybe pick up little objects and bring them back. I’d done it with physical things but never with emotional things. So that was the idea behind the record.”
The Fairlight CMI, Series II (1982), was selected with an historian’s eye for detail, and the result was a progressive album of songs that looked back to the spark of its inspiration and forward to a time when the tension of the period that followed would be resolved.
This Delicate Thing We’ve Made was released in September 2007, and a significant amount of the press interviews at the time focussed on Darren coming out, and his civil partnership with Richard Cullen. When asked if he felt under pressure to be a gay figurehead, Darren jumps up and rushes over to the stereo to turn the music down whilst saying, “I’m going to say something controversial … because I don’t.” (The song, incidentally, was ‘A Coral Room’ from Kate Bush’s Aerial.)
Darren settles back into his seat, and continues, “There is something that I find a bit disingenuous about mainstream gay media, which is that I actually think it’s homophobic. I think mainstream gay magazines would rather put Christian Bale, or a straight actor, or someone who is a gay icon on their covers as opposed to someone who is actually gay. I think that in terms of gay people and the interest in me coming out, getting a civil partnership, there was a real level of respect, but in terms of the hip crowd, the mainstream gay media, no, to them its seems boring ‘cause it’s kinda real. I think that being uptight, being in the closet – that’s more interesting. It sells more papers if there’s speculation about you, as opposed to being actually out.”
Yet having said that, he continues with a wry smile, this says as much about celebrity culture as anything else. “I think it’s much more interesting to wonder about someone, whether they’re gay or not, what they look like naked, or what they do on the weekend. I think one of the unfortunate things about coming out is that some of the mystery that pop stars have, that David Bowie had – some of that glitter and magic & mystery, the thing that you hold back – is gone. And I willingly gave that up because politically it was important to me not to be ashamed of who I am.”
Darren and Richard entered into a civil partnership in 2006, and in a deliberately low-key manner Darren came out via his MySpace page. “One of the things I did initially was to put pictures of Richard on MySpace and add a comment underneath, like I would about any person in my life, and say this is a picture of my fella. I wanted to normalise him, I wanted to demystify the whole thing.” Darren is, in many ways, the anti-celebrity celebrity; his decisions are based not on commercial, exploitative reasons but on civic ones. For an artist who writes such emotionally raw songs, particularly on the last two albums, The Tension and the Spark, and This Delicate Thing We’ve Made, his sense of the dividing line between what is public and what should be private remains strong.
“Publicly I’ve always been a really private person. I got married for emotional reasons and I formed a civil partnership with Richard for political reasons.” In the early days of his career, when he was the front man for Savage Garden, Darren was ashamed of his sexuality, and so the coming out process was a significant personal and political milestone. “I definitely come from a generation where my first sexual awareness was based in shame. It wasn’t like I put on my ruby slippers and headed off to the magical West End. There wasn’t a West End, there was no way I could go to a gay bar, I didn’t know a single gay person.”
“The reason I spent half of my life depressed, the reason I took so long to come out,” he explains, “is because I felt like a freak, that I didn’t think being gay was normal, that it felt like it was a choice.” The process of coming out, and the writing of the last two albums, marked an end to that way thinking. The Tension and the Spark, he jokes, “could be subtitled Psychotherapy. It was like an audio transcript of me coming to terms with being gay. I really didn’t want to be.”
Coming out in a low-key manner, and on his own terms, proved a way for Darren to normalise the experience. “I understand that a lot of the problems we face as gay men is that people do not consider it to be normal.” And so rather than sensationalise it, and allow tabloid revelations to determine the process, as happened with George Michael, he took control.
Living in Britain, particularly after the legalisation of civil unions, was an important part of the process. “I can walk through customs and when the official asks, ‘why are you in this country?’ I can say ‘I live here, I’m married, I married my boyfriend.’ It’s transformative; it’s like the final piece of the puzzle that removed the shame I used to feel about being gay because I feel legitimate. That to me is what is so disappointing about Prop 8, that it legitimised discrimination and it gave oxygen to this horrible fire of ignorance. I still can’t believe that it is not considered to be a medical fact that you are born gay, I still can’t believe it’s ok to say in an argument against gay people, ‘well, if you choose that lifestyle…’.”
The advent of Web 2.0 and the MySpace generation has changed the way that records are marketed and sold. It has also changed the relationship between artist and audience and this is something Darren has embraced emphatically.
“The amount of involvement I have online you would typically see from a new band, from someone who is just starting off. It’s liberating. I always say I’m not K Mart, if somebody doesn’t like what I do or what I’ve said I love that now I can essentially say fuck off.” That he is now independent, and not tied to a record label, proved essential to this. “Before I came out I was also owned by a record company, so I was a product.” And the result? “It’s freeing because you can get into debates with people. I’m probably too hands on when it comes to being online. But it’s much more honest.”
“The biggest thing – not to always bring it back to being gay – that I’ve loved about coming out and being online, and being accessible, is the letter from the 16 year old kid in Oklahoma. He literally said ‘I wanted to die, but I listened to your records and I know you’re a gay man, and you live the happy-ever-after life’. I’ve had other similar experiences. Whether it be young girls with eating disorders or some kid who cuts himself or someone who can’t come out or someone who is being abused – you have this sort of join the dot history of relationships with people when they come in and out of your life. That’s only because I am honest about my life and I can chat to them online.”
This direct connection with an audience circumvents the traditional top-down control of the music industry in which the record company and the radio stations dominate. In many ways this is what the real potential of Web 2.0 is all about. “If anything, my last record only succeeded as much as it did, and I only got to play to the sorts of audiences I did, because of being online. It wasn’t because people played my records. It was because I had a reputation of being someone accessible.”
Darren proves refreshingly up front when talking about what he now thinks about the scope of the project surrounding This Delicate Thing We’ve Made.
“I’m proud. Happy I did it. Absolutely can see that it was a terrible business decision. But in the long run it was a really smart thing to do just for my sanity, for my happiness. I think you have to stop worrying what people think about you. I spent a whole period where I felt underestimated. A lot of that is my fault, as you can’t begin where I began and be so mainstream, and not in some way be universally sneered at. You can’t suddenly decide you’re an artist and expect everyone to come with you. Because I did and they didn’t. At least initially. And my record label didn’t. They were petrified. For me I didn’t see what the big deal was. I was just growing up musically.”
This Delicate Thing We’ve Made was released on Darren’s own label, Powdered Sugar, after he parted ways with Columbia. The original plan, however, was to write something else altogether. “First of all, I started to write a musical loosely based on my life. A one-man show. I was working with Willie Williams on the idea. He desperately wanted me not to do a record but to do something off Broadway, off the West End, and to do this thing that was a combination of telling stories.” What happened, however, was that the project snowballed. “I guess I’m a pop tart, and I thought I could turn this into songs, and maybe I could make a record.”
This Delicate Film We’ve Made, which is released in the UK this month and will be available internationally on iTunes later in the year, is the third and final part of the project. “I could show you a document right from the beginning which shows that it was going to be even more than this, that it was going to be a boxed set, also with a live album. There would be a double-album, a tour and a DVD, which I did, and then there would be a surround-sound version of the album, which became this new DVD with animation, and then there was going to be a live disc. I stopped here because … even I’m sick of me!”
Darren’s plans for the future are to move forward. “I want it to be very present, in the moment. I want to change the narrative voice that I use. I want it to be a much more concise record. I don’t want it to be nostalgic sounding in any way. I’d like it to be quite contemporary. There’ll still be metaphor but it will be about how I feel today rather than what I used to feel or how I hope to feel.”
The creative process for his next album is already well underway. “There’s an album title. There are some books I’m reading that relate to it. There’s a little studio I’ve set up upstairs that I’ll record a lot of it in. It’ll be a couple of years before it’s ready, but it’s begun.”
This Delicate Film We’ve Made gave Darren a chance to work directly with Richard. “The pressure for it to be good was enormous,” Darren explains, because “people don’t look at him as an independent person they look at his as an extension of me.” The video for ‘Who Would Have Thought?’, directed by Richard, was shortlisted for a British Interactive Media Association award. “I’m really proud of him,” Darren adds. “It’s a wonderful show reel.” This Delicate Thing We’ve Made was for Darren an epic emotional and creative journey and the release of the DVD not only marks a fitting end to that journey but is also likewise testament to his emotional and creative partnership with Richard. “For two people that will never have children it’s a nice offspring. But yeah, I’m done.”