By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
After being away from music for a decade, Darren Hayes, who rose to fame with Savage Garden, followed by an extraordinary solo career, is back! And this time, he has left the constraints of a major record label behind to release an album cheekily and honestly titled “Homosexual.” The album celebrates not only his triumphant return to the world of music but also his newfound identity as an unapologetic out artist who lives life authentically through the lens of queer, sheer joy.
First off, welcome back! When I got news of this album, I was thrilled—and even more excited when I saw the title of it. How does it feel to be back, homosexual?
Haha. It feels wonderful, especially because I honestly thought I had retired. I distinctly remember exiting the stage after my last show in Brighton, England, in 2012 after touring my album ’Secret Codes and Battleships’, and I was done. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. The music industry had moved on to a place that I no longer recognized, and my plan had been to quietly fade into the night.
You have opened up about how complicated and difficult your personal coming-out story has been for you. An oppressive record label, pressure from your surroundings, and internalized fears about being your authentic self. But here you are with an album titled “Homosexual” – how did you arrive at this newfound feeling of freedom?
Taking time away from the machine really helped. I’m 50 now. I was 13 when I decided I was going to be a pop star. The arrogance! I was 23 when fame happened and then, at the very peak of my fame, was the moment I was coming to grips with my sexuality. As you mentioned, it was a horrible time to be gay and performer because the world was a very different place. By taking a decade away from the music industry, I experienced a sense of loss and grief for the missed opportunity to be myself when I had the world’s attention. I remember distinctly seeing the music video by Lil Nas X for ’Sun Goes Down,’ and it made me cry. I wished that I could have written about and spoken about those topics when I was suffering. I remember that was a turning point. Also, seeing the movie ‘Call Me By Your Name’ which is ironic, given that was the name of his first single. Seeing that movie had a profound emotional impact on me. Once again, I found myself grieving a youth I never experienced, and I was moved by a love story about two men that wasn’t mired in shame. So the eradication of shame was a huge influence for me in making this music and ultimately using this word as a title for my album.
What has helped you on this path of self-discovery?
Therapy. Lots of it. Doing improv comedy, believe it or not. I spent three years at The Groundlings school of improv in Los Angeles anonymously studying sketch comedy and improv, making friends who were, for the first time in 25 years, not on my payroll. That sounds ludicrous, but honestly, when you’re a performer, most of your friendships end up becoming transactional in some way or another, so this was an opportunity to meet people who I had to earn respect from on day one. I loved the experience of facing my fears of failure – not being the best person in the room – and failing often, which comedy asks you to do! From that experience, I gained my confidence as a person again and made relationships with people who are now lifelong friends.
Apart from the title, how does this album set itself apart from your previous work?
The record is absolutely the first time I’ve fully embraced my queerness, as you’ve noted, and that extends to the sound – I’ve really done my homework. I understood the assignment! I went back and researched not just the pioneers of club and gay music, who are mostly gay, queer, and trans folks like Frankie Knuckles and DJ Ron Hardy but also producers I have been listening to for years without realizing their DNA was in everything I loved about dance music – Patrick Cowley for example, was a huge influence, as was Shep Pettibone. I grew up obsessed with 12-inch mixes on vinyl, so most of the album, sonically, feels like each song is one big extended mix. It pays no attention to commercial consideration. There’s only one song on the radio under 5 minutes long; most are 6 or 7 minutes – and that’s due to my feeling of complete artistic freedom. Also, the fact that this was the first time I was in 100% total control. Producer, Composer, Performer, and Arranger.
The retro-synth vibes and 90s house rumbles combined with your beautifully crisp vocal is really remarkable. Did you have any notable inspirations for the sound and mood of the album?
I know that George Michael’s ‘Faith’ was a touchstone. I loved that George essentially made that record with a few drum machines and just his stunning vocal – and he played almost everything on the record, and I wanted to get some of that retro feel across my album. That meant using the same drum machines (808s and 909s) and understanding those recording techniques (varispeed vocals, for example – slowing down the track to make the voice higher in parts) – and using very loud and clean bold snares. Also lots of big juicy analog synths.
You’re famous for your extremely strong vocal game, and your vocals on this album are no exception. Can you share how you prepared your voice for this album?
Well, I trained hard! Even though I took a decade out of the public eye, I’ve never stopped training with a vocal coach. I have had a singing lesson once a week, almost without fail, for this entire time. So working on the album, if there was something that was a struggle, I’d take it to Carol, my mentor, and we’d work through how to best approach it. It really helps having kept my voice match ready.
“All You Pretty Things” is a true dance anthem where the second half of the song gives you remix vibes that I can’t wait to hear on a dancefloor. The song is also dedicated to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, which gives it a darker mood and message. What was your thought process behind this song and its dedication?
I just felt compelled to write a different ending to the story the gunman gave them. In the case of violent acts, and especially in tragic acts of horrific mass loss, we often focus on the perpetrator, and I wanted to immortalize the fallen in the moments before he entered their lives. I’d read a People Magazine article about some of the victims that described how loved they were by the people who knew them. I was so moved by the nuances of their lives outside of this horrible moment. So I decided the best way to remember someone, anyone we’ve lost, really, is to celebrate what we love about them. In the song, I sing ‘We’ve Got To Dance To Remember Them,’ and I mean that as much for the victims of Pulse as I do for those we lost in the mid 90’s to the AIDS crisis due to the inaction of the Regan administration. As queer people – the dance floor is our refuge; it’s supposed to be a place of safety and community. So that’s where I laid my flowers.
2022 marks your 20th anniversary as a solo recording artist. Looking back, what are some stand-out moments for you?
Being able to wear anything I wanted by Jean Paul Gaultier. Singing a duet with Pavarotti. Being invited to a dinner party with Madonna in attendance. Singing at the closing of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney Australia. 17 years of marriage to my beautiful husband, Richard.
Looking ahead with a reclaimed identity, what’s in store for Darren Hayes version 2.0?
No more shame! More music. Less caring about what other people think of me! I’m team Madonna when it comes to defying the limits of what is age appropriate. I’m 50, and I’m just hitting my stride.
You’ve lived your life as a gay man in and out of the public eye while experiencing the struggles of coming to terms with your sexuality and ultimately coming out. What advice would you give to someone today, struggling with those same issues?
You don’t owe your private journey and story to anyone. Coming out is a complex psychological and emotional process, and it’s different for everyone. Do it on your timeline and your terms. First and foremost, know that there is freedom on the other side and an expansive life happier than you could possibly imagine when you do.
You’ve already announced your UK and Australian tour in 2023 – any chance you’ll be touring in the US at some point?
Yes! I don’t know if it will be official by the time this goes to print – but I’m doing just 3 North American dates – Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto in April 2023. It will be my first time touring the US in almost 25 years, besides a few one-off shows in 2007, so it’s extremely special for me and my audience.
“Homosexual” by Darren Hayes will be available on October 7. Follow Darren Hayes on Instagram @darrenhayes.