It’s nighttime, and stars fill the sky. Earth is visible in the distance, looking like the moon Houstonians see when it is full and the seasons turn from summer to fall. A kangaroo's head pops up in the middle of a field of gold grain while an antiquated space ship, like something out of an H.G. Wells novel, is parked at the edge of the field. And there in the foreground, offering up a long-stemmed rose to a tree filled with ripe, dripping fruit, is singer-songwriter Colin Hay, dressed in a grey suit and bowler hat.
The 64-year-old Hay is mainly known as the lead singer of the '80s band Men At Work, whose humorous videos for such hits as “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” were once in constant rotation on MTV. But Hay’s post-'80s repertoire, including his latest album Fierce Mercy, has rescued him from “Where are they now?” status. This Friday, he performs solo at the Heights Theater, in what will be the first show at that venue since Hurricane Harvey dumped over 27 trillion gallons of rain across Texas and Louisiana.
The kangaroo, rocket ship and nectar-dripping fruit appear on the cover art of Fierce Mercy, which was inspired by a dream Hay had back in the late 1980s, not long after Men At Work disbanded.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was about to get divorced from my first wife,” says Hay, who is now married to Peruvian singer and dancer Cecilia Noël. “In the dream, I was trying to save our marriage, and one of the ways I tried to do that was take a trip to the moon.” Hay, his first wife and several passengers dutifully boarded a spaceship and headed to the moon. After a safe landing, Hay put on a space suit, left the ship to do some exploring, and came upon an orchard.
“This one tree in particular had all this delicious fruit,”Hay says, “so I ate the fruit. Apparently you can eat fruit on the moon through your facemask, no problem. What I remember most is it was the most delicious thing I ever tasted.”
The album's title came from Hay's songwriting partner Michael Georgiades, who used the term "fierce mercy" to describe a health scare that left him shaken but grateful for the warning that it was time to take better care of his body. Taking a step back, Hay says it is clear Mother Nature has been, for some time, blessing the planet with its own “fierce mercy” of warmer oceans and dramatic weather events, which continue to grow in intensity.
“We’ve been getting warnings about radical climate change since the '70s,” says Hay, who is adamant about the reality of global warming. “It’s extreme, and it’s very real. I travel around the world, and there’s something weird goings on with the climate every single place I go.”
Born in Scotland, raised in Australia, and now living in Los Angeles, Hay's musical inspirations are drawn from all parts of the globe, such as the Zydeco-inspired accordion and Appalachian banjo on Fierce Mercy’s raucous opening track, “Come Tumblin’ Down.” In the song, Hay sings about empty towns and a melted Ferris wheel—a surreal image inspired by an actual Ferris wheel built in Melbourne thought to shut down due to damage from the heat of the sun (it was actually an engineering failure). “The song is about the sense of impotence you have with what’s going on in the world,” says Hay. “There’s such incompetence and madness . . . but you have to keep loving those you love. You have to keep making things on the grill, and spread as much joy as you can while it’s all tumbling down.”
While the video for “Come Tumblin’ Down” is a humorous Western romp, with a sexy and graceful Noël leading a group of lead-footed dudes in a clumsy square dance, the animated film created by renowned Cuban animator Juan Padrón for Hay's “A Thousand Million Reasons” is a flowing montage of one couple loving, fighting and growing old together in sunny, rainy and wintery weather. A bald and bespectacled older man (perhaps a stand-in for Hay 20 years into the future) floats through the clouds, as if observing the story from wherever it is we go when we pass.
“We’re born alone, we die alone,” says Hay about the concept for the video. “There’s something very shocking about that. Humanity shares this idea that we all die, and the song comforts in that, in the sense you think, ‘Well, at least that happens to everybody, not just me.’ There's comfort in that we're part of something bigger than ourselves . . . this sense of wonder about the unknowable. You can find comfort and joy and solace in another person, or yourself or just feeling connected to the fabric of humanity. "
One pictures Hay, alone on the moon, looking up at that dreamtime tree, and offering up a rose to the fruit hanging above him.
“We all have in the back of our minds that one day, this is all going to end," says Hay. "So what can I do on a daily basis to feel some kind of joy and gratitude for who and where I am at this particular point in time?”
Colin Hay plus special guest Ruston Kelly will perform Friday, Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets $42. The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th St. More info at theheightstheater.com.