Trigger warning: The following article contains references that may be triggering to survivors of trauma. If you’re struggling, please know help is available to you, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
When Australia watched a young man from Brisbane singing about ‘chic-a-cherry cola’ against a backdrop of whirling roads and disco lights in the mid-1990s, nobody realised they were watching history in the making.
Savage Garden went on to become one of the most successful pop groups Australia has ever produced, selling over 12 million copies of their self-titled debut album – an album that just last year ranked at no. 9 on Rolling Stone AU/NZ’s ‘200 Greatest Albums of All Time’.
Darren Hayes was in his early 20s, married to his childhood sweetheart, and living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Sydney’s Kings Cross writing that seminal Savage Garden album when his life changed irrevocably.
“Innocent, naïve Darren Hayes picked up a street mag that was like a gay magazine, and I remember just looking at the images and being simultaneously turned on and horrified that I was turned on by the images,” he recalls. “One day I remember venturing into a porn theatre, and I saw gay porn for the first time in my life. And somewhere in the shadows, people were having sex.”
Mortified, Hayes ran from the theatre to a nearby phone booth, where he called Lifeline to ask a phone counsellor for advice.
“Thankfully it was a gay person, and the person just said, really frankly and in the most Australian way: ‘Look, love – you need to go home and tell ya wife you’re gay’,” Hayes says.
By the time Savage Garden released that now-iconic music video for “I Want You”, he had told his wife, Colby Taylor, that he thought he might be gay.
“My coming to terms with my sexuality were completely shrouded in – honestly – suicidal thoughts,” Hayes admits. “If you listen back to the album Affirmation, there’s a song on there called “I Don’t Know You Anymore” – that’s because I came out to my wife, and I came out to both of our families, and I’d never even held a man’s hand.”
“My coming to terms with my sexuality were completely shrouded in – honestly – suicidal thoughts.”
The track, written long after the couple’s separation, was a cry for help from a confused soul.
“That song was a year after we’d separated and I was still trying to come home,” Hayes says. “Even after my wife had said to me, ‘Look, you need to go and do this’, and had lovingly let me go, I still hated myself and didn’t want to be gay.”
Flash forward to now, and at 50, Hayes is truly comfortable in his own skin, confident with his sexuality, and has begun his first album release cycle in a decade. The music video for Homosexual’s first single, “Let’s Try Being in Love”, is the visual representation of the anguish 24-year-old Hayes had felt coming to terms with his sexuality.
“I felt so aware that in one way there was this doorway to a possible future for me that was a way to be happy and to love myself and to be my true self,” Hayes explains. “But at the same time, I was going to have to destroy something I loved.”
Although Hayes didn’t truly come out to the rest of the world until he announced his marriage to husband Richard Cullen in 2005, he had spent years dropping clues into his music.
“I really wanted to be found,” Hayes admits. “Songs like ‘This Side of Me’ – I was screaming out to the world: ‘This one time, one time, let my body do what it feels… ‘Cause I am not afraid to let you see this side of me’.”
“Chained to You”, also from the band’s second album Affirmation, was a song about Hayes’ first boyfriend.
“’We were standing all alone, you were leaning in to speak to me, acting like a mover shaker dancing to Madonna then you kissed me’,” Hayes recites. “The song on my new album, “Do You Remember?” is the same song 25 years later: ‘Do you remember, we were in love… listening to “Ray of Light” and we were in love…’ It’s just now I’m able to fully be present and speak about it.”
There were skeletons in the closet Hayes is now proudly out of. On Homosexual, Hayes discusses childhood trauma, familial lines of depression and suicidal thoughts — all under the guise of catchy pop songs like “Music Video”, “Poison Blood” and “Hey Matt”.
“’Hey Matt’ is essentially a suicide note,” Hayes says frankly. “I called up my friend Matt, and he wasn’t home. And instead of leaving a voicemail, I just recorded a voice note.”
“’Hey Matt’ is essentially a suicide note.”
The artist in Hayes knew these thoughts would be worth revisiting later.
“The things that I said about myself were so horrible,” Hayes says. “I recorded myself saying these things to myself, and I kept it for a couple of years, and I turned it into a song because I thought there has to be some value in the depths to which I’ll plummet.”
Although Hayes now understands it as dissociation, he had an active imagination as a child, riding his bike with a milk crate attached to the front, absolutely convinced that E.T. was going to save him from what was going on at home.
“I could look at a Michael Jackson video and think, ‘I’ll just dance my bullies to death!’” he says. “That’s the life that I lived. It was magical, because my brain was over-developed in its imagination, in a way that I could escape the horrific things that I witnessed.”
It’s no secret Savage Garden’s 1999 hit “Two Beds and a Coffee Machine” was inspired by Hayes’ actual childhood, bearing both witness to, and victim of, his father’s alcohol-fuelled abuse.
“I’d turn up [to school] exhausted because I’d been keeping watch over my mum and they’d say, ‘You look tired, what happened last night?’ and I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t tell anyone,” Hayes says. “When I was getting older, people would then tell me that I was gay. My own father called me a faggot, and kids at school would bully me.”
As 13-year-old Hayes watched Michael Jackson performing from the front row of the Brisbane Entertainment Centre. Girls behind him pulled his hair and called him homophobic slurs for yelling, “I love you Michael’.” Hayes, with absolute resolve, simply thought: “I’ll do that. I’ll become that.”
Ten years later, Savage Garden sold out that same venue.
When Hayes and Jones went their separate ways in 2001, Hayes tried to forge ahead with his solo career, but being signed to a major label made things tricky.
“When I made the video for ‘Insatiable’, my first solo single, the president of the label saw the rushes for the video and he said, ‘Oh he looks obvious. It’s obvious that he’s gay’,” Hayes explains. “So they scrapped the video. They forced me to make another video on my dime, so they put $1 million on my tab – then they cancelled all of my US promotion.”
The label execs didn’t want Hayes to appear on US television because they felt he was “too gay”, causing his career to come to a screeching halt in the US – the place Hayes has called home on and off since 1996.
“Because the US label was so tied to the Australian label, my career in Australia virtually came to a halt as well, because the word in whispered corners of the offices was, ‘Do not promote this artist because we can’t put him on television’,” Hayes says. “They had a mandate about the way that I looked; they made me straighten my hair because they said my hair looked too feminine. They put me in situations in music videos where I was never in a sexual situation, so I had to be the observer – I had no control over any of that – and then they shipped me off to Europe.”
Hayes began releasing music on his own label, but being an independent artist is sometimes harder than a cog in a massive music label’s machine.
When 40-year-old Hayes got off stage at the UK’s Brighton Dome at the end of another exhausting tour in 2012, he fell into his husband’s arms and cried. He couldn’t do it anymore. He made a silent pact that he would not make any more music. The dreams of teenage Darren Hayes were shattered.
Hayes spent three years at The Groundlings Theatre & School in Los Angeles at the behest of his ex-theatre director husband, learning improv comedy amongst people who had no idea of his previous life as a pop star.
Altogether, it was 10 years of what Hayes describes as isolation.
“Somewhat self-imposed isolation,” Hayes admits. “But it got very lonely.”
It was the Luca Guadagnino film Call Me By Your Name that inspired Hayes’ return to music, and the connection he was so desperately missing.
“There was a scene in that film where this young boy has had his first ever love, this affair with an older man, and his father is so accepting of it; it was the antithesis of what my life had been,” Hayes explains. “I never got to experience even liking myself being gay.”
Hayes recalls being overwhelmed by grief after watching the movie.
“I realised that the entire time that I was famous, all of that love and all of that attention, and all of that success and everything that happened – it was like it happened to somebody just next to me,” he says, “Not really to me.”
Hayes had created a version of himself that he thought the world could love: a version that dyed his hair black, dressed a certain way, moved a certain way. And although the music was sincere, everything else felt contrived.
“All of the fashion and everything that I did, I was begging the world to love me and accept me for who I was; but I think deep down, secretly, I was afraid that if you really knew who I was, you would hate me,” Hayes says. “And even when I married my husband, I realised I was still carrying around so much internalised homophobia and so much shame, because when I saw that film I realised: I never got to date. I never got to kiss a boy on a dance floor. I never got to experience any of that.”
“I was afraid that if you really knew who I was, you would hate me.”
This is why Hayes’ return to music is stamped by an album entitled Homosexual.
“I’m aware that it’s a pejorative. I’m aware that it has some horrific clinical and triggering connotations,” he says of the album’s title. “It really is as simple as taking something that was used to punish me and to silence me, and to say no, I’m going to use it as the most powerful adjective to describe my magic. This thing that makes me threatening to you? I’m going to use it and say this is the thing that makes me extraordinary.”
Hayes has composed, produced, performed and arranged everything on this album. He has released it on his own label, Powdered Sugar Productions, and although he is the first to admit he isn’t a Grammy-award winning producer – he doesn’t care.
“It means so much to me that every single sound that you hear on this record: I did that,” he explains. “Every lyric. Every synthesiser. Every guitar lick. Every EQ. Every decision was made by me with love, and I pored over it. And everything is symbolic; everything has a meaning and it all is like a hard wire from my brain straight to the person that’s going to listen to it.”
Hayes says there isn’t anything on Homosexual that is untrue, which, as a music fan himself, is something he expects from all artists.
“It’s so obvious when someone’s phoning it in,” he says. “And there’s been a couple of moments in my career – and I only mean a couple of songs – where I’ve phoned it in, and I cringe. I was phoning it in because I was depressed. I felt like I had a barrier up. because you don’t want someone to touch that place in you that’s so vulnerable.”
Hayes’ intention with this record was to make music that he loved first and foremost that hopefully people could connect to.
“It’s been fun seeing some really hardcore fans freak the fuck out, to be like, ‘Is there going to be a ballad?!’” Hayes laughs. “Because I love everyone and I love my fans, but I also subscribe to the idea that you can’t give people what they want – you have to give them what they need. And what they need is an artist that’s happy and is telling the truth.”
“It’s been fun seeing some really hardcore fans freak the fuck out.”
When Hayes returned to the stage for the first time in a decade to headline the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras earlier this year, he full of uncertainty and insecurity, right up until the first notes of “I Want You” rang out.
“I was absolutely shitting myself when I did that. I was so nervous,” he laughs. “Again, I don’t know why – I was scared that maybe people wouldn’t want me there. And I was just blown away by the response.”
Hayes will return to Australian arenas in February 2023 for the Do You Remember? tour, which promises to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
“Lee Novak, my old bass player, is coming back to play with me, which is really great,” he says. “Karl [Lewis] my old drummer from the Savage Garden days is playing with me, and a lot of our old behind-the-scenes people are coming back. So it just feels like the old days. That’s something I’ve missed and needed.”
The set will heavily feature songs from both of Savage Garden’s albums – the first of which has just turned 25. Although there will be no reunion, Hayes is still a fan of the music.
“I think those records are genius, and I don’t say that as someone that made them, I say that as someone that watches from the outside and still scratches my head that we did that,” Hayes says. “There’s so much music on there that I love. Especially on that first record. I’m such a pop fan, and it really fits in with the music that I’m making at the moment.”
The tour will also be a chance for Hayes to thank the fans he says accepted him at a time when even he didn’t truly know who he was.
“When I looked out into the audience what I saw was a mirror,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the person that I was growing up to be, which was a gay man. At the same time, there was an audience of young people who were on the threshold of adulthood, which comes with all of that stuff like body dysmorphia and rejection at high school and stuff that goes on at home, and all of the awkwardness that comes with growing up: I really identified with that.”