"It’s unpopular to say this now because it sounds like sour grapes, but my career and certainly my radio play was impacted once I was openly out."
Twenty years ago last March, Savage Garden released their self-titled debut album. The band, made up of Australian duo Darren Hayes and Daniel Jones, saw six tracks hit the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 -- including two trips to the No. 1 spot.
After the band’s messy split in 2001, Hayes publicly came out as gay and ventured on as a solo artist. Though he enjoyed success, Hayes’ solo career didn’t take off the same way. In a candid interview with Billboard, Hayes opens up about what went on behind-the-scenes after he came out, musicians he admires (Adam Lambert, Michael Jackson, among others) and how Savage Garden has “zero plans to reunite.”
You’ve talked about being bullied while growing up. Are there any particular instances that stick out?
I grew up with a violent alcoholic father who was the first person to ever call me a f----t. That wasn’t the greatest start in life. At school my experience was that everyone else knew I was gay before I did. I was such an innocent and loving child. I lived in a dream world, I was obsessed with Star Wars, E.T, Michael Jackson and Madonna. I was big-hearted, emotional, and excitable.
By the time I hit high school and puberty -- I was still very young at heart. Children have a way of singling out those who are different and can be very cruel about it. I was called ‘f----t,’ ‘gay’ and all sorts of homophobic insults before I even knew what that meant. I realize now I threatened them. I shone very brightly, and they tried to dim that light.
Sometimes it worked. At the very worst, I had to sit through some classes with my head down while I was spat on, or had spitballs hurled at me. I was beaten up sometimes in school, sometimes after school. My junior years were honestly horrific. It didn’t let up until my senior year. The Neanderthals left and musical theater elevated me to the status of cool.
What about Madonna and Michael Jackson spoke to you?
Sad childhoods and a strict work ethic! Both artists came from families where the odds were stacked against them. Both artists worked with an obsessive dedication to their craft. Particularly with Michael, I identified with the relationship he had with his father. It was very similar to mine. I identified with how Michael seemed to be bullied by the media. He was mocked for his softness, his eccentricity, his image.
As a gay kid, I watched the “Bad” music video and it empowered me. It spoke to me in the way “Born This Way” spoke to Little Monsters. It showed me that it was okay if I didn’t fit in, because I didn’t want to be accepted by those people anyway. Michael’s image presented a fluid sexuality, as did Madonna’s -- which, for a confused kid from the suburbs of Brisbane, was hugely reassuring. Michael’s music and videos told me it was okay for a boy to dance, to wear makeup.
Michael’s biggest impact on my life was when I was 15 years old and I saw him live in concert. It was Brisbane, 1987 and by a crazy stroke of luck I ended up front row for ‘The Bad Tour’ and I witnessed him at the absolute Olympian peak of his prowess. He would move one finger and the entire arena would scream. I looked around that room and I knew I was going to do that some day. I wanted to life the energy of a room when I walked into it and I wanted to take people away from the sadness of life and into a dream world. That night, I stopped being a fan and I observed him as a student. He’s still my hero.
Do you think it would be easier or harder growing up in today’s society?
Being LGBTQ in 2017 is still not easy but at least [it's widely acknowledged as] a reality. It has a definition and an awareness at least. It’s been an option to check on a drop-down menu since MySpace. When I was young, I didn’t think I knew anyone who was gay. I didn’t have a role model I could identify with. I knew I liked boys, but it was such a secret, even to myself, that I dare not admit it even to myself. Society told me it was wrong, and there was a ‘gay plague’ killing thousands of people around the world. I thought I was going to hell and I would pray to god every night not to make me gay, not to get AIDS, not to go to hell.
Having said that, even though declaring yourself LGBTQ in 2017 is an option, the discrimination -- especially when it comes to the trans community and homophobic crime -- is still in the stone ages. So the upside is more awareness, but it’s still baby steps.
Savage Garden had a very successful run. You had six top 40 hits on the Hot 100, including two chart toppers, “I Knew I Loved You” and “Truly Madly Deeply.” Which of those songs is your favorite?
I’m sure most artists say this, but my favorite songs are not the hits. I’m grateful for them, but I love songs like “Break Me Shake Me,” “Crash and Burn,” “Two Beds and a Coffee Machine” or “All Around Me.” [Those] are by far more my cup of tea. You can never tell which songs will be hits, but we made 95 percent uptempo electronic pop music, yet we’re most famous for those two ballads.
I love the music video for “Crash and Burn.” I was very excited to work with the director to make something stylistic and graphic. It reminds me of some of my favorite Madonna videos -- especially the '90s ring flash lighting and oversaturated colors. Musically it’s a dear song to me, because it’s all the words I wished someone would have said to me during the period after the first Savage Garden album. I was living in New York alone, having left Australia to live in the USA permanently. It was a very sad time in my life, and that’s where many of the songs from Affirmation came from.
Do you think Savage Garden would have had the same success had you came out earlier?
No. I remember distinctly the message I got from the top down was that being gay was detrimental to sales. It was never stated, but heavily implied. You could tell it was the topic of many discussions, and I was marketed in a way that appealed to women. It was the period when Ricky Martin had women on his arms at events, and Ellen’s career was torn apart by coming out.
I don’t know if people realized, but in press when I was asked about my sexuality, I never denied being gay. I always said the only acceptable answer in 1997, which was “I’d prefer not to talk about my private life" -- which was code for "of course I’m gay.” Journalists knew I was gay, my entire record company did. I just didn’t feel ready, emotionally to be on the cover of People magazine saying, “I’m gay!.”
My coming to terms with my sexuality was a painful process for me. I was very confused and I wanted children and I’d been married to a woman and was sad and confused for much of my Savage Garden career. Had I been outed or forced to go on the record, I honestly don’t know if I’d be here today. I was extremely depressed and sometimes suicidal back then. I always say that coming out has to be on your terms. It has nothing to do with career -- being outed is about being forced to be confident and comfortable in your skin before you are ready to.
When did you know you were gay?
I mean, deep in my subconscious I probably knew when I was a very young child, but I was conditioned to hide those instincts. Little things like being corrected if I said I thought a boy was “cute” or being mocked for wanting to be Wonder Woman -- although my beautiful Mother did make me a ‘Wonder Man’ outfit! You don’t know you’re gay until someone else tells you. At least that was my experience. It was something I kind of shelved and then life happened and I fell in love with my female best friends. One of which I married.
The first time I consciously knew I might be gay was sometime during promotion for the first Savage Garden album. I was traveling the world and meeting obviously gay men, or men that were gay, but didn’t fit the small stereotype the media had portrayed to me. I remember thinking maybe I was gay but I didn’t do anything about it. At my Australian record label I recall having what I thought was a secret crush on an advertising executive named Justin. I thought no one knew.
My publicist at the time got me aside and bluntly asked me, “Are you gay?” I was so taken aback. I showed her my wedding ring and said “I’m married!” and she said, “How come you blush every time Justin walks in the room?” It was the first time anyone had ever seen behind my facade, exposed something so secret that I didn’t even admit it to myself.
That’s when the conversation started, and truthfully it was a painful journey. I didn’t want to be gay. I loved my wife, we were trying to have children and I knew I was going to lose the fantasy of a white picket fence and the family I wanted that I’d never had as a child. It was a year of marriage counseling and conversations with our families before we realized I had to live a different life. I came out before I’d even held a man’s hand, let alone kiss a man!
You co-wrote the whole album Affirmation before you came out. Are there gay undertones in your writing?
It was after my marriage and I was out privately. I was certainly coming out lyrically with the album. I was living in NYC and going to clubs like an awkward teenager trying to date. I actually hate clubs but this was before Facebook, Match.com, Grindr -- you had to go out to meet gay men. I wrote a song about dancing to Madonna at Splash nightclub in New York, where I met my first boyfriend. He was a sexy court officer from Brooklyn, and we kissed as we danced to “Ray Of Light.” He was my first same-sex love and he was honestly such a sweetheart. I adored him.
I wrote the lyric “I believe you can’t control or choose your sexuality” in the title track of Affirmation, and I performed the song on The Jay Leno Show and intentionally winked at the camera on that line. I was waiting to be outed, but I think because I didn’t deny being gay. The press were very, very kind to me. I like to think they knew I was a good person and I wasn’t ready to hold a press conference about it.
Do any of your bigger hits with Savage Garden have a coded gay message in them?
“I Want You” is a song about a dream about being in love with a male energy, and waking up and feeling sad that I knew there was a part of me that was missing. I wrote a B-side for Savage Garden called “This Side Of Me” which was explicit about being torn emotionally between what I knew to be true, and who I was.
My entire solo career was filled with songs about men. “Insatiable” is pretty explicit. My  album The Tension and the Spark uses entirely male pronouns. Again, I was out in my music for years.
What was the reaction behind the scenes in the music industry when you came out?
Some people were very supportive and relieved and happy for me. I’m told some of the higher executives were not thrilled, but never directly to my face. The one crazy thing was when I shot a video for my first solo single, “Insatiable” and I danced in the video. Apparently the label freaked out because they felt I looked obviously gay in it. They made me re-shoot it. They made me straighten my naturally curly hair and they pulled all TV and live performances from the promotion of the album. I’m told there was an internal memo -- much like the infamous Elvis mandate -- that I should not be allowed to be seen moving my hips because apparently that was the give away. I found this out years after the fact.
I was and am known for the quality of my live vocals. Columbia records refused to pay for a live band to launch my solo career, and instead only had me do press meet-and-greets. Can you imagine how frustrating that was for someone who considered themselves a vocalist first and foremost? Their strategy was to launch the solo career of an artist who had sold 20 million albums without letting anyone hear him sing live. Crazy. As a consequence my solo career never happened in the United States.
What was the most shocking reaction?
There really wasn’t one. Like I said, it was very sweet. At least to my face. Prior to coming out I remember being in a board meeting with very high up radio executives who were openly mocking Ricky Martin’s sexuality. The record industry back then, at least at the executive levels, seemed quite homophobic. Yet when I did come out, I was no longer signed to a major label, and I didn’t feel any pushback. I married my husband Richard in England and at the end of a world tour I posted a blog on MySpace announcing I’d married my boyfriend and that was that. People were and still are, lovely.
If Savage Garden were topping the charts in today’s society, how do you think people would react to your coming out?
I don’t think people would blink an eye. Honestly even back then, I don’t think it would have mattered. I mean, did you see my hairstyles and clothing choices? I was pretty out! I think it was the men in suits who feared it the most.
You enjoyed modest success after Savage Garden broke up, with “Insatiable” cracking the Hot 100 at no. 77. What song in your solo career are you most proud of?
I have many songs I loved -- many of which were top 10 or top 5 everywhere else in the world. I’m most proud of my solo career, because it was long fought and never easy. Every "win" meant more to me because the stakes were much higher. Sadly most Americans have never heard of many of my solo albums -- there’s five! In the UK and Australia I played venues like The Royal Albert Hall and The Sydney Opera House but in the US I played mostly small venues like The Roxy in LA or The Canal Room in NYC.
I think even I forget sometimes that my first solo album Spin debuted at No. 2 in the U.K. It was huge. Songs like “Insatiable” and “Strange Relationship” were decent radio hits. On my last album Secret Codes and Battleships my song “Black Out The Sun” was a solid radio hit.
If someone is just discovering your music through this article, which songs should they start with and why?
Listen to the entire The Tension and the Spark album. If you’re still interested continue on to [2007's] This Delicate Thing We’ve Made. Things get strange. If you’re more of a Savage Garden fan, my most recent album Secret Codes and Battleships [from 2011] is probably the most like my older days. If you’re super gay -- find my Madonna covers. I do a mean “Angel” and “Dress You Up.”
What do you think was the most groundbreaking event in pop culture that has helped this shift towards LGBTQ acceptance since 2000?
Adam Lambert on American Idol. Hands down. He smashed down the door of the closet. I loved Adam’s image. It was an extension of his sexuality. It was bold and unapologetically theatrical. He expressed himself loudly, dramatically, and did not give a damn whether it was palatable to conservative values. I loved that he wore makeup, nail polish and experimented with his hair. He didn’t have to come out because he was never in. I think his success proved you can be out, proud and successful by beginning your career presenting yourself as authentically as possible.
Do you think your solo career would have had a different trajectory had you came out in today’s society?
Of course. It’s unpopular to say this now because it sounds like sour grapes, but my career and certainly my radio play was impacted once I was openly out. I don’t regret it for a second. It wasn’t that I was blacklisted, but it was that I became a ‘niche’ artist purely based on my sexuality. There was a kind of unintentionally patronizing view of me. No longer a sexual object, but more of someone you might take home to Mom.
Today, that doesn’t matter. But back then, it was like I was suddenly your gay uncle. That was frustrating. My sexuality was used as a descriptor, and if you think about it, that’s nuts. No one says “Openly heterosexual singer Adele.”
There are a number of openly gay artists doing well in the music industry these days. Who do you find the most exciting?
Frank Ocean excites me primarily because his music is Prince level, Radiohead level, Kate Bush level. He’s a genius. His sexuality has nothing to do with that except in the context of the genre of music he makes. It’s difficult for black artists, especially in hip-hop, to be out. I know he experienced some homophobia from some of his peers and I was impressed that artists like Kanye West embraced him and called out that behavior as a thing of the past.
I dig Troye partly because he’s Australian -- but mostly because I think there’s a clean, crisp, fresh joy in his pop music. I’m a sucker for his song “Youth.” In terms of his contribution or significance to the LGBTQ community I think it’s simply that his sexuality was offered up so honestly and peacefully. It’s a fact about him, sure. But it isn’t the total sum of him. That’s the future to me.
Do you and Daniel still communicate? I saw you did an interview together in 2015.
That interview was not conducted in the same room or even at the same time. We have never done an interview together since the band split. We do not communicate at all these days.
You’ve said there will never be a reunion.
Zero plans to ever reunite. Sorry. It’s pretty well known that I didn’t appreciate the way he handled his departure from the band, but that’s water on the bridge now. After 17 years of making music on my own I couldn’t imagine going back to that dynamic. I understand the nostalgic value for fans, but you break up for a reason. We are just very, very different people these days and I wouldn’t want any other life than the one I lead today.
I saw you were working on new music with a comedy writer. Can you give us any details?
I’m actually writing a Broadway musical with a fellow Groundling performer and writer Johnny Menke and in collaboration with legendary choreographer and director. It’s honestly the joy of my life. It’s a long process but I can’t wait to share it with the world. Aside from the musical, I’ve done so many fun things since my last album. I just stretched myself creatively. I spent three years studying improv at The Groundlings school, I did a bunch of stand-up and wrote and filmed a bunch of comedy sketches. One of my favorites is this Star Wars mockumentary I did called Going Dark: A Sith Story.
I tinker around with music in my home studio. I always say my work ethic today is like Kate Bush. One day I’ll surprise everyone with a new album that will seem like it appeared from nowhere. It took her 12 years, so I’ve got time yet.