No matter where in the world you were in the late 1990s, there were very few places to escape the music of Savage Garden. Seemingly appearing from nowhere, Australian duo Darren Hayes and Daniel Johns had a string of hits with I Want You, Truly Madly Deeply and Affirmation on regular rotation on both the radio and television. Then after four brief years, they suddenly split up.
While Daniel went behind the scenes into music production, Darren carved out a solo career, and is about to release his fourth solo album, Secret Codes and Battleships.
Darren was used to being a fiercely private musician, revealing little about his personal life and steering clear of celebrity until June 2006. When suddenly, he announced via his website that he was gay, and that he’d just married his boyfriend Richard Cullen, an animator and music video director.
As soon as DS enters the room in swanky private member’s meeting place The Hospital Club, Darren’s beaming grin makes it obvious he’s in a good place in life. He’s a year shy of turning 40, but looks years younger, with his svelte physique, dark blonde stubble and collar-length wavy hair. For a man who’s already spent the day being interviewed and admits to suffering jetlagged, he’s also remarkably chirpy and open.
Your biggest hit songs have been about love. Is it easier or harder to write when you’re in a stable, happy relationship?
It’s impossible because when you’re happy, you get fat and never want to do any work! I’m like the John Travolta of pop – whenever he doesn’t work, he gets fat and I do just the same. I’m incredibly happy and so grateful I have such a beautiful relationship.
Has there ever been a time when you’ve thought of quitting music?
There was a point in 2007 where I felt very confused and I wasn’t happy at all. I felt heartbroken over where I was in my life and what my purpose was. My relationship with Richard was the only thing I could rely on. I’m such a control freak, I was used to being the captain of my own ship steering the wheel. Then suddenly, I had to put my hands up and admit I didn’t know if I was any good at this any more. I had a crisis of confidence. But it made for great songs.
You came out to your fans in your 30s. Do you regret not doing it earlier?
No, the only thing I regret in life is the occasional bad hairstyle! I’m proud of the way I’ve conducted my life and that I’ve never tried to be a celebrity.
Was being gay an easy thing to come to terms with?
I never lied about who I was, but I found it difficult. Back then, I might have been the only gay person in the world who was homophobic because I actually hated myself. When I was growing up, I didn’t have a role model or somebody I could look up to so I didn’t even realise I was gay. I thought I had an attraction to men and that it was normal, but I shouldn’t talk about it. Then unfortunately me working out who I was, coincided with global fame.
That must have been tough.
It was really difficult and very isolating. My generation, I hope, is the last of the tortured generation regarding coming to terms with being gay and then coming out. Announcing it by doing an interview and being on the cover of a magazine isn’t how I live my life. And I didn’t want my fans to find out through a newspaper report because I didn’t want it to send a message that it was a secret. So I blogged about it, then took a year off and didn’t milk it.
How has Richard changed your life?
Had I come out before I’d met partner Richard, I don’t know if I’d have been here. I’ve never had a problem with drugs or alcohol but I absolutely suffered from depression. I’d go so far to say I was suicidal when I figured out who I was as a person. It took me lots of therapy and anti-depressants to deal with the fact I’m normal and it was OK to be gay.
Did you know he was ‘the one’ straight away?
When I met him, he completed the missing piece in me. I saw in him, the person I wanted to be in myself. He was so comfortable with who he was and through loving him, I forgave myself and admitted I was a whole person. It was a no-brainer; I wanted to marry him instantly.
And coming out isn’t just a one off process, is it?
No, the idea of coming out is something that continues for the rest of your life. When you go to a flower seller and they ask ‘who’s the lucky lady?’ or you’re on a plane chatting to someone and they ask you if you’re married with kids, you come out all over again. You never stop! One day it won’t matter, but we’re at the dregs of a generation where it’s still an elephant in the room.
How did the news affect your career?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t have it any other way though, because to get to a certain point in my career and to not be out would be deceptive. I’m violently opposed to lying about who you are but there will always be people who are homophobic. If they don’t want to buy my music because of my sexuality, then my music isn’t for them, simple as that.
You became world-famous from 1997 onwards with songs like To The Moon And Back and I Knew I Loved You. What do you remember about that time?
Not that much! It was like being put on the world’s fastest rollercoaster and not getting the chance to appreciate everything around me. We (Darren and band-mate Daniel Jones) had the necessary indestructible self-confidence to get though it, but I don’t remember a lot about it. I do remember being exhausted all the time. Like in America, for example. We’d be on a three planes a day visiting three cities for four weeks doing press, radio tours and impromptu gigs. But that pace and workload means you can’t connect people or appreciate what you’ve got. However, it’s an incredible opportunity that changed my life forever.
Savage Garden split up after two albums. Could you have gone on for longer?
It was the perfect time. At the time, it was premature as I never wanted to be a solo artist and was pissed off with Daniel very publicly the way he ended it, but I forgave him and all’s well that ends well. So I’m grateful we ended on a high and that we didn’t dwindle out. We dodged a bullet because music did a 90-degree turn after that. The moment I put my solo record out, pop disintegrated. Justin Timberlake changed everything with his fusion of r’n’b and hip-hop. Savage Garden wouldn’t have made sense and we’d have had a very graceless fall. It took a long took for another band to come along and sound like us – Maroon 5.
Would you and Daniel get back together in the future?
Daniel and I aren’t in touch and there’s no chance of a reunion. I don’t want to do it and I don’t need to.
As a solo artist, would you like to be selling more than you did with Savage Garden?
A friend told me once: ‘You have to accept the thing you are always going to be most famous for is in the past.’ And I do accept that, so it freed me up. I realised I don’t have to top the sales of the band because I’m not the band. Because I was the singer and one half of the song writing duo, I get to carry that with me instead. I had this incredible commercial success with Savage Garden and then I became a solo artist who sold two million copies of his first solo album. But in the record industry that was considered to be a failure. I was burned by that. I’m not Justin Timberlake or Robbie Williams – I’m an awkward male pop star. I’m strange and hard to pigeonhole. I think of Michael Jackson and his Thriller album. The poor man never really got over his own expectations – he expected to outdo himself with his music and nobody who recorded Thriller could have done that. Whereas I don’t expect to have more success than Savage Garden. I just want to be better at what I do.
Some solo artists who came from bands, like Morrissey and Ian Brown, refuse to sing the songs that made them famous. How about you?
I’ve never stopped singing Savage Garden songs. I’m very proud of them. I see Savage Garden as my first love, but I’d never have married my first love. I was never meant to stay there forever.
Had you not made it in a band, would have gone down the reality TV show route, like X Factor?
Sure, but I’d have crashed, burned and failed miserably! I was a diamond in the rough when I started. I got my career through a Wanted advert, and shows like X Factor are the same thing.
Stars like Sting and Elton John criticize those kind of shows…
It’s pretentious when people do that because it’s so hard out there to get started in the business. I’ve guest judged on Australian Idol and mentored contestants for Australian X Factor and it was often heartbreaking. Off-camera, I kept telling people I thought they were amazing and that I’d have put them though. Who am I to tell someone they’re not for the music industry? I’ve had so many doors shut in my face, from my father to teachers, but I was always meant to do this. If I didn’t have that innate sense of self, I’d never have survived.
How does your new album differ to your previous work?
This is the first record where I’ve asked people to take me seriously since 2004. My last album, This Delicate Thing We’ve Made, was my rebellious streak. It was a strange 25-song double album with only one or two songs that could be played on the radio. It was a bit sobering. Then I did a side project, a free download album called We Are Smug, that I gave away – it was a kind of ‘fuck you’ record. I wanted to do all the strange stuff and get it out of my system and then decide if I wanted to make another pop record again.
So you doubted whether you wanted to stay in the music industry?
No. But every time I’ve made a record, even from the first Savage Garden album, I have a period where I sit back and ask myself if I want to do it again. It takes a little while to want to, as certain aspects like all the attention I get aren’t good for the soul. So I’ve always gone away, fallen in love with the process again and then crawled back to it!
So is this a return to pop?
Yes. This record is me rolling up my sleeves and saying ‘Okay, I’ve been avoiding writing classic pop songs for the radio, but now I’m back.’ I could never have been forced to do it. If someone had said ‘go and write another Truly Madly Deeply’ I’d have said ‘But I’ve already written it.’ I’m honest enough to admit, there’s a fear of trying, as there’s always a chance to fail. If you say to the world you’ve made a song and you think it’s a hit, and it doesn’t become one, you’ve failed. Not having a hit doesn’t bother me, but putting myself out there has always been difficult. I also had to find my sound. Each time I’ve made a record I’ve always looked different and sounded different.
Do you ask for impartial opinions on your music?
Yes, because when you’re a pop star it’s easy to surround yourself with people who tell you you’re fabulous. But that doesn’t help you. And you need a strong feeling of self, and I’ve always had that. So for this record, I invited critique in. 80 per cent of what people thought, I said ‘no you’re talking rubbish’ to, but 20 per cent of the time they were right!
You seem incredibly enthusiastic about this album.
I haven’t been this busy or had this much airplay in such a long time. I haven’t been played on Radio Two in ten years until now! So I’m going with the flow, doing a small tour in the UK and hopefully it’ll expand into something else next year.I’d love this album to help me reconnect with a wider audience, but I’m okay if it doesn’t.