Darren Hayes returned home to Australia this month feeling like a tourist.
The singer-songwriter has lived abroad since 1997 and is reacquainting himself with our lingo and our quirks with a sense of boy-like wonder.
"It's the little things, like going into a cafe and ordering a cappuccino and the lady was, like, 'There you go love'," he says.
"I haven't seen my Mum in three years but that's how she talks to me. It was comforting.
"Everyone is so polite and everything is so clean. It's wonderful to be back."
Hayes is best known for Savage Garden, a pop duo he formed in Brisbane with Daniel Jones in 1994 that became a household name worldwide.
Savage Garden's self-titled debut album was Australia's best-selling album of 1997, peaked at No 2 in the UK and No 3 in the US, and earned the duo 10 ARIA Awards.
Debut single I Want You was the best-selling single by an Australian artist, followed by To The Moon And Back and Truly Madly Deeply (the best-selling single by an Australian artist in 1997 and spent a record 23 weeks on the US Adult Contemporary Chart).
Savage Garden broke up in 2001, after 23 million album sales. Hayes branched out as a solo artist with four albums and a string of hit singles including Insatiable, Pop!ular and So Beautiful. Then, without warning, he called time on his music career.
"I had put out my last solo album and finished a tour in the UK. I walked off stage and I was just pleasantly, quietly, finished. I knew it was over," he says. "I honestly didn't think I was going to return to music.
"When you get to the milestone birthdays you start to really reflect on your life. When I turned 40 I realised I had been dreaming about being a pop star since I was 13, when I saw Michael Jackson in concert at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre.
"That was the moment that solidified what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
"Ten years to the day after that concert, Savage Garden sold out that same venue - it's goosebumps material for me. The odds of that happening were just so stacked against us, it shows what the power of positive thinking can do.
"Anyway, I began to realise that being an artist was something that was really important to me ... I'd forgotten how important it was for me to express myself; how passion was so much a part of my soul.
"I turn 50 this year, so there's all these amazing neat numbers stacking up. It's been 25 years since the release of the first Savage Garden record, and 20 years since I started as a solo artist.
"I needed that time away but now it's time to come back."
Hayes, who has been happily married to Richard Cullen for 17 years, is in a good place. He is open and honest, keen to share his story and grateful for the warm welcome he is receiving.
It hasn't always been this way. For many years Hayes felt like an imposter. A stranger intensely uncomfortable in his own skin.
"During my time away from the public eye I realised that, at the very height of my fame, I had this massive imposter syndrome about my sexuality - I had all of this love and applause and affection coming towards me but there was this fear inside me that if you really knew who I was, would you still love me?" he says.
"I remember seeing a movie, Call Me By Your Name, and feeling sad that I never knew who I was as a teenager.
"I was the last person to realise I was gay. I was that person that everyone talked about behind my back, 'Oh he's gay', or they would say to me directly, 'Are you sure you're not gay?' and I would hold up my wedding ring and say 'How dare you, I'm so offended, I have a wife'.
"It took me a while to work it out. My 'coming out' process was just so shrouded in shame."
It wasn't just his sexuality that conflicted Hayes. "I had so much ambition and there were a lot of things happening in my life. I was being bullied at school. I was gay but I didn't realise it. I came from a home where there was a lot of domestic violence," he says. "I had a lot of reasons to want to escape who I was.
"The idea of being a pop star and travelling the world and becoming the person that you saw in Savage Garden was so appealing. And it worked, it really, really worked. It was this incredible rollercoaster but by the time I got to 40, I realised that I hadn't even planted another dream since I was 13."
Hayes has been quietly busy in the studio for the past decade, releasing a number of standalone tracks and collaborations including I Never Cried So Much In My Whole Life (2019) with Brisbane indie band Cub Sport and Cold To Me (2021) with UK producer/DJ Louis La Roche.
Earlier this year he returned to the Australian charts with his first new solo single release in a decade, Let's Try Being In Love, an upbeat, electro-pop dance anthem. On March 10 he will release a second single, Do You Remember?, which is also the name of his 2023 Australian tour.
The title is both a grateful nod to his past and a sign of things to come. "I can't really say if there's an album coming but - with a huge wink - I can tell you there is so much music coming. I didn't leave for 10 years to come back without anything up my sleeve," Hayes says, laughing.
Hayes is now home - out and proud - and headlining Sydney's Mardi Gras parade at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday, March 5.
"I'm about to turn 50 and I have never performed for you guys as me," he says. "I've had a long time to realise that I needed to accept myself. To be on the Mardi Gras stage and to look out to the audience and love myself first, that's going to be an experience."
In 2023 Hayes kicks off his Do You Remember? tour which will showcase his Savage Garden and solo hits, along with new music. He's playing Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
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