HAYDEN with JULIE DOIRON at Convocation Hall (31 King's College Circle), Saturday (March 9). Sold out. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNNas far.

HAYDEN with JULIE DOIRON at Convocation Hall (31 King’s College Circle), Saturday (March 9). Sold out. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN

as far as rock-star flame-outsgo, Hayden admits his was pretty spectacular.Two years after being hailed as an alt-rock poster boy, complete with glossy magazine photo shoots, fawning praise and a bidding war that saw Hayden turn down Neil Young, the Toronto singer/songwriter finished a world tour in support of his The Closer I Get album, went into his house and politely slammed the door on the music industry — and music.

Stories of his cowering in his High Park home in a state of crippling suspended animation on a par with Thom Yorke’s post-OK Computer breakdown weren’t too far off.

“Any way I would describe what’s happened for the last couple of years would sound like I’m looking for sympathy,” Hayden laughs. “I’m not. As soon as I released The Closer I Get, I knew that six months down the road I’d still be playing those songs. I was really looking forward to just stopping, so I did.

“I didn’t talk to my manager for a year and a half, and I became a hermit.”

It was a dramatic shift from just a few years before. After the independent success of Hayden’s bedsit alt-folk stunner Everything I Long For, the guitarist was scooped up by the fledgling Outpost imprint for 1998’s The Closer I Get.

Amidst tales of million-dollar advances — “Not true,” he says — Hayden left his lo-fi four-track home session behind for nearly three years of recording in studios in Woodstock and Seattle with big-name producers like Steve Fisk and Nirvana remixer Scott Litt. The results were disastrous.

Stripped of the homespun intimacy of his earlier recordings, The Closer I Get sounded muddled and awkward. The reviews, many from the same people who’d wildly praised Hayden before the album came out, were brutal, the sales disappointing.

“That was the record that people were waiting to judge me on,” Hayden offers. “There was so much hype about the deal and the fact that it was recorded in all these different studios that I think people were looking for an opportunity to hate it.

“I’d be lying if I said the reaction to the record had nothing to do with my disappearing, but in truth my own opinion of the record has kind of soured over time.”

That Hayden is hunched over a very tall latte and politely trying to explain why he became a recluse is something of a shock. After I panned his last record, he refused to say hi to me for two years, and when he released his excellent new Skyscraper National Park disc last fall, he refused to do any interviews at all.

His return to the music business was exceedingly tentative. Hayden initially made just 100 copies for friends of the new, stripped-down record, and returned to the stage by playing a series of small club shows that seemed more like rec-room gatherings than proper gigs.

“The reception for this record’s been nice, especially compared to the last one. As you know,” he laughs. “I really tried to get back into doing music more as a hobby, slowly. I wasn’t really interested in turning on the machine.

“I didn’t do anything that had to do with the business for a long time. I was just having jamborees with my friends. Sometimes we recorded, but most of the time we didn’t — and that’s when the best stuff came out. Music became more of a thing I did to make myself happy, which was what I did when I was 22.”

That process proved crucial in the creation of Skyscraper National Park. After miraculously being let out of his Outpost contract after just one record, and with a substantial payoff to boot, Hayden put together a studio in his house and gradually started recording.

At a slacker’s pace of one song every two months, the record slowly came into focus over three years. The problem was, there were still no plans to put out the sessions.

“I started a pattern of recording a song and then leaving it for two or three weeks,” he groans. “It just sat there, and whenever I felt like doing something, I’d plug myself back in. I had no deadlines with the outside world, so I had to make one in my head.

“I needed some sense of completion in my life. I’d bailed on three different projects — a live album, a film about my last tour and an instrumental album. Maybe I should have hired a dominatrix for the studio to keep me in line.”

The staggeringly slow pace worked, though. Skyscraper National Park is everything Hayden’s big-budget flop wasn’t. Fragile, quiet and dominated by a warm, casual feel, the record captures the mood of friends playing with no real expectations.

There are hushed folk songs, 90-second pop snippets and stunners like Bass Song — a tune about Hayden being murdered in his home studio by thieves while recording a song — all delivered with real immediacy.

“On The Closer I Get, I was given an opportunity to do things in a different way,” Hayden reasons. “I kind of knew that I worked better on my own or with close friends, but it seemed like too good an opportunity to work with real people in real studios.

“I don’t regret it, because it reaffirmed that I do work better on my own. As it turned out, I recorded with all those different people and then I’d have the tapes sent to my house, where I would sit and do overdubs on these expensive tracks in my room. I was trying to reclaim my little bit of sound, and that’s why the whole thing took so long.”

If the surprisingly cheery tone of Hayden’s shows last fall, complete with audience sing-alongs, was any indication, he’s having more fun playing music now than he ever has before. Despite his current tour and public accessibility, a return to the big-label grind seems unlikely.

“I can’t see that happening unless I become addicted to crack and need cash quickly,” he snorts. “I’m in the rare position of knowing what minor celebrity feels like and that I didn’t get off on it.

“I realized that if you grow your hair, people stop recognizing you. It’s amazing, but it’s true,” he nods. “I didn’t even need a fake nose.”mattg@nowtoronto.comMemorable meltdownsHayden

Hayden’s certainly not the first singer to melt down in the glare of the music industry spotlight. Temporary hibernation’s proved attractive for numerous sensitive rock stars in the wake of both unexpected success and abject failure. Here are some of the best.
Mary Margaret O’Hara — It’s 14 years since her astonishing Miss America debut and the Toronto singer still hasn’t delivered an official follow-up. Fans stopped holding their breath ages ago.
Radiohead — After two years of solid touring behind OK Computer, Thom Yorke stopped playing music, grew to hate the sound of his own voice and released two experimental records that alienated a massive swath of his audience. A classic tantrum.
My Bloody Valentine — A notoriously slow worker at the best of times, MBV guitarist Kevin Shields has spent 11 years working on the follow-up to 1991’s Loveless, with nothing to show for it but a beer gut.
Alanis Morissette — Sales of 28 million albums threw the notoriously unstable ranter clean over the precipice. Thank U India? No, thanks.
At the Drive-In — After one album and a tour, the ludicrously hyped Austin emo thrashers went on “temporary hiatus” — never to return.

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