February 07, 2000 12:00 PM

Taking in the view of San Francisco Bay from the terrace of his new bachelor condo, Aussie rocker Darren Hayes looks like a newly minted king of pop. But the singing half of the Australian duo Savage Garden doesn’t sound it as he talks about the dissolution of his six-year marriage to his college sweetheart. “It’s sad,” he says of the split, which occurred as Savage Garden, his 1997 debut album with partner Daniel Jones, came out of nowhere to sell 12 million copies. “I was sad for a really long time.” To mend, Hayes moved to New York City, where he poured his feelings into a series of new tunes. “I’ve written the necessary sad songs,” he says. “They were very hard to sing, actually, and I’d get a lump in my throat. I think that’s part of the process of grieving.”

He’s less weepy about what happened next. In tilling his sorrow, Hayes struck a mother lode of lushly romantic music that has sent Savage Garden’s sophomore effort, Affirmation, bounding up the charts. With 4 million CDs sold worldwide since. November, the album has landed its first single, “I Knew I Loved You,” at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and scotched fears that vocalist and lyricist Hayes, 27, and guitarist-arranger Jones, 26, might fall victim to the one-hit-wonder bug. “I admire his courage for digging deep inside himself and then spitting it out publicly,” Jones says of the lyrics, which Hayes e-mailed to him in Brisbane, Australia, where he composed the music in his home studio. “It definitely has spawned an inner peace in Darren,” adds Jones, who allows the more outgoing Hayes to act as Savage Garden’s public face. “He hit a low, and it taught him something. He has become a better person.”

Hayes, who moved to the Bay Area last summer after being struck by “California fever” when he and Jones recorded Affirmation there in April, has grown philosophical about his pending divorce from Colby Taylor, the Brisbane schoolteacher he married in 1994. “No one cheated on anyone,” says Hayes, who remains close to his ex. “We were really young when we got married. We hadn’t finished growing.-We lead very different lives now.”

The son of a merchant seaman, Robert, 55, and a nurse, Judy, 55, Hayes grew up in a tough, blue-collar section of Brisbane. His parents struggled to make ends meet while raising Darren, his sister Tracey, now 32, and brother Peter, 30. The first of his family to attend college, Hayes disappointed his folks by dropping out of the University of Queensland after one semester. They were disappointed again in 1992 when Hayes, at the urging of Taylor, his then girlfriend, answered a newspaper ad placed by Jones, a veteran of the local music scene, seeking a singer for his bar band. Although his only experience was in school musicals and performing Michael Jackson impersonations for friends—”He also does a great Whitney Houston, in her voice,” says Jones—Hayes later abandoned plans to become a teacher. “Dad,” he assured his father, “I’m going to be a superstar.”

His cheeky prediction soon came to pass, thanks in part to Rosie O’Donnell, who played an Australian copy of Savage Garden’s first single, “I Want You,” on her TV show before it was released in the U.S. “She gave us incredible exposure,” Hayes says. As much as he has enjoyed his success, however, Hayes (who is dating but declines to identify his current romantic interest) envisions a future out of the limelight. “I’ll be ready for a slower life in five years,” he says. Until then, his Garden needs tending. “People thought we were a one-hit wonder. Now, maybe we’ve proved them wrong. I just hope we can be a three-hit wonder.”

Steve Dougherty

Michelle Bowers in Sausalito, Calif., and Dennis Passa in Brisbane

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