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August 16, 2019 at 04:58 PM EDT
Brenton Giesey

Hunter Hayes recently had an epiphany. What if, the country singer-songwriter thought to himself, he did what he wanted to do instead of what he thought others wanted him to do? And just like that, an album was born.

Surprise released Friday, Wild Blue (Part I), was recorded at his home in Nashville and produced by Hayes, Sam Ellis and Dave Spencer. The album, his third and first in five years, examines, in part, the space between heartbreak and healing and how, as many of us know, that isn’t necessarily a straight line. From the propulsive opener “Madness” to the mission statement title track in which he finds hope in the aftermath– “I found some sunlight in the space between the losing and the letting go”– to the searching “Dear God,” written with Andy Grammer, and the playful “One Shot,” Hayes sorts out his feelings in ways both raw and refined.

Sitting in his instrument and art-festooned living room in Nashville, the 27-year-old Louisiana native behind hits like “I Want Crazy” and “Wanted” is clearly feeling a renewed sense of purpose. Marie Kondo might balk at the scene, but the guitars, piano and recording equipment arrayed around the furniture spark joy for the multi-instrumentalist. He gestured to them and the art on the walls– including a painting by Scott Hill after which the album cover is modeled–when he recently chatted with EW about Wild Blue (Part I), the decision to surprise release it and the places he went emotionally for it following a break-up and some other life changes.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s been a few years, where have you been?
HUNTER HAYES: Here, actually, you’re looking at it.

So, you recorded the whole thing at home? 
In the basement, yeah. We just started moving up pieces of the basement studio, because after finishing it, I realized that I’ve spent my whole life putting my studio room in another room, compartmentalizing. Everybody talked me out of having my studio in my living space. I was like, “You don’t understand my relationship with music.”

Why did you decide to surprise release it ahead of its original release date?
Why wait?  I’m lucky that I have a label of forward-thinking people. Originally the date was going to be the eighth anniversary of my debut record [Oct. 11, 2011]. And I was really excited about that. But [once] we decided “Wild Blue” was going to be the fifth song released as a single we were just like, “Why would we put out the title to the album that the fans have been waiting for for four years, and tell the fans it was going to take another two months if it’s done?” Which it is. And also, more importantly: this is Part I. And I think, surprising them and telling them that it is only part one was a big deal for me and it felt like a great way to give someone the introduction to the book.

In the notes with the album there is a reference to you taking charge with this recording in a way that you haven’t before, which is interesting since part of your origin story was how great it was that such a young artist was able to write or co-write so many of your own songs at a time when that wasn’t an option for many new artists in a cautious Nashville. So even within that context, did you feel like you were still checking off industry-mandated boxes that you didn’t want to?
I wouldn’t go quite that far, I think. There’s no question that everything [I did] was authentic. Thank god. I just didn’t know.  I had just moved to town. I keep comparing it to a Lego set.  I was building the picture on the box: “This is what I wanted. This is what I came here for. So, I’m going to do that.”

And this is how you do it.
Right. And then I realized, you can build anything with the pieces! And now I’m having a blast. I think that was the shift.

Was there a specific pivot point where you thought,  “Oh, I can just do what I want”? Or was it a moment of frustration where you thought  “I want to do what I want and now I am going to”?
Just imagine a lot of noise. Backwards. And then at the end of the swell there’s just this sound of wind. That’s kind of what going into 2018 was like for me. And I think that’s why I connected with the Wild Blue concept and why that was so fresh in my mind and why these paintings (gestures at Hill painting and another by Lindsey Isbell on the wall) connected with me. Because I felt like there was all of a sudden this sense of stillness. I stopped working on what I thought everybody wanted me to work on and just said, “Okay, if I were to make any record I want right now. What would I do?” And if [the album] ends up just being therapy and no one connects with this and it never works. Point proven. Lesson learned.

But still useful though. Even if it doesn’t sell a million records, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a worthwhile creative journey.
But still useful, totally. “Wild Blue” is a perfect example. That was as me as I could possibly be on that day, January 11th of last year. What’s funny is I remember the date because (pointing to the ceiling) that was the day that that light fixture got put in and [co-writers] Troy [Verges] and Gordie [Sampson] helped me lift it into the ceiling. (Laughs) That [songwriting session] no holds barred. That was [me realizing] I can say anything. I can structure it however I want.  I just had fun making that song. And then those were my guidelines moving forward: This needs to feel fun for me. This needs to connect for me.

When you listen to the record now are you surprised that you felt constrained before? Freedom sounds different to everyone of course and, while it’s clear that you are expressing yourself in a new way, the sound isn’t wildly out of alignment with what is considered popular and contemporary. Radio could certainly play these songs.
Yeah. I think that’s one of the things that I’ve learned the most about beginning this release process. When people hear it they’re just like, “Yeah, well, that make sense though.” And it’s like, “I know. I know it does.” But, in the context of kind of where I was…

You couldn’t see the forest for the trees?
Yeah. Exactly.

So often artists say that once they actually started following their own path is when the best stuff emerges.
And that’s what I didn’t know before. And I think that I, honestly, probably just need more people telling me that. The ratio of people telling me that versus the ratio of people telling me, “Yeah, but that won’t work. We don’t know what to do with that,”  was off for a long time– It wasn’t off. It’s who you listen to.

One of the lyrics that struck me on the record was the line in “One Good Reason” about how heartbreak leaves you feeling stupid.  That seems like a universal feeling that people often don’t admit to, it offers a real sense of vulnerability.
Honestly, that one and “My Song Too” are the harder ones to talk about.  I remember the feeling that I had presenting the idea to Sam and not really wanting my ex to hear it. Because, how do you have those conversations? So yeah, it’s not that easy to admit to that, but I was in that stage where it’s like, “Okay, I’m far enough removed to remember the good. But not close enough to remember why I’m here versus there.” I knew that this was a big growth chapter for me. I wrote about it several times. “One Good Reason” was definitely the first; therefore, the most honest, out of the batch.

And that’s a very specific moment. So often songs are about the beginning and the excitement or about the very end and the crash. But there are fewer songs about the time after, where you’re still marginally obsessed with the person in a way that feels kind of unhealthy, but you have moved on to a certain degree too. Much of this record lives in that place. How are you feeling at the prospect of going out and performing them?
Well now all of that has a purpose, right? Whereas, when you’re writing the song. You’re just like, “What is this for? What happens now?” I’ve always said my purpose, I feel, as a writer is to experience things. I have a very soft heart and I sometimes protect it and sometimes do a s–t job of doing so. And I honestly take advantage of the moments that make me uncomfortable whether it’s for a good reason or for a bad reason. Because I know that that’s supposed to turn into something else. Not just for me. And going out and singing these songs now, that’s my purpose. Now, they have a meaning and they serve something versus just me staying in that loop.

“Heartbreak” looks at the idea of gratitude for every relationship that didn’t work in order to prepare you for the one that does.  Was that sparked by a moment of real optimism?
No, that’s the first thing that I felt. When it all came crashing down. That’s where my brain went first. We had a conversation about it. You know there was kind of this check-in. “Are you okay?”  It’s like. “Yeah, I am actually.” Because if it was that good, and it wasn’t right that means that the next thing that is right is going to be even better.  For me, I was just anxious. I was looking forward to that [next] person. Potentially too much. But I remember, my first trip that I took I wrote “Wild Blue,” “One Shot,” “My Song Too.” And I only wrote four or five songs in January, but they all made the album. Which is such a rare ratio for me. Because for the last couple of years, I’ve been running on steam. And I’m lucky if I get something that really feels like it’s me. But in March, I took that trip to Hawaii and that was the first thing that I started writing was the “Heartbreak” concept. It was not [the song per se] but like I really want a large portion of this album to sort of talk to this person. Letters to me in the future.

Warner Music Nashville

So do you already have a plan in place for Part II?
Can’t say.

Within 2019 or is too late for that?
Definitely not 2019. Because they’ll all most likely be all be ten songs apiece.

All? So that implies more than two parts. Is this is a Lord of the Rings situation?
Oh, yeah. We’ve started part seven, but in my head, I’m giving myself outs as far as like, if the theme, for me, life-wise, changes. I don’t want to  chase a concept that I painted three years ago.  But I will say, I’ve provided myself with a theme that can morph as I go, which is exactly what I wanted. And exactly where I’ve always wanted to be and everything can change at a moment’s notice now. And this kind of proves that. And it all does still tie together no matter what we’re talking about. Because the theme of Wild Blue is growth, moving on. Constant change is the theme.

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