Hunter Hayes has been making music since he was a toddler. He appeared on the Rosie O’Donnell Show at age 4; sang for President Clinton at 7; and was on America’s Most Talented Kid at 13. By his late teens, he had moved to Nashville, signed with Universal Music Publishing Group as a songwriter, and began working on his 2011 eponymous debut album, on which he played every instrument. The album spawned his first number-one single, “Wanted.”
In the past decade, Hayes has earned five Grammy nominations, been touted as the “leader of country music’s youth revolution” by Billboard magazine, and recorded three more albums, the latest of which is Wild Blue Part I, a musically dynamic, genre-blending effort that reconfirms Hayes as a gifted melody maker and deft lyricist. Hayes is coming to town to headline the Santa Barbara Country Music Festival on September 8, at the S.B. Polo and Racquet Club. I recently spoke over the phone with the singer/songwriter, who was in an Iowa field at an antique airshow, the buzz of bygone flying machines peppering our conversation.
Wild Blue feels like mix of genres. Was it just a natural progression of the kind music you wanted to explore? It was a very natural progression. In fact I think the milestones for me making this record were … [that the songs] highlight the process of undoing filters, and undoing guidelines and rules. One of the things I’m most proud of was the standpoint that I took in order to actually start this album … this was a complete reset. This was me saying to myself, “I want to just start over and make a record as if no one’s ever going to hear it,” because that allows you to work in a totally different headspace. I did most of it at my house so I didn’t have to go through due process to track anything. It was a very open and honest conversation with the world … It was like writing a journal versus writing an album. … It was very therapeutic; there’s no question.
Musically, lyrically, there’s a lot of things that I got to explore that I’ve never allowed myself to explore, but … I think my premise originally was no expectation. Like, “Hey, if nobody hears this, or if somebody hears this and they hate it, it doesn’t matter. I enjoyed making it. This is my heart.” But what I was surprised by was the more I let people into that world and that album … the more reactions I got, good reactions. Connective conversations and feedback, and I felt like I was onto something. As tough as it is to say, from here on out, you’re going to start making records as if nobody’s ever going to hear them — that’s easier said than done — but I do believe that that’s where I have to start. … I think what’s working well for me is protecting that creative space and having a safe house, safe place, where it can be made. There’s no judgment. You don’t email every song in and wait for the response, like I used to do. … It’s way more creative, there’s no question. I think it’s just more personal. If anything, I think this is an introduction to a new … process, but even more so, I think it’s an introduction to a new standard for me personally.
What was holding you back? Being beholden to a record company, or a person? Or maybe just lack of confidence? I think it was a lot of things. I wouldn’t want to blame any single person. I think it was a lot of different things acting upon it. It’s the most quintessential tale as old as time. Young artist experiences success and everything flips upside down, whether you realize it or not. … I’m definitely not the first to fall prey to it. I just hope that when people hear Wild Blue, they can see that we’ve gotten over any hurdles and we’ve grown past the things … When I say “we,” I mean the people I’m surrounded by. I feel like I’m surrounded by incredibly creative people that put as much into this as I do. … I want to surround myself with people that have the same fire that I do. … I hope that people hear that in Wild Blue. That there is a sense of freedom and there is a sense of growing up, if you will.
Well, there is. I think that’s why it’s universally appealing too, because when you hear the lyrics, it’s your personal space but … then I can pluck things from it that go, “Oh, that’s exactly what I experienced.” Wow. Love that.
I imagine people are drawn to the record because there’s something they can relate to. How is it to have people respond so intensely to your songs? Well, that’s the point though, for sure. I mean, that’s the dream. … Once it’s out there in the world … they’re my songs, to an extent, but they’re not supposed to be mine anymore, exclusively.
You write with a lot of different people. How is that to get deep into your own psyche, and then have other people helping you express your emotions? You must be very close with them or trust them implicitly. Well actually, that’s one of the most miraculous things, if I’m being honest. I was about to tell you that older relationships work better, but there are a lot of new names on this album. I think that’s a testament to what happens when you get in a room with somebody and you just trust them creatively. Also just as a human. Because there were a lot of surprises from a lot of people that I’ve never written with before. … It was the first time in a long time that Dave [Barnes] and I had been in a room together. Even though we’d written with each other before, in a lot of ways it felt like the first time. … But yeah, you do have to just trust the people around you. That was the biggest thing for me.
That’s a big word for this project: trust. I had to trust Sam [Ellis] in the production elements. I had to trust Sam as a writer too … but also, you want to set a tone. I love the challenge of walking into a room with somebody that’s never written with me before. Getting more personal than they’re comfortable getting and seeing how they react, but also laying the groundwork so that they feel, “Oh, okay, we’re allowed to go here. Okay, this is safe.” You know? That’s important for me. I think that’s part of the enjoyable challenge of writing a song. It’s like, “No, no, no. Let’s let all the feelings be felt and figure it out one line at a time.”
Do you go into the studio with a thread of a song? Or do they come from playing together? Some of it comes in the moment. “My Song Too” happened … like as I was telling a Dave a story, and he called me out and was like, “Have you written that yet?” … “We should write it.” … But some of the titles I brought in. On “Heartbreak,” … I think I had a couple pages of journal entries I got to contribute, which was nice.
How long did it take you to put together this album? Writing-wise, it only took a year, which is miraculous for me. Because this is the first time I’ve started the process [with] “This is the album title. This is the record that I want to make.” Again, just pretending no one was watching, right? Just committed to it. I wrote “Wild Blue” the song first. Then I think “One Shot” was the second song I wrote. “My Song Too” is the third song I wrote. That ratio is very rare for me. Most of the time, we end up writing hundreds of songs just to get 10 that we love. This ratio, because of this unfiltered process, changed the game entirely for me.
You said this would be a three-album series. Do you already have more songs? In my mind right now, it’s three, but I’m also trying to give myself some freedom. But I see it as three. I like the number three for some reason. As an OCD, I think I look for that to guide me through my life, but I think it is part three. Part two is more than halfway written. I’d say it’s close to finished. Now it’s just a matter of going in and finishing the songs. A couple of the songs are finished, production-wise. I’m living with part two now. It’s funny because I just went on a promo tour and I’m still promoting part one, but my head is 100 percent in part two. I have to remind myself, when I talk to people, that I’m talking about something that happened last year.
There is a lot going on musically on Wild Blue, yet the end result is this digestible, very approachable record. I love that description. That makes me really happy. … I know the careful balance is simplicity, so the song is approachable, but also the desire to just make really cool music and try new things. The combination is always something we strive for. It’s hard to achieve right off the bat.
What is going on in your musical life now? Touring? Writing your second album? Yeah, a little bit of touring. Working through [Wild Blue] part two and just living with that. I’ve scheduled a couple of writing trips. I took one already this summer. Just allowing myself to write solo, which I haven’t done in a long time. I don’t intend to write the whole thing by myself. [I don’t want] to have something I’m really proud of and have to tell everybody that I didn’t invite anybody to the party, but because I love the collaborative process. I think that’s something I want to dig even deeper into, but yeah. … My head’s very much in part two and working on part two. I’m sorry. My favorite airplane in the world is taking off right now. I’m just like a kid. I’m very distracted.
Take a moment. She’s so gorgeous.
What is it? It’s a Piper Cub.
Do you fly? I’m starting. I’ve logged a few hours. … Well, I wish I could have logged some this weekend, but this is my first weekend flying any antique aircraft. The Piper, the original, the J-3 Cub. … One of my dreams is to have one of those, but coincidentally I came here just to honestly see planes. I ended up flying one that was for sale. That was my first time flying an antique.
Oh, wow! Yeah. It was spectacular. I got to fly a few of them yesterday. I’m really happy right now.
Why antique planes? The simplicity. The J-3 Cub [has] one of the simplest dashboards you’ll ever see in an airplane. Its power-to-weight [ratio makes it] an easier plane to fly. It’s just very simple. It doesn’t go very fast, but you can take it off in a 30-foot runway, if you know what you’re doing and have the right gear. It’s a very, very light aircraft. They’re just super fun. I’ve never gotten to fly one before this weekend.
Oh, that’s so cool. Yeah, I’m on cloud nine. … But anyway, back to what we were talking about.
That’s okay. Thanks for the detour.
You’ve been playing music for so long—it seems that it’s just completely part of you. That’s 100 percent the truth. I mean, if anything, I have trouble disassociating myself from what I do. … I love making music. I love writing. … Playing live is when everything comes to life for me. That’s my heart and soul. But yeah, I mean, I found it as a kid as something I love. I think now that’s why writing still feels like a hobby. The touring days, even though that’s my favorite part … are the days that have the most work in them. … Just because it’s long days, it’s a lot of prep work. … But I still see writing music as just a fun hobby that I enjoy doing, which I am so grateful for.
You had success so young; how do you keep the momentum? It’s less about celebrating the big milestones and more just like, “Okay, great. As long as that means I can keep doing this, we’re good,” and I’m moving onto the next thing. I’ve found that I need to work less on moving on and more on enjoying where I’m at. You know? Because there are so many special moments you can miss if you’re not paying attention.
4•1•1 | Hunter Hayes headlines the Santa Barbara Country Music Festival Sunday, September 8, at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. See santabarbaracmf.com.