Hunter Hayes steps out of his tour-bus shower, throws on a Purdue University T-shirt and prepares to face what many others would deem to be nothing short of insanity. For Hayes, it’s just another Thursday evening. “It’s become a little tradition,” the country superstar says of regularly exiting his tour bus after one of his concerts to see his fans. His band is usually busy throwing back some after-show cocktails — Hayes might have a couple; nothing too crazy — but the guy is more concerned with logging face time with the rowdy crowd of primarily young females waiting outside. Tonight, they’re here in the cold, kept behind a barricade, chanting Hayes’ name for the past hour. So there he goes now, dismounting his bus, flanked by his manager, Dan, to greet the ecstatic horde of rabid fans gathered for some selfies and shrieking in West Lafayette, Indiana.
The 24-year-old Louisiana-raised, Grammy-nominated singer with winning charm, gently coiffed blond hair and a mid-Nineties boy band’s level of popularity is either a phenomenal actor — he recently signed on for scripted television show on Nickelodeon — or one of the most genuinely appreciative, respectful young artists on the country scene. He’s happy to make your acquaintance even while in the midst of his 21 Tour, a limited-run jaunt of college campuses to promote his new album The 21 Project, a three-disc set that builds on his 21 EP. The album hit stores today, November 6th.
Released today, The 21 Project features not only the slew of singles Hayes released every two weeks this past summer, including the jumpy title track, but also all seven songs in both their acoustic and live formats. Surprising and challenging his fans remains paramount to Hayes; the underrated, blues-influenced guitarist displays it on a nightly basis, whether he’s changing the tempos and arrangement of some of his most popular songs or throwing in a cover of a ubiquitous pop single, as he did with Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” in West Lafayette.
When Rolling Stone Country sat down with Hayes on his tour bus a few hours before the Purdue University show, the “Wanted” singer was equal parts focused, forthcoming and self-deprecating as he opened up on his new album, his interaction with fans and the challenges of writing on the road.
For as big of a star as you currently are, you make it a deliberate point to spend hours with your fans before every show.
I’ve been to a lot of meet-and-greets myself. And I’ve met a lot of artists. And I’ve seen a lot of fun shows. It’s funny though because you start to critique yourself even harder when you’ve had a lot of really strong feelings about other artists in the past. What I love is that I get to know my fans as much as they get to know me. Social media is great because it lets people in on our world — it lets you talk through something other than just the music. I feel like [pre-show fan hangout] “Coffeehouse” is kind of a version of that in a way. I want that communication, that interaction. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. Because for one, it’s chill; it’s not rushed. Also, it puts a lot of things in perspective. It recharges you in a really cool way. Everything has so much more meaning when you’re sitting there and talking about these songs and what certain lines mean to people.
Tell us more about the genesis of The 21 Project.
We put out stuff in a different way this summer: a song at a time, two weeks apart, streaming first. When we started releasing stuff randomly this summer, I didn’t really see it as part of a record. I wasn’t in the album mindset by any means. We were having a whole bunch of fun just finding ways to release random songs. And I got really amped up because I was like, “Well, this means a lot. This mean you no longer have to think of a song in the ‘is it going to fit on the album?’ way.” Maybe the way you release an album changes? Certainly the way you pick up a single could be dramatically changed. I really wanted to learn from this summer and I wanted it to feel very experimental. I wanted it to feel out there and weird and just different. Not for the sake of being weird, but so everybody knew we were trying new things and we didn’t have the answers. We still don’t.
So the temporary answer, then, was to showcase the songs in their various formats?
It was like, “OK, well, we’ll do an EP maybe based on this summer’s stuff?” But I didn’t really like the idea of just releasing six or seven songs and going, “OK, cool. Good story.” So we found a way to make it more fun. The fans have seen us do these crazy live versions of the songs; our live renditions of songs have taken a lot of crazy spins. But also they’ve seen us do these acoustic gigs in which I play mandolin on most of the stuff. I love playing secondary instruments because it makes us all re-think some things. So 21 was really just created to bring the songs together, but not in a haphazard way.
“I’ve found a lot of new ways to write lately, which has been really interesting for me.”
As music becomes increasingly more disposable, this lets fans experience these songs in numerous ways.
We all feel that way. These songs, we tour with them. And if you do them right, hopefully you’ll be touring with that song for the rest of your life. I hope that we can put that much into it. Every year songs are going to have to change. I want to keep them in the show but they are going to have to evolve. They are going to have to take on a new life. It needs to change. It needs to grow.
How crucial was it to scale back the venue size for much of this fall run?
It’s good for the soul. It’s fuel. There’s the question: which one do you like more — smaller venues or bigger venues? Well, you can’t really have one without the other. Because both are necessary for every person onstage and offstage to grow, to rethink, to be innovative. For me, I think it’s important because we try to take as much of that ‘talk and goof off’ thing to the arena show. But it’s also good to take the fun, energetic stuff we’ve built for the arena show and bring it back here and combine both of those worlds.
Last year, you mentioned getting majorly amped to go large-scale with production for your arena show. Obviously, you lose a bit of that element in smaller venues.
You can go too far with that, though, and lose the connection. We all love these smaller shows when we can’t think about production. The fact that we can stop while we’re playing and we can hear somebody in the back row of the balcony say something and we can go, “Cool. Let’s play that. Let’s figure it out.” We like that.
You mentioned viewing the release of this past summer’s singles as something of an experiment. Did you feel it was ultimately successful?
The songs were released two weeks apart. It was one song at a time. I got to ask the fans about the song in-person, see if they’d heard it and see what they thought about it. And by the end of the summer you had these six songs. And I was able to specifically highlight certain songs and be like, “What do you guys feel? What do you guys like the most?” Everything we released this summer was definitively very artistically driven. The group of songs on 21 it was about: ‘Does this feel good and right?’ That’s always the goal. But sometimes you’re like, “I need one more fast song on this record.” [Laughs]
Have any of the songs surprised you in how they’ve connected with fans?
I didn’t think people would know “Trouble With Love” as much as they do. We put out the acoustic version and didn’t realize what was going to happen as a result of that. We ended up having to re-invent it and having to do the electric, full-band studio version right afterwards, which was really fun. I’ve actually gotten some requests for that one, which makes me really happy. My inner Nineties-country-music-obsessed soul is really happy with the way that it turned out. The studio version is like all the stuff I grew up loving. I do love the acoustic version of that, though. It was really fun. I was really finding all those acoustic voices — mandolin and resonator. I’ve always had those but I’d never really spent time with those instruments and understood the language that they want to speak. I think it’s helping me going into the studio now and playing more like a mandolin player.
How did your collaboration with Lady Antebellum on “Where It All Begins” come about? You supported them on their Wheels Up Tour.
We’ve been talking about, ‘Man, we should totally get a day and write together’ forever. And it never happens when you’re both on the road. We finally figured it out and it was right as we decided to do the [Wheels Up] tour together. We hadn’t announced it yet, but it was right in that time. We got together and we tried to write, like, three other things. Dave [Haywood] had this really music-y thing and I heard this total groove on top of it and I was like, “Oh yes! This is my zone! Yes, please, more of this!” And then Charles [Kelley] just started singing and I could have sworn I heard him say, “Where it all begins.” He says he never sang it. It became a very soul-spilling song.
How important is musical collaboration at this point in your career?
I love it. You push yourself out of your comfort zone. You feel the tendency to want to fight it a little bit, but then, at the same time, you’re like, ‘This is good for me.’ And then you very fearfully step out on the edge of what you think is the box you’re in. I’ve really found a lot of new ways to write lately, which has been really interesting for me. I’ve been writing a lot on the road and then taking that back to Nashville. Just tons of lyrics in random places.
Do you typically write on the road?
There are some days where I’m like, “I don’t know what to say right now. I need coffee.” You’re just so focused on the show. But you make it happen. The nights where I write the most on the road are when I have my buddies out to write. We end up writing after everything is done for the night. Midnight is when we start, and we go until three or four o’clock in the morning. And we get three songs. It happens quick. And when it happens, it’s fun. It’s that attitude of, “Who cares what you get? You got stuff.” And then you sort through it and you figure it out. But it is definitely a challenge to find the windows. Because I have a hard time mentally disconnecting. When I’m on the road, I’m so calculated. I’m thinking about how many bottles of water I’ve drank before warm-ups.
Are you a bit OCD, perhaps?
You could say that. I just really want to be prepared when I go onstage. I can’t beat myself up for too many things, ’cause I will. I’ve had some of the best shows and it’s so stupid because I’ll walk back on the bus and beat myself up about stupid stuff, and I’m trying to break myself of that habit right now. But it’s a good thing: I prefer being worried about it than not caring.
It seems so important to you to make sure you execute every night onstage. At the same time, though, you like to change things up on a nightly basis.
Absolutely. There was this guy named Wayne Toups that I grew up listing to and watching. He always had a great show. His band was tight. I think that’s where I get my obsession with messing with arrangements. They always had the coolest little hits here and there. They didn’t mess with songs to the point where you didn’t recognize them, but he was really good with finding things that make a song fun, and communicating how much fun they are having versus just making arrangements to make arrangements. I’m really lucky because this band, they do that on their own. They’re just brilliant. Wayne used to say, “Play every show like it’s your last.” I don’t know how or why that got engrained in my brain, but that’s a thing for me now. It matters. I feel like if you’re going to walk out there and give anything it better be everything you’ve got left. Everybody is watching even when you don’t know. But that’s fine by me. I like that. That drives all of us.