Hunter Hayes piles his plate high at a buffet at midtown Manhattan’s Palace Hotel and sinks into his plush chair, ready to dig in. The singer-songwriter was up at the crack of dawn for a Good Morning America performance and, at 11:30 a.m., is only now getting around to eating.
As he looks to complete the follow-up to his albums Storyline and The 21 Project, Hayes is energetic but has yet to shed some lingering self-consciousness around his work. He recounts a recent audience grooving to one of his newly-released songs but confesses, “Every time we hit the end of the chorus, they heard the lyrics and reacted to it. I thought everyone was going to fall asleep!” It’s also evident that Hayes’ new music has a sexier, more unbridled edge than his past songs. While “Young Blood,” with its depiction of an uninhibited tryst, pulses with desire, the soft and sweet ballad “Tell Me” reflects a more pared-down sound as it nods to his Louisiana roots. In the richly layered “Amen,” hints of gospel mingle with pop melodies in one big arrangement. It may not quite yet be Hayes 2.0, but it’s certainly a perceptible – and welcome – shift.
When Hayes quietly decided to make a new album in 2016, few could anticipate what a productive year of songwriting and recording it would be for the 25-year-old Grammy-nominated artist known for such hits as “Wanted” and “I Want Crazy.” And productive may be an understatement: Hayes spent much of the year retreating to his Nashville home studio, where he could press record whenever inspiration struck. He also sought help from a voice coach, as his singing instrument went through some unexpected changes that shook his confidence, and vowed to keep moving forward. The result of his labors is an impressively creative set of tunes that demonstrates a deeper, more mature sound and reflects his internal growth.
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Rolling Stone Country sat with Hayes to talk about his as-yet-untitled new album, artistic growing pains and writing for film.
You devoted this past year to recording an album and spending a lot of time songwriting, all the while road-testing some of these new songs for fans before refining them in the studio. What was your new creative process like?
The moment where the record really got its wings was when we moved into this little place behind my buddy’s house [off Music Row in Nashville]. We’ve done everything for the record in there. It ended up kinda being the hangout spot. I could text all my buddies and ask if they wanted to come over to do some random string bass thing. We worked when we could and how we wanted to. It’s so garage record-making, but with the best of both worlds. It allowed me to create without thinking I was making a record.
There are still songs we’re playing now that we’re working to figure out. But the process is all about figuring out. It’s not gonna check the checklist; it’s just going to feel good.
As an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, what did it feel like for you to take a step back and see a voice coach last year?
I went through a massive voice change that I didn’t know I was going through in the past three years. So I was singing through it, along with chronic allergies and terrible acid reflux. And all kinds of things I didn’t know about that I’m still trying to treat and fight. One thing affects the other, and [in turn] affect your voice. But working with a coach since last September [has helped me find] where my new voice sits, and how to use that and get rid of old habits. Not surprisingly, I’ve learned 75 percent of it is all mental for me.
I was so tired of being frustrated by working so hard with warm-ups and dietary things and still getting on stage and feeling like it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. For me, if I get frustrated with a guitar solo, I can take the guitar off and go home and come back the next day. Or change the strings. I can fix that. When my voice isn’t doing what I want it to do, it’s crushing in the most heavy way possible. It flipped me upside down more times than I care to talk about, which is why it was that much more important for me to go ahead of it and say I refuse to go down without a fight. It’s been a huge weight lifted.
And how are you settling into your new voice?
There’s a lot of scenarios I used to go in scared, and now, I’m still scared but not nearly as much as I used to be. I feel more comfortable with my voice now than I ever did. And I’m still getting there. I’m still in the process. All the work we put into it is really encouraging. I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100 percent comfortable, but to feel better about myself as a human because I can sing when I want to sing is a big step. Early George Strait records – it’s not the same voice, even for him. It happens to everybody.
You’ve come a long way from 2011’s hit single “Wanted.” How would you describe your next album?
The latter part of the record you’ll really feel how my sound has changed. What’s been released already and what’s coming out pretty soon, there’ll be a glimpse of the wilder side of the record. But it’s all over the place, because I want it to be. It’s still got the storyline, bluegrass elements that I love and always have. And then there are a lot of songs that will just be sparse and an uncomfortable space that I never really got into.
Since the Tattoo Tour, we’ve explored every available place to explore and worked on finding this record. I think taking this much time has not just led to accepting the first draft of the record as is, but saying, there’s more story and digging for it. And honestly, I’m still digging for some things that are left to be said on this record.