hunter hayes interview
photo: Ashley Osborn / press

Hunter Hayes

Hunter Hayes, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, broke out into the scene nearly 10 years ago with his self-titled debut album Hunter Hayes, which features the hit single “Wanted.” He’s been nominated for five Grammys in his career thus far and even reached No. 1 on Top Country Albums on Billboard.

Recently, Hayes dropped “If You Change Your Mind,” which is a step in a different direction — a tease of what’s to come on his upcoming album Red Sky (Pt. II).

EUPHORIA. chatted with Hunter Hayes over Zoom to discuss his new single, his upcoming album, his time on Fox’s The Masked Singer, and much more.

Tell us a little about “If You Change Your Mind.”
I think we had just left Nashville. We were going to a show. I was on the back of the bus, and I heard the intro chord progression. I heard it as a bunch of strings, harps, and stuff, so I just went through my free Logic sample library and literally collected, I think, 92 tracks of just strings and harps and crazy stuff. I loved the image that it painted. It felt very theatrical. It felt very magical.

What I was writing was this sort of this run-on sentence of a guy trying to explain the fact that he misses somebody that he probably shouldn’t miss, but he does. He’s stuck in this sort of time-loop, “Hey, it wasn’t so bad, was it?” You know that moment right after a breakup, you can’t remember the bad parts, you can only remember the good parts. I just wanted to lean into this embarrassingly dream-like nature of that and the euphoria of that. We just really went crazy with the strings and things. I also love that it was sort of under this blues guitar, almost Motown inspired for sure. I love the combination of all the ingredients, and I love the non-structure of the verses, and the falsetto of the chorus really sends you into this dreamland. It was my first time writing with John Luke. It was just one of those days where you come in with an idea.

What made you want to switch from country music to experimenting in a variety of genres?
I’ve never been one thing. I always felt like consistently the most authentic singer/songwriters were coming out of country. A lot of the stuff that I gravitated towards consistently were things in the genre when I was finding these artists was a time where country was really opening up musically. A lot of things were more acceptable, and so I said, “I can do all the things I love but do it in this authentic foundation” and fanbase too. I loved the country shows I went to and the people I met at those shows; that was kind of where I started because I identified most with the songwriting and the songwriters that I have gotten to know and work with. I wouldn’t even call it a switch per se. I’ve wrestled with this for several years because I didn’t want my fans to think I was abandoning the genre for the sake of just trying something new. I also didn’t want people on the outside looking in to say, “Oh well, he’s trying to make pop music.” I just wanted to make the records that I’ve heard in my head with all the elements I heard in my head for years and not edited. There’s a tendency when you’re working on something that has a specific genre labeled to edit accordingly and to think if people come to this because it says this. What are they expecting? What are they not expecting? There’s a tendency to overthink, and what I found when I started labeling things as pop was I didn’t overthink anymore. I was still able to include country elements, whether it would be instrumentation or even writing tricks learned.

You’re working on your next album. What can you tease about it? What has the songwriting/creation process been like? Your previous record was titled Wild Blue (Pt. I) — what was the idea behind going with Red Sky for the second part?
A lot of this album has been, rather than walking into a writing room with an idea, a couple of lines, maybe a little bit of a melody. A lot of this album has much more ownership. I’m happy about that. I’m grateful that I allowed myself to feel confident walking into these rooms with these almost fully fleshed-out songs. It’s not that I walked in with a fully finished song, but I did walk in with a lot more than I normally do.  That’s happened a lot on this album. I think what that allows is me to splatter paint at home and be my true musical self. Walk into these rooms with more than myself than oh, here’s a line that I want to gauge with the other two people in the room are interested in. Is this musical idea interesting enough? There’s a lot of that on this album, specifically in this song. I’m really happy that it turned out the way that it did. This is my first time working on production with a guy named Ruslan. He has worked on a bunch of tracks that I love. I loved how mysterious his style was. I love the decisions he makes, his approach to music. He is upside down from a lot of the people that I work with. I would give him 300 tracks in one song to sort through, and I love how he works because he starts with the vocal and mutes everything. He brings elements in, and if it doesn’t fit the vocal and tell the story, he brings them out.

I recently was cleaning out my house and found a picture of several years ago,  sort of in the midst of working on an album that never came out, and I was frustrated. I had done all this work, and I had poured my life into this album — this statement of where I was, and it never got released, and in that process, I had one day off in Hawaii. I ended up going there for a fundraiser, and I was supposed to be there for the week, and business things stole the week from me, and I was only able to be in Hawaii for my first time for eight hours, which is a bummer. I set out on the one day off that I had in this rental car. I was just like, “I’m gonna do what I do on my first day off on any trip, and I’m just gonna ride around.”

As the sun was setting, I found the lodge next to a volcano and just so happened to get a seat at the window as the sun was going down, but it was really poetic as the sunset, this fire, this light was igniting, and I felt it was God saying, “Your fire never dies.” At this time, I was not uninspired, but definitely, I felt a bit like I couldn’t win. It really fueled my fire. Honestly, it was born from this fire inside, and there’s a lot of things that I referenced to hold the theme together. There’s a lot of different ways to look at it. A sort of ceremonial burning of walls of old things. The fire inside of the need of starting over. You can also definitely attach it to watching the world around you as climate change and things like that.

hunter hayes interview
photo: Ashley Osborn / press

What has been inspiring you nowadays? Where do you go or look for inspiration?
I split my time between Nashville and Los Angeles. I ended up in a little pocket of heaven. I came here and rented a house, me and some friends I work with. Ironically, Ruslan is also from Nashville, so I ended up stealing people from Nashville and bringing them to a city that was completely locked down, forcing everyone to quarantine. I also really wanted to be out here [in LA]. I was spending a lot of time working out here with a lot of people, obviously “The One That Got Away” (Andrew, Tom, R0b). A lot of guys that worked on that song were LA-based people, and much of the other songs and the other people I’m working with are LA-based.

I ended up inquiring with my real estate agent. The house I picked was everything that I really have wanted, and it was the environment I knew I needed to be in work because I don’t see anything. I don’t see nature and I’ve craved that for a while — that’s a visual representation of taking away those filters. I just felt very creative, and I feel surrounded by nature that feeds me, and when I’m stuck, I get in the car, and I drive around. I go to Malibu at least two times a week and sit at the ocean. I don’t bring work with me. I just unwind. I feel that a more consistent schedule of self-care has helped a little bit.

From writing your first song till now, how would you say your work ethic has changed?
It’s kind of a pendulum. I wrote by myself a lot before I moved to Nashville. I got both my record and publishing deal off of songs I wrote by myself. I started co-writing with many people for several reasons: I wanted to get better and learn my strengths and weaknesses and my craft. And also, I just wanted to meet people and network. It went from I write songs by myself as a journal entry to it’s now my job, and I’m writing an album. The first album, the biggest hits are songs that I just wrote out of necessity and ’cause I need to write them, and so it shifted from that to OK we’re writing singles now, which I never fully was able to wrap my head around and understand, and that’s not my strength. What I mean by that is I write better when I’m not thinking about what I’m writing. I just write. I’ve gone from just writing for expression to writing purposefully and intentionally back to just writing as something that I love.

Essentially trusting my gut a bit more, believing in what I make by myself, and understanding what versions of collaborations work best and when in the process they work best. And taking away the systematic approach of OK, well I’m gonna get in a room with writers, we’re gonna write a song, bring it to a producer, and we’re gonna bring it to a mix engineer. My process is a bit more mixed than that because I enjoy being part of the other parts of the process.

hunter hayes interview
photo: Ashley Osborn / press

You were on The Masked Singer last year. What was that experience like? It had to have been pretty crazy!
It’s very intense on set. I was visored. I couldn’t even wear anything identifiable. Everything had to be very calculated. It came at a perfect time because I was here (LA). It gave me a reason to be and work here, which was awesome. I met my favorite people to write with during those weeks. It gave me a chance to do stuff, talking about removing filters — it gave me a chance to do that with complete anonymity. It gave me a chance to exercise all those things in a totally harmless way. I had more fun than I thought I would. The whole crew, just good people. I don’t know if we’re supposed to, but we still keep in touch, we still hang out. I’m working with the vocal coach I met on the show still. She actually helped me get back to my voice and saved my voice, and saved myself in a lot of ways. While the show was fun and games, it was very profound for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was like a little artist retreat in ways.

What are some of your goals for the rest of 2021?
I’m in a beautiful spot. I love this album, and I’m really excited for people to hear it. For the past five years, I’m used to working on albums, and they don’t get released. It’s kind of sad I got so used to that. It’s nice to be able to finish an album and control my release schedule and say clearly to a team, “This is what I want,” to figure out a way to do that. I’m gonna enjoy that and bask in the glory of being able to release stuff when I want to, but also, I’ve already written a lot of the next album. I’m excited to finish this album so I can start working on the next album. It’s a good place to be. I’m grateful to have that problem. It’s a good problem to have.

What message do you have for your fans reading this?
What excites me the most with the “Red Sky” era is the rule of authenticity. The fact that it is our number one rule, and it’s always been one of the rules. It’s the place where we’re starting every conversation, and I think sometimes you can get kind of caught in opportunity bending authenticity into opportunity. I’m hoping this communicates the true value of authenticity and just how important it is to stay true to that in every way. In conversations…in work…in relationships and your relationship with yourself – paying attention to what’s actually good for you and what you make up to be good for you. I just hope by me making that the number one priority, I hope that it comes through in the music. I want fans to feel the music. I want them to hear the lyrics and want them to take it and run with it.