Listen closely to Hunter Hayes as he talks, that million-mile-an-hour voice, all rapid-fire energy and bustling passion. Not long ago he released his second album, the country chart-topping Storyline. But the 22-year-old, mind always churning, ideas jettisoning from brain to hand and voice, can’t help but wonder what lies ahead. “I’m on an unending search to find what it is that I love and how it is that I will do it,” he says of the wide-open, all-options future for a four-time GRAMMY nominee, CMA New Artist of the Year and youngest male act ever to top the Billboard Hot Country song chart. “How am I going to achieve getting the sounds that I love? What is it that I can’t resist?”
The wonder of a talent like Hayes is that even when he has a rare moment of reprieve from the mayhem of touring the world on a solo jaunt, breaking the Guinness Book of World Records’ mark for most concerts in a 24-hour period or, say, performing at the GRAMMY Awards, he’s focused on his craft. “I should be fatigued of writing,” he admits. “But I have written easily a third of whatever my next project is. It’s more of a daily circle now,” he explains of his omnipresent muse. “Maybe the next record will have no delays, no reverb, no big drum sound, and no stacked overdubbed guitar sound? Maybe it’s just me with a Telecaster? Maybe I get rid of all my other guitars, hide them so I’m not tempted to try them, and I just have to make it work with this one guitar? Maybe that’s what I’m looking for?”
If anything, Hayes has learned to let go. He’s still, as he says, “wound really tight,” but as the multi-instrumentalist’s journey – and outsize popularity – has exploded since his wise-beyond-his-years 2011 self-titled debut album, the Breaux Bridge, Louisiana-native has steadily been on a quest to self-evolve alongside his artistic output. Why be in the business of creation, he believes, if you, the person people are eager to know and love, is hiding in plain sight?
“I’ve been shy. I’ve been quiet,” he admits. “I’ve kept to myself. Because in a lot of ways, that’s who I am. I can talk about anything as long as I feel like I’m comfortable. If I’m nervous in any way, shape or form, I’m very careful. That’s something that has actually hurt me more than helped me. Because the less I talk, the less people know who I am, the more I sort of hide. I’ve just been afraid of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing or leaving the wrong impression. But what I’ve realized is not leaving an impression at all is worse. It’s even less productive.”
Change for Hayes isn’t easy. He’s admittedly longed for control in his day-to-day life – whether that includes crafting a new album, dreaming up new melodies, or simply making sure he finds time to snag groceries in between vinyl and mandolin shopping. Hayes is learning to fly by the seat of his pants.
“I’ve had to let go of being a routine person,” he continues. “We have this saying in the band, ‘Do it Live.’ It’s how we live our lives: you do it live, you figure it out. I have to be brave enough as a person to live the way I make my music.”
It’s easy to look at Hayes and marvel at his oft-recounted successes: receiving his first guitar from actor Robert Duvall at age six; performing for the President the following year; signing with Atlantic Nashville Records at age 18; touring as a support act for Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood not long after. It’s all there for the world to see. Hayes wanted more.
“Dude, I had it good!” he says of opening for the two female country superstars. “I could not sit here and think that happens every day by any means. Trust me, I thank my lucky stars! But it said a lot about my heart when, even with all that, I was still pounding on the table fighting to get more than 40 minutes and a backdrop. I wanted to put on a show.”
Hayes’ hardscrabble mentality translated into this past year’s monumental “We’re Not Invisible” headlining tour, a dream realized for a musician whose concept for the massive live outing was utterly visceral.
“I wanted production. I didn’t want just lights and a video screen,” he explains, his voice speeding up with excitement as he recalls his vision for a live show. “I wanted more than that. I wanted my fans to experience more of a show. I wanted new arrangements; I wanted surprises. I wanted stuff that just catches everybody by surprise. I wanted a part of the show to be unplanned. I wanted energy. I wanted to be able to run around a stage, jumping up and down. I wanted to be a mix between Chris Martin, Garth Brooks and Michael Bublé.”
If Hayes’ live show is a wild, no-holds-barred vision put into action, Storyline is its logical predecessor. Expertly crafted yet cut with a free-flowing spirit where all ideas are worth exploring, the 14-track affair showcases Hayes’ diversity and unerring commitment to not staying the course. When posited against his debut album, Hayes views Storyline as the “person your parents saw coming home from college after a year.”
“My only agenda was just to make sure I wasn’t bound by repeating history, that I wasn’t locked into doing what I’ve already done,” he says. “I wanted a record that was diverse and different and had a little bit of everything.”
And so on an album as equally influenced by Fleetwood Mac as Nickel Creek, there’s the harmony-drenched, whiplash “Tattoo” and the foot-stomping “Wild Card” sharing space with more tender offerings like “Invisible” and “Still Fallin.” It’s his duty, Hayes says, to continue to make music he’s proud of.
“My job is to find my sound based on the things that inspire me,” he says. “It’s not about intentionally having this or that or the other. My job is to find my own sound and bring my love for country music and country songwriting and storytelling and musically introduce it in a way that sounds like me.
“I just want people to know me,” Hayes says, taking a deep breath as he looks into the crystal ball he calls his unpredictable life. “Having someone care about what you’re saying is a groundbreaking feeling. That is a beautiful, life-changing experience every time. You don’t get used to that.”