Hunter Hayes is one of the fastest growing, most unstoppable forces rising in Country music. At just 20 years old, he recently released his debut self-titled studio album featuring the hit single “Storm Warning." In less than a year of truly being a part of the Nashville music scene he has found himself on tour with superstar acts Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts and he will be taking the main stage at the CMA Music Festival next month in one of their nightly concerts in front of 70,000+ in attendance.
CityBeat spoke with Hayes by phone recently and discussed his uniquely introspective writing and recording process as well as his passion for the fans that come out to each of his shows. Hunter will be performing at Bogart’s Friday night. It's a great opportunity to see an act that could be headlining stadiums and arenas very soon.
CityBeat: What made you decide to play all of the instruments and parts on your debut album? Do you plan to do this again on the next album?
Hunter Hayes: There is this part of my brain that I got from my Dad that is really technical, that loves technology, I guess, like fixing stuff — not fixing stuff as much as messing with it. I think that became an outlet for me. The more time I spent making music and writing the more I loved the technical side of it.
One Christmas, I asked for a 8-Track recorder and I got it and I didn’t come out of my room for like three years after that. I literally learned more instruments and spent all my time on this machine making demos and I just started building my own recordings. I didn’t know for sure but I felt inside that was the only way these songs were going to become completed and it became a way of working.
I continue to write during that process. When I moved to Nashville, I started songwriting and every time I would write a song with somebody I’d go home that night and I’d start working up a demo. It just became a way I love to work and now is the only way I know how to work. I have sat in a studio across the looking glass with some of the most phenomenal musicians in Nashville and I sit there and I am a very shy guy, naturally. I am naturally very reclusive so when I get nervous around songwriters, I am very intimidated and I don’t share my thoughts a lot like I probably should. I kind of defer to someone else. So we decided to do the record this way because they knew I was comfortable working that way and there is something cool that happens when you start recording the song playing all the instruments. It is a very minute thing but you will notice the consistency in the emotion.
And by no means do I consider myself a professional player of any of the instruments I played on the record but I guess I was fluent enough to get where my mind wanted these songs to go with what I wanted to hear for these songs. I was able to translate it from the same heart I wrote the songs.
CB: What is your favorite song you have ever written and why?
HH: Oh God … to put it in perspective for you, we had 70 songs I wrote specifically for this record that we were considering. So, it is nearly impossible to pick a favorite.
I have to say I was really fortunate because I had a big say in what songs went on this record. I actually picked all but one. This one song on the record, it is not that I don’t love it, but it is so out of character for me, I was worried about putting it on the record because I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea, because it is a very bitter song.
I chose the songs on this record carefully but emotionally. I am definitely attached to every single one of them on this record. I could say that I love everything — “Wanted” “Love Makes Me” “Somebody’s Heartbreak” and “Storm Warning.” I was very adamant about having a song like “Faith,” I wanted “Cry With You” on the record. I’m close to all the songs on the record.
I think my favorite song I have ever written is probably the one I wrote yesterday and that is always the case. Any time I write a new song, I am jazzed about it for like 24 hours and then I am over it and want to write another one.
CB: That makes sense. How does it feel to be one of the main acts at LP Field at CMA Festival this year?
HH: It’s unbelievable. Last year, I was stoked to just play on a stage in front of the Bridgestone Arena. It was a great turnout and everybody knew my name, which was amazing. I had just wrapped up six weeks on the radio tour. The song had literally just started playing on the radio and there were already tons of people singing along to “Storm Warning” that day and that blew my mind. It was a time lapse thing. I started my radio tour with this big full band showcase in Louisiana. And we initiated it with this full band big showcase for all the industry to come down and make a day out of it.
Then I went out by myself on this radio tour. I would go to these stations. I would literally bring a little mobile studio and I would build “Storm Warning” for them, and they would get their own version of “Storm Warning” by the end of the day. We did that for six weeks straight. I went home only one day, for Mother’s Day. It was just this crazy schedule.
Fast forward six weeks ahead, I come back to Nashville to play my second ever full-band gig with the band and we were playing to a crowd that was singing along to almost every song. It was really impressive and it was just mind-boggling. It is amazing what a year can do.
I am grateful that they considered me for this spot on LP Field. I have sat in the audience to watch shows there many times so it is really cool to be a part of it this time on the other side.
CB: I have seen your show several times. One of the things that always strikes me when you play is that the girls love you. Have you had any crazy fan experiences?
HH: No, not really. I will say we have a lot of fans that we see many times, a lot of repeat fans, which always makes me feel good. When someone sees a show and wants to see another one, that makes me feel like I am doing something right.
It is so funny, they will come up during the autograph signings and say “I promise you I am not stalking you.” I am like “I don’t mind! I am honored that you have taken the time to come to more than one show.” There is this one girl who has driven thousands of miles and she is always almost apologetic about it, and you don’t even know how much that makes my day. When I see her car in the parking lot and I know she is coming, that makes me feel like I am doing something right. It literally gives me a feeling I can’t describe to you.
We have a lot of fans that are doing that. We have a lot of them who have met at our shows and have become best friends and they go everywhere together now. I just feel this unity at our shows, especially the "Most Wanted" shows, the headlining shows I get to do. They are smaller venues right now and they are growing. Tonight we are doing like 1,000 seats or something like that, but it is amazing this close feeling I feel with everyone in the room. I get to chit-chat with them during the show and goof off with them and it is fun. It is a blast. I am glad to say I have fans.
CB: You connect with your fans a lot using video and photos on your social media sites. Do you produce that yourself?
HH: Yeah, for a while, my weekly webisodes that I did that ended up coming out every other month because I was editing them. I literally took on that responsibility when we started the radio tour. My goal was to get a video out every week. I failed, but I tried.
I now have a team of people helping me with it. We have a couple people on the road that are starting to help me get my message across. I feel like I am very involved with it. I sit in a lot of the meetings. A lot of it isn’t even planned. There is a lot of off the cuff stuff. That is what I love. That is what translates from the shows. That’s what translates from the record. That’s who I am. There are a lot of spur of the moment things. I am normally not a very adventurous person but when it comes to my career apparently sometimes I am. I feel like I am very involved with it. I feel like I am very fortunate to lead a lot of that, to get to spearhead a lot of the ideas we have for videos and things like that.
CB: I saw yesterday they announced you were going on tour with Carrie Underwood this summer and fall and you will be coming through Cincinnati again. What are you most looking forward to on the tour with Carrie?
HH: I don’t know. I have never been a part of an entire tour before. I did 10 days with Taylor (Swift), which was epic. I did 14 days with Rascal Flatts on their fall tour, which I guess that was an entire leg for them but for me it wasn’t nearly long enough. I wish I could have been on the road with Flatts for months at a time. I guess it was two and a half months but I wanted more.
I am a huge Carrie fan. She is an incredible artist. Her new record is absolutely phenomenal and she is a really incredible person. I can’t say enough good things about her. I am of course grateful that she chose me for her tour, but getting to be a part of the entire tour, the feeling like you are part of something like that is a really good feeling. I have really big plans because we are on the entire tour. Because of how the tour is routed you will notice there is not a whole lot of time to take off to do any other shows.
It works out perfectly. We are going to be able to put together a show specifically for her tour, specifically for these shows that we are going to be able to consistently do. There are a lot of new production ideas we are doing. Let me put it this way — I am making calls not to call someone and say “Hey, this is what I want to do. Can you build this for me?” I am making calls to people I have never met before saying “This is what I want to do during my shows. How do I do that?” To think I can consistently get to do this show and do it months at a time with her, with their crew, with their team, I am stoked.
I could not be more excited about it. Her fans have been amazing. They have been really receptive. After she announced us on Tuesday, they welcomed me into the family. That’s really cool. I am stoked to take the show to them and all the venues and to get to be a part of her show is just a good feeling to be part of something like that.
CB: You are going to be in Cincinnati next week. Do you have any favorite things to do in Cincinnati itself?
HH: I don’t and I will take all the recommendations anyone can throw my way. Put it on Twitter or Facebook. Tell me what I need to do for sure. I don’t know my way around town enough.
CB: You are going to be at Bogart’s and there is a cool music store a couple doors down called Mike’s Music. I know you like instruments and there is a lot of history around that music store so you may want to check that out.
HH: Perfect. That is perfect. That is literally my favorite thing to do on a day off is to go to the music store.
CB: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
HH: Look at really expensive cars. I am a car nut. I guess that is one of them. I love cars. I am a car fanatic. It is probably not healthy.
CB: Have you splurged and bought something yet?
HH: I haven’t. I have been saving and am still saving. I have a goal. I have a couple of goals actually. There are a couple of cars I want to look at in the next couple months. I am probably not going to get my absolute dream car for a while. I am really hoping to get a Ford Mustang here soon.
CB: What is the dream car?
HH: I have a lot of dream cars. I love them. I love Mustangs. I am a mustang freak. I would love to own an old ’60s or ’70s Mustang. That would make my life. They are hard to come by and hard to keep up. You have to have a lot of savings ready for that type of thing. I love the new ones too. I don’t know. You will have to keep checking back in to see.
CB: We look forward to seeing you at Bogart's.
HH: These headline shows are a big deal to me. We originally designed a 75-minute show. It is now a two and a half hour show. That puts it in perspective of how much we love putting on the show. We have added a lot to the show since we started a couple months ago and it has changed since last week’s show. That’s what I love about it. It is a constantly evolving thing. I can’t wait for people to come out and see it.