For Hunter Hayes, the first part of this decade was a blur — that’s when he first broke through to become a country music star at age 20, with hit singles including “Wanted” and “Somebody’s Heartbreak,” and a debut album that would eventually go double platinum.
Hayes has some vivid memories of that era, such as when he wrote his breakthrough song, 2011’s “Storm Warning”; when he was nominated for three awards at the 2013 Grammys (including best new artist); or when he sat with Stevie Wonder a few months later at the Academy of Country Music Awards, where the two of them performed Hayes’s smash “I Want Crazy.”
“It was astonishing,” Hayes said, sitting in a tour bus before a concert last weekend in St. Leonard, Md. “There was a lot that happened in a short amount of time.”
But as often happens in the music business, a hugely successful first act can be tough to follow. His sophomore album in 2014 didn’t have the same momentum, and a few singles released to radio languished on the charts. For the last couple years, Hayes has still toured, though he’s frequently stayed behind the scenes as he focused on songwriting and producing. Now, he has a plan as he returns to the spotlight.
On Thursday, Hayes releases “Rescue,” his first official new music since last year. It’s a dark yet uplifting tune about relying on the strength of other people as he was going through hard times. He’s careful not to call this a single, which would imply a new album is on the horizon — it’s simply a new song, which he’s recording for an undefined “project.”
It’s a deliberate choice to operate outside the methodical country music system, which is often strictly regimented — labels coordinate album debut dates based on how high songs climb on the radio charts. Hayes is excited to take a different approach, and release new music however and whenever he wants; “Rescue” isn’t being released to country radio, so it won’t appear on the airplay chart. His label, Warner Music Nashville/Atlantic Records, is very supportive. “When I come in with a crazy idea, they’re 10 steps ahead of me,” he said.
A splashy collaboration video? Sure. Incorporate Instagram stories? Why not? At the moment, he’s free of the constraints of a traditional cycle of creating and then promoting an album. Last fall, he suddenly dropped a link on Twitter to three new songs (“Amen,” “Young Blood” and “Yesterday’s Song”). They could show up on a future record, or they might not.
“It doesn’t all have to be released the same way; we’re talking about all different kinds of avenues that I’m super-stoked about,” Hayes said. “Because songs that would have never seen the light of day before will now have a story and a place to go.”
“Rescue” was born out of a songwriting session with Hayes’s longtime co-writer busbee, who is suddenly the hottest producer in Nashville. Along with Gordie Sampson, they wrote opening lyrics that Hayes thought would eventually be tweaked to have a lighter tone. (“It’s not a prison, it’s not a demon, it’s not a sin/It’s a state of mind I find myself in/It’s not a dream, no, it’s as real as it gets/No, I’m not lost, but just lose myself, I guess.”) The lines all made the final version.
After the track was finished, Hayes met performance painter David Garibaldi at a CMA Foundation event; Garibaldi appears in the video, creating one of his paintings while Hayes sings, matching the intensity of the song.
“I don’t want to make a secret of the stuff I’ve had to go through. It’s not super dramatic, but at the same time, as a creator, I’ve had to fight through some stuff, and I wanted to give credit to the people who have gotten me through,” Hayes said.
Although he didn’t go into detail about his rough patch, frustrations with the industry dovetailed with his struggle to adapt to changes in his own voice, resulting from many years of live performances, acid reflux and allergies. It was nerve-racking to walk onstage and not know how he was going to sound. He spent months working with his vocal coach and changed some keys in his live show so he would be more comfortable.
“It’s not the voice I sang my first record with, it’s just not,” Hayes said. “So learning that, embracing that, being okay with that — now I feel like I’ve found my voice.”
Through his career, Hayes has maintained a devoted young fan base that doesn’t seem to care how Hayes gives them new music, as long as it exists. Even if his new strategy breaks some of the rules, Hayes sees the tide starting to turn. As album sales plummet, more artists are wondering if just releasing singles is the best way to go. When Hayes first pitched the idea years ago, it was frowned upon.
“Now, it’s an option … the whole world is just so wide open with options and ideas and ways to [release music], I kind of felt it was going in that direction,” Hayes said. “I knew that was going to be more healthy for me from a writing and recording standpoint. And I had a feeling that the fans would embrace it.”