Hunter Hayes’ album Wild Blue (Part 1), which released Friday (Aug. 16), may have come as somewhat of a surprise to fans, but for Hayes, the project is the chronicle and culmination of years of self-discovery, rejuvenation, creative freedom, and, as the album’s lead single suggests, heartbreak.
In 2011, Hayes released his self-titled debut project, which went on to earn a 2x multi-Platinum certification from the RIAA. At the tender age of 19, Hayes’ honey-smooth pop confections such as “Wanted,” “Somebody’s Heartbreak,” and “I Want Crazy” ushered him to the top echelons of the country charts, earning more Gold and Platinum certifications and introducing country music fans to a young, energetic conveyer of polished pop-country earworms, who was also touted for his keen guitar work and abilities as a multi-instrumentalist.
He followed with 2014’s Storyline and the following year’s The 21 Project, though only one single from those projects, “Invisible,” reached the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Hayes kept writing, though, by his creative standards, he kept coming up short.
“As a writer, I kept running into a wall,” Hunter says. “What I realized in hindsight, was that I had stopped including everything in my life in my writing, and only including the things that I thought I was allowed to write about. I wasn’t seeing what I felt like was proper progress and I wasn’t feeling the songs come to life.”
Earlier this year, he scrapped a newly-crafted batch of songs, retreated to his home studio, and started over, in secret.
“I didn’t tell the label, I just started making the record as if no one was watching. I thought, ‘This is a great opportunity for me to hit reset without anybody really knowing about it. I thought, ‘What would this album be if nothing kept me from telling the truth?’”
The songs poured out. First, “Wild Blue,” followed by “One Shot” and “My Song, Too,” and others that make up the 12-track album. The album is a study in self-acceptance, taking in the lessons from life’s lowest points, and moving on.
Live and learn/repent then repeat, build a bridge then burn it he sings on “One Shot,” his lone solo write on the project, his voice fill with a confident, emotional rawness while melding jazzy, quirky piano licks with a jubilant rhythm.
I’ve heard of demons but I never knew I had so many of my own, he sings on the title track amid a clipped, syncopate rhythm and tense guitar solos, soothed by ethereal piano, as he compares the feeling of flying with letting go of a relationship.
“I’ve been in love with aviation for a long time. I dreamed about being a pilot as a kid. I had an aircraft simulator on my computer. But more so, I think the song was born out of the feeling of flying, being weightless.” Says the 27-year-old, whose voice still brims with boyish energy.
“All my friends tell me about these flying dreams—I’ve had one in my life. Apparently it is something that happens when your soul is properly free, when you are not weighed down by anything. So it’s kind of a journey to have that dream and Wild Blue (Part 1) is the road to hopefully having one of those. It something you have to slowly manifest and hope you’ve done the work to clean out all the things that are holding you back. It’s just about moving on from things and the struggle. Part 1 is about the triumphs the struggles and the achievements about getting to that point.”
Those struggles came in various forms, as Hayes simultaneously found himself in the dissolutions of both business partnerships and a serious romantic relationship along the way.
He’s gracious over the loss of a lover in a pair of songs penned with Jordan Reynolds and Dave Barnes, “Loving You” and “My Song, Too.”
“It started with about an hour and a half of trying to write something else,” Hayes says of the latter track. “I didn’t have that title, but I said it sometime during the session. We took a break and I started spilling my guts for about 30 minutes. Dave called me out on it. He said, ‘What would you do with that as a title?’ I had to hide the fact that I was crying the entire time. Just being brutally honest, it was tough to go into those details—every line in that song is so personal. I wanted a song that had gratitude in it, because at that point, that was the biggest emotion I had to work with. I wanted a song to say that. I didn’t want to write a bunch of angry breakup songs.”
His voice carries a rugged edge that complements the weightier material, such as the searching, questioning “Dear God,” penned with Andy Grammer and Dave Spencer. Hayes transparently wrestles with the self-doubt and spiritual questions that arise in the aftermath of loss on lines like When everything I love just leaves/Are you sure that there’s nothing wrong with me?
“I worried that song would be too heavy. I was surprised at how many people needed a safe space to have that conversation. Andy was the first to sing the chorus; I was scared of it and at the same time I thought it was brilliant, because that’s so honest. How many times have I wanted to ask that just to get confirmation that it’s not [true]?
“I was convinced I would send the song in [to the label] and no one would react to it, or everyone would be scared of it. I was so dead wrong. Everyone on my management team, at the label, and my close circle, felt is was powerful. It was encouraging like, ‘Ok, I did the one thing I was scared shitless to do and that’s what’s connecting.’ It taught me, ‘Keep being scared, and do things that scare you, that’s where the magic is. That’s what connects.’”
As the title suggests, Wild Blue (Part 1) is the first in a trilogy of albums.
“I wasn’t planning on telling anyone it’s a three-part thing. I was going to give myself an out, but I ‘m ok with the world knowing that,” he muses, saying that Part 2 is over halfway completed.
“We’ve got some stuff mixed and mastered. There was a time this summer where we felt the entire album was there, but I just keep writing. I’ve never written so much and I’m writing a lot of songs by myself, which tells me I have a newfound creative confidence I haven’t had in a while.”
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