“I gave myself the right to make the record that I didn’t think anybody would ever listen to,” says Hunter Hayes, referring to Wild Blue, his first album in four years.

That sense of freedom to create with no expectations permeates the Warner Music Nashville set, which Hayes announced on Today this morning will drop Friday (Aug. 16). 

For the first time, Hayes, best known for such hits as “Wanted,” Somebody’s Heartbreak” and “I Want Crazy,” self-penned all 10 songs on the album, writing as the multi-instrumentalist worked his way through some massive changes, including ending a long-term relationship and questioning his faith, his career and his life’s journey. The results are by turns deeply contemplative (“Dear God”),  adventurous (“Wild Yonder”), resigned (“One Good Reason”) and, ultimately, uplifting (“Heartbreak,” “Madness”).

Hayes, who was involved in every facet of the album, including commissioning the album cover from Chattanooga artist, Scott Hill, chatted with Billboard about Wild Blue during a visit to Los Angeles office.

Billboard: In February 2018, you said you expected to have the album out by the end of last year. What happened?

Hunter Hayes: My priorities shifted and rather than just putting out a conventional album, which was hard for me to come to that realization because I really wanted to, I think a lot of things happened at the right time. And by the grace of God, I was able to look around and say, “This is not the time to release a record and this is not the record I want to release.”

So you scrapped everything that you had been working on? 

I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t put that much pressure on myself.  I’d rented the studio and I had removed all these filters—  [including] budget or certain song conversations—I put myself in a place where I could record anything at anytime, but the only filter that I didn’t disengage was my own. There was a lot of things that I was living that I wasn’t writing because I didn’t think I was allowed to. I didn’t think anybody would care, so it wasn’t as much like I was starting over, it was more like, “let’s pretend this is a writing retreat.”

You held the “retreat” at your new house in Nashville, where you wrote and recorded much of the album. 

I didn’t think that buying a house would change my life the way that it did. It gave me such a sense of roots and stability…I called my studio at the house the Safe House because my mentality was like, “We can make a bunch of stuff that no one ever has to hear. If it’s terrifying and it scares the shit out of everybody on my team, nobody has to hear it.” My favorite part of this project is the fact that it was written as it was lived. It wasn’t collecting bits from past life. I had this list of album titles and I was like I’d tell my story one song at a time versus just collecting a bunch of songs.

Where does the album title, Wild Blue, come from? 

I remember vividly when I was a kid picking up somebody to go to the airport and they said, “Off we go to the wild blue yonder.” For some reason, it’s always stuck in my head. I’m obsessed with aviation [and] with flying. It was a combination of freedom and all of my friends tell me about these flying dreams that they have when they’re going through a massive life change. And so I was manifesting everything I could to give me a flying dream…So I loved wild blue because there’s so much that that meant to me and the color blue has always been my favorite color.

Some of the songs are very specific about your break-up, like “My Song” where you are thanking your past partner for “that night in Napa Valley” and “that time in New York City” even though you’re no longer together. Has the person you wrote the song about heard it?  

Yeah, I sent it the day that I wrote it…I felt like, “You need to hear this, you need to know this [in] real time. This is me saying that I’m actually really grateful for you even though I know that didn’t work.” The line, “You left me better than you found me,” I mean that.  That’s the most important part of that song.

You’re now 27. Did you go through a quarter-life crisis since your last album? 

Honestly, if I’m going through it now, I’m doing my best to prolong it because I feel like if I fast forward through it, I’m going to miss so much good shit. Like I know that there’s a lot of things that I haven’t felt/figured out or gone through. So it’s kinda like “bring it” and I want to write about all of it really. 

First single,Heartbreak,” which is a letter to your future partner, has not climbed up the radio charts as quickly as some of your past singles. Do you still see yourself as a radio artist? 

Yeah, I do. It’s still matters to me as far as just as a fan. It means a lot to have my music there. Just to put it simply, yeah, it means a lot to my heart.

Did you find making this album cathartic? 

Yeah. Yeah. What this record did for me was something pretty profound. Up until now, I haven’t written a whole lot by myself because I’m convinced that if I can’t sit down and start an idea [and] finish it, then I’m not really meant to write by myself. This was the first time I had instruments just laying around the house. In the past I had my apartment and I had my studio. I’d start allowing myself to just record bits and pieces of things. I [can’t] tell you how many things have been stitched together and totally made sense. It’s been really encouraging. I just finished a writing trip. I wrote like half of part two.

You mentioned part two; this is the first of three albums. Why are you making a trilogy?

I’ve put a lot of heart and soul into this project. I wanted [this album] to be part of a bigger picture. I didn’t want to just put out an album and forget about it in two weeks. I know that there’s more of the story to tell that I haven’t figured out how to tell or lived and I don’t want to separate it. I want it to all be part of one gallery showing and I want to keep adding to the gallery because there’s so many parts that will make other parts make more sense. I’ve always wanted to do a double record or whatever and so this was my chance to say, “OK, if I’m ever going to do it and try it, see the works, this is it.” This is my chance to really like just live this and go as deep as I can.


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