Before he turned 21, Hunter Hayes’ musical journey had hit higher notes than most artists achieve in a lifetime.
He began learning his first instrument, the Cajun accordion, aged two. By six he was proficient in the guitar and drums. And at seven was fronting a band in his hometown of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, and performed for President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.
Then in 2011, aged 20, he released his self-titled debut album which topped the US country charts. Its biggest single, ‘Wanted’, sold more than 3.5 million copies and made Hunter the youngest male star to reach No1 in the Billboard Hot Country Songs.
Hunter’s life became a whirlwind of touring, promotion, accolades and Grammy Awards show performances. He was the new young king of the country music world, with Taylor Swift, who he toured alongside, the new queen.
But now, a decade after reaching stardom, Hunter has evolved in his life and sound, connecting with his true passions, values and vision as he enters the second act of his life.
That’s where we find him today, a thoughtful 29-year-old, grounding himself in adulthood, having recently moved from the country music hit factory of Nashville, Tennessee, to a new mountain cabin home in Topanga Canyon, California. Topanga, a rustic, free-spirited enclave nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains a few miles from Malibu, has been home to music legends including Neil Young, Jim Morrison, Mick Fleetwood and many more, and is the perfect setting for his new material, that infuses classic California pop with atmospheric alt-rock.
Here he is relishing the inspiration, and the freedom, of a new start, surrounded by nature. And his trusted companions, rescue dogs Cole and Ella, are clearly loving it too.
“That kind of success at that age is so tricky to navigate on a personal level.” he says. “But I’ve now got a new lease on life in a lot of ways, I get to see myself differently now.
“I think coming out to California has really changed my perspective. I’m a single dude with two dogs, and the move was jarring in some ways. But knowing I was able to do something I’ve always wanted, which is to come out here and work out here, and to do it wholeheartedly and just dive in, is a really good feeling. I feel allowed to do more than I had allowed myself to do before.
“I was kind of seeking it, to be honest with you. I’ve always been obsessed with the coast and the culture, but I’ve struggled to figure out what my West Coast world would look like. Then I found this place and it was pretty obvious that this was going to be the place. I just felt like I was healing the first time I came to see it, and I took note of that and jumped in.
“It’s just opened up a lot of things for me and also reminded me of things that I’ve always loved, but that I had kind of shoved away to try to fit into certain boxes.”
Central to Hunter improving his health and happiness in recent years are the two rescue dogs that have joined him on his new adventure. He adopted retired racing greyhound Cole first, in 2015, to be a travel companion on the road, then whippet-beagle mix Ella two years later.
And like millions of other dog owners around the world, he has discovered that when you save a dog in need, they tend to return the favor.
He explains, “I always wanted a miniature greyhound, like an Italian greyhound. But a friend of mine said, ‘You should really meet a retired greyhound, you’d be surprised. They’re very calm and just happy to be done working.’
“And so I started looking into it. A friend of a friend was a foster parent to greyhounds, so I went over, met a few and fell in love. He was everything that I wanted. They are so sweet but also so regal. They’re just such a vision.
“So I adopted Cole. And coming off the track, they’re not lap dogs or affectionate dogs. And that teaches you a lot about yourself. It was the most mirrored I’d ever felt, and it showed me a lot. When I was anxious, he was anxious. Still, when I’m anxious, he leaves the room. And it really brought a lot of things into focus at a time when that needed to happen. Somebody needed to do that, and show me how anxious I was. And for me to be aware of it.
“Then I just felt like Cole was lonely and needed a buddy, so we started looking for a second dog. I found Ella and she was a totally different story. She was from Proverbs 12:10 Animal Rescue in Nashville, and had been rescued and then surrendered, which always breaks my heart.
“She was three years old. I met her and I was almost scared of her. I could see that she had this love in her eyes, but she was also very timid, and just a ball of anxiety, which I related to. And she didn’t want anything to do with people. At first I thought, ‘Can I really handle this? Because this is going to take some proper dedication.’
“It took six hours to get her into the house on the first day, and we just kind of went from there. And now she’s my little shadow. My protector. She’s my therapy dog and can tell when I’m anxious. She can read me like a book and gets in between me and anything that she feels is bringing me anxiety or stress. She comes up to me before interviews at the house and will put her front paws in my lap and just check on me.
“And her demeanor has changed so much. She loves curling up on the couch with people now, and I just consider that a huge victory.”
Hunter has found mirroring to be the main mental health benefit of his canine companions, which is when an animal reflects our physical condition, feelings and mood to help show what is out of balance in our lives, and to offer a new perspective. It is a theory that is also an essential part of equine therapy, something that Hunter has also been exploring.
He has also experienced other benefits from the pets, including helping him to live in the moment, connect with nature and keep a routine.
“I didn’t get into this to be mirrored, but it’s been effective and very educational. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t need it,” he says.
“And are very present and in the moment. They read each moment for what it actually is. It’s not covered in fluff or smoke or anything. It’s very clear.
“They have also given me more routine. We’ve got direct access to the state park here, so they give me a reason to go outside and just kind of sit.
“I just can’t bulls*** them, and I love that. I can’t lie to them and say I’m fine if I’m not, I have to be fine. I found myself saying, recently, if I’m going to be good for them, I have to be good to me as well, and check in.
“They’ve given me a new mirror that really allows me to be efficient with taking care of myself. And I don’t mean pampering myself, I mean, diagnosing, addressing, facing and understanding myself.”
Adopting Cole and Ella coincided with a crossroads in Hunter’s life, where he needed to reconnect with himself and music for this next chapter in his career.
With the huge triumph of his debut album also came the pressures of trying to maintain that commercial success. But in 2017, having spent his formative years in the showbusiness machine, he made the brave move to realign his life and priorities.
And now, he has returned with a new freedom and is halfway through the release of an ambitious connected trilogy of albums. The first, ‘Wild Blue (Part I)’ was released in 2019 and the second ‘Red Sky (Part II)’ is due out later this year.
Because, of course, like most young musicians, it was an innate love of music, not the promise of fame and fortune, that was the kindling for his life dedicated to his craft, during which he has learned to play 30 instruments.
He explains, “It was so unlikely for me to find music, but I did. My parents weren’t in the music world in any way. I didn’t grow up playing music in church or any of those things.
“But I did grow up in a musically rich culture. In Louisiana, Cajun music and Cajun food are all tied together in a way of life. There’s this encouragement to find your happiness, and I now translate that to feeding my fire. And I think that informed my way of life in a lot of ways.
“My dad listened to everything, all over the map, from Fleetwood Mac to Gloria Estefan, from Garth Brooks to James Brown. And my babysitter would watch live music all day long, a local program that would play local bands.
“My grandmother gave me a toy accordion when I was two, and then it just snowballed. I was obsessed. I wanted to play everything. My parents gave me a drum kit when I was five, which I think qualifies them for sainthood. Then I started playing guitar when I was six years old and I couldn’t put it down.
“I started playing in restaurants and at local festivals, and when I was seven I started fronting a band, where the other members were old enough to be my father or grandfather. And that’s why I still love playing festival shows today, it brings me back to that.”
As he entered his teenage years, Hunter began to find the power of songwriting as a therapeutic process to help him make sense of adolescent life. He would go on to co-write all his biggest hits, including the love song ‘Wanted’, which Billboard magazine has declared as the third greatest country song of all time, and ‘Invisible’, which he debuted at the 2014 Grammy Awards, and covers the bullying he experienced in his early years.
He says, “By middle school, when you start feeling all those feelings, I was tired of singing other people’s songs. So I started writing, and that became my outlet. Music was already my friend, and it became the friend that I talked to about everything.
“It taught me how to journal. Even though I was editing and filtering, I still had the safety of knowing no-one had to hear the song. I got to take all these feelings and turn them into something, and that was a good feeling – to let them go but also to know that it was worth something. It helped me to know that everything I go through has a value. If nothing else, it will make a song.”
Hunter has now returned to that instinctive writing process, that he likens to journaling, to find his new anthemic pop sound for his self-reflective new material that tells his story of change and evolution. The first part of the trilogy, ‘Wild Blue (Part I)’, was his first album in four years, and he was involved in every facet of the project, from playing multiple instruments to programming, producing and commissioning the artwork.
“I’ve had to undo a lot of my beliefs about writing, and it’s taken a while,” he explains.
“Spending so much time trying to write ‘hit songs’ can really mess with your belief of what writing is supposed to be about.
“I’ve gone through great phases where I’m unfiltered and I’m sharing my truths. And I’ve gone through phases where I’m just sharing things I feel like people are safe to know, or what I think people want to hear. And I’ve experienced both sides of the coin in extremes.
“The debut record taught me a lot, good and bad. What worked from that album, and what still connects from that album, were the most honest songs that I had written to that point. It wasn’t about writing hits. I stopped writing hits when I tried to write hits.
“The business tries to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. Some of the people in the offices really think they know what’s good for you. And I think the moment that I started trusting them more than myself, and editing what I was sharing because of a handful of people, was when this series of lessons really started for me.
“I’ve been working very hard over the last several years to undo those filters. ‘Wild Blue’ the first album where I said I’m not going to vote by committee on songs. That album was about the dreamer, trying to find freedom. Now we’re on the second part of it, ‘Red Sky’, which is the freedom and the adventure side of things.
“It’s journaling. I’m musically journaling. I am putting everything on the page, and the things that don’t make sense, and that don’t really lead us anywhere, they don’t make the album. And the things that really do lead us somewhere, and people react to, they get cemented in, and we decorate around them.
“The more I share, the more I connect with people. So I’m not asking for permission anymore.”
Hunter’s latest single, ‘The One That Got Away’, is out now with more music coming later this month.