Hit Singer/Songwriter Hunter Hayes Talks About His New Single “The One That Got Away,” His Songwriting, And His Earlier Hits

Hunter Hayes
Hunter Hayes
(photo credit: David Bradley)

Hit artist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Hunter Hayes burst onto the music scene 10 years ago with his self-titled debut album, Hunter Hayes. Selling over a million copies, Hayes’ debut went to #1 on the Billboard country albums chart and reached number #7 on the Billboard 200. The Louisiana native became the youngest solo male act to top the Hot Country Songs chart with the 5x platinum, “Wanted.” The album’s third single, “Somebody’s Heartbreak,” also reached #1. Since then, the five-time Grammy nominee has had significant hits with “I Want Crazy,” “Invisible,” “Storm Warning” and “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me” (featuring Jason Mraz).

Interestingly, Hayes actually began his career before he went to school. By age 4, he was making appearances on national TV including the Rosie O’Donnell Show, Maury, and Nickelodeon game show Figure It Out. When he was 7, the young boy was invited to perform for President Bill Clinton for a White House lawn party. And last year, Hayes starred as the astronaut in the hit Fox reality singing competition, The Masked Singer.

Currently, Hayes is returning with a new single from the second in his musical trilogy of albums. With a blend of California pop and atmospheric alt-rock, “The One That Got Away” is the debut lead single from his upcoming album, Red Sky (Part II)k.

We are pleased to present this new Q&A interview with Hunter Hayes. He talks about his new music, his musical career to date, and the story behind his biggest hit, “Wanted.”

BC:  Your new single is “The One That Got Away.” How did that song develop?

Hunter Hayes:  During quarantine about midway through last year, we started writing again through Zoom. I was apprehensive about that process, but one of the first ones I did was with people I would consider family, (songwriters) Sam Ellis and Sara Haze. Sam and I had been writing together since 2009, and we’ve had a lot of fun together writing. He’s been on the road with me. He was part of the band for a while, and he produced a lot of the last album. Sam knows me really well and helps me translate things.

Here’s the video of Hunter Hayes’ new single, “The One
That Got Away.”

I brought the idea about “The One That Got Away” because I wanted to find a way to talk about a big change in your life, and seeing the good in that change and seeing the good in getting away from a place that I felt like I was stuck in. Then we started writing it. There ended up being sort of two voices in the verse and one voice in the chorus. To me that represents, there’s sort of a strong quiet “I’ll say what I have to” [voice], and there’s a soft timid ‘I have a lot more to say’. Then, there’s the chorus which is the one that got away. Those two sides of the story are combining and finding freedom. I wanted the song to feel like freedom and represent that powerful moment when you go through a big change in your life and you see it for what it was, and you start to appreciate the newness. I was very grateful for the big change and to feel as free as I did at that moment.

BC: The single is from Red Skies, which is the second album in your trilogy. With the first album of the trilogy, Wild Blue, you said you felt like you were taking charge of things.

Hayes: I could sense change before Wild Blue. I knew there was a lot I was keeping myself from doing musically and lyrically. I felt a little boxed in for multiple reasons. Wild Blue was the first album where I said, ‘This is what I want the theme of the album to be.” This was what I was living…I wanted freedom. I wanted to feel like I was flying…I wanted to feel weightless. Red Sky was the next step, which was the adventure. It’s the thing I dreamt about in Wild Blue. Wild Blue was exploring a lot of territory and trying a lot of new things. Red Sky is the beginning of the rest of the story. It’s the leaving the comfort zone and the unknown of every single step along the way, and embracing every one of those unknowns and the thrill of that adventure.

BC:  I understand that your writing process shifted this time. How so?

Hayes: My approach changed in that I stopped collecting little bits and walking into co-writing sessions, and I started writing as much of the song as I could get through by myself. If I ended up taking a song into a co-writing session, I felt like I was more informed on what I wanted to say, what I needed to say. If I hadn’t gotten through that much of it, then I knew the questions I had to ask in the room co-writing.

Here’s the video of Hunter Hayes’ hit single, “Wanted.”

“Wild Blue” was the first time I had written a song by myself in several years. It opened my eyes to what happens when I do write by myself. I started solo. Some of the songs I left alone; some of the songs I brought into the co-writing room. I’m still trying to go as far as I can on a song. The more I write, the more questions I have about what I wrote, and the less I write the more informed questions I have about what’s missing. I love taking a more fleshed out song into the co-writing space because it allows for a more pure song. There’s less design around it. And it’s rewarding to see songs come to life that I don’t feel like I want to mess with. That’s a good feeling to know I’m getting back to my origin of when I used to write songs in my bedroom when I was 16.

BC: When you look back over the Red Sky album, what does it say about you and the transformation you’ve made?

Hayes: I did a lot of things I was scared to do, and it worked out (laughs). I’m a dreamer. I’m curious. I think the only thing that kept me from reaching certain things were my own fears. This was a process in identifying those things and going straight for it, and I won’t say fearlessly. There was still moments of anxiety or whatever you want to call it. This whole thing was a series of trying whatever I felt like trying. There were some things that we obviously not natural. Then, there were other things that felt almost too natural.

There were a lot of things that I didn’t feel allowed to do and I allowed myself to do them on this record and went for it. It still is surprising to me how natural a lot of it feels. I think that’s just because I followed my gut a little bit more and trusted my core and my instincts, knowing that it will always sound like me as long as I’m being honest musically, lyrically, all those things. I think authenticity is the foundation. I’ve got to give myself a license to do all the things I’m scared to do because they naturally filter themselves.

BC: In addition to  your current work, I’d like to ask about a couple of your past hits. How did “Wanted” and “I Want Crazy” come together?

Here’s the video of Hunter Hayes’ hit, “I Want Crazy.”

Hayes: I wrote “Wanted” with (hit songwriter) Troy Verges, and he’s always been such a great collaborator. “Wanted” is one of the songs that I wanted to write because I had a crush on this girl. I was hard core in the friend zone. As a friend, I didn’t know how to communicate this to her. I was struggling to get the message across that I’d rather not be in the friend zone, so I wrote a song about it. An older friend of mine who’s married and has an amazing relationship with his wife, drew the difference between somebody needing somebody and somebody wanting somebody. At that moment I was trying to say “I choose you, and I want to choose you.” We wrote the song, and I demoed it the next day. I played it for the girl three days later, and it didn’t have the desired effect. So I took that as a sign, but I’m still grateful for it because it was my first number one, and it taught me to be direct. That song was literally a letter that the world was never going to hear. I thought it was too sappy (laughs). I didn’t think it would be a single, but it turned out a lot of people connected with it.

With “I Want Crazy,” that taught me a lot about my gut. I never gave myself credit when it came to picking singles. I love so much different kinds of music and even though I like to believe I have an appreciation and understanding for commerciality, I don’t work according to just that. There are a lot of things I have to aim for and I want to aim for.

I wrote that song based on [the idea] I don’t want a normal relationship…I want something unique. I want something that people look at that and they’re like, “That’s the kind of love that I want”—the burning, crazy love. As soon as we finished the song and I worked on the demo, I thought it was a single. The team didn’t necessarily hear it. I kept working on it, and lo and behold, it became the next single interrupting a very important record album cycle schedule. That also taught me immediacy.

Some songs need to come out right now. Some songs have a sense of urgency to them. That’s  how I felt about “The One That Got Away.” I knew it was a single. I felt like it was the first thing people ought to hear from the album. It wasn’t a single I wanted to hold and wait and put out later. I wanted it out as soon as possible. And I feel the rest of the album will make more sense once people have heard “The One That Got Away.” I learned a lot from both of those songs, and I’m very grateful for the success that I experienced here early on.

Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].