Recommended Tracks: “Could’ve Been You”, “Feelings”, “The One That Got Away”
Artists You May Like: Bailey Zimmerman, Breland, Brett Young
“It’s nice to be talking about this project after working on it for three years,” said country superstar Hunter Hayes on his new album Red Sky, out today. “I feel like I’m breathing fresh air. When the album comes out, it’s like, ok… now it gets to live its life. So that’s what I’m most excited about right now.”
How do you even begin to sum up Hayes’ career up to this point? The man plays 30+ instruments, has been nominated for five Grammy Awards, has shared the stage with Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Rascal Flatts, among others, and has a catalog of songs full of instant classics (“Wanted,” “I Want Crazy”) and underrated gems (“If It’s Just Me,” “Faith To Fall Back On”), but all of them are masterclasses in vocal and instrumental proficiency. Vocally, it could be argued that he runs circles around every male in contemporary pop and country. His guitar playing is calculated and meticulous, only replicated in mainstream music by a select few, such as H.E.R and John Mayer. To make it, he had to play the game. He had to go on media tours and, with his own brand of awkward nerd humor, navigate the outright ridiculous and salacious questions reserved for the Justin Bieber’s of the world. Hayes, the consummate professional, dealt with it. He went in, did his job, then got to go up onstage and be what he really is: a musical genius.
With that recap out of the way, we get to Red Sky. Hayes’ approach to this record was different from his past work. Nine out of the record’s fifteen songs have been released, with some dating as far back as 2021. “There are far less rules than there used to be,” he said with a smile. “Rather than put out three songs and then put out the album, we all wanted as many songs as possible to have their own day.” Tracks like “If You Change Your Mind,” a mix of theatrical and dream-pop, and “The One That Got Away,” another pop-leaning cut, have had time to breathe, and are two of the best on the record.
Hayes’ foray into pop, despite songs like “Tattoo” and “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me” deep in his discography, isn’t a complete left turn. His time as The Astronaut on “The Masked Singer,” which saw him cover a litany of pop tunes including “Shape Of You” by Ed Sheeran and “If I Can’t Have You” by Shawn Mendes, was a reminder to many of just how versatile of a vocalist he can be. Hayes spoke fondly of his time on the show, saying it was both a positive learning and social experience (he cited “new friend” Jesse McCartney… casual, right?). “This was really early in the Red Sky process, and I was trying to find out what it was,” he said. “I was kind of working on multiple projects at the same time with the notion that Red Sky was going to be the project where I did the things I hadn’t been able to do before.” He took the time to begin to explore where he was at vocally. “I was trying to find the new comfortable placement,” he said. “The place where it felt like it was just… meant to be. Not forced, not trying, not emulating, not even ‘inspired by.’ It was just ‘What is the blank slate Hunter voice?’ I was trying to find that during that process.” Tracks like “Someone Will” and “Could’ve Been You” off the new record showcase that vocal growth in spades. He sounds phenomenal, but he also sounds like he’s having fun. There’s an ease and a playfulness to his vocal approach that he has never shown before, and that level of freedom is a major factor in the overall feel of the record.
Freedom is a key aspect of the record, as Red Sky is Hayes’ first independent album. The way he discusses it, and the limitless options surrounding it (which included an Excel sheet of 50+ songs for him and his team to sift through to their heart’s content), is exactly how you’d imagine a 31-year-old virtuoso with no restrictions to talk about making an album. “If anything, it wasn’t scary, it was like, ‘I can do anything. Oh shit, what do I do now?’, he said with a laugh. “It went from being that to the part of my story I felt was the most empowering. For me, at least. The topic of taking back ownership of your artist voice, and the chance to not make decisions based off pleasing a community.” Being independent has also provided him the opportunity to not have to label himself, or his project, as one genre. The songs on Red Sky, like the acoustic pop “About A Boy” and experimental pop-leaning “Feelings” reflect the fluidity of the sound even more so than on his sophomore album Storyline, which saw him bounce between pop, country, and rock.
“Fans will hear growth… they’ll hear more,” he said. “I feel my goal, my job as an artist, and it’s a tough one, is to make music so unique that you are creating your own genre. As a singer/songwriter, you have the opportunity to create something that includes all of your influences but isn’t limited to any specific frame. All my favorite artists… you could say that this song was this or that genre. At the end of the day, they just covered a lot of ground. That’s what made them so unique… so iconic. That’s the bar, so I’m just constantly climbing a ladder to get to that point. To create a thing that I feel like is me as a genre.”
“In explaining what I’m doing now, it’s like, I haven’t really changed what I’m doing,” he said, not wanting fans to feel like he is abandoning the sound they fell in love with him for. “I’m just letting you hear all of the stuff that got shelved for years. I’m letting you hear all of the other things that excite me as well as the core thing of what I do. ‘About A Boy,’ ‘Normal,’ and ‘Someone Will’ have a lot of the same DNA as the debut album. The way the album is structured it goes from very familiar sounding to, ‘Ok, now here is the fun stuff that we haven’t gotten to do yet.’”
Though likely with decades left to go, Hayes, with eleven mainstream years under his belt already, is dedicated to helping the next generation of artists. Not just on a musical level, but in what they need in their everyday life. He hesitated to name-drop the person who acted in that manner for him, but referenced Elton John as someone who routinely checks in. John, who selflessly has done the same for so many young artists, has inspired Hayes to help pay it forward. “I’m always cautious to give like… I don’t see myself… it’s a weird balance for me,” he said, trying to accurately describe his position. “The one thing I am most passionate about is making sure that new artists have the tools, the information, and some sort of context, expertise, counsel… all of the above. Not just getting information from the internet, but from multiple sources of people. It’s not about advice, because your experience is completely different from mine, but it feels like a calling and a privilege to be able to speak from whatever my experience is into someone else’s to make sure they have all the tools they can possibly have.”
Hayes is fully entrenched in an exciting new chapter of his career. Red Sky is, without a doubt, both a musical victory lap and a personal revelation. You can catch him performing cuts from the record, as well as all the fan favorites, on tour this summer:
Red Sky on Spotify: