If, by some strange chance, you hear a faint jingle-jangle on any track of Wild Blue, Hunter Hayes’ newly released album, you’re not imagining things. That’s just the mic picking up the dog tags of Ella, Hayes’ sweet mutt, as she padded around her master’s home studio.
That alone should tell you how much Hayes wanted to make this album, his first in five years, both intimate and personal. But the platinum-selling artist also is happy to tell you himself.
“This was my chance to start over as if no one was watching,” Hayes says at his Nashville home, sitting in his living room amid the recording equipment that captured the music.
He needed that freedom, he says, to rekindle the fire that turned him into one of country’s hottest acts, at age 19, with his debut album in 2011 — an album, he notes, that he created when he had nothing and “nothing to lose.”
“That’s when I’ve done my best work,” Hayes, now 27, tells PEOPLE. “That’s when I’ve been my happiest. That’s when I’ve been more present with people in my life that have been present with me.”
What happened between then and now? The “Wanted” singer’s life got complicated — with self-doubt, with painful splits (both personally and professionally), and, especially, with the relentless pressure to keep stoking the fire. He began making music, he admits, for the wrong reasons.
“Yeah, I wasn’t happy with it,” he says, “and I knew that I was trying to please other people who still weren’t happy with it. So what’s the point?”
That music got shelved. Label execs assessed their ridiculously talented artist (for starters, he can play 30 instruments) and gave him room to breathe. And in just the past year and a half, Hayes has been able to hit reset. The resulting album — Part 1 of more to come — tells his then-to-now story: his heartbreaks, his “demons,” his fear of not being enough. The carefree guy who sang “I Want Crazy” in 2013 is now fiercely searching for love and hope amid the “Madness."
“To me, just having this album tracklisting be all over the map, it’s an introduction to a person versus just an album,” Hayes says. “I feel like that’s what I dreamed about. That’s what I wanted.”
Hayes also did all he could to keep the project organically homegrown. He co-wrote all the songs. He co-produced the entire project out of his ranch-style house — modest by celebrity standards — in a forested Nashville neighborhood. He played most of the instruments. And he didn’t care that Ella’s tags (undetectable to the average ear) appear on all the tracks. The overall result is as raw as it is polished.
“At the end of the day,” Hayes says, “I love making music unfiltered and I love being me unfiltered, and I feel like that’s part of my purpose.”
His current totem is a paper airplane, which appears on the album cover, on his necklace charm and on his right upper arm, his first tattoo, inked in June. The symbolism isn’t complicated: “I just felt like I was writing everything down and sending it into the world.”
He’s doing so with little buildup. Fans have been feasting for a while on four new songs — including current single, “Heartbreak“— but they got just two days’ notice before Friday’s album release. “I’m not putting any pressure on the album,” Hayes says about the lack of hype. “I want people to hear me as I am now. That’s the most important part.”
Don’t mistake that for a lack of ambition. Hayes is open about wanting a career that fills arenas, and it’s hard for him not to compare himself to artists who have one. He confesses he unfollowed British superstar Ed Sheeran’s socials for a while “because I was like, I want that. I want that stadium show.” A Sheeran documentary on songwriting brought him back, reminding him what really matters: “Yo, that’s how I like making music, too, you know?”
For Hayes, the numbers — chart positions, ticket sales, streaming figures — are goals, but they aren’t a measure of success, and that, he says, is a change from earlier days. Now he measures success by longevity.
“In 60 years, am I still making music and are people still connecting with it?” he says. “That would be success.”
The connection with his fans, he’s come to realize, grows from “my story, unedited.” He calls the music on Wild Blue, Part 1 his “therapy.” He says Part 2 (release date undetermined) goes even further: “deep-dive intensive therapy.” A planned Part 3 promises even more vulnerability.
“I’ve been writing more than I have ever written in my life lately,” he says. “Yes, it’s music, but it’s also just a way for me to express things that I don’t really know how to figure out.”
And the quest for self-discovery continues. Hayes says he draws energy and insight especially from travel.
“The trips that I’ve taken have proven that they’re not just vacation trips,” he says. “They’re very personally telling. I end up feeling free enough to write a lot, which is a big deal for me.”
The Big Island of Hawaii holds particular fascination for him. He savors memories of an 11-mile walk through the bustling center of London that turned self-revelatory. He’s been working on his pilot’s license to literally stretch his wings, and his most recent obsession is Airstream trailers.
Hayes says he has his eyes on one big enough to fit portable recording equipment, as well as Ella and his rescue greyhound, Cole. At this point, though, he’s not making room for a significant other. A new relationship he talked about in January has since ended, and Hayes says he’s not ready for another.
“Not right now, not for a while,” he says. “This project made me aware of a lot of things that I really need to work on — and even before it, honestly. I think the breakup [last year] came because there was a realization of that, and I avoided that. There’s a lot of personal growth that I really want to achieve. And I’ve achieved enough to be proud of myself and happy, but I’ve achieved just enough to know that I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Hayes says he realizes now just how young he was, at 19, when he had his initial success.
How has he changed most?
Hayes thinks for a moment. “Well, not everything is the end of the world,” he says finally. “That’s something I had to really learn about myself. That was the source of a lot of stress, the source of a lot of pressure, the source of a lot of anxiety.”
Yes, he says, he thinks about the remnant of that pressure, the music sitting on the shelf, and he wonders if there’s something worth salvaging. Still, if nothing ever comes of it, he says, he has made his peace.
“It got me here,” he says, “and I wouldn’t have this without all that.”