“I’d spend hours in guitar stores, but I found one guitar that spoke my name – a Martin OM-42. Once you’ve fallen in love with a guitar, you really can’t walk away from it.”
Words: Guy Little
OK, get this: I was doing some research before chatting to Hunter, not knowing just how big of a deal he is. I knew enough – he’s an ambassador for C.F. Martin & Co. – but after reading up on him, I wasn’t really prepared for I was about to find out. Hunter is no overnight Nashville sensation – far from it. He’s been grafting since he was in, er, kindergarten; a quick search of YouTube will prove this – there’s an incredible video of a four-year-old Hunter playing the accordion (an instrument he was given when he was only two years old) live on stage with Hank Williams, Jr. Similarly, by the time he was nine, he’d already recorded his own music. This is pretty inspiring, to say the least, but what came next was an even bigger “What, really?” moment. Hunter’s racked up seven different American music awards, including American Country Awards and CMT Awards; is four-times Grammy nominated; has sold over one million records; and is only on his debut album. He’s also got two more American Country Awards pending, so by the time you’re reading this, chances are he’s added another two gongs to his collection. Having taken all of this in, I realised I’d no idea how old he was. I checked his year of birth – 1991.
So, meet Hunter Hayes – he’s already accomplished more than many could dream of, all before his 23rd birthday. He’s the fully fledged country superstar from Louisiana, now calling Nashville his home. With a songwriting prowess to rival anyone on the country music scene, and guitar chops that turn heads wherever he goes, he’s not just another crooner – he’s tomorrow’s guitar hero that the likes of Brad Paisley and Stevie Wonder are holding in such high regard.
Sat on his tour bus recording new music, and following two sold out nights playing the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Hunter talks with a clear enthusiasm for music and for his instruments. He’s undoubtedly ecstatic to be chatting to a guitar magazine and to share his passion with someone other than US gossip magazines – although you can understand why he’s a hit with those sorts of magazines. He also loves the UK a lot and reminds me of this me fairly often during our chat. With a platinum debut album (and subsequent rerelease Encore) and multi-platinum singles to boot, Hunter talks calmly, occasionally plucking the Martin on his knee, after some heavy gigging of the States and Asia with his Let’s Be Crazy tour. Despite all the fanfare and accolades, something tells me that Hunter is just a down-to-earth, modest, hometown guy at heart.
‘Yeah we’ve just done two nights at the Ryman and now we’re off to Chicago, so the tour’s gotten off to a brilliant start. We’re just following our instincts more each time we get to play this show and we’re having to think less about it, you know?’
Hunter grew up in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and would perform around his hometown from around six years old (the same age at which he wrote his first song), often in Cajun restaurants – something that made him realise music was what he wanted to do. As we chat, it’s easy to tell that he’s now tenaciously focused on his career, where he wants to take it next and, crucially, how he’s going to get there. He talks about it with the wit, charm, and experience of someone twice his age. It comes as no surprise, then, that once he knew he wanted to make music for a living – no matter how old he was when he realised this – he was going to make damn sure he got just that. Hunter went on to sign his first publishing deal at the age of 17 with Atlantic Records Nashville, just a few years after moving out there. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in September 2012, becoming the youngster ever musician to gain that recognition. A bit of a jump from being the MySpace kid to the top of the country charts, then?
‘I don’t know if there was ever a decision to make music or such when I started out – it was just something I done. I was playing on the weekends in Louisiana all the time – you can practically be a touring musician there, although on a much different scale. I was playing every weekend and on tour as soon as I left school. I fell in love with that – I fell in love with the stage. I started songwriting when I was around six or seven; I was just tired of playing everybody else’s music to be honest,’ he laughs. ‘It led to something deeper, you know? When I was in middle school and high school I started going through things that I’d never been through before and so I was writing a lot about that. People often ask me how I can write about the things I do as I’m still so young, but when you’re going through those things it’s the very first time you feel like that. That’s the first time you have those experiences, so I started writing about them; I still do write about them, even at 22. One side of my brain loves writing music, the other loves to work with gear. My dad definitely has a mechanical mind and I think got that from him,’ he admits.
‘I got into the studio world because it was the perfect yin and yang scenario from the writing and performing world. The technical things obviously blend so well with that world – one minute I could be setting up a preamp, mic, or compressor, and the next I’d be on the stage performing. It’s a beautiful process and I’m addicted to it. Literally, addicted to it – I’m sitting here in front of my mini studio set-up in the back of the bus. It’s a road case with a studio in it and I’ll take it into the dressing room with me just in case I have the urge to carry on. It was a series of discoveries that made me realise I was addicted to music.’
Hunter’s debut album shows off his virtuosity on not just acoustic and electric guitars, but 32 different instruments. His six-string licks are up there with the country big shots (then again, he’s been at it since he was six-years-old) having taught himself everything through necessity. The result? He played every instrument on Hunter Hayes, and produced it himself.
‘A lot of the learning process was just because I had to. I was making all of these demos by myself and there weren’t a lot of other people around – my parents aren’t all that musical. I remember on the song ‘Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me’ I did the demo and knew I wanted a steel guitar on there. My buddy had one, so I set it up and stayed up until 4am in the morning just to learn enough to play the lick I wanted on that song. It’s stuff like that which spurred me on to learn all the instruments. On the original 12-track [Hunter has since rereleased his debut as Encore to include reworked tracks] I did play all the instruments, yeah. It’s mind boggling to think how much trust the label must have had in me to let me do it that way,’ he laughs.
‘Well, technically…’ he says, ‘Hunter Hayes wasn’t my first album.’ Right, here we go again, I butt in with a bit of a sarcastic laugh. ‘I recorded my first album when I was nine years old, and I wrote my first song when I was six called ‘Six Years Old’. I’d say it was very creative,’ he laughs. ‘I didn’t really know what it was, but I was just making my own stuff up. That independent album made very little sense, but it’ll live on forever even though I try and hide from it!’
‘We did the debut album for the label all at once – I didn’t have much going on,’ he chuckles modestly. ‘I gave six months of my life for the record. We were working on the demos that I’d made and it was a long process, but I loved it. I’m trying to do the same thing for whatever comes next. You know, just blocking out weeks in the studio, living in there because if you don’t it’s easy to get lost.’
Following that recording stint, Hunter received a call from his guitar hero, asking him to come into the studio and record a guest spot. ‘I went over and did a track with Brad Paisley on his last album Wheelhouse – called by my guitar hero to play a song on his record,’ he reiterates. ‘It was the most absurd call I’ve ever had, but I had a blast. The first take I did, I was just sitting there with my favourite amp and favourite guitar – no pedals or anything; I was just going to play. On the first take I resorted to doing things he’d already done because I’m so used to listening to him as he’s such a big influence on me. It was half my technique and half his! I had to gather my own head, musically. It was a great exercise for me in that way.’
When we think back to how we acquired our first guitar, it’s usually one of only a few options: found it in an attic somewhere; a budget knock-off we get for Christmas until our parents are satisfied enough that we deserve a decent one; a birthday present, perhaps… Not Hunter. At six-years-old Hunter was cast in the film The Apostle starring Robert Duvall who gave him his first ever guitar. Hunter has since been added to the coveted C.F. Martin & Co. roster as one of their latest ambassadors. ‘It’s such an honor to be recognised by them. When it comes to guitars, I’m very sensitive to what I trust and go with. I use gear made by guys who I’m close with so we can talk on a daily basis and have a real relationship there. When I first discovered Martin guitars I was looking for my next acoustic, ready to search for that sound. I’d went down to Guitar Centre and I must’ve played at least 30 acoustic guitars. There was this one guitar that spoke my name and it was a new Martin OM-42. It was just gorgeous to look at for one, but, secondly, it just appealed to the way I play. I play very hard, and if I’m not playing with a pick I pull my strings a lot. That guitar was just the perfect combination for the way I play and it was such an easy choice. I don’t make quick decisions, especially when I spend money like that, and so I told the guy at the store I’d be back for it and not to sell it while I was gone. He didn’t believe me! I showed up the next day and he was obviously surprised to see me – the first day I’d spent around three hours playing all the guitars and then the next day I was at the checkout with this $5k Martin,’ he laughs. ‘Once you’ve fallen in love with a guitar you really can’t walk away from it. To be someone that C.F. Martin & Co. considers cool enough to represent their brand is just so awesome.’
‘That’s the thing you hope for,’ he says of signing to a major label and uprooting to Nashville. ‘You do whatever you can just to get interest from a label. The right people got into my music at the right time. It didn’t feel like I thought it’d feel – I was assuming that it would be a real tough ride just to get people interested, but, luckily, I got connected with them through a friend of a friend. My demos are always a big experiment for me, so when I got into the Atlantic family I was surprised with how warm it all felt for a company so big. I felt like I was supported and finally had believers; not just people who were kind of interested. They totally got my passion for music and we are all in it together.’
Since then, Hunter has toured with some of Nashville’s biggest exports including Carrie Underwood and reigning country queen Taylor Swift. ‘We were out on the Speak Now tour with Taylor [he also guested on a few dates of the Red tour] and after having seen how she does it, it’s incredible to be out doing my own production. I just love being on the road! I was talking with C.F. Martin & Co. about my custom model and they told me that they had started working on it and that they would be happy to send out a version of it for me to have on the road. So they asked me when I was actually going out on the road, and it made me realise that I never really stop being on the road! We do at least 200 dates a year and that’s exactly how I like it. I hope it’s never going to change.’
Let’s hear more about that custom guitar, Hunter… ‘Well, it’s not a signature model – not yet at least,’ he laughs. ‘It’s something we worked on together which was kind of a series of happy accidents, believe it or not. There was a misunderstanding on one of the emails or something but it ended being this perfect and gorgeous guitar. I was looking for a 12-fret join design and we ended up with a 14-fret join OM-style with a spruce top and koa back and sides. I’m learning how much I love koa as a wood and what it means for the way I play – it’s so responsive to my style. My old Martin OM is a rosewood model and that tends to swallow a bit too much of the bottom end when I’m really slamming on it live. We designed my custom model to be on stage, really. It’s opening up into a beautiful studio guitar, but its home is definitely on the stage.’
Encore is an album full of his contagious energy, deft guitar playing, and songwriting talent to rival everyone currently coming out of Nashville – he’s a rare commodity. Despite an enviable prowess with six-strings, Hayes is certainly in it for the long run because of his songwriting. ‘Storm Warning’, ‘Love Makes Me’, and ‘Wanted’ is Hunter at his finest and it’s no shock that his singles go on to be massive US radio hits. Although, having honed his skills at such an early age on so many different instruments, practice was through necessity back then; but how about now? Is there any time in the hectic schedule of one of Nashville’s hottest artists to get any practice in? ‘I’m always working on demos in the background and always exploring and trying new things so I guess you can call that practice. Just last night I built a track from a demo I’d been working this week and I’m so excited about that particular song! It’s really old school with a vintage country shuffle – almost rockabilly! I always try to play without a pick, too; I never played with one until I moved to Nashville. Stuff like this always happens in the back of the bus of tour, you know? That’s my practice, really. It’s not going through scales or stuff, but it’s experiments that lead to inspiration, particularly for my acoustic shows – these are where we find our best arrangements. We do those shows and get back on the bus and we’re like: “Dude, can you find a video of that? What did we do? Whatever it was, let’s do it again!” I love bluegrass instruments, so that’s why we use those in all our acoustic arrangements. That’s the sound I fell in love with as a kid. I don’t believe in pickups for acoustic guitars, but on this tour I have started messing with a Boss RC30 and have Fishman mics in my acoustics – the Ellipse Blend, I think – and I’m using Martin Lifespan strings, mostly.’
There’s so much talent oozing from Hunter (we’ve all got that one friend who can play absolutely anything and everything, right?), that instead of him bubbling over and going crazy with creativity, he writes for others and collaborates whenever he can. Rascal Flatts’ hit ‘Play’ was penned by Hunter, and on Encore he teams up with Jason Mraz for ‘Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me’ and Ashley Monroe (fellow country alumni) for ‘What You Gonna Do’.
‘I love co-writing. I do write by myself sometimes, but there’s just something about having another person’s perspective that’s really important. You should never completely do something alone… says the only guy who played on his record,’ he laughs. ‘I’ll write by myself all day long, but there’s definitely something more magical when you collaborate. Jason’s so laid back – almost too laid back. It was great working with him after talking about it for so long. We had no idea when it was going to happen, but we just tracked the vocal out of the blue. All of a sudden I had Jason send his vocal to me via DropBox – that’s how you make a record nowadays, apparently! It’s funny because we’d never worked together until he came out to perform with me at the Country Music Association festival in Nashville where we got to play the song live. After getting to know him a bit better I’d love to write with him – we were going write together originally, but it’s difficult with hectic schedules.’
‘I could sit here and name names all evening to you,’ he says when I ask him about his dream collaborator. ‘Oh, jeez. It’s impossible. We were just talking about this on the bus last night. Over the last year or so I’ve worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Brad Paisley, Joe Walsh, and Ronnie Milsap – it just baffles me. I’ve kind of cashed all of my collaborating cheques in! I don’t really like to name people I’d like to work with because I want to show the world how appreciative I am before I ask for something else. What I would love – and I’m desperately trying to find out a way to do this – is work with Stevie again, but this time in the studio. Can you imaging working with him in the studio? That’d be the dream – and I’m waiting patiently!’
Is there a lot of pressure shaping up for the next album? It seems like you’ve got a lot to live up to, I guess… ‘The success of Hunter Hayes and Encore only gets me excited for what’s going to happen next. I put pressure on myself regardless of sales. That sort of stuff doesn’t put a weight on my shoulders because I just want to prove to people that I’m in it because I love it and want to make great music – that’s where the pressure is. Sure, it’s nice to be able to make a living from it – I’d be useless otherwise,’ he chuckles. ‘I hope that I can carry on for the rest of my life. I’m just blessed beyond belief.’
Since being crowned Best New Artist at the County Music Awards in 2012, Hunter Hayes has not just lived up to it, he’s surpassed it in every way possible. His graceful ascent to the top of Nashville’s most wanted list and appreciation for just getting to make music for a living is what makes Hunter the kind-hearted and affable guy that he is, whether he’s sold one record or one million. Lucky for him it’s the latter.
Hunter Hayes’ Encore is out now. Hunter’s follow-up Storyline is due for release in the summer.