Hunter Hayes Looks to Tomorrow With 'Yesterday's Song'

Hunter Hayes

His new release represents a sonic update for the "I Want Crazy" singer.

Hunter Hayes has punched the reset button with “Yesterday’s Song.”

In the five years since he released his debut album at age 20, he has developed a rabid fan base with anthemic ballads (“Wanted,” “Invisible”) and bright pop (“I Want Crazy,” “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me”), recording, singing and writing the entire first album by himself.

But the new single, released to radio via Play MPE on Oct. 3, takes a different tack. “Yesterday’s Song” has the raw, aggressive sound of a rock band, and Hayes pitches the piece in a lower, huskier part of his vocal range. Instead of assembling it one piece at a time on his own, he hammered out the core instrumental tracks with two members of his road band, bass player Matt Utterback and drummer Steve Sinatra, as he fashions Hunter Hayes 2.0.

“The song kind of stands for leaving an old chapter behind and starting a new one,” says Hayes.

It’s written, like most songs, from the vantage point of a relationship, though he wasn’t actually working through a breakup.

“If anything, I was maybe pulling from past experiences romantically,” he says. “At the time, I was — and I still am — very happy.”

But musically, he was frustrated. He doesn’t say it, but he had to be disappointed when the public reception for his music fell off. After three straight singles reached No. 1 or No. 2 on Hot Country Songs or Country Airplay, four consecutive releases from 2013-2015 stalled in the low teens or the 20s on Airplay. Even more dramatic, his voice began to falter in concert, and he gradually lost confidence in his ability to hit the money notes.

 Hayes enlisted a new vocal coach, who helped him identify and eliminate some bad habits, some of which were a reaction to changes in his voice. While males go through a major voice change in their teens, they typically experience a second, lesser-known transition from 18-24 — the period in which Hayes made his entry into recording — and once he understood the issue, he was able to address both the physical problems and his reactions to them.

“The problem actually was mainly mental,” observes Hayes. “I was overthinking a lot of things, but also at the same time I was going through that voice change, and I was singing my debut record in my debut-record keys from six years ago, which wasn’t good for me. I was also struggling with allergies and minor health things that make a big difference when you’re doing two-hour shows four nights in a row.”

Hayes reluctantly dropped those keys in concert, and as he worked on his next album, he delivered a new song with such ease that the demo version would become the final vocal. He knew at that point that he had turned a corner.

“Yesterday’s Song” helps say goodbye to that rough period in his development. Hayes wrote it March 23, 2015, with Barry Dean (“Pontoon,” “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools”) and Boys Like Girls frontman Martin Johnson at Dean’s Nashville office. The energy in the room was palpable.

“Martin and Hunter, both of them lead their groups,” says Dean. “And those guys came together and worked — iron sharpens iron, and those guys work together really well.”

They chased several ideas for hours, none of them panning out, but as Hayes revealed his mind-set, Dean threw out the title “Yesterday’s Song.”

“Barry always saves the day with two words that resonate with everyone in the room,” says Hayes. “I don’t know how he does this, but it’s almost like he sits there and lets you talk for two hours, and then he’s like, ‘How about these two words? Does this sum up what you’re feeling?’ ”

“Yesterday’s Song” was tricky. It needed to explain how hopeful the relationship had once been while embracing a future without it.

“Every song tends to be like, ‘Oh, I heard this song and it made me think of you,’ ” says Dean. “But with ‘Yesterday’s Song,’ I wanted to go the other way, which was, ‘I don’t even listen to it anymore. That was yesterday’s song, it doesn’t sound like I remember it.’”

The breakout chorus uses music to explain the change: “You were the ‘woo-hoo’ gettin’ stuck in my head/Now you’re just an echo when the feelin’ is gone.”

The song itself took little time to write.

Hayes and Johnson “are in that room, tearing at each other with guitars, and the beats are flying, and then off we went,” recalls Dean. “We really did talk for quite a long time, and then once it kicked off, it was really moving fast.”

Johnson built an impressive demo in the room.

“To most people it would sound like a record,” says Dean, “but to those guys, it was just a sketch. It just happens to have 23 tracks on it.”

Hayes approached it differently than in the past. He found a studio on a residential street in the Belmont University area and rented it for months, writing and recording in a casual manner. Sometimes producer Dann Huff (Thomas Rhett, Rascal Flatts) was able to make it. Sometimes Hayes barreled ahead without him.

“I was not in there, nor required to be there, for every moment of it,” says Huff. “It was a bit more of the broad strokes, and then when it comes down to his playing, he needs an objective partner to kind of throw things off of. Sometimes you need somebody to say, ‘This is good,’ or ‘This is ineffective, you’re doing too much.’ If he has an enemy, it’s his limitless ideas flowing.”

Sinatra’s drums rattle through the production, a combination of the tight studio quarters and his unbridled intensity.

“We did a shit ton of takes on that song,” Huff says. “For him to keep up that energy was pretty impressive.”

Hayes overdubbed a bundle of guitars, mandolins and Dobro, but he was stumped for a time by the bridge, where he becomes something of a cheerleader, invoking a call-and-answer section: “I got a whole new ‘hey.’ ” “Hey!” “I got a brand new ‘woo.’ ” “Woo!”

“The ‘heys’ and the ‘woos’ are very out of character for me,” says Hayes. “I had to open myself up to that. It’s like, ‘Let’s celebrate, let’s be goofy, let’s get out of our comfort zones and do crazy stuff.’ I had to jump into it. I couldn’t be scared of it.”

Warner Music Nashville certainly was not afraid of “Yesterday’s Song.” As Hayes started playing it live, it seemed to get the best response on social media, and he introduced the recorded version among three songs posted temporarily on SoundCloud on Sept. 9. The official release came four weeks later, and “Yesterday’s Song” has begun its run on today’s charts, ranking No. 49 on Country Airplay in its sixth week. It’s part of a new chapter for Hayes, who’s optimistic that it will resonate in country’s fan base.

“Whether it’s a breakup or a life change, I want people to find that message,” he says, “and be able to sing along to it knowing they’re starting a new day.”

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