Country

Makin' Tracks: Dan + Shay Lean On Positivity For 'Glad You Exist'

Dan + Shay
Catherine Powell

Dan + Shay

Leave it to a duo with a plus sign in its name to fashion mathematical country hits.

Dan + Shay's 2019 single "10,000 Hours," written and recorded with Justin Bieber, tallies up a potential five-figure investment of time to create what the singer envisions as the perfect twosome. Likewise, the duo's new single — "Glad You Exist," released by Warner Music Nashville on Feb. 5 — contrasts a "couple billion people in the world" with two who found each other, inspiring a two-minute, 25-second love song.

Adhering to the macro and micro imagery in that message, "Glad You Exist" was written with a Dan + Shay arena audience in mind, though the title's existence is drawn from the intimate home life of the duo's Dan Smyers, who frequently tells his wife, Abby Law Smyers, "I'm glad you exist." That core thought — "I love you," "I appreciate you," "You matter to me" — was intended to work even beyond a romantic level in concert as Dan + Shay would perform an acoustic segment on a plus-shaped stage in the middle of the venue.

"It was just us imagining ourselves standing there in the middle of the arena with 15,000 people around us, just having a moment together," says Smyers.

While the world at large heard "10,000 Hours" first, "Glad You Exist" pre-dated it. They wrote it in February 2019 during the week that precedes the Grammy Awards as Dan + Shay worked at a rented home in the Hollywood hills with Nashville songwriter Jordan Reynolds ("Tequila," "Speechless"), pop composer Tayla Parx (Ariana Grande's "thank u, next," Panic at the Disco!'s "High Hopes") and songwriter-producer Ryan Lewis, best known for his collaborations with Macklemore.

Lewis brought a load of interesting musical tracks to the appointment, and the quintet tried its best to turn them into high-production songs. Invariably, the ideas didn't work for Dan + Shay.

"I just was like, ‘We're not going to leave today and not have something — there's too many good writers in this room for this to be a waste,' " recalls Reynolds. "I just picked up a guitar and started playing."

He broke into an ultra-simple, four-chord progression full of playful syncopation, with the triads emphasizing after beats while the guitarist's right thumb centers the root notes on the first and third counts of each bar. The part is so musician-friendly that the left ring and pinky fingers never move from their starting frets.

Smyers pulled out the "Glad You Exist" title, and they started barreling through a universally understood idea: a celebration of that one ideal partner who appears rather improbably from the multitude of misfit matches. With the guitar providing a steady, unobtrusive undercurrent, the group had plenty of room to move around in the topline, and they made use of the opportunity.

"Tayla Parx, she's so good with melodies," says Dan + Shay lead vocalist Shay Mooney. "We were kind of going all over the place, trying to figure out what we wanted it to sound like in the vibe. Obviously, the message was incredible, and we were just trying not to mess that up the whole time."

The opening lists a series of hurdles the couple overcame early — "The things that bring someone together in a relationship are when you go through hard things together," reasons Reynolds — and that personal victory, set against the masses, becomes the central focus of "Glad You Exist."

"I remember the ‘Here's to everyone, but mostly us' — Tayla threw up that line, and it kind of hit us funny," says Reynolds. "Me, Dan and Shay were all kind of like, ‘I don't know how I feel about that.' And Tayla and Ryan were like, ‘This is the coolest line,' like that's the T-shirt or that's girls looking at each other in the crowd and going, ‘Here's to everyone, but mostly us.' It's a cool little line that I don't think would have been thrown out in Nashville, and we all finally came around to it."

Each section — the verses, the chorus and the purposely repetitive bridge — uses a different form of melodic syncopation to keep the sonic scenes changing. And they added a roller coaster post-chorus that lightens the mood and creates a sort of aural palate cleanser before launching into the next section.

"It's one more little cherry on top," notes Mooney. "We just loved singing it in the room, and for whatever reason, it sounds very happy and it kind of completes the overall message and vibe of the song."

When they wrote "10,000 Hours" a few months later, Bieber's release schedule moved it to the front of the line, and "Glad You Exist" had to wait, particularly because of the two songs' numerical similarities. But that also gave Dan + Shay time to invent and refine. Appropriate for a song with mathematical logic, the final product uses a heavy volume of individual performances. Smyers estimates that 80 vocal tracks are stacked in "Exist," particularly jaw-dropping, given the relative simplicity of the arrangement.


Bryan Sutton played the acoustic guitar in the finale, and Smyers handled most of (if not all) the other instruments. He applied some wood-block effects from his ever-expanding collection of sounds, compiled on his hard drive labeled "Dan Made Samples."

The oddest of the tones in "Glad You Exist" appears in the post-chorus: an ascendant, space-age flip that's a bit like Mariah Carey on helium. In truth, it's Mooney, manipulated and stretched into sonic territory beyond his own real-life reach.

"It's a pitch-shift vocal thing," says Smyers, "and it was just another little layer. When you think you've heard it all, and then here's one little piece of ear candy that doesn't happen again for about another 45, 50 seconds — What was that? — you got to keep listening or you got to go back and listen again. We always like to throw little Easter eggs in like that."

It's unknown if that part might make it into the scheme when Dan + Shay finally play "Glad You Exist" in arenas.

"I've been practicing with helium, but it's hard to transition back off the helium," deadpans Mooney. "They don't have any quick helium that I've found in my research so far."

The duo's first live performance of "Glad You Exist" came in an acoustic, pre-taped moment for Country Radio Seminar attendees in February, shot in frigid 33-degree weather in front of a scenic pool at the East Ivy Mansion in Nashville.

The single sits at No. 27 on the Country Airplay chart dated March 20. In the meantime, Dan + Shay encouraged fans to post their own personal appreciations at gladyouexist.com. The collective messages mirror the song's overall theme, hinting at the billions of one-on-one friendships and relationships that keep many people moving in a positive direction across the globe, even in adverse times.

"I think there's more hope than there's been in the last 11 or 12 months right now, which is awesome," says Smyers. "This song, this positive message, after all we've been through — I just feel like it's the right time for it."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.