He definitely had the vocal chops and the moves to last as long as he did, but his bizarre clues (a broom, a toolbox, rent, pitch perfect) just confounded the panel of judges, who thought he was everyone from Jonathan Groff to Skylar Astin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
His song choices appeared to place him squarely in the pop category, including an excellent take on Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You," a kicking "Bye Bye Bye" during the Smackdown round, a cover of Lauren Daigle's "You Say" that was so moving Nicole Scherzinger cried, as well as finger-snapping takes on songs by Stevie Wonder and Rick Astley. He kept telling us that he's been searching for years to bust out of the labels that have been placed on him and he's ready for a reboot.
And he totally did. That's why -- sorry, Ken Jeong, wrong again -- it was not Kristoff from Frozen, but country singer Hunter Hayes under that shiny suit. Hayes, 28, spoke to Billboard before his elimination to explain why the show was the perfect place to start Hayes 2.0, as well as why he chose the Astronaut and how he seeded his run with all kinds of Easter eggs only his true Hayesheads would recognize.
You are known primarily as a country singer, but you went super pop with your *NSYNC, Ed Sheeran and One Direction covers. Was that to throw people off or are you giving us a sign of what's to come?
Both. [Laughs] It's really interesting to talk about that because I haven't talked about any of this yet. Not to go too deep into this... I was planning to be in L.A. at the beginning of this year to work on the new album, which is part two of a three part series, which is about growing and changing and exploring and the show came along at the perfect time and gave me the chance to do those things outside of my own work. It was like exercise, like personal training for everything from vocals to choreography. It was a great cardio workout. It started as me just exploring as a vocalist and also the added advantage of maybe this will throw people off and keep me on the show longer. I think they worked in tandem... I wanted to explore a little more space and find new parts of my voice that I haven't allowed the world to see yet.
You have such a distinctive voice that's instantly recognizable to anyone who has listened to you even once. Were you surprised the judges didn't get it earlier?
I was shocked. I was really surprised that it took them that long to figure me out, but I was glad it took them that long.
Did you try to disguise it at all?
In rehearsal early on right when I started picking songs and rehearsing to them on my own I kind of tried. Then I realized that was keeping me from enjoying it and keeping me from from being super present and properly performing like I wanted to. So we kind of shifted gears the day before the first show because I knew if I wanted to stay on the show and continue competing I had to have fun with it and I had to be myself even though I'm trying to disguise who I am. It shifted my thinking from, "what should the Astronaut be?" to "The Astronaut needs to come from a real place for me." That's how people are going to see my personality, that's how i'm going to have fun with it, that's how I'm going to push past the boundaries.
Especially during the Sheeran and *NSYNC songs, you showed off some pretty sweet dance moves that didn't seem like your typical stage presence. Was there something about the anonymity in the costume that freed you up?
I’ve realized that there’s a kind of a freestyle thing that's been happening over the past 12 months. It's funny because the costume itself made dancing kind of difficult, but the mask, being behind it anonymous gave me an enormous enormous amount of confidence. I could do anything because no one knows it's me. It's a secret, a really fun secret. It definitely gave me more confidence. I noticed it all around. A lot of different aspects of performing changed for me after this show. Whereas in the past I've been hesitant to do certain things, on this show I could try anything and take what I learned from it. I think it was great training as a performer, between dancing and singing different songs in different keys and pushing myself. It definitely gave me confidence because it was difficult to move in certain directions in the suit.
Listening to your clue packages, it sounds like it was the perfect time for you to do this. Why is that? You talked about being forced to start over after trying to blast away certain labels.
It was such a Godsend. We cleared the touring schedule for several months because I wanted to work on the new album and honestly... The new album is part of a three-part series that's all about growth and change and moving and adventure and just growing as a human and in writing and talking about that musically it gave me another mirror to see myself through and to learn the things I like and certain kinds of music I like and to incorporate that. But it was a weird double life for a minute because we had these early mornings where I'd go to rehearsal and I'd finish halfway through the day and then I'd come back to my home studio and work like I normally would, but informed by experiences I had on the show. It kind of blew the doors open and took the walls down on the music I was making at the time.
Did you watch the show before being on it?
What did you like about it?
I'm not big on competition because when it comes to art and entertaining everybody has something different to give and comparison is really tricky. What I liked about this show is it wasn't about comparison it was about individuality. The costumes are based on the people and the people come alive within the costume and it's fun and lighthearted. It is competitive in some ways, but it's not like any other competition on television that I've ever seen. I felt comfortable, like it was gonna push me, but at the same time also help me see my individuality through somebody else's eyes.
Are you surprised you made it to the top six? Did you expect to win? Were you hoping to win?
Every day was a gift. Even the people I was working with I was like, "Yes, I want to make it as far as I can, but if I'm back tomorrow I'm happy." You have to take every day and be grateful for it. For me that's what it was because I had no idea what I was doing and no idea how it would translate. And I didn't want to put any pressure on myself. That's what this whole chapter is about for me, taking pressure away and really feel free in expression and I feel like the show did that.
You made Nicole cry during the Lauren Daigle song. Was that weirdly satisfying to know that even with this goofy costume on you were able to get emotion across?
It taught me a lot. That first performance seeing the emotion on other people's faces... I didn't think that being behind the mask that... my job was to be emotive. My job was to sing with all the feeling I have in my heart. I didn’t think that would translate in a costume and when it did I realized that is important and that's important for me to keep in my mind as part of my foundation. It reminded me how important honest emotion is.
I found your clue packages to be especially confounding, with clues about being frozen, a lobster, lighting your candle, pitch perfect, a toolbox -- what was any of that about? Were you trying to throw people off or were those deep-dive clues?
There was a lot of throwing people off. We took my story and we exaggerated it a lot to throw people off. Also there was a lot of of flying. Any time flying or the colors blue or red were mentioned it was very specific and very much a secret message to my fans. I knew they would get the hints -- the albums were Wild Blue and Red Skies -- and they would see those hints and get me immediately. I wanted flying to be the theme of my time there. The freedom of flight is all about going into the unknown and seeing an adventure and an opportunity and that's how I saw the show.
You are very active on social media. Did any of your followers figure out it was you right away?
Surprisingly, yeah. I've avoided a lot of text messages. I've not responded to a lot of direct messages and I've had to lay pretty low. An astonishing amount of people figured it out immediately, within the first song. And I'm not good lying so I've just avoided so many people for such a long time. I feel like I was in quarantine before quarantine began.
Why the Astronaut? What spoke to you about that costume?
Yeah. I was lucky to sign on super early on for this season, which was brilliant because it gave me time to understand the show and myself and understand what I wanted out of it. So I got to see some costumes early on and I was really close to picking the Robot because that was part of my past. But there was something about the Astronaut that expanded upon the theme of flying. Because flying was such a theme for me and still is, the Astronaut costume made me feel like it took that whole thing, "sky's the limit" and to this whole galaxy-type feeling that made me feel free. it made me feel like... embodying everything I've talked about for the past year-and-a-half. This mascot for the music that I've made and the music that I want to make and am making.
You outlasted some serious music stars: Chaka Khan, Bret Michaels, Dionne Warwick. Was that exciting?
Obviously, that' a boost of confidence. But honestly I was really happy to get past episode one. Because it's a lot of things, not just singing and vocals. It's dancing and interacting with the crowd, it's song choice and how it relates to what you are on stage and how you can bring it to life. All those things included I'm thrilled to have made it as far as I did. I'm especially thrilled that my parents got to come to the very last episode. I couldn't have scripted it any better. They got to see both sides of me: me in the visor and the hoodie that says "don't talk to me" and they got to see me take the mask off and breathe some fresh air.
Did you have any signature moves you slipped in as a kind of clue for hard-core fans? Any tells?
For sure. We talked early on about how maybe the Astronaut should be this slow-motion thing and I did that for a second and realized that it was just not me. I wouldn't say it's a signature move, but something fans say I do a lot is jumping and hopping on stage. So, I incorporated that as much as I could, again as a code word to the fans that, "hi, it's me." And anytime I'm on stage there are certain arm movements I just can't help do. I noticed myself doing it for the first time on "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and I leaned into it. I thought, "I'm going to embrace this rather and go further with it rather than try to hide it.
Did any of your friends figure it out or bug you about it?
A couple episodes in everybody started texting me and I just didn't respond. But I've got a lot of very close friends that figured out very quickly. And a lot of friends I haven't talked to in a long time, this show has been a great way for me to get to reunite with them.
What was the hardest part of being on the show?
The mask. [Laughs] I will not say everything else was easy, but it's such a great bootcamp for me. I love performing and I feel very comfortable on stage, even though there's so many areas I want to improve on. I knew that this show would be good for me in that respect. I had no idea how challenging it would be to push myself vocally and then walk into another room and start dancing. I've never done any proper dance training and specific moves on stage and interacting with other dancers and making sure I hit my cues and still perform. And then you put the suit on and do all those things. I t was a great training exercise.
You've said your Wild Blue (Part 1) album was part of a trilogy. What’s the update on that project and when will we hear the second part?
Red Sky is in the process. I started it mid last year. Right before Wild Blue came out I was working on part two and I'm having a hard time keeping secrets. I've been slipping song titles to fans and telling them about it, but we're working on it right now. I'm finishing one song at a time because that's how I did Wild Blue and it felt like that was the best way for me to be totally transparent and make it all feel like it's the same thing and let each song tell its own story. I'm just going one song at a time and letting the songs tell their own stories. Hopefully getting the first track from Red Sky out in the near future.