As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, favorite memories and pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. Check out other interviews with St. Vincent, Anne-Marie and Kali Uchis.
Dan + Shay began their year on a rebellious note, defying conventional music-industry wisdom by releasing a piano ballad as the first single from their self-titled third album. Now, they’re closing out the year with one of the biggest country songs of 2018 under their belts.
But that song, “Tequila,” wasn’t just a hit at country radio. It also vaulted the duo of Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney into the pop world, crossing over into the top 30 of Billboard‘s Pop Songs chart and earning the band their highest-charting Hot 100 hit to date at No. 21. Recently, the duo picked up their first-ever Grammy nominations, and in the new year, they’ll embark on their biggest headlining tour to date, which has already sold-out.
“This year has definitely been a game changer in the Dan + Shay camp,” Mooney says. “It’s changed the trajectory of our career completely.” Adds Smyers: “There were people telling us before we put out ‘Tequila’ that it wouldn’t work: ‘Country radio won’t play a ballad. No one drinks tequila.’ Our gut feeling was that this song was going to be big for us, and it was the right next step for Dan + Shay. So we ended up trusting our gut on it, and it paid off for us in a big way.”
Just before their latest single, “Speechless,” hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart — the fifth time they’ve done so in their careers, and the second time they did so in 2018 — the duo reflected on their year and how “Tequila” set the stage for the next chapter of Dan + Shay.
Congratulations on your big year! What would you say were your most meaningful accomplishments in 2018?
Mooney: I’m most proud of this record. This was a self-titled record for a reason. It wasn’t because we couldn’t think of an album title. It was because this was our stamp of approval, saying, “This is the kind of music we’ve been trying to write for the last five or six years.” This album has completely changed our career.
Smyers: Getting our first multiple-week No. 1 on [the Country Airplay chart]. To have it stay up there for a couple weeks is something we’ll never take for granted, and we certainly enjoyed that ride — with a song title like “Tequila,” it’s pretty obvious what we did to celebrate those weeks topping the chart! [Laughs] And it did such wonders for the song. You could see the impact on the streaming numbers, our sales numbers and even our ticket sales. That kind of set the trajectory.
One cool thing we just accomplished recently is topping the Hot Country Songs chart for first time [with “Speechless”]. We’ve been close many a time, and “Tequila” was a monster hit for us, but we unfortunately released it at a time when the biggest country song of, like, all time, “Meant To Be,” was released. It’s one thing to have a hit, but to be able to have a follow-up that’s doing just as well or maybe even better is really cool. We just started our streak. We were joking the other day, “Alright, we’ve got two weeks under our belts now on the Hot Country chart, 48 more to go to get close to Bebe Rexha!”
Mooney: A big moment for us also was winning our first award. Winning a CMT award, it was a fan voted award, which was extra special to us. It’s kind of like an army, our fans. They vote, they come out to shows, they’re streaming. The fact that that was a fan voted award was a really incredible thing for us.
I imagine you kept that fan-voted award in mind when the CMAs didn’t go your way last month.
Smyers: That was kind of a tough day. The hardest thing was people in advance saying, “Man, this has been such a great year for you, how are you feeling?” We never wanted to say we thought we deserved anything or whatever. We were just like, “Man, we know it’s been a great year, we’ve accomplished a lot. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could take home an award or two?” That added pressure, made the blow a little harder. It definitely hurt.
Just like any other human, we took a minute. We took 24 hours to let ourselves grieve over it and be sad. But quickly we turned it around with the help of our team, who are great people who don’t only care about our career, they care about us as people. And our wives were in our ear saying, “Look, it would’ve been nice to win an award, but you can’t let that get you down, because you’ve accomplished so much this year. You’ve got to learn to appreciate the good things that are happening.”
As artists and as competitive people, we tend to dwell on the negative things — scrolling past 1,000 people saying that they love the music and then [focusing] on one person saying, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” and only replying to them. It’s a crazy era we live in, but we’re trying to get better about comparing ourselves less to others. We wrote a few songs on our album about that. We’re trying to appreciate those things and use those to grow our career instead of letting ourselves get down about something that didn’t necessarily go our way. We owe that to our fans, we owe that to the community to just keep outdoing ourselves, and hopefully we continue to grow in both those areas.
Mooney: Winning for me is not winning an award. Winning is having No. 1s on country radio. Winning is having fans that want to listen to your music. Florida Georgia Line had a massive year as well — we don’t necessarily think we deserved [the CMA awards], we are just trying to work as hard as we possibly can. You’re going to hear fans that are really passionate like, “Man, you guys deserved that award!” The fact that we have people that feel so passionately about our music and our careers, that’s a win in itself.
Dan, in your post-CMAs Instagram, you said, “We’re just getting started.” What can you tease about your 2019 plans?
Smyers: Obviously we’ve still got some time on this record, but we’re always working on the next project. We’re making more friends out there in the music industry, and hopefully we can cook up a collaboration or two to surprise-drop on the fans at some point. It’s a crazy era — people are putting out a lot of stuff, and it’s overwhelming at times, but it gives us a reason to put out more music and stay out on the road. We see it as an opportunity, not a burden, and hopefully we’ll have something for the fans in 2019. Not sure what it’ll be, but hopefully it’ll be something.
Do you feel more open to the pop world now? Artists from all sorts of genres have shouted you out this year.
Mooney: Absolutely. We met a lot of cool people — Shawn Mendes, Demi Lovato. A lot of people from the pop world have reached out saying that they listen to our music, which was a really cool thing. We reached for the stars on this album, and a lot of people reacted in a big way to it outside of the country world. This year has definitely been the biggest year for us with people from outside of country taking notice of what we’re doing and really digging it. It expands our genre, bringing some of their fans into the country world. It’s pretty cool to be part of that movement of not being put in a box.
What’s a song you couldn’t get out of your heads this year?
Smyers: “SICKO MODE” by Travis Scott. We were obsessed with that. I’ve also been wearing out the Ella Mai album. I’m a huge fan. “Boo’d Up,” “Trip.” The last song on her album is called “Easy,” and it’s literally one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.
Mooney: Bazzi’s “Beautiful.” I sang that about 17 times a day.
What about the best live shows you saw?
Smyers: Justin Timberlake. I was really hungover, because we were hanging out with Post Malone the night before. I was in bed all day the next day, and I was really not wanting to go to another concert. But my wife, she was a huge *NSYNC fan, like every other girl ever. And I’m a huge Justin Timberlake fan — huge *NSYNC fan as well, no shame. But I was like, “I’m not going to another concert,” and she was like, “C’mon, we have to go!” So she dragged me out of the house and we went, and I’m so glad I did, because it was honestly the best show I’ve ever seen in my life. The production, the songs, the musicianship of his band — he’s just such a star. It was intimidating to watch because it was just so good.
Mooney: Dan and I also got to go watch Maroon 5, which is one of our favorite bands. They’re always really incredible.
What was the most memorable fan interaction you had this year?
Mooney: The most recent one I can think of: A girl had just gotten a tattoo of the icons from the new record on her forearm. Any time a fan gets a tattoo, that’s next-level commitment. That’s forever. You can not go to a concert and you can not buy a song, but you can never not see a tattoo that you got [Laughs]. I’ll always be blown away by that.
We wrote “Speechless” about our wives and seeing them walk down the aisle, so to have people use that song as a wedding song is really special, because we obviously know from personal experience how big of a day that is. That’s part of the reason we wrote that song. So it’s a huge honor for us.
Smyers: We did a benefit concert in Pittsburgh to rebuild the synagogue where the shooting was, and our fans raised over $60,000. They were the ones who bought the tickets and T-shirts, and every penny from the tickets and the T-shirt sales went directly to Tree of Life. That was something that made us proud.
What was your favorite city you visited in 2018?
Smyers: We’re in New York City right now, and I’m really loving the vibe. I guess it’s extra special around Christmastime, but there’s a cool energy in New York. We’ve done a lot of really cool things in New York this year: performing on Good Morning America, performing on the Today show. There’s people from all kinds of cultures here. It’s a good representation of what America is supposed to look like.
We went and saw Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, and it was unbelievable. We’ve had a respect for theater, but after [that], it was like, “That makes what we do look kind of like a joke!” It was nice to sit in the crowd as fans, take that all in and be inspired by it.
Mooney: I was in a glass case of emotion. I cried so many times.
What was your most memorable Uber, Lyft or taxi ride this year?
Mooney: There was a time when Dan and I heard [“Tequila”] in an Uber. We were in Denver, I think we were riding back to the bus or something, and “Tequila” came on the radio, on a pop station.
Smyers: It’s not like somebody told us to tune in and turn it on, we just heard it by chance after a Juice WRLD song or something. We were going insane, filming and stuff. It was our first time hearing it on pop radio. We were like, “This is so crazy!”
Mooney: The guy didn’t believe that it was us, and he kept turning it down. [Laughs]
All you had to do was show him the music video!
Smyers: The problem is, I change my hair too much — he wouldn’t have recognized me.
Whom did you text the most in 2018?
Smyers: Our co-writers, whether it’s “Speechless” or “Tequila.” We’re so in touch with our songwriters — those are our people, they’re in it with us, and they’re such a big reason for our success, especially this year. There have been a lot of cool things to celebrate, and we try to get better about officiating those moments. Just taking a minute to text our friends and celebrate, like, “Hey ,we moved up a couple chart positions!” or “The song went platinum!” That’s a really special bond we have between us and our co-writers on the album. We’re part of the songwriting community in Nashville, and hopefully they feel the same way about us — and they’re not annoyed by how many times we text them.
Who’s another artist you would invite over to a holiday dinner with your family?
Mooney: I would say Post Malone because that would be such a funny character to bring to the holiday table. I can’t imagine his reaction to sitting down with my family — they’re very conservative, so it’d be pretty funny to bring him out there. [Laughs]
What’s a musical trend you’d like to see go away in 2019?
Mooney: There’s so much online bullying towards artists, it’s a little bit depressing. We let that stuff roll right off our back, but it is tough whenever you’re an artist and spend hours at record labels and people are spending millions of dollars. You spend so much time — this is your livelihood, it’s your passion — and they’re so mean online. I wish that people would learn to be a little more kind. Having an opinion is important, that’s not something I want to take away. I just wish that if you don’t like something, you just don’t listen to it.
Smyers: We’re guilty of it. We write a lot of sad songs, but I was reading a statistic the other day that 98 percent of pop radio and pop songs have been sad and depressing. I guess it’s cyclical with the state of the world, but it would be cool to see some positivity come back. It does go in waves. It’s cool to have “Speechless” out on the radio right now and being able to feel that positivity at shows — not to knock “Tequila,” which is the nostalgic heartbreak song. You gotta have those. But maybe add some more positivity to music.