Florida native Michael Ray may seem like a bit of a newcomer, [with only three singles released so far from his self-titled major label debut. But even though it’s been nearly two years since the country crooner dropped Michael Ray in August 2015, he has proven that he’s already resonating with country fans and beyond. Ray’s latest single, the Thomas Rhett co-penned “Think A Little Less,” had reached No. 2 on the Country Airplay chart and reached No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 — his peak on both charts so far.
Ray also just wrapped his first-ever headlining tour — named after his current single — further proof that he doesn’t even need a second album to establish himself as a hot-ticket country act. But never fear, Michael Ray fans: The 28-year-old plans to release a new album later this year anyway.
Billboard caught up with the country singer to hear about why he decided on a 2015 track for a 2017 single, his connection to the song, and what he’s whipping up for his next go around.
What is it like watching a song you put out in 2015 climb up the charts and take over country radio in 2017?
It feels amazing, seeing fans sing every line of it and get excited when they hear the beginning riff of the song. It’s such a flattering thing as an artist to see — just a strum of a guitar chord or play a lick and fans know it automatically. It’s crazy to go from this tiny room with a couple of dudes, an idea and a guitar or a track, to headlining a show of 1,500 to 2,000 people singing it as loud as they can, and you’re hearing stories of how it changed their life. Seeing a song get a second breath of air, a second life, is a pretty amazing thing to see, and it makes me feel very solid about our choice for a single.
Why did you choose it to be the latest single?
It was a song that stood out to myself and everybody during the recording process — we always wanted it to be a single at some point. Sometimes a song is [already] great, but you get in the studio and something really cool and magical happens. When you hear the final product, you’re like “that one stands out more than the rest,” for whatever reason that is. I feel like people can relate to that situation at some point and time, what the song speaks about.
Was there a connection you felt with it personally?
Honestly, I’m an overthinker of everything. So when I saw the title itself, it was just funny, like the universe was telling me something. Because we were in the middle of finding songs, which is something I’m going to overthink a lot. It was just the whole thing — [Thomas Rhett] was singing the demo on it, just such an unbelievable voice. The bridge is what stood out to me the most; the hit of that bridge and how it has this energy that keeps building from that bridge on to the end.
This one means the most to me out of the three. It’s a song that we had to work — when we came out with “Kiss You in the Morning,” 27 weeks later it was sitting at No. 1 [on the Country Airplay chart, dated August 22, 2015]. “Think A Little Less” took a lot of work on my end, my team’s end, radio’s end, streaming — it just taught me so much, and I grew better as an artist because of this song.
It’s kind of like, if something’s given, it doesn’t have the same effect if you have to really work for it. That’s what makes it so much sweeter when you get to be at a number one spot, the top of the mountain. We were so fortunate with the first one, so it’s a little bit of a wake up call to realize, “Hey, not every one is like that.”
As a country artist, what is it like to watch your songs chart on the Hot 100?
That’s incredible. I’m such a big fan of all genres, I’ve been burning out [Ed Sheeran’s] Divide record since it came out. I’m a fan of all sorts of music, so for it to be amongst artists of all genres and all different unbelievable talented artists is pretty frickin’ badass, actually [Laughs]. To be up there with men and women that I look up to and listen to on the daily for their ideas — I listen to Macklemore, Bruno [Mars], just listening to their melodies. Going back to Green Day, punk bands back in the day, listening to the different things they were doing. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve evolved from in other genres, so to be on the Hot 100 of Billboard, that’s incredible.
I think in music, we all can learn from each other. Everyone’s going to have something naturally that you’re better at than the other. So you can learn from everybody, no matter what genre it is — I mean, Drake quotes a George Strait line [in “H.Y.F.R.”]! That shows that there really are no boundaries when it comes to it. You can be inspired by everyone if you open your mind to it.
What do you think you bring to country and music overall?
I was raised on so much traditional stuff that I do think I bring a mixture of ’90s with a today feel. I’ve had people tell me they can hear a lot of older stuff in some of my songs. I’m such a big fan of so much music and so many genres, some of the stuff I take ideas from — like punk rock, I grew up in the punk rock era. Kind of pulling a little bit from that, pulling a little bit from the pop side. But I’ll always use traditional country music, and I love ’90s country music. That’s me at the core, so I think that’s what is always what’s going to shine no matter what I sing.
What can you tell us about your new music? Will you be writing more on this record?
The next single will be off the new album. I’m not going to be doing anything crazy left of center. I think as an artist, as a person, in two years you grow a lot. I’ve toured with many different artists, and I learned something different from every one of them. You’re also connecting with fans more, out there seeing what’s working and growing your art. Musically, you’re learning different things that will be cool, things that never even really existed when making the first record. So we’re taking a lot of that into perspective into making this second record.
I always take outside songs no matter how much I’m writing. I want to make the best record I can make, and I write for my records and pitch just like outside songs get pitched to me. And may the best song win. Nashville has the best songwriters in town, and one of the cool things about cutting an outside song is that they’re living their dreams and you’re living yours. You couldn’t do without the other. It’s a special thing to celebrate — everybody comes to this town to live their dream, whether it’s songwriting, singing, guitar playing. So when you can be a little part of that dream for someone else and they can be a little part of that dream for you, it’s a cool thing.