When Hunter Hayes performed his new single “Invisible” on the 2014 Grammy Awards telecast in January, the dreamlike moment was one of many he has experienced since releasing his self-titled debut album in October 2011. Hayes, a Louisiana-born, Nashville-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, has watched his album top the Billboard Country chart, earn platinum certification, and spawn three No. 1 Country singles, the 4x-platinum “Wanted” and “Somebody’s Heartbreak,” while its 2013 reissue Encore also sold more than a million copies and featured the Top 5 platinum-selling single “I Want Crazy.” Hayes has also earned four Grammy nominations, including “Best New Artist” in 2013. “I Want Crazy” was nominated this year for “Best Country Solo Performance.” But instead of performing that hit for the Grammy audience, Hayes decided to use the setting to bust out his most personal song to date, “Invisible,” a moving, piano-driven ballad he wrote about feeling like an outcast growing up.
“I was a solid mass of nerves,” Hayes admits. “I was sick to my stomach almost the entire week before. We had a day off and I took a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to try to get my mind off it, but it didn’t work.” Hayes was anxious not only because he was performing for the music industry’s biggest stars and nearly 30 million people watching at home. He was also nervous because it was his first time putting the song’s message out there to the world. “Every time I talk about it, I get very emotional.”
“Invisible,” the lead-off track from Hayes’ upcoming second album, Storyteller, sprang out of a conversation that Hayes had with the song’s co-writers Katrina Elam and Bonnie Baker. “We were in tears half the day talking about how our obsession with music made us different and led us down a path where there was no one else there. While I had my parents, who totally supported me, I also had moments of feeling absolutely invisible, where no one really noticed anything about me. But I think what inspired us the most was knowing that as much our stories have hurt us, at least we now have the perspective to look back on things and feel better. The important thing was to flip it and make it positive.”
By now, Hayes’ musical back-story is well known to his fans. Born in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, the only child to parents with no musical background whatsoever, Hayes began picking up various instruments when he was two, including a toy accordion his grandmother gave him. At age four, he took his accordion onstage and sang “Jambalaya” with Hank Williams Jr. At six, he was cast in the Robert Duvall film The Apostle. The actor gave Hayes his first guitar. At seven, he was invited to perform for President Bill Clinton at The White House. Hayes recorded his first album when he was nine and his second at age 10.
“At school, I was a quiet kid,” he says. “I was really shy. My safe zone was music. In writing music, I had my friend, the one thing that would never let me down. Writing songs was like keeping a journal. I really took it seriously when I realized how powerful a tool it was and how much I needed it. I spent a lot of time in the studio that I built at our house, so much so that I neglected going out. I skipped all the parties. I skipped the prom every year because it always fell on a date when I had a gig to play. Music was the one thing that was going really well and I was going to give every minute to it that I possibly could.”
Though the isolation clearly took its toll on Hayes, which he writes about so powerfully on “Invisible,” his relentless focus clearly had its upside. Not only did Hayes’ debut album establish him as a leading talent in the country world, it also earned him a host of honors, including an American Music Award, a Country Music Association Award, two Teen Choice Awards, two American Country Awards, a CMT Music Award for Artist of the Year, and two BMI Awards. He has toured the U.S. as support for Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Rascal Flatts, as well as on his own as a headliner. He also has had the opportunity to meet some of his heroes, like Sting and Paul McCartney, both of whom complimented Hayes on his recent Grammy performance, and Stevie Wonder, with whom he performed “Sir Duke” at the 2013 ACM Awards. He has also befriended Elton John and contributes a cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” to the deluxe reissue of John’s classic 1973 album of the same time, due in March.
Now Hayes is gearing up for the May release of Storyteller, which he says finds him doing some serious soul-searching. “At 22, there’s a lot of trying to figure out love, which at the end of the day, I’ve realized I’ll never figure out, though the process of trying is fun.”
Mostly Hayes is looking forward to people hearing brand-new songs. “I’m just ready to say something new,” he says. “I’ve lived with the first record for so long and I feel like I’ve written the next chapter and am ready to share it with the world. I’m ready to open up and tell my story.”