Hunter Hayes can't write songs in Nashville. "It's the stupidest way to work," he says. "The way I function, it doesn't work for me." A typical schedule went like this: He left his house at 10:30 a.m., grabbed coffee, then met with co-writers at an office at 11; they aspired to be deep into an idea before noon, and the rule was to get through at least the first chorus by the time they get lunch. "By 5, everybody's looking at their watch," says Hayes, the hit country singer best known for "Wanted" and "Somebody's Heartbreak."
So Hayes flipped the writing process around. He takes the Nashville pros with him, one or two at a time, on a tour bus with his band. Thus, they can work according to their natural creative rhythms and drop everything when inspiration hits. "There's so much more freedom in that," Hayes says, immediately after his "Today" show performance a couple of Fridays ago, by phone from the basement of NBC's building at 49th Street and Rockefeller Plaza. "Everybody's in the front lounge. We're just talking for a few minutes. You race to the background, write it in like an hour. It's productive, and it's inspiring at the same time."
Hayes is only 21, and his bright blue eyes and spiky blonde hair make him seem more like the sixth member of One Direction than a seasoned country-music professional. But the Lafayette, La., native has been performing music professionally since age 4, when he played in a band and sang onstage with Hank Williams Jr.; two years later, he dragged that accordion to the set of "The Apostle," in which he appeared with star Robert Duvall. He put out two albums at ages 9 and 10, and by 16, he and his parents had no choice, really, except to fulfill his show-business dream and move to Nashville.
"It was a big move. We thought about it a lot. We'd made a lot of trips to Nashville. It was constantly in the back of our minds," says Hayes, who headlines Freedom Fest at the Pennysaver Amphitheater in Farmingville July 5. "One weekend, Dad was working and I was giggling, and Mom drove and got us a house. Literally three days later, we were packing up."
An only child, Hayes had taught himself to write songs during his process of becoming a teenage performer and recording musician. Although he says, "I didn't know anybody in Nashville but for two people, maybe," Hayes and his parents actually had spoken with interested music-business professionals by that point: a manager, publisher and producer as well as somebody from a record label. He eventually signed with Atlantic Records, worked with veteran producer Dann Huff and made 2011's "Hunter Hayes" -- leading to a rush of major publicity, from "Letterman" to "Ellen" to "Good Morning America."
In one sense, Hayes is a country traditionalist, insisting on mandolin or some other classic element in each of his songs, but he's also an experienced studio tinkerer, and his songs have as much production polish as anything by Rascal Flatts. His album swings smoothly from lively you're-so-beautiful country-rockers ("Storm Warning") to soft-spoken I'm-so-in-love ballads ("If You Told Me To"). Hayes considers himself equal parts recording engineer and singer-songwriter, and alternates between the personae.
"I love the break I get creatively from setting up a mic and getting a preamp and getting a tone right -- 'This track's going to come in here,'" he says. "Then I grab a cup of coffee, and I come back as a musician and don't think like that anymore. Kind of multi-personality, I guess. My brain is constantly just running -- the little hamster in there -- on hyper-speed. It just goes and it goes. Right now, I need 10 mics set up for a drum session in the morning. And as soon as I'm done, I want a riff for the top of this song."
A man of many secrets
Hayes won't talk about plans for his next album -- "I have no relevant information for you; I'm keeping that strictly creative for a while," he says -- but he has 60 songs ready to go. Earlier this year, he expanded "Hunter Hayes" with five new songs and new duet versions of "Everybody's Got Somebody but Me" (with pop singer Jason Mraz) and "What You Gonna Do" (with breakout Pistol Annies star Ashley Monroe). The most striking new song is "A Thing About You," which is unusually rocking and groove-based.
"I wouldn't call it a shift. Not everything's going to sound like one thing," Hayes says. "There is an absolute evolution in my sound and what I'm doing. There'd better be! ... I feel like I'm getting closer to my home base, the more I search."
Hunter Hayes' top 5 collaborators
BY STEVE KNOPPER, Special to Newsday
With Bocephus on one knee singing along, a tiny but poised 4-year-old Hayes delivers a flawless version of "Jambalaya" to an arena crowd. "Looking at baby pictures is one thing," Hayes recently told the Roanoke Times. "Watching videos of yourself on YouTube, 20 years after, is kind of freaky."
A 6-year-old Hayes appeared -- with the accordion again, as well as a bunch of other kids -- in 1997's "The Apostle," with Duvall's character clapping in the front pew.
Hayes' first co-writer ever was this Nashville pro, who has scored big hits with Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw, Eric Church and Little Big Town. "We had breakfast together, we hung out a little bit, and, like a week later, we wrote together," Hayes says.
These co-writers for individual songs on "Hunter Hayes" are among the rotating crew he invites onto his tour bus to collaborate when inspiration strikes. "There's no more than two at a time. I like to work with small groups like that," he says.
The rising country star's guest vocal on "What You Gonna Do" for Hayes' recent deluxe album, "Encore," has a dark quality lacking from the original. Hayes intended it that way -- he stripped the song down to just three sounds from the original, then turned it into something new. "With Ashley, I wanted the song to change," he says. "She approaches it with a bluegrass kind of haunting approach, and that brought me in a totally different direction."
WHEN|WHERE 1 p.m. July 5, Pennysaver Amphitheater, Farmingville
INFO $30-$125; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com