Sarah McGriff caught up with Walker Hayes. Take the time to read this great interview!
Sarah: First of all, I’m loving the new EP. It’s been really great to hear some work from you after a few years of silence. What artists you pulled influence from for 8Tracks?
Walker Hayes: Obviously, when I was writing it I didn’t sit down and ask myself, “Who do I want to sound like today?” But in the place I was at in my life I was listening to a lot of old school John Mayer, and there’s some Macklemore in there too. I also loved the whole Mraz & Maroon 5 movement from the early 2000s. But I’ve always really just been a huge fan of Nashville songwriters, I’ve always said it would blow people’s minds if they could go through the catalogues of writers here. Like Shane McAnally, who is actually my producer. If people could just see the stuff that hasn’t been cut by guys like him, their minds would be blown. So that’s always been my bar, to put together songs that could kind of hang with those guys, my heroes.
S: Speaking of Shane, did you guys collaborate on any of the songwriting?
WH: We sure did. His name is on “Beer in the Fridge”, “Beckett” and “Break the Internet.” He definitely had a lot to do with those.
S:That’s great that you have that writing relationship with someone who has that history behind his writing. So your song Lela’s stars tells the beautiful story about how your daughter’s positive outlook on life helped to keep you going during your time away from the country music scene. Would you say your family was your main influence for coming back with your EP 8Tracks after 5 years?
WH: Honestly, that story is 1000% true, I don’t think you can make that stuff up. My family, my wife and kids, never once encouraged me to stop trying. I think if anybody at that point gave giving up a second thought, it was just me. You know, because I was trying to feed them and it was getting difficult just working at Costco, and the songwriting wasn’t taking off. But I think that song is a great example that maybe I had to get there to write something that gave people goosebumps. Maybe they can relate. What I’ve found is that a lot of people really feel that song, whereas when I was writing it I didn’t really know that there were that many people were in that exact same boat. But my family was so supportive, never once did my wife ever look at me and say “Hey I think you really need to just put the pen down and pursue a career that makes a little more sense at this point, with six kids.” And my kids, they are amazing. You know, they don’t know if you are poor or not, they are just happy and think it’s cool when dad sings a song with their name in it.
S: I totally understand the goosebumps you are talking about, because when you know the Walker Hayes story and then you hear that song, it’s such a cool thing. It’s all true.
WH: Well you know what, there are a lot of artists that have that in them. This is no easy journey in this town. But not everyone just sits down and tells it and writes the story of it. Nothing happens overnight in this town, and it will hurt your feelings for a really long time before the rewards come back.
S: That couldn’t have been said any better. Going back to your wife and kids, with six children it seems like it would be hard to find time to write by yourself. Do you guys ever collab together, do you ever pull stuff from things they say or does your wife ever help you write?
WH: Oh, yeah. She will be so happy you asked! She is the anonymous co-writer of every single song you will ever hear. Even though I co-write and write on my own, her opinion is the last one that I run it by before I lay it down. I ask her all of my last minute concerns. My family’s input means a lot. In “Lela’s Stars”, I had another idea for the melody and I actually ran it by Lela and asked, “Which way do you like your name sung better?” So I’m always running it by them. Kids are great barometers for melodies. If I catch them humming something in the car that I wrote, I know I did it right. But I do more rehearsing at home rather than creative stuff. Where ideas come to me the most is in the car on the way to work, but I’m always running stuff by my wife and kids.
S: That’s amazing, and actually it’s exactly what I pictured; you and your wife collaborating. Mainly because it’s been such a long journey and she’s been there the whole time. So it’s kind of cool to get confirmation on that.
WH: Honestly, especially on the songs that are so personal, she gets excited when it is written exactly how it happened. So it’s good to ask her if it’s 100% realistic or if I missed something. She was there, so she’s the best person to ask.
S: Well, thanks for giving us that insight! So something I’m really interested in is the change in the sound and style between your early music and 8Tracks. I’m wondering when this style change took place. Could you touch on that a little?
WH: Yeah, so it was a gradual change, and obviously there was a lot of time in there and things that the public didn’t hear. I would basically attribute it to one thing though. When I was at Capital [Records] I wasn’t recording myself, and I wasn’t driving the train in the writer’s room…I was more or less writing to a formula because we were collecting songs at a label and they expect a certain type of song, so I definitely had those barriers to stay inside. Not discounting the label at all, just saying that was what they expected from me. And then I had Marshall Altman producing me, who came from kind of a rock-pop background, so my first album had the feel of a Nashville songwriter with his influence on the music. What happened after I got dropped was that I started writing for publishing companies and I didn’t have a lot of money to record demos, so I started recording my own demos. I wouldn’t say that 8Tracks are perfect, they are just kind of thrown together in the shack, but I developed a style there that I was comfortable using in production in the shack to represent my demos. So that’s how they came together musically. And then lyrically, what happened was, when I was working at Costco and I when I signed at SMACK, I had complete freedom…They pretty much just said, “The door is wide open, write what you feel because that’s what we connect with.” So I feel like that’s the biggest difference in the music. When I was at Capital I would see a bumper sticker and I’d think of how clever I could be to turn that into a song, whereas nowadays I really have to feel it or I don’t want to write it, and I’d hope you can hear that. Even in the light and fluffy stuff like “Shades,” I would hope you would think, “Man he really just went after that and wrote exactly what came out. He didn’t filter it or change it for a genre or a market, he just wrote it.” Does that help clear it up at all?
S: That helps so much. I was so curious about that and you just cleared it all up!
WH: Good, I mean I don’t hate my old stuff when I listen to it, but I listen to my new stuff and there is an authenticity and a truth that I love. Even my friends and family tell me that my new stuff is just “me.”
S: Yeah, and you’re actually touching a little bit on my next question. Some of your songs, like “You Broke Up with Me” and “Your Girlfriend Does” have some “sass”, if you will, and I’m wondering if this is reflective of your attitude and how you are when you are just hanging out at home.
WH: Oh yeah, they definitely have sass. My wife would definitely call me a smartass, but obviously she found that attractive when we were dating, so it’s her fault! But it definitely hasn’t gone away, and I think it’s cool that you hear that in “You Broke Up with Me” and “Your Girlfriend Does.” So “Your Girlfriend Does” was just an immediate response to a hater. I actually wrote it with Trevor Rosen and Brad Tursi from Old Dominion. I said, “Man, there is this hater and he’s really clever” and we started reading mean tweets and stuff and how we felt was, “We don’t care if you like the song because your girlfriend does.” And then “You Broke Up with Me” is kind of me having a chip on my shoulder from when I was at Capital. At that time, everyone wanted to write with me and everyone had my phone number and then I disappeared for a bit. Well, now that I’m back, there are definitely people coming out of the woodwork asking if I want to write and my thought is, “Well, you broke up with me.” And I feel like everyone has felt like that. But yeah, I definitely try to put on a mask that I’m a nice person, but deep down I am a smart aleck.
S: That totally makes sense now with “You Broke Up with Me.” You’ve been with your wife for so long that I could not figure out who you would be writing about! Thank you for sharing. So, on this upcoming album, should we expect any of the lyrical acoustic type tracks, or what we’ve heard on 8Tracks, or a mix of both?
WH: Definitely a mix of both. Fans are going to get some familiarity because they’ve heard the shack versions, like “You Broke Up with Me.” It’s the closest song we have to the original 8Track version, while some songs we just put a band around the 8Track version and then some weren’t on 8Track at all. So there is a good mix of new material, old material with new music and then a few completely recut, like “Beer in the Fridge.” It’s a good blend and the sound that Shane found in the studio is as unique as the 8Track sound but it has a strength that is fit for radio.
S: And we should be expecting that in the fall?
WH: Yeah, best case scenario, fall.
S: Great! So what should we expect for the rest of the year?
WH: I’m finishing up with Bobby Bones in May, then I’m out with Thomas Rhett in the fall, and a couple of dates with Billy Currington in August. So lots of good opportunities coming up that I am excited about. Another neat thing is that we will be making a transition from me doing everything on loop to finding a band, so I’m excited for that too.
S: Awesome, well that’s all I have for you. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Walker, and have fun at SXSW!