"You look back at what you have been through and then, you can finally start finding the light," Michael Ray tells PEOPLE

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Perhaps it could be considered ironic that at the same time Michael Ray finds himself happier than he has ever been, he’s releasing one of his saddest songs.

Or perhaps it was always meant to be this way.

“‘Her World or Mine’ is not a reflection of where I’m today, but it’s the exact reflection of where I was a few years ago,” Ray tells PEOPLE about his new single, a song that tells the story of a breakup essentially from both points of view.

“I can deliver this song now in a hopeful way because I did live it and I came out on the other side,” he says.

Indeed, a few years ago, Ray was still a country music star in the making, trying to light another flame on a career that got a fast start thanks to songs such as 2015’s No. 1 hit “Kiss You in the Morning” and 2016’s “Think a Little Less.” But in 2017, the Florida native found himself not only dealing with his breakup with his longtime girlfriend, but also in legal trouble when he was arrested for reckless driving and for felony possession of cannabis oil.

“You can’t see the growth you are going through when you are in the middle of it,” Ray, now 31, says. “You feel like you are losing your grip on what you thought you had going on. When you are in the middle of it, it’s hard to see. You just can’t see the light.”

Michael Ray
Michael Ray
| Credit: Jeff Nelson

Yet, with the release of his second album Amos in 2018, Ray began showing fans his vulnerabilities both on stage and off, and in turn, they began surrounding him with more love than ever before.

“I think fans connected with that side of myself, the side that I had been trying to hide,” Ray explains. “The fans started connecting with the parts of me that were honest and real, and now, it’s an open-ended relationship. My concerts have literally become conversations. We have all been on both sides.”

Ray takes a deep breath and then continues: “You look back at what you have been through and then, you can finally start finding the light. You start looking forward to what the next day is going to bring.”

That light showed itself not only through the adoration of his loyal legion of fans, but also within the eyes of fellow country singer and now-fiancée Carly Pearce.

“Carly has opened me up in so many ways,” says Ray. “My home life is better than what I ever dreamed it would be. I’ve really opened up. It’s cool to have someone who can be with you to experience the highs and the lows, because God knows that we’ve been on both sides of that. I can deliver songs like ‘Her World or Mine’ now in a hopeful way because I did live it and I came out on the other side.”

54th Academy Of Country Music Awards - Arrivals
Michael Ray and Carly Pearce
| Credit: John Shearer/WireImage

In fact, as Ray looks to spend a majority of 2019 on the road with not only his Nineteen tour, but also as an opener for artists such as Brantley Gilbert and Old Dominion, he says he is looking forward to bringing the emotion every night he sings “Her World or Mine.”

“This would be a very different situation if the song found me two years ago,” he says of the single that is the follow-up to his latest No.1 single “One That Got Away.” “This song found me at the exact right time. I believe a song always finds you at the right time. I can sing every word of that song with feeling.”

And yes, the song does showcase a grittier side of Ray’s voice, a side that perhaps he picked up on as he listened to country music with his grandfather by his side back in the day.

“Vocally, I grew up on traditional music, so this song is really in my wheelhouse,” he says. “I’m fine and happy listening to something sad. I feel like it’s very easy to go there because it really does have a traditional feel. I love living and singing a lyric that truly twists your emotions.”

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It just might be a sneak peek at the vulnerability that Ray will continue to show in his future music. And with “Her World or Mine” serving as the third single off Amos, Ray says he is looking to the future.

“I’ve been writing a lot,” Ray admits. “It’s weird to think this might be the closing chapter, but Amos has been an album that I will look back on. It was the album that shifted everything to me. It matured me and it focused me and it changed my career and it gave me confidence and proved that it’s OK to be vulnerable.”