After shooting to fame with his 2011 self-titled album, the country singer tells PEOPLE, "I was just trying to find those things that they like and do that again"

By Dana Falcone
Updated April 30, 2020 08:55 AM
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Hunter Hayes; Astronaut
John Parra/Getty; Michael Becker/FOX

Hunter Hayes landed back on earth Wednesday night after he got unmasked as Astronaut on The Masked Singer following the Battle of the Sixes. While the country singer, 28, won't be moving onto the quarterfinals, at least he can answer a text again.

"It's nice to be able to respond to text messages that I've been avoiding for months because I've been avoiding everybody," Hayes tells PEOPLE. "I'm not good at lying or making up anything else. When friends start texting me and they're like, 'You're the Astronaut, I know it! Tell me I'm wrong,' and you don't text them back, it gets awkward. So it's good to reconnect with the world around me."

The "Wanted" singer had been recording his upcoming album in Los Angeles while also appearing on the Fox competition series, and he experimented with different genres of music both in the studio and on the show. Hayes performed songs by Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran and Stevie Wonder on The Masked Singer, and went out this week with a cover of One Direction's "Story of My Life."

Astronaut on The Masked Singer.
Michael Becker / FOX

"There's a lot more that I've always listened to and loved, and my job as an artist is to bring everything into my music," Hayes says. "Obviously a large part of my life has been country-influenced,  but there's a lot of other influences, especially on this new music. The things that excite me and things that moved me, I want to bring that into my music. I want people to hear what my heart is made of."

Hayes shares more details on what fans can expect from the follow-up to 2019's Wild Blue (Part 1),  needing a musical reset and why The Masked Singer came along at the perfect time.

Why did you want to go on The Masked Singer?

This is a time of growth for me musically and life-wise and Part 2, Red Sky, is about serious change — moving on, letting go and embracing newness and the unknown. Part 1 talks about it and approaches it, Part 2 is about setting off on the road trip and really experiencing it. Because I had to be in unknown places, I couldn't make it at home. So I knew that I was going to be in Los Angeles when I got the invitation [to do Masked Singer]. It was perfect timing. I knew that it was going to be a lot of things that I've never done before and that's exactly what I needed. I needed to be taken outside of my comfort zone, I needed to be challenged and learn how to dance and figure out how to be in a suit. And it was a good reminder to me that even outside of the costume I've got to start from sincerity, which I always believed in but it was a good affirmation.

What are some of the big clues viewers should have picked up on?

There are a lot of clues about flying and Wild Blue (Part 1) is all about flying. There are a lot of French references: King Cakes, French horns. There were also a lot of things to throw people off that I was really happy that they worked to an extent. I think the fans knew since I opened my mouth, which I was surprised by but it also came as sort of a compliment. It was a shock to me that even behind the mask, I can still connect with people.

Panelist Nicole Scherzinger guessed you as well!

I was honestly shocked. Half the stuff they guessed I was shocked because it was so far off-base. I mean, Eddie Vedder, what? But when they actually guessed me, I was really surprised.

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You talked in the clue package about overreaching, getting burnt and feeling isolated. Why did you feel like you needed this reset?

Lots of reasons. I'm experiencing a really fun part of my musical chapter but it's only a part that you can truly enjoy if you're embracing every bit of it and not resisting it or not trying to force anything. I think for a while I had put filters on what I was saying or what I was making because I just wanted people to like it. They liked the first record so I was just trying to find those things that they like and do that again. The best way to describe it is going from making music how you think it should be made and realizing that you could make music how it could be made. What can I do? What haven't I done yet? And what can we try? Versus trying to recreate history.

How do you reflect on that time around your debut album's release in 2011 and then "I Want Crazy" blowing up?

The debut album was such a pure time because there were no expectations. I made that entire record in such a vacuum. I think I've kind of set that as the standard; If the music I make isn't that pure, then I need to return to the drawing board and remind myself of why I make music and why I love it.

Was there a bit of an "a-ha" moment when you realized that?

There was a song that I put out a couple of years ago called "Dear God" and when I turned it into the label I was afraid that they weren't going to let me put it out because it was so obscure and it was touching on a very sensitive topic. When we finally put "Dear God" out, the response was amazing. When you look at the whole Wild Blue (Part 1) as a whole, we sort of designed certain songs to maybe succeed more than "Dear God" and "Dear God" is still the most successful song on the album. It was such an eye-opening moment for me, that and "One Shot," those are just songs we produced in the basement. We didn't overthink those and that's what worked. And I think that sort of reset my course for the album and very much informed how to start Part 2.

Hunter Hayes
Kyle Dean Reinford

What can fans expect from the next album?

The best way for me to explain Red Sky is Wild Blue is kind of like planning the trip. It's like a map. It's like putting little points where you want to go. And Red Sky is we actually are in the car and you're five miles away from home and it's too late to turn back and you're going on a very unknown adventure and it's just invigorating. Every single minute of it is invigorating. That's how making the record has been and I think that's how people are going to feel when they listen to it too. There's a lot of exploring, a lot of adventure.

You've been doing some exploring on your scooter these days.

I'm doing my best. I think we're all just trying to figure out how to reset our minds and our souls and our hearts at this crazy time. Even though we can't get on the bus and go tour, my little scooter rides have become my therapy for the day. I think this has been really helpful with identifying places that make me happy and feel centered. Just trying to take more time to enjoy those things.

And you seem to be enjoying spending more time with your dogs Ella and Cole, too.

Ella didn't know she was going to be an Instagram influencer but she's really good at it. She's better at it than anyone I know.

Any plans yet for Red Sky's release?

I've got a large body of work that I'm working on one song at a time and I think that's allowed me to feel what the song wants me to feel, rather than just making music and throwing parts in a song. It's allowing me to really wrestle with some of these songs and figure out what they want to be and what they want to say.  It's been an incredible process. All that to say, I am kind of nearing the end of what I feel like is going to be the first couple of songs that I want to hear from the album and trying to decide which ones I want the world to hear first and really getting close to putting those in an envelope and sending them off to the world.

Can we expect to see any of your Masked Singer moves when you return to the stage? You did a great job of staying in character and introducing fun choreography.

We had shows scheduled and I was excited to see what accidentally would happen on stage with me. There's so many things that leaving the show I do by habit, like the stance of the Astronaut. I find that I accidentally do that in conversations and it looks so dumb without the costume. I think I might try to incorporate some of those things from the show. Because at the end of the day a lot of the things that came from the show came from the heart. I think if I could have more fun on stage. I have The Masked Singer to thank for that.

The Masked Singer airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on Fox.