Last January, with knots in his stomach, Hunter Hayes stepped out on to the GRAMMYs stage to give fans the first taste of his highly-anticipated sophomore album, Storyline.
"I was a mess of a person," Hayes tells ETonline, "because a lot was riding on that."
Less than 24-hours later, lead single "Invisible" had scored more than 35,000 downloads to become the highest-charting debut of Hayes' career. Today, Hayes says the song has strengthened the bond he shares with his fans.
"I definitely think this song has brought me closer to the fans in a deep way, and I think it's allowed me to be a bit more vulnerable than I was," he says, confessing that he still gets emotional on stage when he hears his loyal Hayniacs singing along. "That's what you write a song for, right there."
So how did he write "Invisible"? Hayes opened up about the whole process for the first installment in ETonline's Behind the Hit series, which asks artists to reflect on how their biggest songs came to life and what it's meant for their careers.
Hayes co-wrote "Invisible" in 2012 with Bonnie Baker and Katrina Elam, who got together with the intent of writing something completely different.
"I had brought in another idea, and I was trying way too hard," Hayes confesses. "When an idea doesn't happen in the room, that means it's not supposed to happen. I was forcing it and it just was not working."
Conversation turned to growing up and insecurities about feeling different. When the word "invisible" dropped, lighting struck. "It was one of those moments where you can feel in the room that it’s supposed to be written," Hayes recalls.
"The chorus developed in our way of trying to take the word 'invisible' and make it a good thing," he says. "The song was written very quickly, because the verses were just a completely open conversation. [It was a] very natural process of writing a song."
"It was heavy work, heavy lifting for two months. Just overdubs after overdubs after overdubs," he says. "We had all kinds of musicians come in and do all kinds of stuff, and I sang it like 100 times… the problem was, we finished it and it was too much. It was too cluttered, it was too chaotic."
And just like that, 48 hours before his deadline, Hayes and his team went back to basics.
"We scrapped two months' worth of work and we re-did it in two days," he says. "I had my band come in, we cut it all as a band all at once, I kept my demo vocal, and there you go -- that's the record."
The demo vocals had been recorded just hours after the song was first written, bringing home the heart of the track.
"I was tearing up when I sang the lyrics the first time," Hayes admits. "Hearing everything played back in that little studio where I was doing my demos was an emotional experience… I'm coming to learn that’s how it probably should be in the future."
Last Sunday, Hayes returned to the GRAMMYs a year later as a nominee. "Invisible" was recognized alongside Carrie Underwood's "Something in the Water," Eric Church's "Give Me Back My Hometown," Miranda Lambert's "Automatic," and Keith Urban's "Cop Car." Underwood took home the trophy in the end, but Hayes' story is no less sweet.
"Coming back to the GRAMMYs a year later, with a nomination for the song that I debuted on the GRAMMYs, is about as full circle as it can get," he says with a smile. "It's special beyond words. It really speaks volumes for the message in that song, that message about following your dreams, being yourself, believing in yourself and being unique -- unapologetically. I couldn’t have scripted it any better. It's perfect."
Next up: new music.
"I'm very protective of the studio process," Hayes tells ETonline, "but we are in the studio, which means that there is new music being made. What it's for, what we're doing with it -- I can't say, but it's been a blast."
The 23-year-old says it’s been a "totally different" process for him this time around. "There's a new spirit in this batch and it's just a different thing," he teases. "It's a lot more energetic and the result of a lot of cool things."