His laughter is contagious. His chatter unpretentious. And his potential, seemingly limitless.
At 22, Hunter Hayes has already netted three Grammy nominations and opened tours for Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts. His 2011 debut album hit No. 1 on the country chart and reached No. 7 in pop.
The Louisiana native has also performed at the 2014 Academy of Country Music Awards as well as this year's Grammys, where he debuted his now-hit single "Invisible." Hayes describes the latter experience as "incredibly nerve-wracking and awesomely beautiful at the same time."
"The song's really personal for me, and you know it's not every day that you get to play on the Grammys, much less do a world premiere of a new single off of a brand-new record that nobody has even heard about! [Laughs.] And so it was amazing. [I had] all the nerves, though. ... I was like sick to my stomach almost the entire week. Because you know you want something like that to go smoothly."
The song speaks to the self-proclaimed music geek's own coming-of-age story. And while it's become a rallying cry for the anti-bullying movement — "Those words cut deep, but they don't mean you're all alone / You're not invisible" — it also, he explains, delves into the broader ideas of following your dreams, and staying true to yourself, no matter the challenges.
Hayes credits his success and capability to do what he does every day to those who have come before him.
"I've met a lot of people along this journey just the last couple of years that have really put in perspective for me what it's like to be so passionate about something you love, or whatever it is that makes you different, and how to stay true to that. ... They're truly happy because they are who they are. They've never changed, and they've written the story of their lives with all the things that make them unique, you know?"
His music "geekiness" pops out a bit when asked for an example.
"Stevie Wonder — I can't believe that I get to say his name, and say, 'Oh yeah, I worked with Stevie Wonder,' because, my gosh, how long have I been a fan and have wanted to say that?
"Aside from the music, [he's an] unbelievably inspiring individual. In my opinion, a total leader when it comes to [being] an ambassador for good. The fact that he's accomplished so much. And he's not bored with it and on to the next thing. ...
"That sort of builds this happiness, this natural happiness, this courage, this bravery, this strength, all the things that he stands for, you know. I respect him so immensely."
Hayes is becoming something of a role model himself. He's using "Invisible" to raise funds for hunger relief. (With every iTunes purchase of the song, ConAgra Foods and P&G's Child Hunger Ends Here program donates the monetary equivalent of a meal, up to 1 million, to families in need through Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief organization.)
Hayes' current arena shows, which bring him through Colorado Springs on April 23, will also feature opening acts Dan+Shay and Danielle Bradbery. The tour's title, "We're Not Invisible," intentionally weaves more social awareness and fundraising opportunities through both child hunger and anti-bullying causes.
In fact, Hayes seems to constantly be thinking about new opportunities to make a difference. Which may come next via his closet. The fan of "simplicity" is most often found in jeans and T-shirts — and Converses.
"I do have a bit of a collection," he says, laughing. "Probably more than I care to admit to."
When pushed, though, Hayes gives up the number. "Oh, probably 30, now," he reluctantly replies. "It's ridiculous. It's absurd, honestly. It really is. ... But I've begun an idea for different things we can actually do to actually not have so many."
An auction may be on its way, of those shoes and other accessories — he's also "a big watch guy."
"A lot of my purchases like that are celebrations," he says. "And so the stories that come with them are really fun and special to me. So who knows what we can do with them but we're exploring options now."
First, though, May 6 marks the date Hayes' Storyline drops, an album he promises is full of energy. "It kinda makes the last record look dark and depressing."
Even though his self-titled debut album is a showcase for Hayes' artistic drive — he wrote or co-wrote each of its songs, co-produced it, sang all of the vocals and played the 30-some instruments included — this new one has allowed for more play.
"I'm a big bluegrass music fan. And we've gotten to pull a lot of those influences into this record. And a lot of my favorite guitar players too. I've gotten to ... be inspired by some really cool new tones and textures and things. It was a proper experiment.
"It's a clueless search for something, which is what I'm most happy about."