INTERVIEW: Dan Smyers discusses Dan + Shay’s new album, Kelly Clarkson, and more

dan + shay

I can tell you the first time that I heard Dan + Shay’s “19 You + Me.” It was released in October 2013, and I was 19 — no joke. I wasn’t really big on country music at the time, but this song sort of opened the floodgates. It was a perfectly reflective song, that seemed to come out at just the right time for this 19 year old adjusting into fall, still coming off the previous summer. I wasn’t alone here, this is a group that made an immediate connection with their fans in a big way. The song quickly climbed up the charts, improved the duo’s following across all social media, and helped their debut album (Where It All Began) make a top ten appearance on the Billboard 200 in it’s release week.

However, this isn’t a piece about me and how I discovered Dan + Shay; nor is it necessarily a piece on their dedicated fanbase. It’s simply one on a country who, now three albums in, have gotten to this point and how things stay interesting.

A little over a month ago, Dan + Shay released their third studio album, which so happened to be self-titled (more on that later), and it secured the duo their third straight top ten debut on the Billboard 200. This is something that doesn’t come by every day, and that impressive feat is not lost on the duo. When asked about this success, Dan Smyers tells me that “Man, we’ve worked so hard our entire lives, writing thousands and thousands of songs, traveling thousands of miles to play for a bartender or a bouncer, and building this thing, no pun intended, from the ground up. Knowing how many hours we poured into the writing, recording, mixing, mastering, etc. of this album, specifically, makes it even more rewarding to see it sitting on top of the charts. That basically means we did something right, and the fans are connecting with it. At the end of the day, we make the music for the fans.”

With it being their third studio album, Smyers previously explained that the album “feels like us.” When I asked him to expand on this notion, he explains that “They say your third album is the most important of your career, and we really felt that. [Where It All Began] sort of happened by accident, as it was basically just a batch of demos we had done in our friend’s basement. We started building our fanbase on that album, then continued developing the sound on our sophomore project. We took some chances, explored different stylistic paths, and had some success on Obsessed. When it came time to select the songs for our third album, we knew exactly who we were, what we wanted to say, and where we wanted to go in the future.”

It serves as a natural progression for the duo, blending together sounds from their previous two albums while finding ways to move forward. Songs like “Alone Together,” “My Side of the Fence,” and the hit “Tequila” all represent that pop-country sound that Dan + Shay have crafted so well. On the flip side, throughout the album there are guitar solos (“Make or Break”), and songs that favor more towards the pop spectrum (“All to Myself” and “Stupid Love”). What does all of this mean? “After it was all said and done, we thought we put together a project that perfectly represented Dan + Shay, hence the decision to self-title the album,” explains Smyers.

Another standout on Dan + Shay is the song “Keeping Score,” which is a duet with Kelly Clarkson. The duo have never had a featured guest before, and yet their first one wound up being with Clarkson. Smyers mentions that the duo are both big fans of Clarkson, and have been waiting to build themselves up before collaborating with another artist — and it finally felt like the right time with their third album. “Kelly has one of the most powerful voices, not only in our generation, but of all time, so it was an honor when she said yes to singing with us. We sent her the song, and literally within an hour, she hit back and was in,” Smyers begins, “Working in the studio with her was an absolute pleasure, and we can’t wait to sing this one live.”

And while Dan + Shay doesn’t necessarily sit down and plan to write a song that sounds a certain type of way, they do intentionally pull from a lot of different influences. When asked on how the duo keeps things fresh and exciting, this is something that Smyers highlights himself, “At the core of it all, we’re just music fans. We continue to pull from our influences, but also explore new music: country, pop, hip hop, rock, everything,” he begins. He also highlights that, as a music fan, he specifically looks forward to New Music Friday’s on Spotify, before finishing off his sentiments with “In the era of streaming, there is a lot of traffic, so we need to continue to elevate our game to stand out.”

Dan + Shay showcases a lot of diversity for the band, as mentioned earlier, but the duo lead the album with the single “Tequila.” It’s more of a country ballad, which is something that Dan + Shay has done really well over the course of their career (see: “From the Ground Up,” “Obsessed,” “Can’t Say No.”) “We always say let the best song win, regardless of tempo, concept, feel, etc. ‘Tequila’ was the clear favors amongst our small circle, much like ‘From the Ground Up’ on our previous project,” Smyers starts before moving on to explain the slower tempo nature of the previous two lead singels, “it is sometimes easier to deliver a strong message through the lyrics when the track is more relaxed.”

This has clearly worked out well for the duo, as “Tequila” has now become one of their biggest songs of their career. The single gave them their fourth #1 single on the “US Country Airplay” chart, and became their highest reaching on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #21. If you ask the duo what makes the song as popular as it has become, they might partially credit the rise in popularity of the liquor tequila, which certainly doesn’t help. Outside of that, Smyers explains that “We knew the song was special when we wrote it, but had no idea how far it would reach. We’ve had group texts, emails, calls, meetings, all trying to explain what it is that makes people react to the song (so we can hopefully re-create it in the future), but no one seems to know.” He also jokes that if they knew what would make specific songs so popular, their songwriting process would be much easier, which is of course part of the journey as a creative artist, putting yourself out there and essentially hoping for the best.

In terms of putting themselves out there, for Dan + Shay, the duo chose to wrote a song — “Speechless” — one of the most personal and touching moments in one’s life: their wedding. Not just their wedding, but the exact moment they saw their wive’s walking down the aisle. “We had basically finished our album when [“Speechless”] was written. We booked a day to write with Jordan Reynolds (“Tequila, “Keeping Score,” “All to Myself,” etc.) and Laura Veltz (Maren Morris – “Rich,” “I Could Use a Love Song,’ etc.) and stumbled upon some magic. We kicked around ideas for a few hours, but I scrolled through my phone and saw the idea ‘Speechless,’ and thought it would be cool to write it about the moment we saw our wives walking down the aisle for the first time,” Smyers explains. “We fully committed to it and knew we were onto something special. The fact that the lyric was so specifically based on that moment made the decision to use our actual wedding footage a no-brainer. We’re thankful to have let our fans have a glimpse into our special days through that video,” he finishes.

Country music might be changing, and Dan + Shay are here to change with it. If nothing else, their third studio album shows that the can be anything they push themselves to be. There’s country music, guitar solos, ballads, and everything in between. Of course, on top of all of that, are the duo’s powerful and instantly recognizable vocals. This is something that Smyers highlights as what he’s most proud of with the album, stating that “We spent so much time in my studio refining the melodies and phrasings, and then structuring harmonies sometimes 30 layers deep, so to hear people compliment the sound of the vocals is validating. Ultimately, if the vocals aren’t right, the track isn’t right, so that’s where we spend a majority of our focus.”

Dan + Shay is here to stay, and to talk to Smyers about their latest album, you can immediately tell that they are constantly looking forward. Their self-titled album is just the perfect representation of that, and it couldn’t have turned out better. While no one ever knows what’s next for themselves or others, it’s safe to say that you haven’t heard the last of this duo. A meteoric rise to success, three top ten albums under the belt, they aren’t cashing anything in just for the money. This is a duo that does everything genuinely, keeps their fans in mind, and also is always progressing. What more could you ask for?

Dan + Shay is currently on tour supporting Rascal Flatts, and will be following that up with some fall tour dates with Chris Young and Morgan Evans, before eventually heading overseas for a headlining tour. You can find ticketing and more information here on the duo’s website.