For a while there, unbeknown to all but a few, there was a danger that hit country-pop duo Dan + Shay might go separate ways. But putting a minus sign in the middle of that moniker wouldn’t have had much of a ring to it, for either solo career that might have developed, so it’s to everyone’s benefit that they figured out what was dividing them and got their duo mojo back to make “Bigger Houses,” their fifth full-length album for Warner Nashville.
In — hurrah — joint conversation with Variety just before the new album came out, Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney got candid about the time they spent feeling estranged from another before getting back to basics just as conversationalists, then as mutually supportive songwriting collaborators. Led by the single “Save Me the Trouble,” the new album finds them fully reunited with longtime producer Scott Hendricks, who took on the entire collection with Smyers as co-producer. The kings of country wedding songs also discussed how “Bigger Houses” includes not one, not two, but three types of tunes potentially appropriate for nuptials — along with plenty of breakup songs if things go south before or after the matrimony. And they revealed they’ve already gotten underway on preliminary shooting for their stint as coaches on “The Voice,” even though their first season won’t go live on NBC until early 2024.
And, although we usually identify artists by their last names in a Q&A, we’ll make an exception this time for a pair known by the world primarily on a first-name basis.
There’s a lot going on right now, but to jump the gun and ask about what you’ll be doing in 2024: You are joining “The Voice” as coaches, two for the price of one. It is fascinating to think about the prospect of two people sharing one button — although with two chairs. Are the production designers on the show still trying to figure out how that’s going to work to get you all on stage with separate chairs? Without your legs bumping when you’re both turning around?
Dan: Yeah, we’ve already started with it, man. We’ve gotten to shoot a little bit of it. It’s two chairs, but one button, and they’re actually connected. It’s kind of one big platform. It’s definitely a spectacle. We’ve worked with them a lot. You know, we were mentors for Blake — um, for Blake’s team. We weren’t really mentors for Blake. I don’t know if he’s reachable now; he’s beyond help. I’m kidding. He’s the greatest and he’s honestly been a mentor to us from the very beginning stages of our career. We got to do that show a few times, and I guess that was kind of our tryout back then.
At the core of it, it’s a lot of fun to be able to represent country music in that space, and Blake had always done that so well. We felt like we were well equipped to really help people on that show, helping new artists along, and making them better — better people and better artists. We’ve made a lot of mistakes in our life, and have a lot of wisdom to share through those mistakes that we’re gonna be able to share with those artists. and everybody on that team is just so incredible. Reba’s an absolute legend and it’s awesome that they have two country acts on there. It’ll be next year before we actually get to get to see that all come together and get to do all the live stuff.
With the new album, you start the song sequence with a breakup song, “Breaking Up With a Broken Heart,” and then you’ve got deeply/madly-in-love songs. Do you secretly prefer one or the other?
Dan: When it comes to what I prefer, breakup songs or love songs… the beauty of writing songs is you’re able to write about what you know. We both went through heartbreak and we both right now are experiencing incredible marriages in our lives. In my growing up, even when I was in a great relationship, my favorite songs were breakup songs. Because it makes you feel something. And I feel like that’s a little bit of a therapy in a way to kind of air that stuff out, even if you’re not going through it at the time. It’s an important part of the process to kind of grieve that, and sometimes the song can just take you right back to that place and bring you healing, if it’s a sad song, even when you’re in a happy place. “Tequila,” a sad breakup song, was one of our biggest songs, even with people that were in love at the time.
I think a good album always covers all the bases. You have your wedding songs, you have your love songs, you have your breakup songs. I think it’s important to touch on all those things and have a little something for everybody and, even if you relate to a love song, there’s probably a breakup song on there that hits you in the feels and takes you back to that place that you were in that maybe brings a little bit of healing.
Since you mentioned wedding songs, you guys have a few of those in your catalog. Then I was looking at the track list, seeing the song “We Should Get Married,” thinking, “Well, that sounds like it really ticks the box.” Then it turns out to be kind of a wild-ass song about having just met someone and being impetuous, so it’s not an appropriate first-dance song after all. But then you have “What Took You So Long,” which very much feels like a real wedding song candidate. And I can imagine the song about loving your daughter, “For the Both of Us,” being a father-daughter dance song.
Dan: Totally. Yeah, we’ve had a few straight-down-the-middle, first-dance songs with “From the Ground Up” and stuff. But we thought it would be cool to have some other moments in the wedding. “I Think We Should Get Married” is a fun, novelty concept, a little kitschy. Where it came from was, we get invited to play all these weddings, which is great. We wouldn’t trade it for the world, because if all else goes away, it’s a bit of job security: People are always going to be getting married. But we would always play the first dance, but then we’d get kicked off the stage for some DJ or a local band who would come up and play “Uptown Funk” or “Twist and Shout,” when all the guests came to the dance floor. We were like, You know what? We need a song for that. And that’s what we did, with “We Should Get Married.”
But “For the Both of Us,” we thought that was a cool approach, too. Our buddy Andy (Albert) had that hook, and that’s just a great country song; I couldn’t recall any songs with that perspective. We saved the big reveal (about the daughter, her beau and the father) until the chorus. It’s cool to have a father-daughter kind of song in the mix like that. If we do go play a wedding, we could stay on stage a little bit longer and sing that one — maybe like a modern-day “Butterfly Kisses” kind of moment.
At this point in your career, do you try to deliberately introduce wrinkles into the process of making the album, or does it come down to just a matter of waiting until you come up with 10 or more great songs, and then you know you’ve got it?
Shay: Making this album was a very different process than making every other album we’ve ever made. If you relate it to anything, we made it a lot like our very first record, because it was just kind of two guys hanging out with their friends and talking about life and writing music that we love. And we’ve talked a lot about kind of the journey that Dan and I have been on for the last little bit. The last 10 years have been crazy, and through that, I feel like we got to this place that we talked about in this video called “The Drive,” where we talked about our struggles and working through that and thankfully coming on the other side better people because of it. Really, the album happened out of that reconciliation process.
You have been open, recently, about the two of you having been in a state of estrangement. What was that about?
Shay: Dan and I were both a little bit burnt out on music. We weren’t communicating. We were not really hanging out outside of work. Any time we got together, it was to do an interview or a show. And, I mean, we’re best friends. We started this thing 10 years ago and we were not nurturing the thing that really mattered the most: our relationship with each other. A lot of, duos, especially, fall to the wayside because of that. It’s a very difficult configuration. With a trio, you’ve got the tiebreaker; as a solo act, you’re making all the decisions. But with a duo, it’s 50/50, and you have to make sure that you’re in lockstep and you’re communicating. And we got to this place where we were going in different directions.
It is fascinating to think about how different the dynamics are with a duo from a band.
Shay: Opposites attract in a lot of ways, in every kind of dynamic. You look at any marriage. I’m very different in the way that I approach my life than my wife is, and I know Dan’s the same, from Abby, and that’s a beautiful thing. When you’re able to work together with someone that is very different than you, it’s a great picture of what humanity looks like, and it’s very reflective of really what our society is like, when done in a healthy way. I think the reason that there’s been so many duos break up is because sometimes when you have a bigger group, that pressure can kind of be dispersed in a way, and things can kind of be resolved through another party. With a duo, if one person has a problem and they’re not real willing to work through that, there’s no one else to lean on or reason with that person. So it really has to be you two getting on the same page.
Is there any nutshell way to describe what the biggest difference in your personalities is, behind the scenes?
Dan: Yeah, I would say the different sides of the coin are: Shay is a crazy optimist, and I’m a crazy pessimist. Maybe those are two extreme ways to put it. But he’ll look at something and be like, “Hey, all is well,” and I’ll try to find something that’s wrong. That’s something that I’ve been working on, and I feel like we’ve kind of met in the middle on that a little bit, more towards realism for both of us. Like, “OK, cool, this is something we might have to work on,” or “This song didn’t do well, so let’s address what made it not do well, or let’s figure it out.” And for me, the pessimist, it’s like, man, you know what? Life is pretty good. We get to do what we love. After 10 years, there’s still folks paying their hard-earned money to come see us play, and we just had the biggest radio add day of our career. It’s just going out of our way to try to recognize those things, and try to bond over those things, and just meet each other in the middle. We talk about the best things about being a duo: When times are tough, you help each other through it, and when times are great, you have somebody to celebrate it with.
Did you have a come-to-Jesus moment, between the two of you?
Shay: We had a night that we got together and aired all of our stuff out and really communicated and apologized for a lot of things on both sides. And we got to this place where we said, “Let’s either ride out into the sunset as friends and call it a day, or let’s really figure out our stuff and figure out a healthy way to move forward.” We had a plan of action to just hang out three times a week, and just get together with no intention rather than just hanging out. And us hanging out just turned into us ending up writing songs together. We had no pressure to make an album or anything. We just got together and simply were talking and writing songs with our friends. The very first song that we wrote for this project was a song called “Always Gonna Be.” And that title came from that night Dan and I got together, and we said: No matter what happens with the future of our band, you can never take away what’s happened with Dan + Shay. We’re always going to be a tattoo on someone’s arm or a first dance song. And that was really important for us to get to that place and be appreciative of where we’ve been, and really have no pressure about what the future looks like. This album really came from that: just two guys that were loving music again and having a good time with it and just writing songs on an acoustic guitar again. With this project, there were not a lot of the pressures that there normally are when you have three or four months to turn in an album for your record label. This was just a very authentic, genuine look into where we’re at in our lives right now, and that’s what makes this one so special.
Did it become important for you to share that with people? Airing out the fact that you almost broke up might not be everybody’s first impulse. But the two of you, in your public personas, seem like such agreeable people, it’s easy for fans and journalists to assume here are two easygoing guys who are on top of the world that come to work smiling every day. Putting out that “Drive” video, it seemed like you wanted to humanize yourselves as you came back ready for action, telling people you’ve had your problems like anybody else.
Dan: Well, you nailed it right on the head there. It’s funny you say that, because the last 10 years of our career has been pretty squeaky-clean. I know a lot of people do that on social media. You only post the best of the best on your highlight reel. And we were back and forth about being that vulnerable. We had never done anything like that. And we truly do love what we do. We’re so grateful for everything that’s been given to us and everything that we’ve accomplished together. But we were going through this in such a big way, maybe that made it harder for us to not be able to share it and, I guess selfishly, be able to get it out there to the world.
We also thought about it as, if we’re going through this situation, this kind of communication block, if we’re going through this and what that’s doing to us, we felt like maybe it could help somebody else through what they’re going through, whether it’s a significant other, whether it’s a best friend, whether it’s a coworker. It’s just about opening up, being vulnerable, communicating with somebody, asking for help, telling someone you’re not OK. That’s where it starts. And you can’t heal until you do that. So we just wanted to kind of tell our story.
Shay and I, once we got to this amazing place, for a few months, we would be hanging out writing songs at my house all day, and then Shay would get home and he’d call me or I’d call him at 7 or 8 p.m. after he’d put the kids down, and we would just talk for like two hours. We would just be sharing dreams and hopes for this new music and where we want to go and just like how much we’re enjoying this moment and this season of our lives. There was one time we were on the phone for two hours and I was like, “Crap, I wish we would have been recording that.” We were like, we should just take a drive one day and mic up the car and just have a conversation. Our manager wasn’t there, nobody was in the car with us, and no one could even see or hear the footage until we got back, we got so far away from home base. We just talked for a long time and shared that story and opened our hearts to each other. Man, it was a tough call. You know, when we saw the cut of it, we were super moved, but I think a lot of people around us were even more moved because they didn’t know that that was going on between us. And our fans didn’t know that was going on, and we felt like getting it out there to the folks gave more context to this music and where it came from in our hearts. I think it was one of the best decisions we ever made. You have no idea when I tell you the comments that we received from that. I’m not necessarily saying view count or virality, but the depth of the comments and how passionate people were when they would respond, like, “Hey, Dan and Shea, I want to tell you, this moved me — I went through the same thing with my husband.”
Hopefully, when people see that, it encourages them to go down a similar path, because we’re happier than we’ve ever been. It feels like there’s a whole new lightness in the room. I just feel like we’re moving at the same pace right now, and I think it’s sustainable for the rest of our career. I can’t even begin to tell you how different everything feels.
The duo’s recently announced Heartbreak On The Map Tour dates for 2024:
Date City, State Venue
Thu, Feb 29 Greenville, SC Bon Secours Wellness Arena
Fri, Mar 1 Charlottesville, VA John Paul Jones Arena
Sat, Mar 2 Greensboro, NC Greensboro Coliseum Complex
Thu, Mar 7 Austin, TX Moody Center ATX
Fri, Mar 8 Fort Worth, TX Dickies Arena
Sat, Mar 9 Oklahoma City, OK Paycom Center
Thu, Mar 14 Grand Rapids, MI Van Andel Arena
Fri, Mar 15 Columbus, OH Nationwide Arena
Sat, Mar 16 Knoxville, TN Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center
Wed, Mar 20 Savannah, GA Enmarket Arena
Thu, Mar 21 Nashville, TN Bridgestone Arena
Fri, Mar 22 Chicago, IL United Center
Thu, Apr 4 Milwaukee, WI Fiserv Forum
Fri, Apr 5 Saint Paul, MN Xcel Energy Center
Sat, Apr 6 Omaha, NE CHI Health Center Omaha
Sun, Apr 7 Kansas City, MO T-Mobile Center
Thu, Apr 11 Philadelphia, PA Wells Fargo Center
Fri, Apr 12 Newark, NJ Prudential Center
Sat, Apr 13 Boston, MA TD Garden