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Dan + Shay reached a tipping point in their careers. It made them closer

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Country music duo Dan + Shay have had a successful few years - Grammys, a hit song with Justin Bieber and a slew of devoted fans. But last year, they reached what felt like a breaking point.

SHAY MOONEY: As we kind of progressed in our career and things started to happen, we both got married and kind of started our own lives. And I think that was, you know, one of the things that happened is you kind of start to not necessarily drift apart, but you're sometimes going in a different direction.

SUMMERS: That's Shay Mooney. He and Dan Smyers have worked together for 10 years. Now they're back with a new album that almost didn't happen. It's called "Bigger Houses." The title track delivers a message about fulfillment and satisfaction that Mooney and Smyers are feeling now about their music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIGGER HOUSES")

DAN & SHAY: (Singing) There's always gonna be higher high you could chase for the rest of your life. Greener grass in the yard next door or a shined-up Chevy little newer than yours. You're never going to fill an empty cup if what you got's still not enough. The thing about happiness I've found is it don't live in bigger houses.

SUMMERS: But getting to that place of contentment, it took work, time and hard conversations. And when I reached Dan + Shay at member station WPLN in Nashville, I asked Dan Smyers just how they rekindled their friendship and love for their music career.

DAN SMYERS: It's not just enough to make great music and be done with it. It's like you've got to really be on 24/7, delivering content, creating content. And I feel like I was spending way more time doing the social media thing, trying to come up with ideas to go viral or, you know, to get good engagement on social media. And I think that kind of made me fall out of love with music. The thing that filled my cup the most was being in a writing room, especially being in a writing room with Shay. And once I reconnected with that part of my life, I called Shay, and I was like, dude, we got to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEON COWGIRL")

DAN & SHAY: (Singing) Neon cowgirl, don't you cry. Don't you know you were born to shine?

SMYERS: I put some urgency on it. And he was like, oh, we can get together like a couple of days next week. I was like, well, how's tonight sound? And he came over. And we just we aired it all out. We apologized for things that had been on our hearts. And we just talked everything out. And we just, like, said, we need to really focus on this. It's like a marriage. If you're not going out of your way to work on it, things can fall apart. You can just naturally grow apart. And we sensed that that was kind of what was happening. And it was like, let's spend a few days together. Let's work on music. Let's write songs. And if we don't have a song idea, let's just hang out. Let's spend time together off the clock and be best friends again. And that's what we did.

SUMMERS: Shay, what was that like for you?

MOONEY: I was driving over there, you know, palms sweating (laughter), driving to his house. And when we sat down and started talking, it was just this kind of sigh of relief of - I think the one thing that we both wanted to hear was that it both mattered to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN + SHAY'S "NEON COWGIRL")

MOONEY: I genuinely didn't know if Dan was - really wanted to continue to do this. And I think one of the biggest pieces that both of us had to admit, not just to each other but to ourselves, is that, like Dan said, like, Dan + Shay matters to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALWAYS GONNA BE")

DAN & SHAY: (Singing) Paradise is a swing on a porch. Summertime is a little too short.

SUMMERS: There is a song on this album that you all have said was really born out of this sort of restorative journey that you went on together. It's called "Always Gonna Be." Can one of you just tell us about it?

SMYERS: This is Dan. This is the first song that we wrote for the "Bigger Houses" album. And "Always Gonna Be" is just - it's a defining song on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALWAYS GONNA BE")

DAN & SHAY: (Singing) Beer drinking kids on a backroad. Good country songs on the radio.

SMYERS: It was just us reconnecting as friends and hanging out with no pressure. And I think that just kind of defined where we were going sonically, where we're going conceptually. And it was one of those ones that we wrote it, we did a demo of it, and we're like, this feels authentically Dan + Shay. This is like the Dan + Shay in its purest form.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALWAYS GONNA BE")

DAN & SHAY: (Singing) Girl, your eyes are my favorite blue. I double take when I wake up with you.

SMYERS: And sonically, I think it was a bit of a return to our roots, you know, our country influences. We did this record very organically. You know, we did it with a live band. We just wanted the words and the feelings and the emotions and the vocals to cut through and not be overshadowed by, you know, the glitz and glam of heavier production like we'd done in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN + SHAY'S "HEARTBREAK ON THE MAP")

SUMMERS: I mean, and one of the things that I love so much about country music and have loved over the years is the fact that it's a huge umbrella with so many different types of music that can fit inside the genre. So I just wonder, how do y'all see yourselves fitting?

MOONEY: Yeah. That's a good question. I feel like everybody is continuing to search for where they fit. I think that we land, you know, right around Dan + Shay. I think that's the only way to describe it. We have our own thing, and we have for 10 years now. And we're not trying to be anything other than exactly who we are. And I think that's a very exciting thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBREAK ON THE MAP")

DAN & SHAY: (Singing) She might be west of Texas, east of Tennessee, could be Colorado...

MOONEY: I can't wait to really find out. You know, I think as we move forward and try to come from a very genuine place and learn, I think you should never stop learning as an artist, as a person. You know, I hope that I'm 90 years old one day and still trying to learn all I can and trying to evolve. Hopefully, we're 90 and doing this together. I think it'd be a fun tour to do when you're 90. We might have to sit down...

SUMMERS: (Laughter).

MOONEY: ...But we've redefined our meaning of what it looks like, you know, to have success. You know, I think that at the end of the day, no matter what this album does, I can stand behind this and say 110% that I'm the most proud that I've ever been of a project before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBREAK ON THE MAP")

DAN & SHAY: (Singing) Oh, if you see her, let her know I miss her.

SUMMERS: You all mentioned the idea that you hope you're still doing this when you're 90 years old, and if you are, I hope we get to have this conversation again. But I am so curious. You have been through such kind of an emotional journey in the span between your last album and this one and that tour that was aborted because of COVID. You'll have the tour, of course, but also, we know that you're joining "The Voice's" judges in the upcoming season. You, of course, have your families and your friendships and individual passions. How do you plan on keeping that equilibrium and that balance and that love for the music? How do you feel like you'll manage keeping that center as you go off on this new journey?

SMYERS: Yeah. I feel like it really took hitting that rock bottom moment to identify what it was that kind of sent us on the wrong path. And I feel like just knowing that, being aware of that and being open about that, you know. I feel like every time we talked this out into the universe, like, just having this conversation today, I'm looking over at Shay. I'm like, dude, like, this is awesome that we get to do this. I feel like the more we're vulnerable and the more we talk about it, to just go out of our way to be proactive this go around about saying, hey, man, OK, I'm getting a little burnt out. And I feel like that makes this - what we're doing - infinitely sustainable. It really does.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE ME THE TROUBLE")

DAN & SHAY: (Singing) Why don't you save me the trouble? Keep those pretty blue eyes to yourself.

SUMMERS: Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney are Dan + Shay. Their new album, "Bigger Houses," is out now. Thank y'all so much.

SMYERS: Thank you for taking the time. This was a very therapeutic conversation. Hopefully, we can do this again. And hopefully, we can get you out to a show. We'll hang out in person.

MOONEY: Absolutely. We got to get you out. Thank you for the time again. We appreciate you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Tinbete Ermyas
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.