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The speed of fame almost made Dan + Shay split up. This is how they made it through

Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney — aka Dan + Shay.
Robby Klein
Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney — aka Dan + Shay.

Country music duo Dan + Shay have had a successful few years: Three Grammys, a hit song with Justin Bieber, a slew of devoted fans, and a highly anticipated new album, Bigger Houses.

But the album almost didn't happen.

"As we progressed in our career and things started to happen ... we both got married and kind of started our own lives," Shay Mooney told All Things Considered host Juana Summers. "And I think that was one of the things that happened ... you're sometimes going in different directions."

Mooney and Dan Smyers have worked together for 10 years. They came back in September with a new album, Bigger Houses, which in many ways is a welcome home — a return to their country sound, to their friendship, and to their love for songwriting.

Falling back in love with music

Dan + Shay are popular for their romantic lyrics and ballads that often land in first dances at weddings. But despite the love that they transmit in their music, both had reached a breaking point in their careers.

In 2020, the pandemic stalled their very first arena tour. They finally hit the road in 2021, but the grind took a toll.

"We finished that tour in Boston at TD Garden — sold out show. You know, we should have been riding the highest high of our entire lives," Smyers said. "And we were, I mean, we appreciated it, don't get me wrong on that. It was awesome. The show felt great. You know, we felt the connection with the fans, but it was just a major symptom of burnout."

Part of that exhaustion was caused by the need to be on social media constantly.

"It's not just enough to make great music and be done with it. It's like, you 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," Smyers said.

They took a months-long break after the tour, turned off social media, reconnected with their families – Smyers is married and has four dogs, while Mooney and his wife have three kids – and listened to music just for the sake of it.

Once Smyers felt like he knew a path forward, he called Mooney.

"I think the one thing that we both wanted to hear was that it both mattered to us," Mooney said. "I think we got to that point where I genuinely didn't know if if Dan 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 Dan + Shay matters to us."

The duo said that conversation changed everything, and assured them that they both cared about the group enough to not let it go.

They decided to fix their friendship first, hanging out without the pressure to work or write songs. But of course, music still ended up being part of those sessions, and without the pressure to put an album together, their creativity flowed.

The result: A stronger friendship than ever, and the album they're most proud of, which brings a more organic country sound and feels reminiscent of the duo's first records.

Moving forward

Mooney said after that conversation, they also adjusted their definition of success.

"In the earlier years of our career, you know, you're looking at numbers and you're looking at stats, you're looking at ticket sales, you're looking at all these things, saying, 'If this number is not this, then I can't be happy,'" he said.

"And if you pin all of your happiness on that, and on statistics and on numbers, you've literally set yourself up for failure. But if you can find joy in the process of all these things, the process of making an album, the process of making music, and the process of touring, it just takes away all the pressures of the results."

Ultimately, Mooney said, this album is the project that makes him the most proud.

The <em>Bigger Houses</em> album cover.
/ Warner Music Group
/
Warner Music Group
The Bigger Houses album cover.

The new challenge is making these changes sustainable, especially as they prepare for the "Heartbreak on the Map Tour" set to begin in 2024, and to be judges on next year's season of The Voice. They'll be the first duo to co-judge.

Smyers talks confidently about what's next, though.

"Just putting our finger on what it was that really sent us down the wrong path, I feel like allows us to not go back down that path, to just go out of our way to be proactive this go around about saying, 'Hey man, OK, I'm getting a little burnout right now,'" he said.

Also, prioritizing the things that fill their cups, creatively and personally.

"Being together, hanging out, hanging out with our families, just, I don't know, being open with each other to communicating in real time," Smyers said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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