LOS ANGELES (AP) — Before Grammy Award-winning duo Dan + Shay wrote their fifth studio album, “Bigger Houses,” they nearly broke up.
It was an evening in March 2022, and Dan + Shay met up after having not spoken in months. “I just knew in my heart, I was like, ‘This could be the end of Dan + Shay,” says Shay Mooney about the drive to Dan Smyers’ house.
The year prior was a landmark one. They headlined an arena tour for the first time, they collected their Grammy for best country duo/group performance for the third year in a row, and they continued to release platinum hits, like “I Should Probably Go to Bed," “Glad You Exist,” and the multi-platinum crossover hit “10,000 Hours,” featuring Justin Bieber. And yet, they were miserable.
“We didn’t have a fight,” Mooney recalls. “It was just, over the years, not communicating, not getting our feelings out, not talking to each other… Dan said he fell out of love with music. I was kind of there as well.”
There were other factors that led to what Mooney calls a “breaking point.” He had his second child two weeks before COVID-19 hit, he suffered his first “really bad” panic attack, and when the biggest tour of their life was canceled, he wasn’t sure what could come next.
“I was in a very dark place,” he says. “I was drinking a lot at the time.”
“We were going down a really dark path,” Smyers adds. “This album, honestly, it saved our lives.”
Both are quick to compare their partnership to a marriage – as a soloist, you make your own decisions. In a trio, there’s a tie breaker. In a band, there’s a chaotic chorus of opinion. But in a duo, you’ve got to work on the relationship with a peculiar kind of intimacy — everything is 50/50. Once they began prioritizing their health, their families and each other, their love for making music came back.
Smyers says the songs on “Bigger Houses” just “fell into our laps,” the result of sitting down to write music that felt true to them. “I’m grateful they did.”
Sonically, it came from the same sensibility the band had in their earliest days. “Back to basics,” he says. “We wrote all these songs just hanging out, the two of us, or with a friend with an acoustic guitar and piano. That was kind of how we made our first album.”
At the heart of “Bigger Houses” is the title track, written in the 11th hour, just like their massive hit “Speechless." In it, Dan + Shay’s newfound optimism is expressed explicitly, and in a format they’ve become modern masters of — the ballad.
“The older I get/I just care less and less/’Bout keeping up with people named Jones,” they sing.
“The thing about happiness I’ve found is,” Smyers quotes the song, “It don’t live in bigger houses.”
Beyond the wisdom of “Bigger Houses,” too, are newfound sonic surprises. On “We Should Get Married,” Dan + Shay detour from their characteristic balladeering for an up-tempo country-pop song, heavy with fiddle and steel guitar.
“We’ve been the wedding guys,” Mooney explains. “Our songs have been used in a lot of weddings. And we just thought, you know, we need one of those songs that is used after we play the first dance song, and we’re trying to get people on the dance floor.”
It’s a noble ambition for two guys who met at a party in 2012 and starting writing songs together the next day, with no way of knowing what the next decade would look like.
Smyers says the guys they are now are closer to those guys from the beginning of their career. “We just have that sense of wonder back in our eyes,” he says. “We do have an amazing opportunity that when we put out an album or we go to record, we have a great fan base who's been loyal to us, who stuck with us for for a long time, and they’re going to listen.”
“We’re going to have their ear. So, we feel like we owe it to them to make the best possible version of ourselves that we can without putting too much pressure on ourselves.”
Next spring, Dan + Shay will become the first musical duo to guest judge on “The Voice.” In February, the duo will embark on their second arena tour. This time, they feel prepared for it.