We’ve Got A File On You: Maren Morris

Harper Smith

We’ve Got A File On You: Maren Morris

Harper Smith

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

In conversation, it’s immediately clear that Maren Morris has a remarkable ability to keep perspective in any situation, good or bad. Maybe that level-headedness comes from years of hustling before hitting it big in 2016 on the strength of “My Church.” For more than 10 years, the country-pop crossover sensation toured relentlessly through her home state of Texas and auditioned for literally every TV talent show, including The Voice, American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Nashville Star, but was rejected by all of them. Eventually, Morris packed up and moved to Nashville (on the advice of Kacey Musgraves), where she networked and wrote songs for names like Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson.

@marenmorris this girl wants you to know that she has a new “CD” coming out this week…HUMBLE QUEST WEEK, COMMENCE. 💕 #HumbleQuest #WhenWomenWin #thisiswhatdreamsaremadeof ♬ original sound – marenmorris

In 2018, Morris’ star launched into the heavens via a collaboration with DJ/producer Zedd called “The Middle,” for which which many other, much better known pop singers also sent in vocals (Demi Lovato, Camila Cabello, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX, and Elle King all auditioned to be on the track). Morris says had she known there would be that many applicants, she probably wouldn’t have sent her vocals in, laughing, “I didn’t want to trigger some old traumas.”

Though she was already established in the Nashville country scene, “The Middle” marked a major turning point for Morris in terms of mainstream visibility. From there, she released the 2019 album GIRL and its arena-filling single “The Bones,” which ended up nominated at the 63rd Grammy Awards for Best Country Song and peaked at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2020. Also in 2019, Morris joined the all-female country supergroup the Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires, and they released their self-titled debut that September.

Today, Morris is preparing to release her sixth studio album, Humble Quest, which finds her collaborating again with “The Bones” producer Greg Kurstin and was written alongside her husband Ryan Hurd, Julia Michaels, Jimmy Robbins, Highwomen bandmate Hemby, Laura Veltz, and Jon Green. Like its predecessor, Humble Quest toes the line between country and pop but it is, as Morris puts it, “a little bit more rootsy and crunchy.” Her latest project is also a chance for Morris to reflect on a series of major life changes, including motherhood — she gave birth to her son Hayes on March 23, 2020 — and a career-pausing global pandemic.

Despite these myriad challenges, Morris has always maintained that steady-handed perspective. Zooming in from her home in Nashville, she acknowledges how scary it was to give birth “during a time which felt like Armageddon” and subsequently cancel all touring plans. But the upside was that she and Hurd were able to spend the first two years of Hayes’ life with him at home. Below, Morris reflects on the last two years and many other moments in her long career, including auditioning for Jewel on Nashville Star, going from playing unofficial SXSW shows to headlining the festival, and feeling “like the Beatles” the first time she played live with the Highwomen.

Humble Quest (2022)

Can you describe what your life looked like — personally and professionally — as you started to write what would become Humble Quest?

MAREN MORRIS: The song “Humble Quest” I wrote early last year, so it wasn’t quite the first song that I made for this record. But it was that gut punch that I get when I just know I’m onto something and I knew I wanted it to be the title of this era. Those two words just fell into my head out of the sky when I was driving around Nashville one morning and I had no idea what they meant.

I just quickly recorded it. And I went back to my house, and I just sat at the piano for an hour and tried to figure out, “What, that’s so weird.” It was intriguing, “Humble Quest” — what would that mean? And so, yeah, I got the first few lines going and I brought it to my friends [composer] Laura Veltz and [producer] Jimmy Robbins the next day.

I think that COVID, especially for the music community, having no touring happening for the first time ever, was just so humbling. To tie everyone from an artist, the crew to the writers, to the venue workers’ worth to touring and just that never-ending merry-go-round that we’re all on was heavy, but it was really humbling because it forced everyone to realize, what do we actually like doing about this? And us, our entire identity wrapped up in songs.

So yeah, I think writing that and titling this record was just about the journey of me discovering who I am without the applause for once, and also become a mother the second that the world shut down. Grappling with postpartum and becoming a parent in such a uncertain time humbled me. And also losing my friend and my producer [Michael] Busbee before the pandemic was so core-shaking. I think all of those things culminated into why this felt like an ongoing quest of remaining a human through such a humbling time for all humans.

A recent New York Times profile kind of positioned you as a country-pop crossover who had made the intentional decision to lean back into country on this album. Does that feel like an accurate assessment?

MORRIS: I mean, maybe. It’s hard for me to say because there’s obviously a conflict of interest. I am the artist that made it, but even from the get-go with my first record, I feel I’ve been sonically ambitious in each project, even if they take on different influences. I think I’m always going to be genre-fluid. Even with this record, as much as you can say it’s rootsy and country, or then, oh, she was going in the direction of “The Bones,” I just still feel it’s me at the end of the day.

You could listen to “Circles Around This Town,” which is definitely more country, but almost [has a] ’90s rock vibe. And then you could listen to “Nervous” or “Tall Guys.” I think my vocal and my lyrics [decide] what the compass is on each song’s influence. But I don’t know. I guess I wouldn’t come out and say, “I’m staying close to my roots and I’m officially a country artist as of today.” [laughs] I think that I don’t listen to music in terms like that.

I don’t know if it’s classifiable or if it needs to be, but yeah, I’ve definitely had a diverse career choice, just doing “The Middle” with Zedd, and then a really unplanned song like “The Bones” being [a crossover hit] and working with John Mayer and Elton John’s project and Taylor Swift, I’ve done weird shit always.

So I don’t know if this is playing it safe. I think it’s still really ambitious, but yeah. It’s so subjective. To me, I feel like it’s a Maren record. I don’t know if I could just come out and say, “This is her solidified country album,” but I mean, it is more organic than my last record, which was very produced and leaned to pop. So this one’s a little bit more rootsy and crunchy to me because it’s not slick.

Giving Birth At The Dawn Of The Pandemic (2020)

You gave birth in March 2020, right as the coronavirus was termed a pandemic. What was that experience like for you? Were you still able to have Ryan with you as it was happening in the hospital?

MORRIS: Yeah. I think we had just missed the cutoff, but I had Hayes March 23, 2020. So I just remember the week, when we checked into the hospital, they were starting to do those temperature checks. They weren’t allowing guests. They allowed my husband, and thank God. I felt so gutted for the new mothers that were so scared and had to give birth for the first time without their partner. It’s awful.

I was able to have Ryan with me, but I do remember we were the only people on the floor that night giving birth. And so it was so quiet and almost eerie that we were bringing our kid into the world during a time which felt like Armageddon. And, but in a weird way, looking back on it, in retrospect, it was such a… We have never felt closer going through that.

And just having that real first year at home with him was such a gift because in my mind I was going to get back on tour two months after I gave birth, but that didn’t work out. With everything stopping with COVID, it forced us to just stay home. And we got all this time with Hayes and did not leave his side.

And I feel like we’ll just treasure that for the rest of our lives is getting those first two years with him. But yeah, it was definitely scary as a new mom just knowing that I have no idea what I’ve just brought this kid into.

Walk On (2005)

If you listen to your earliest work today, what goes through your mind? Can you tell me a bit about 2005 Maren as opposed to 2022 Maren?

MORRIS: Oh man. I mean, I haven’t listened to that stuff since I was probably a teenager, but I’m sure my mom and dad still have all of the copies and the merch from when I was, I think I was 13 or 14 when I made that. So I think if I to listen to it now, I would probably halfway cringe and halfway be like, “Oh wow. I was better than I thought I was,” because it would be reading a 14-year-old’s diary entry to me. I’d be like, “Oh my gosh, this is very emo.”

But I’d probably pat myself on the back at the same time and be like, “Holy shit, look at where you’ve come or how far you’ve come.” But yeah, I think that when I was making music and making records and touring, as a 13-, 14-year-old in Texas, I was looked at very much as a novelty because I was a literal child in these bars and honky tonks.

And my parents believed in me, and I like to sing. I think I would probably look back wistfully on it now. It has been more than half my life, and so much of my identity is wrapped up in those early years and counting my money and — but it was a strange upbringing. I definitely wouldn’t be the woman or boss that I am today to my people if I didn’t have that really formative era of my teenage years touring.

Trying Out For The Voice And American Idol (2007)

I know you’ve spoken about being rejected by The Voice and American Idol and a bunch of other reality TV talent shows. And you’ve expressed relief that your career didn’t go that route. Does the ownership aspect play into that sense of relief? Because I know the recording contracts these shows ask contestants to sign can be stifling.

MORRIS: Oh my God. Yeah. It’s awful. No, I definitely dodged a bullet. Actually I dodged 10 bullets because I auditioned for all of the shows and didn’t get it. But yeah, I think about that song by the Chicks, it’s called “Taking The Long Way.” [Sings] And it’s my friends from high school, married their high school boyfriends, and it’s like, I’m taking the long way around. And I think that’s exactly my life.

And I do remember on one of the shows, it was for Nashville Star, and I made it to Nashville, and it was 50 of us, and Billy Ray Cyrus was the host. And I think it was John Rich and Jewel were the judges. But I remember I got far on it. I didn’t make it to the top 10 or anything, but I just remember really distinctly, I was by myself because I was 18 and they sequestered us in this awful hotel in Nashville.

And we couldn’t hang out with any of our fellow contestants. So it was really lonely. And I just remember getting cut and one of the producers is like — they’re so manipulative, asking me on camera. It’s probably in an archive somewhere. They’re like, because they knew my backstory of being a kid performer. The producer was like, “So I can see you’re disappointed. Do you think your dad would be disappointed in you?”

And I remember at the time, I wished my 31-year-old self could go back in time and just slap the shit out of that producer for asking an 18-year-old girl that, but, thank God I got cut. I would never, ever want for anyone to go through what I went through. So yeah. Sorry. I’m definitely a petty person and love that my songs get auditioned to on those programs. But yeah, it’s to each their own, it didn’t work out for me. And I had some really fucked-up moments on those shows — but yeah, it all worked out in its own way I guess.

Playing SXSW For The First Time (2008)

SXSW really likes to play up its music discovery angle — telling artists like, “If you’re at the right place at the right time, you could be discovered!” Was that something you were thinking about as you went to play your first SXSW set?

MORRIS: I’m trying to remember that far back because I don’t even know if I was technically in the South By Southwest showcase. I remember my mom and dad would take us down there and we would play shows during the week of South By, but they weren’t a part of the official showcase. So I remember when I put “My Church” out and I went back to South By as an actual performer — that felt really validating and full circle for me just being a Texan because I had gone to South By for so many years as an unofficial performer.

I just remember I couldn’t really get into any of the bars because I was 17, and we would play our one or two club shows and I would immediately have to leave because I couldn’t be there. But I remember the energy of Austin during that week being so exciting. It felt like it’s not just country music, it’s all different walks and genres. When I went back a few years later and was performing, I think it was for the Spotify stage at South By back in 2016, maybe 2015, it was just, it was so fun. Because I felt I had made it.

Breaking Down “The Middle” For The New York Times’ First “Diary Of A Song” (2018)

When you were sending in your vocal for Zedd’s “The Middle,” were you in a place where you were often singing demos to pop producers that you might have not met before?

MORRIS: No, that was definitely the first and only since… I didn’t know that there were that many singers sending in vocals for this song. So I’m glad I didn’t know that, because I don’t know if I would’ve gone for it. Just having come from my background of auditioning for shows. But yeah, I’m glad that it worked out the way it did because I was a part of something so worldwide with that song, it was played everywhere.

And I also met Sarah Aarons, the writer of that song, through that process. And we wrote for my last album, and then she introduced me to Greg Kurstin. So doing “The Middle” really hopscotched me to where I am in some ways today, in who I work with now. So it was just such a once-in-a-lifetime song. And I think even Zedd would say that, because it was. It was just universal, it was ubiquitous and every child to 80-year-old knew that one.

“Kingdom Of One” From For The Throne: Music Inspired By Game Of Thrones (2019)

Were you a big Game Of Thrones fan?

MORRIS: Yeah. Huge Game Of Thrones fan. And I knew that they were starting to look for songs for their final soundtrack. And so I’m really lucky and glad I got in when I did, because it was the final season. There were no more. So this was now or never for me as a Game Of Thrones fanatic to be a part of it in some small way.

And it was such a cool project because all of the songs were living in that universe, but it was so diverse, the artists that were a part of that compilation project. But no, I’d never done anything like that before. I’ve had songs of mine be in TV shows or synced, but not a show of that magnitude. So that was a really fun thing to be a part of, and [I was] the only country artist on it. Just to get in my feels for that one and the fact that it was the first track, too. I felt so honored.

“The Bones” (2019)

We talked a little earlier about how “The Bones” is more pop-leaning… Did you feel any pressure at all following up a song as successful as “The Middle”?

MORRIS: Not really, because when I released “The Bones,” you just cannot plan for what ended up happening with that song. And that was one of those songs that I realized in the live show that fans were starting to really react when we would play the opening chords of “The Bones.” And that was my road test of, oh wow. This song is really popping in the live show, maybe we should consider this as the next single.

So that revealed itself over time. I didn’t write “The Bones” thinking, oh, this is going to be my next crossover sensation. I just don’t think you can plan for something like that. And if you are, it’s just not going to be good. It’s not going to be as good of a song. It’s going to feel really forced.

I was writing “The Bones” from a point just getting engaged. I was writing it from that place of love. And then yeah, once we put the album out and we’re touring, it just revealed itself as what it was. And then it took on another life when the pandemic hit. It went number one in a time that was so uncertain. And a lot of fans and people were using those lyrics as their statuses or therapy, [sings] “We’re in the home stretch of the hard times.” It was almost narrating COVID.

You can’t plan for that either. I mean, it’s so different from “The Middle.” And I did not write “The Middle.” So “The Bones” is such an autobiographical song for me with my partner. It was just so unplanned, the way that all shook out. I’m glad that it ended up doing what it did because it’s a song that feels like a legacy song to my career. It’s what we end our set with. It’s just such a cathartic moment in the show for the crowd and me.

Playing Newport Folk Festival With The Highwomen (2019)

When you were preparing to go into your first live performance with the Highwomen, what did you want to communicate to the audience as a group?

MORRIS: With the Highwomen, our aim from the get-go, before we even stepped into the studio, was for it to feel inclusive and a new but nostalgic sound for country music and people outside of country music to feel at home within. Anyone can be a Highwoman, not just a woman, but it is created by women.

And when we stepped out to Newport, for me, just always having been a solo performer, I for the first time just didn’t really have any nerves because I was being able to share this stage with my fellow sisters. And even though I had never played Newport before, and maybe I had a few butterflies just knowing how iconic it is, walking out there with Brandi and Amanda and Natalie, and having the crowd immediately go insane, we felt like the Beatles.

We were like, “Oh my gosh, this is our first show and we already feel like we won.” So it just felt like a really safe soulful place to be for an hour. And it was definitely one for the books, that performance.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed speaking to Brandi Carlile for In These Silent Days — she’s probably one of my all-time favorite interviews.

MORRIS: She’s definitely one of the wisest, sweetest people. And you just feel you’re talking to your sister when instantly with her and she just lasers in on you — you have her full attention. She’s a special lady.

Humble Quest is out 3/25 via Columbia Nashville.

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