Maren Morris Owns Her Space

Maren Morris. Photo: Josh Brasted/Getty Images

There’s a mannequin head sporting a baseball cap at the microphone where Maren Morris’s mug should be, positioned front and center in her first full-blown stage setup. Her new lighting rigs, platforms, and video screens currently occupy a cavernous former warehouse in an industrial area on the northeast side of Nashville, her home base since she departed Texas half a dozen years ago. Morris and her band and crew are hunkered down here for several days’ worth of rehearsing and fine-tuning before the release of her new album, Girl, which she’ll promote on a world tour.

This is an important launch for the 28-year-old country-pop star. As recently as 2015, she was essentially working from the margins of the country-music industry, a newbie Music Row songwriter squirreling away songs that her publisher couldn’t sell to established acts, independently releasing a handful of those tunes through Spotify, then signing with a label willing to throw its weight behind the album she’d already shaped, 2016’s Hero. But from there, Morris pretty much beelined to the center of her scene. She had no shortage of showbiz hustle, having spent her entire adolescence drumming up regional recognition in the Lone Star State, and quickly internalized the rules and customs of Nashville’s music-making community, where she found her opening: applying a highly flexible sense of lineage, ambition, and chops to her canny embodiment of realness. Attention and awards followed, and so did a crucial dance-pop crossover pairing with Zedd and Grey, last year’s blockbuster “The Middle.” Now the question is how Morris will own her space.

A couple of years back, she penned an op-ed for the now defunct pop-culture feminist blog Lenny Letter, addressing a readership she presumed to be only casually familiar with country music. She simultaneously critiqued the sexist constraints she faced as a woman in that world and deliberately emphasized her affection for it. She’s masterful at walking that sort of line. On Girl, she mixes R&B’s smooth, swaggering gestures of sensuality, stealthy rhythms, and contemporary pop’s sticky, laid-back melodicism with devout, countrified tributes to relational stability — a new theme for her — and applies a lightly libertine gloss to the live-and-let-live tolerance resurfacing in country of late. Her music feels like it’s calibrated to her 360-degree awareness of the changing landscape she’s operating in, the multiple audiences she’s reaching, not to mention her own determination to continually evolve in plain sight.

Your visibility in the pop world got a big boost in the pop realm last year thanks to “The Middle” and your tour with Niall Horan. What difference has that made to the makeup of your audience and the scale of your aspirations?
All of last year felt really transformative for me, and not in terms of how many people know my name now because of “The Middle” or [making a guest appearance at] the Taylor Swift show. It was more eye-opening to me in the fact that I was touring places like New Zealand and Argentina. We went all over South America on that Niall tour. Singing “The Middle,” having people beyond the States know the words to that song really made me think, Why have I only been touring countries where they speak English? Not a ton of artists in country music tour down there, so why would they know your music? … I don’t wanna just be a touring artist in the same few countries. I actually would love to have my music in every corner of the world. And that’s just because I get so much joy and education when I travel that touring is my ticket to go do that.

There was this journalist I talked to in Mexico City, and she asked me the craziest question — it probably wasn’t crazy to her, but it was crazy to me in the fact that I had never been asked it. She said, “To a lot of people here in Mexico, country music is just solely for white people. How do you plan to change that if you want to continue touring down here?” You can’t really have a prepped answer for that. So I was like, “Well, country music to me, it’s just about your life story and the poetry of it. And even the most mundane can be beautiful. That’s what I love about country music and country-music songwriting, and there are people in those parts of the world who could identify with their own story being told in a song. It’s just, you have to care about them enough to show it to them.” There are people singing “I Could Use a Love Song” back to me in Brazil. … It was really cool to see these people that maybe don’t speak English as their first language and they’re still being moved by music. So all of last year made me think, I need to set my sights higher. I thought they were high to begin with, but now the ceiling keeps raising.

You emerged into a vacuum in the country-music world, considering the miniscule number of women receiving radio airplay in the format at the time. And because you broke through quickly and projected such a self-possessed demeanor through your songs, performances, social media banter, and interviews, it seemed like people started looking to you as a voice amplifying an underrepresented vantage point. Your new song “Girl” sounds like it came from an artist aware of the eyes and ears on her. What sort of pressure did you feel going into the writing and recording process?
I really wasn’t writing “Girl” to be this statement song. It was a really personal kind of diary entry the day that I wrote it, and it was something I really needed to get out. When I heard the demo back from [writer-producer] Greg Kurstin a couple days later, it felt extremely [therapeutic] to me to listen to it over and over because it was just this motto I needed to keep in my head: Don’t wear someone else’s crown. Quit comparing yourself. It’s okay to not like yourself today, but tomorrow will be different. That’s what I needed to hear. And I had this gut feeling about it that maybe others would need to hear it, too. It wasn’t until we were really putting the whole album together that I realized, “Oh, wow, there are more songs that have the word girl in them on the [country] radio chart by men than actual women.”

Girl and women and woman, too.
So, maybe in the back end of the process I wanted to tongue-in-cheek it a little bit and say, “Why not, as a girl, put a song out called ‘Girl’? And I’m going to name my album after it and my tour, and I’m gonna take my girlfriend artists on the road.” It’s more than just talking about it, too, I’ve realized. You have to really put your money where your mouth is: “If they’re not gonna be played on the radio right now, then I’m gonna bring ‘em out on the road with me now that I’ve got that platform to do so.” And there are other artists that have done it before me. Miranda [Lambert] always takes women out that are amazing and really showcases them to her crowd, and Carrie [Underwood] is bringing two support acts that are women. It’s not like we’re throwing them a bone. It’s that they absolutely deserve to be there and we need to keep the continuation of opportunities for them. And I employ a lot of women on my tour. It’s not even because they’re women. It’s because they’re really fucking good at what they do.

Why is it important to make it clear that you’re not trying to distance yourself from your industry, even as you critique its shortcomings?
I mean, when I did “The Middle,” I was definitely accused of carpetbagging. … It’s funny, because we have such short memories. Like, getting to perform with Dolly [Parton] on the Grammys; she’s such a musical and career idol to me. And she was accused of the same thing in the late ’70s. There’s this amazing interview with Barbara Walters that she does, and Barbara’s very pointedly asking Dolly, “A lot of people think that you’re abandoning country music and you’re going pop.” That was the headline everywhere: “Dolly Goes Pop.” And not saying I’m anywhere as big as Dolly was, even back then, but her answer was so perfect because she said, “I’m not about abandoning anything; I’m about bringing Dolly Parton to the world.” And so, that’s what I’m doing.

That’s something you’ve already been asked about a lot and will probably continue to explain as you promote your new music: your fluency and interest in a range of styles versus where you see yourself belonging.
You’re right. I will have to explain. Maybe at some point I won’t have to. But honestly, I’m just like, “This is music. It’s supposed to be fun. Can you just listen to the record and decide for yourself if it makes you feel something? Or if you don’t get into it that’s fine.” But I definitely think that it’s artistic expression. … I never try to let it bother me anymore when people accuse me of really small-minded things like being a traitor to my genre.

You seem really savvy about speaking to multiple audiences or constituencies at the same time.
I mean, I like being informed. I like being educated. I actually have been thinking about going back to school and doing some online.

What would you study?
The one semester I went to college, I loved my political science professor. I’d love to do poli-sci and literature or philosophy, just something like that, things that interest me. I’ve been really fortunate to do music for a living, but my husband, [Ryan Hurd], he has two degrees. … All my friends went to school, and I moved to Nashville to pursue this. So I kind of have this envy of the mark of really learning something. I know now that I’m not unintelligent. I’m actually way more eager to learn now than ever because I’m at this stage of my life where I do it already on my own. It’d be cool to have a degree to show for it.

Hero, the album that introduced you to an audience outside of Texas, captured a coolly irreverent, 20-something outlook that was skeptical about commitment. Your new album strikes a very different tone; alongside your forwardness about sexual desire are exalted expressions of romantic love and faith in its sturdiness. Between projects, you married a fellow artist, what else changed your perspective?
That was hard to really peel that layer back and be so vulnerable because my first album was very independent, and it’s about me and my friends.

So you felt like the difference was that you chose to write from a more vulnerable place?
I think on my first album I thought being vulnerable in songs was weak. And I was just 25, 26 when all of that was happening. And I was coming out of a really toxic breakup with someone that was not okay with me becoming an artist and being gone all the time and being looked at as, you know, a figure in the public. So I think I just [equated] letting your guard down as kind of giving up your power. … So think about how the mold of your mind and your heart changes in this part of your 20s — and I’m almost 29. I feel a lot older, though. I’ve just been doing this for so long.

In show business years you’re, like, 60.
Right, yeah. A cool 60.

I learned what it was like to be with someone that didn’t make me choose between my home self and my career self, and they’re not these mutually exclusive things where you just don’t talk about career stuff when you’re home. I mean, maybe that works for some people, but it’s extremely back and forth with Ryan and me. He is the first person I had ever been with that understood the complexity of what it’s like to have a really successful day and have a dream come true, and at the same time, the whole rug is just dragged out because of one thing. It’s a really mood-ring type of career to sign up for.

The shift in tone isn’t just related to subject matter — you’re actually singing differently. You first won people over with a casual, eye-rolling delivery that felt perfectly aligned with the moment. What kinds of adjustments did you make to convey quiet sincerity on some of these new tracks?
There are a lot of songs on this album I definitely reined my vocal in because it can get pretty monotonous to constantly be a loud singer, or to listen to loud singers. I don’t think volume is a mark of great vocal talent. I actually love softness, especially in female voices. … I guess from a technical aspect, I definitely had to learn how to be more emotional in a vocal take and really center my thoughts and not worry about how proficient the notes are. Even if it sounds weird, don’t worry about the melody right now, just sing what you feel right now. So there was a lot of that on this album. And a lot of those vocal takes, we ended up keeping, because even though there’s a crack in my voice or I ran out of steam at the end of a phrase, it felt so real and was so real that that mattered more to the song than being technically perfect.

But it’s not like you’re going for unvarnished intimacy all of the time. Over the last few years, you’ve proved your ability to deliver pop- and R&B-influenced vocal runs, pyrotechnics, and full-force belting in the spotlight. There are definitely moments when you do some impressively rangy vamping on the new album.
There are songs from my first album that I will sing live and I’m like, “Ugh, why did we record this so low? It’s really hard to sing that alto every night live.” Like “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry.” As much as I love that song, it’s really hard to sing live because it’s so deep. After years of touring, I realize what songs are my favorite to sing, and a lot of them are those really soft vulnerable moments or it’s the powerhouse [moments] where I can hit those falsettos and everything, songs like “Once” and even “The Middle.” That’s a really hard vocal song because it starts so low and it goes extremely high, and it’s in full voice. … I definitely wanted to play around with that more on this record.

You’ve developed a reputation for speaking your mind somewhat freely about social and political matters on Twitter and Instagram, but in your songs, like “Dear Hate,” the ballad you released after the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre in Las Vegas, and “Common,” an anthemic, new duet with Brandi Carlile, you tend to sound less riled or pointed than grieved by the state of things. What’s the difference between how you’re comfortable communicating via one format or another?
Some of the worldliness trickles into my songwriting, I mean with songs like “Common” or “Flavor.”

What do you mean by worldliness?
Maybe that’s not the word, but the world-weariness of the state of things will definitely leak into a [co-writing appointment] that day, ‘cause that’s what I’m feeling. But I’m completely fine with engaging in conversation on things that really fire me up or make me feel passionately about something, saying or standing up for something. On this album, I feel like I touch on it, but I didn’t want [it] to revolve around the chaos of the world we live in right now. I wanted it to be more about what my heart is doing currently. I get so much anxiety looking at my phone every day reading the news; I don’t wanna hear that in my music right now either.

You sing “Flavor” from a breezily rebellious posture. What are you tapping into there? And on a more literal level, what moves have you made creatively or professionally that you actually felt like came off as rebellious in country music?
In the beginning, I remember that there were people that had a bone to pick with “My Church” being blasphemous, which was hilarious, and on my album [Hero] there’s some profanity, and none of that is particularly rebellious to me. … I think maybe that has something to do with it. Then kinda getting a little more comfortable with my fan base and social media to talk about things.

… I’ve also learned that you don’t have to speak up on everything. It’s okay to sometimes keep opinions to yourself. It ends up blowing back in your face when you decide to be vocal about every single thing. … So I’ve learned the balance that if it’s something that really, really speaks to me and is just a massive injustice right now, I’m gonna talk about it, but there are some things that I’m gonna talk to my family or my husband or my friends about, and it doesn’t need to be this public opinion.

There’s a line in that song that rang in my ears as a reference to the backlash the Dixie Chicks experienced in your format: “Shut up and sing / Hell no, I won’t.” Did you mean for it to be heard that way?
Yeah, because it’s almost like it’s being used as a verb now: to be Dixie Chick–ed. … I love them, and I hate the thought that if you speak any sort of opinion, your career is [getting] threatened to be erased. That’s such a horrible, toxic ceiling to put on artists.

Maren Morris Owns Her Space