Pop Shop Podcast: Zedd on Why Maren Morris Had the 'Perfect Voice' for 'The Middle'; Plus Oscar Predictions & More

Reuben Wu

Welcome to the new episode of the Billboard Pop Shop Podcast, your one-stop-shop for all things pop on Billboard's weekly charts. In addition, you can always count on a lively discussion about the latest pop news, fun chart stats and stories, new music, and guest interviews with music stars and folks from the world of pop.

Casual pop fans and chart junkies can hear Billboard co-director of charts Keith Caulfield and Billboard deputy editor, digital, Katie Atkinson, every week on the Pop Shop Podcast, which can be streamed on Billboard.com or downloaded in iTunes. (Click here to listen to the previous Tuesday’s edition of the show on Billboard.com).

On the latest show (listen below), superstar artist/DJ/producer Zedd joins the Pop Shop! The Grammy Award-winning chart-topper discusses the making of his latest smash single, “The Middle,” with Maren Morris and Grey, and how the song became involved with Target’s spring marketing campaign. Plus, we chat with Zedd — who has a long-term residency in Las Vegas — about what a typical show night in Vegas is like for him, as well as the differences between playing a Vegas show, a festival gig, and his own headlining tour. More about Zedd and "The Middle" in just a moment…

In addition to the interview with Zedd, the Pop Shop Podcast also welcomes The Hollywood Reporter’s senior awards analyst Scott Feinberg to the show for a lengthy discussion about the upcoming 90th Academy Awards on March 4. Feinberg, who hosts the popular Awards Chatter podcast, sits down with the Pop Shop team to analyze the two music categories at the Oscars (best original score and best original song) and who could win each category. Feinberg and the Pop Shoppers detail each of the five best original song nominees and give pros and cons about why each song could win and won’t win. There’s a case to be made for all of the nominees — “Mighty River” from Mudbound, “Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name, “Remember Me” from Coco, “Stand Up for Something” from Marshall and “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman.

Morris + 'The Middle' = Hit — “The Middle” recently became Zedd’s seventh top 20-charting hit on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the track is heading for the top 10, as it climbed 17-13 on the latest chart (dated March 3). It also granted Morris, who has seven top 40 hits on the Hot Country Songs chart, her first top 20 song on the Hot 100, and her first leader on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart (where Zedd is no stranger to the top: he's notched a quartet of No. 1s on that tally). As for electronic duo Grey, "The Middle" is about to eclipse their No. 12 peak on the chart, achieved with another Zedd collaboration, "Starving," with Hailee Steinfeld.

Shortly before the song’s release in January, Zedd recruited Morris for the track, after trying out many different vocalists. “I didn't even know about Maren,” Zedd tells Billboard. (Listen to the podcast, below.) He discovered thanks to one of his managers, who suggested Zedd check out her voice. After listening to her music, he says, “I was like, ‘Well, this is a perfect voice, this is what we need.’”

Zedd’s team quickly reached out to Morris, who recorded a “little rough demo.” Soon enough, he was on a plane to Nashville to record Morris in a studio. “I met Maren 20 minutes before we started recording. This was all a really last minute thing.” He says he got to Nashville the night before they headed into the studio, and the next morning they recorded the song, and “I flew out two hours later.”

As for possible future collaborations with Morris, Zedd says: “We haven't even talked about any of that yet. I loved working with her, and I know she's working on her album and if there's anything I can do to help — I don't know what exactly her vision is for that album — I'm obviously there.”

The Beginning of ‘The Middle’ — “Maybe four or five months ago is when we started recording the first singers for ‘The Middle,’” Zedd says. “I don't remember the exact number, but I'm pretty sure we're at 14 different singers. And they range everywhere from somebody who uploaded a YouTube video of them singing to A-list superstars.

“Some of them just sang it well. Some of them are incredible singers, but it almost felt like they've never heard the song before, they're just reading it off a piece of paper, but they're singing it really well. And then when Maren sings… really, to me personally, the song is a constant build-up. It just gets more and more exciting. And the bridge, which is oftentimes a kind of boring moment in a song, is my personal favorite moment. It's where she's so vulnerable. Just her and a small guitar, and you really hear every breath, and you hear every squeak and everything. I just think that she carried it the best.

“I'm always very open about this. I'm not trying to be shady when I record singers. A lot of the times I'm open about my process and that's just how I like to do things, because sometimes you imagine a vocalist on a song, and in your mind, it sounds amazing, but then you realize every singer has their own little habits, and sometimes they just don't align. It happens all the time...As long as you're open and honest about it, I think nobody takes it personally.” Zedd adds that artists will sometimes sing on a track, but then decide they aren’t right for it, and jump off the song for whatever reason. “You know, it happens both ways.”

The Target Tie-In — Even if it seems like a team-up of a song titled “The Middle” and Target’s iconic bullseye logo seems like synergy cooked up in a corporate boardroom, Zedd says it was an organic collaboration. He says he was working on "The Middle" before Target approached his label, Interscope Records, in their search for the right song for their campaign. Interscope suggested Zedd's track, and then the pieces started to fall into place.

“Back then, it was with another singer,” Zedd says. “That was… like a month or two before it came out. Then we decided to change the singer, and then I asked my manager, 'Is that still OK? Can I still do that?' So we asked (Target) 'Is it OK if I swap the singer in favor of somebody I prefer to have on the song?'”

Target was totally cool with the change-up (to Morris). “They actually liked it so much, they tried to get it into their (TV) commercial, because that wasn't even part of the conversation at first. It was really more about that Grammy (Awards) performance. (A performance video during a commercial break with Zedd, Morris and Grey, directed by Dave Meyers.) So, it ended up they liked it so much that they ended up taking it for the entire spring campaign, which is obviously incredible for us.”

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2018 Academy Awards