For 'The Middle' Songwriter Sarah Aarons, Grammy Nominations Are a Surprising Full-Circle Moment
Sarah Aarons didn’t know who Maren Morris was the first time she heard her voice. The Australian songwriter was watching the 2017 Grammys at a friend’s house and was amazed by one of the singers she saw perform. “I was like, ‘Who is that?’ Like, ‘Holy shit! That girl can sing,’” Aarons recalls on the phone from Los Angeles. “And I remember someone being like, ‘Her name’s Maren Morris. She’s really good. She’s like country, but it’s like rock, and it’s cool.’” Aarons even asked her manager about Morris and got a response along the lines of, “You’ll never work with her. She’s too cool for you.” So Aarons put Morris’ name out of her mind.
Fast forward to mid-January 2018: It was the week before EDM producers Zedd and Grey were supposed to release “The Middle,” which Aarons wrote the topline for, and a demo labeled “Maren Morris” had just arrived. Aaron’s manager reminded her this was the artist she was raving about one year before. Once Aarons heard Morris’ final vocals on the track -- Aarons was in Australia while Morris cut her part -- she was stunned. “Her voice was just crazy on [“The Middle”],” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is incredible. This is so perfect.’”
The world seemed to agree: “The Middle” reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped both the Billboard Dance and Pop Songs charts, and now it’s up for three Grammys this Sunday: record of the year, song of the year and best pop duo/group performance.
For Aarons, the writing process for the simmering dance-pop tune “The Middle” was typical: She heard the base track, started by producers The Monsters and the Strangerz, and began coming up with melody ideas right away. “I came in, and they had this synth that was playing that was like, ‘whoop-whoop, whoop-whoop, whoop-whoop, whoop-whoop,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that rhythm is really sick,’ and I just started singing the chorus,” she recalls.
The rest of the song came together quickly, but it took more than a year to finish because of a lengthy search for the right vocalist: More than a dozen different singers, from Demi Lovato to Charli XCX, recorded demo takes of “The Middle.” “There were moments where I was not as interested [in the song] because it was just stressing me out,” Aarons says. But she thinks Morris’ vocals on the track just made perfect sense: “I love that [Zedd] always puts someone on [a song] that’s really big but not predictable.”
The success of “The Middle” was all new to Aarons, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia. She spent her childhood competing for singing and songwriting awards, and at age 19 realized that her childhood passion perhaps held the key to her future. “I had this certificate on my wall for an award I won when I was 12 years old, and it said, ‘Songwriting Award,’ and I was like, ‘That’s crazy,’” she recalls. “Anything I got praised for as a kid that did singing classes were actually songwriting awards.” When she later learned that Sia, who’s also Australian, had written “Diamonds” for Rihanna, Aarons’ career path came into focus. “I didn’t even know it was a job,” she says. “I just knew straight away, I have to at least try to make that my job.” Aarons had never even been to a studio before, but she started writing songs every day, sending them to anyone she could.
It worked: She soon caught the attention of Sony ATV in Australia, which signed her to publishing based on the strength of what Aarons says were “terrible” demos. She didn’t have any real credits to her name, but they were enough to get her foot in the door. Once she penned her first breakout hit, Zedd and Alessia Cara’s 2017 collab “Stay,” she moved out to Los Angeles, where she’s lived since.
Last year, at a Grammys after-party in New York, Aarons -- in town to toast the success of “Stay” -- finally met Morris. Aarons spotted her while they were both taking a minute away from the crowd and approached her apprehensively. “‘Hey, sorry to be this person, but I wrote ‘The Middle,’” she recalls saying. And she remembers Morris lighting up instantly: “‘Wait, you’re the person from the demo? I love it so much! This is amazing, and I’m so happy I got to sing it.’”
Their songwriter meet-cute has since blossomed into a friendship and creative partnership. Aarons cowrote “GIRL,” the title track and lead single from Morris’ upcoming album, as well as two other tracks, including the Brandi Carlile duet “Common.” “I’m so happy she came into my life, and making music for her record is some of my most favorite music that I’ve ever been a part of,” Aarons says. “I always say, ‘Make music with the people you’d wanna celebrate its success with,’ and she’s definitely a person who I’m so excited to celebrate anything [with].”
At this year’s Grammys, Aarons might just be celebrating alongside Morris. Aarons scored her first Grammy nomination when “The Middle” received a nod for song of the year. (The other categories it’s nominated in are not awarded to songwriters.) “I still haven’t really gotten that into my head, and I don’t think I ever will,” she says. But it’s a true full-circle moment for the songwriter, considering “The Middle” came out just a few days before the 2018 Grammys and had its music video premiere during the ceremony. “First discovering Maren on the Grammys even the year before, that is weird to me -- and not even a year later I had a song come out with her,” she says, still sounding a little surprised by it all.
With songwriters like Julia Michaels stepping into the spotlight and jumpstarting their artist careers in recent years, Aarons knows there’s an opportunity to make a similar move. But for now, she says she’s just not interested. “I always pictured myself being the person behind the people,” she explains, and that keeps her plenty busy anyway. While she has a number of releases coming up, she only divulges one, a John Legend song called “Preach” arriving next week. And her excitement about it can’t be contained: “I just want to write songs forever. That’s it. I want to make songs with awesome people for the rest of my life until I die.”