He’s a meticulous German DJ-producer; she’s a spirited Texan singer-songwriter. But with their breakout hit “The Middle” -- recorded after the producer auditioned 12 other singers -- Zedd (real name: Anton Zaslavski) and Maren Morris, both 28, proved they’re much more than an intriguingly unlikely pairing. With its blend of dance-tent euphoria and soulful yearning, the song (written by Sarah Aarons and sculpted by production duo Grey) skyrocketed to the top of Billboard’s Pop Songs and Hot Dance/Electronic Songs charts and to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, where it’s still holding strong after a No. 5 peak. Before performing “The Middle” at the Billboard Music Awards, the duo opened up about how the recording of the cross-genre smash went down.
MORRIS: I’ve gotten shit for genre-blending from the get-go, but after the 2017 Grammys when I performed with Alicia Keys, I felt like, “We can do this.” The amazing thing about country fans is that they’re loyal, and my music has always been a little bit of everything.
ZEDD: Maren is so much more than just country. And I’ve hated how people have put me in boxes my whole career, like, “Hey, you’re an EDM guy doing pop.” No, I’m a musician who enjoys making music. I made metal for 10 years, and before that I made classical music. Literally, the first time I ever heard Maren’s voice was on the demo for “The Middle.” But to me, this was just about who sounds the best.
MORRIS: I’ve written hundreds of country songs and loved the simple and relatable lyrics. From the very first line (“Take a seat...”), you’re in the room. That reminded me of a Nashville technique. Storytelling isn’t always about being the most poetic -- prettying it up just to pretty it up.
ZEDD: It was one of the fastest sessions I’ve ever done. I’m known for recording a singer until there’s basically no more voice left -- to be safe, so that I never have to ask somebody to come back. This was 20 takes, two hours: Maren really knew the song.
MORRIS: It was the first week of January, so it was very cold and gross here. [To Zedd.] I’m sorry that you had to come on such a rainy day, Anton. We were at these new studios at the Hutton Hotel in Nashville.
ZEDD: My favorite take was the second to last, when we were losing her voice and she gave everything. The bits where her voice starts cracking and the rasp comes out? That’s my sweet spot.
MORRIS: I lost my voice after opening for Keith Urban on New Year’s Eve in the freezing cold, so I had asked my doctor for a steroid or something to bring it back. The stakes were so high. Having listened to the demo so many times, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it, and Zedd really worked with me. A lot of producers will crack the whip and say, “Sing this two-second part like this,” but he was very collaborative. A couple of days later, we came to Zedd’s space in Los Angeles to hear the final cut.
ZEDD: I heard it in L.A. for the first time; I was in the middle of a conversation and kind of stopped everybody I was with, like, “Hey, sorry, by the way, this is the first time I’m hearing myself and not sitting in a radio station!”
MORRIS: I’ll never forget hearing it for the first time. Technically, it was in the Target commercial [aired during the 2018 Grammys], but hearing it on [WRVW] The River, the pop station here in Nashville, there’s something about radio waves coming through your car speakers. Country fans may have been scared of [me] leaving the nest initially, but once the song came out they were just proud of me for making a catchy-as-hell song.
Their favorite recent tracks in other genres
R&B/hip-hop “Distraction,” Kehlani; “Doves in the Wind,” SZA; “I Like It,” Cardi B
Pop “Never Be the Same,” Camila Cabello
Rock “The Sky Is a Neighborhood,” Foo Fighters
Dance “My Type,” The Chainsmokers featuring Emily Warren