In early December, the day after she was nominated for five Grammy awards, Maren Morris had strong words for those who had tried to force her music into a simple box. “Plenty said ‘you’re too country.’ plenty said ‘you ain’t country enough,’” she tweeted. “guess what? both were wrong.”
That attitude isn’t going anywhere as Morris readies the follow-up to her 2016 debut, Hero, which fused country, pop, rock and R&B to immense critical acclaim. The 28-year-old says the success of last year’s “The Middle,” her smash collaboration with EDM stars Zedd and Grey, only emboldened her as she recorded new tracks like lead single “Girl,” out now.
“After ‘The Middle,’ I’ve just become braver,” says Morris, who also just announced a world tour kicking off in March. “I don’t really care so much about the thing that may end up happening that I’ve already dealt with in the past: [People telling me] “You’re not country!” And that’s okay. I’m a little bit of everything.”
Indeed: “Girl,” co-written with pop hitmaker Greg Kurstin (Adele, Kelly Clarkson) and Morris’ “The Middle” collaborator Sarah Aarons, is a lighter-waving mid-tempo track that owes as much to smoky rock’n’roll as it does classic country, thanks to a zig-zagging guitar riff. But Morris also teases orchestral string sections and a “straight-up pop-R&B” jam on her next LP, as well as introspective lyrics about life as a newlywed. (She married fellow musician Ryan Hurd last spring.)
“Me choosing ‘Girl’ as the first single, it’s about transitioning from someone who felt like she didn’t need anybody into someone who very much needs people and is okay with admitting that,” Morris says. “That really frightening vulnerability that I’ve been trying to avoid, I’m not doing that any longer.”
Below, Morris tells Billboard about working with Kurstin and Aarons, how her songwriting has evolved since Hero and what to expect from her next record.
You co-wrote your new single with Sarah Aarons, who also co-wrote “The Middle.” Has she become a close collaborator since that song brought you together?
Yeah, we’ve written together a handful of times. I met her at the Grammy Awards this past year at the Sony afterparty. From there, we got a few writes on the books. I obviously had already fallen in love with her songwriting and her songs, but until you get into a room with somebody, you don’t really know how the chemistry is going to work out.
Luckily it was just a match made in heaven, because we’re both inspired by a lot of the same artists and have similar vocal tones and styles. So it was just a really great collaboration with her and Greg Kurstin, whom we did these songs with. I feel like I’ve made a friend for life, a songwriter friend for life, with her. She really brought some different facets of truths out of me that I didn’t have before.
Lyrical truths specifically?
Yeah, I think just more introspective lyrics. And also, just on a technical level, her melody structuring is so unique, which is why I fell in love with “The Middle” — it’s such a melodically interesting song, and she knows when to leave spaces. You don’t just fill the entire three and a half to four minutes with noise. Sometimes what you’re not saying is more interesting than what you’re saying, and I think I learned that from her. And she’s a few years younger than me, so it’s a testament to her craft and how much of an old soul she is. The songs I wrote with her on the [new] album are really introspective, really raw. They just feel elevated in a weird way. I’m not sure if it’s just the lyrics or Greg’s production on those songs, it just felt like a more distinguished, refined album that came together.
What led you to seek Greg out?
Amanda Berman-Hill, who is at Sony ATV in L.A., she’s Sarah Aarons’ publisher and also Greg’s publisher. Obviously I wanted to write with Sarah, and she and Amanda had the idea. Amanda was like, “Sarah has written a bunch with Greg — you should do a trio and get in a room together and see what happens.” That’s how it came about, and it was really natural. We were paired together for a couple days. That first day, we got the song “Girl.”
So right off the bat, the chemistry of the three of us in the room was making something different that my ears haven’t heard before with my own music. That really intrigued me. Sometimes when people know your music and your album so well, they want to recreate that. There’s almost a greater quality in someone that isn’t completely familiar with your work, because they can help you create a new, more defined sound that doesn’t sound like something you’ve done before. I feel like I really got some deeper, more interesting instrumentation with Greg than I’ve gotten to do before.
Did you have a specific musical blueprint in mind for this record, or did you just see what happened in the studio?
I think the songs dictate the sound. Greg is really interesting in the studio, because he never really stops moving. He has this incredible studio in L.A. He has so many synthesizers and organs and pianos and guitars and amps. He was constantly moving around the different rooms of the studio, building a song, while Sarah and I would work on concept and melody and lyrics. We all had very defined roles, which was cool.
Whatever he was creating, whatever we were singing was inspiring each other as the hours went on. At the end of the day it was like, “Ready to sing a vocal?” This bed of beautiful instrumental layers had been laid down, and we had the melodies to go with it perfectly. I didnt even re-sing the vocals from our demo. There was just no need to. Those are my vocals from the day we wrote it.
How often does that happen?
Sometimes the first time you sing something, because you don’t know it yet, it’s got this nuance — you’re still trying to find the melody, and some really beautiful things can happen when you don’t know the song yet. I sometimes find it hard to go back to songs and recapture the magic the original demo or worktape had. If there’s something needing to be fixed, obviously you can go back and comp it, but there’s a magic in those original raw vocals. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Why did you want to kick off this new album with “Girl”?
Hero was a chapter of my life where I was going through a “first love falling apart” phase, and figuring my early 20s out. It’s that stage in life where you’re not ready for marriage yet, you’re not ready to settle down, but you’re not a teenager anymore. You’re in this weird in-between that can be really fun and also really heartbreaking. That’s what the last record was about.
And I feel like the last two years, after touring and growing up a bit more — and obviously I’ve found somebody that understands me now, and have fallen in love and gotten married — my [perspective on] songwriting is just a little different. It’s a little lighter than it was the first time around! [Laughs.] I’m not quite as bitter. Me choosing “Girl” as the first single, it’s about transitioning from someone who felt like she didn’t need anybody into someone who very much needs people, and is okay with admitting that. That really frightening vulnerability that I’ve been trying to avoid, I’m not doing that any longer.
This album is really about self-acceptance and partner acceptance. The first half of the album is very self-reflective, and it’s more about me. Then the second half of the record transitions into me being the counterpart to somebody else. I didn’t have any love songs on Hero, so there are a lot more on this one, and I think that’s been a really beautiful side to being a touring musician: You never see the person, you miss them all the time, and he’s a musician as well, so we’re constantly writing with each other or about each other. A lot of these songs reflect that. He actually wrote a couple of songs on this album with me. I feel like I’ve grown up more in the years since I released that album. And this is the timestamp of that.
Has “The Middle” changed your approach to crossing genre lines?
My first record had a little bit of everything: country, R&B, soul, pop. That was just me trying things out and being inspired. After “The Middle,” I’ve just become braver, and I don’t really care so much about the thing that may end up happening that I’ve already dealt with in the past: [People telling me,] “You’re not country!”
And that’s okay. I’m a little bit of everything. I’m myself. I’m an artist. I’m not going to be one color. With this album, with the budget being a little bigger, I have orchestral vibes and strings on a few songs. There’s a song on it that is straight up pop-R&B. It’s still me, though, because it’s my songwriting, it’s my voice. My voice strings everything together in a cohesive way. I think “The Middle,” and touring around the world the last couple of years, has made me see beyond the frame of the U.S. There are fans all over the world who love all kinds of music — and I’m one of them, so my album reflects that.