By Emily Yahr
Singer-songwriter Maren Morris. (LeAnn Mueller/Courtesy Sony Music)
NASHVILLE — When a new act makes a successful splash in country music, it typically arrives with an obvious talking point: Kacey Musgraves’s truth bombs about small-town suffocation; Sam Hunt’s brash infusion of R&B; Chris Stapleton’s traditionalism; Maddie & Tae’s anti-bro-country “Girl in a Country Song.”
Maren Morris, 25, has accomplished a rare feat — making waves without an easily grasped message. If anything, she writes songs about experiences that are difficult to explain, like the fleeting surge of confidence you have before leaving the house for a big night. Or the blissful, nearspiritual feeling of driving while your favorite music blasts out of the speakers.
Her ability to capture the latter resulted in a hit first single, the soulful “My Church” (“When this wonderful world gets heavy and I need to find my escape/ I just keep the wheels rolling, radio scrolling, til my sins wash away”). The song has done so well in only a few months that Sony’s Columbia Nashville — which signed Morris last fall after a bidding war — announced plans Monday to release her first major-label album, “Hero,” on June 3.
Although “My Church” benefited from iHeartRadio’s “On the Verge” program, which requires country stations to play chosen songs a certain amount of times, it’s matching radio momentum in sales. The song, at
No. 12 on radio, is regularly at the top of the iTunes country charts and has sold 253,000 copies.
Morris’s pop-country songs hit a special sweet spot: introspective and clever, keeping with Nashville songwriting tradition, yet at the same time, unapologetically commercial and catchy with pop-crossover potential. Plus, she’s making the process of breaking into country music as a young, female artist look effortless, which is what Nashville needs right now. It’s a significant benchmark in a male-dominated genre that has recently seen women struggle to gain a foothold.
The cover art for Morris’s debut album, “Hero,” due out June 3. (Courtesy Sony Music)
“Obviously, there’s this lack of a female perspective that I would like to hear,” Morris said during a recent interview here. In contrast to her powerhouse vocals, she has a low-key, quiet confidence and is remarkably chill about how fast her life is changing.
[One industry expert offers his plan to help country radio: Fewer songs by women]
Morris’s emergence coincides with a new spotlight on the challenges women face in the country industry, sparked last year when a radio consultant’s advice to country stations — limit female voices in the rotation for higher ratings — went viral. Morris recognizes that this increases the attention on her as a breakthrough artist and emphasizes the need for more diversity of viewpoints, although she thinks radio has made strides.
Still, she added, “It’s not my aim to be this, like, ‘savior for females.’ I just want to make good music.”
Morris said she’s simply excited to offer a different perspective not even in terms of gender, but thematically. Although “Hero” boasts songs about relationships (the mournful “I Wish I Was,” the hopeful “I Could Use a Love Song”), it touches a wide range of topics.
“I love love songs, but sometimes it’s okay to just be young and talk about something other than getting married or falling in love,” Morris said. “There are so many fun things that you live that you can write about and people of all ages can connect to.” Such as “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry,” some real talk to a friend who dates losers; or “80’s Mercedes,” a soaring anthem about hitting the town.
Although Morris is barely old enough to rent the cars she sings about, she’s in her second decade as a performer. Raised in Arlington, Tex., Morris hit the state music circuit after her parents bought her a guitar when she was a tween. In between high school and college classes, she recorded three albums by the time she was 21.
When she won an award at 2012 music seminar in New York, Morris made Nashville connections. With some help from Musgraves, a fellow Texas pal, Morris moved to Music City a year later.
At the time, Morris felt a bit burned out as a performer, and she was eager to hone her songwriting chops. She signed a publishing deal within a year and soon had cuts on Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson albums. But there was a problem: As her writing skills sharpened, her publishers told her it would be difficult to shop her songs around town — because they couldn’t imagine anyone else but her singing those lyrics.
“At first that pissed me off, because I was like, ‘Come on!’ But then when you keep hearing ‘It should be you saying it,’ it eventually sunk in,” Morris said. “It was a lightbulb moment. It was like, ‘Why the hell shouldn’t it be me?’ ”
Morris performs at Gramercy Theatre in New York on Dec. 1, 2015. (Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)
Morris, 25, has accomplished a rare feat — making waves without an easily grasped message. (Kate York/Kate York)
So Morris cautiously dove into the performing world again. On a writing trip to Los Angeles in early 2015, Morris — stinging after a bad breakup — took a drive to see the ocean. A sense of peace washed over her as she listened to music in her car. She thought, “This is my version of church.”
The next day, she had a scheduled co-writing session with producer Mike Busbee, who has written songs for Garth Brooks, Shakira and 5 Seconds of Summer, among others. She told him she had a title for a song: “My Church.”
“My initial thought was ‘Really? I think it’s cool, but what would we do with it?’ ” Busbee recalls a year later. But he had been eager to work with Morris since the first time he saw her sing at a Nashville writer’s round, where writers perform their songs. He threw out an idea: “Can I get a Hallelujah/Can I get an Amen?”
The line ended up as the chorus, and they wrote the song in an hour. The process for “80’s Mercedes” was similar. Morris came in with the title, eager to pinpoint the feeling of getting ready to go out for the night. Then Busbee offered a killer hook: I’m a ’90s baby in my ’80s Mercedes. Morris, born in 1990, took the lyrics from there, penning an easy candidate for an upcoming song of the summer.
By the time Sony signed Morris in September, her songs had already been uploaded to Spotify and had about 2 million streams. Busbee, who is co-producing Morris’s album, is gratified but not surprised by the strong reaction.
“It’s the trifecta: To have a voice like that; to have that presence, the way she carries herself; and the way she writes songs . . . put that all together, you can’t stop wanting to engage with that as a listener,” he said. “Of course people are freaking out.”