Dressed in a white tank top, blue jeans, and brown knee-high boots, Maren Morris slides into a suede chair in the sunroom of her manager’s East Nashville bungalow. Morning sunlight filters into the serene setting, but there’s an underlying current of anxious energy. Morris’s manager and publicist are working their phones and laptops. Boxes of chocolate croissants on the coffee table go untouched. Tomorrow, the twenty-eight-year-old will fly to New York City to premiere the video for “Girl,” an empowering anthem to everyday women and the opening salvo of her highly anticipated new album of the same name.
Raised in Arlington, Texas, Morris spent her teenage years crisscrossing the state to play any stage she could. She moved to Nashville at twenty-two with the goal of becoming a songwriter rather than a performer. But after penning tracks for the likes of Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson, she felt the pull back to playing her own material, releasing her major-label debut, Hero, in 2016. The album garnered her a host of Grammy nominations, including a win for Best Country Solo Performance for the breakout ode-to-Hank-and-Johnny single “My Church.”
Her country career took a detour when the electronic producer Zedd asked her to sing the vocal part on the slick dance-pop track “The Middle.” It became one of the biggest songs of 2018 and proved Morris could deftly cross over into different genres. But she has always maintained that she doesn’t want to be boxed in. Though the new album still displays her country roots, a handful of tracks could easily pass for pop songs (with a hint of twang), while one of the highlights, “RSVP,” is a sensuous slow jam that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Beyoncé record. Like her pal and fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves, Morris is charting a path that acknowledges country music, but leaves plenty of room for stretching out. “I remember loving to make mixes for my friends in high school,” she says. “There’s probably some terrible stuff on there, but I felt like I could always find the best soundtrack for that part of our lives. I’m still trying to do that now.”
Even before the success of “The Middle,” Billboard magazine suggested in 2016 that you’d be Nashville’s next pop star.
I remember thinking that was ridiculous. It’s funny because that terrifies me. Those two words “pop star” really freak me out. I recently did this interview, and I hated how they slapped on this headline, “Move Over Taylor Swift.” “Girl” is about not competing against other women, and I really hated that they turned it into that.
What was it like being thrust into the pop music spotlight?
I did a couple of award shows this past year where we were doing “The Middle,” and it was such a different world than I’m used to. Country music is so tight-knit, so you really do know everyone, and you’re excited to see each other. But when you have massive worldwide talent in the same room, it’s more competitive. That part I’ve never really jibed with because there’s just not as much female camaraderie.
And then you have to deal with some fans who are, let’s say, heavily invested.
It was traumatic being in the public eye and getting abused by all these criticisms and opinions. “Her voice is terrible” or “She sucks. What was Zedd thinking?” to some seriously hateful, misogynistic comments. I’ve put stuff on social media that has cost me followers and fans. Even just posting a picture of Emma González from the Parkland shooting and writing, “This is enough,” nothing else, I lost ten thousand followers or something crazy. Earlier this year I took Instagram and Twitter off my phone for a couple of weeks. I just didn’t want to have any cloudiness going into a very exciting time in my life.
Speaking of which, you got married last year to fellow songwriter Ryan Hurd, who cowrote a couple of the songs on Girl. How did that influence the album?
Going into the album I was thinking about the vibe, and I realized that the first half was more about my headspace and the state of the world right now. Then the second half was more vulnerable, like I was speaking directly to Ryan. I loved that because it really is two sides to the story.
You wrote your first song when you were ten. I don’t think a lot of people know how long you’ve paid your dues. Did your parents push you at all? Who recognized your talent?
I loved singing, but the first time my parents realized it wasn’t a novelty thing, I was singing karaoke in their living room during a Christmas party for the employees of the hair salon they own. I sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” because it was the only song I recognized in the machine catalogue, and I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. My parents were in the other room, and they thought it was a recording. I was probably nine. It happened very quickly after that. They were like, “You have to audition,” and I actually said: “How is LeAnn Rimes doing it? She’s not that much older than me. How can I do that too?”
LeAnn Rimes was a touchstone not just for you, but also for other Texas singers such as Kacey and Miranda Lambert.
Oh yeah. I was obsessed with LeAnn Rimes. There was this show in Arlington called Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue where LeAnn got her start. We all would audition there, and that was the first time I ever played with a band. They have a house band, so you just sing covers, but there’s an audience. Then I played at the White Elephant Saloon in the Fort Worth Stockyards. On Sundays, they let kids in there because it’s a touristy thing. I was ten years old and went up on the stage and sang Hank Williams songs with the band.
Where else would you play?
My dad was booking gigs for me all over Texas, everything from honky-tonks to rock clubs to sports bars, which were the worst places I ever did. It was definitely an unconventional way to grow up, but I learned how to perform onstage, how to talk between songs, and how to get along with a band. I’d play gigs on the weekends, and sometimes that sucked. But at the same time, I remember turning sixteen and having the money to pay for my first car by myself.
How much money are we talking?
My first car was a red Mitsubishi Montero Sport. It was like five thousand dollars, and I paid for it in cash. I didn’t have to have a side job. I just played shows. It was usually around four hundred bucks per show.
Was there a moment when you got sick of all the time on the road?
When I was twenty-one, I realized I was going to be doing these bars for the rest of my life if I stayed in Texas. I was so burned out. At that point I had been touring for ten years. I was like, “I’m done. I don’t want to ever sing with a microphone again.”
Fortunately, you changed your mind. Where do you see yourself in five years?
I have so many dreams. I hope I can play arenas. I was a musical theater nerd in high school, so I would love to do something on Broadway. I’m just constantly trying to be better and do things that scare the shit out of me in a good way. I’ve been toying with the thought of taking some college courses online and dipping my toe back into my education. My husband has two degrees, all my friends went to college, and I chose music. But I would love to, even if it takes me ten years, get that degree.
What would you study?
Right now I’m undeclared. [Laughs.] But I’m really interested in politics. The one semester I did attend college, I took an amazing political science course.
So can we expect Maren Morris 2040?
No. If I can’t handle mean comments on Twitter, how am I going to be a politician?
Taylor Swift invited you to sing “The Middle” at her show in Arlington recently. What did you take from that experience?
I love leaving a show and feeling like I’ve just gone to the theater. I respect people who can take that size of a production and make it seamless. And so I’ve realized I’m two different people sometimes. I’m this girl from Texas who loves writing songs and playing honky-tonks. Then there’s this pop element where it’s larger-than-life production and people are leaving the show exhilarated. I love both of these people that I’m becoming. I don’t want to be contained. I don’t want to be barricaded in by politics or genres or being a woman. With every move I’ve made, it’s pretty clear that there are no limits.