Arts & Culture

Maren Morris: performer, then writer, now back on stage

Morris says her new album, Hero, blends country and R&B.
Morris says her new album, Hero, blends country and R&B. Invision via AP

The past 12 months have been busy, dizzying ones for Maren Morris.

In September, the Arlington native signed a deal with Sony Music Nashville — because the universe has a sense of humor, Morris is corporate cousins with Fort Worth’s Leon Bridges, who signed to Columbia Records — and released a self-titled EP that turned plenty of heads, thanks to her soulful hit single, My Church.

On June 3, she will release her full-length major-label debut, Hero.

The weeks prior, Morris is in full awareness-raising mode: She made her national television debut on Good Morning America last week, and will perform at the Grand Ole Opry on May 21.

Along the way, Morris has been singled out for praise from some of Nashville’s biggest names, including Keith Urban, who tapped Morris as an opening act for his national arena tour, which kicks off June 2 in Kansas City. (She has even hung out with Lin-Manuel Miranda backstage at Hamilton, as clear a mark of celebrity as there is these days.)

It seemed, from the outside, to be an overnight success, albeit one earned after Morris, who ultimately moved to Nashville to pursue music full time three years ago, spent the better part of a decade honing her craft as a songwriter.

Fast-forward to March, and the hurly-burly of Austin’s Sixth Street during South by Southwest, where Morris played a pair of showcases.

This trip to Austin, with stops at the buzzy Spotify House and YouTube showcase, was vastly different from the last time I saw her perform at SXSW, in 2008 as part of a RedGorilla lineup, managed by her father, Scott Morris. She played to a room off Sixth Street that might have had 11 people in it, including her family.

Then as now, however, the songs were there: clear, pure, true and full of her personality, a disarming mixture of Texas-bred attitude and vulnerability.

The 26-year-old Morris is seated in a corner of the Soho Lounge, mulling it all over — the transition from ambitious unknown to rising star — in her mind.

“I think the window in Nashville happened fairly quickly just because I had some experience under my belt and I had been writing prior, even though I had been co-writing,” Morris says. “I just felt like I was strapped to a rocket the second I landed in Nashville. It was like, ‘All right, you have this many years — you graduated from high school, now you’re going to college and you’re getting your lifetime education with some of the most incredible songwriters in the world.’”

Crossing genres

Morris is an exceptionally quick study, although she was well on her way before she ever left North Texas.

Morris built a career closer to home with vivid collections like 2007’s All That It Takes and 2011’s Live Wire, records that displayed her ability to craft songs wise beyond her years and blended folk, country, pop and soul in a way that set her apart from her Lone Star contemporaries.

That same fearless fusion of disparate genres is on display on her self-titled EP — the rootsy My Church rests alongside the sleek pop of 80’s Mercedes — and Morris says anyone expecting full-bore traditional country music on Hero will be in for a surprise.

“It’s a good blend of, I feel like, country and R&B,” Morris says. “I just grew up in a house of not musical parents, but music lovers. … I feel like it’s hard to box this record into any one genre and I don’t think people listen to music like that anymore, anyway. There’s something for everybody.”

As Morris explains, the goal wasn’t all that she has accomplished — she moved to Nashville to work behind the scenes, signing with publishing house Big Yellow Dog in 2013, and spending her days in songwriting rooms with A-list scribes like fellow Texan Shane McAnally, watching as artists like Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson snapped up her songs to record.

“I wouldn’t have even known that Maren hadn’t focused solely on writing years before I met her,” McAnally told the country music blog Wide Open Country in February. “She’s definitely an old soul and I feel like she’s been writing songs well beyond her years. There’s no way her years line up with the life experience in her songs.”

Writer’s block

Still, upon arrival in Nashville, Morris was ready to transition from the front of the stage to the anonymous writers’ rooms of Music Row.

“I was sort of done,” Morris says. “I just wanted to be a writer. I was like, ‘OK, I’ve done the performing thing. I’ve been the artist. I’ve released music. I think where I’m happiest is just in the creative process.’ There’s no high that you get that’s really comparable to when you finish a song that you love. I was totally fine.”

In the course of sending her songs around town, Morris kept being confronted by unexpected roadblocks.

“I found this common theme happening with a lot of my songs and I kept getting this pushback from publishers saying that they didn’t want to pitch the song to their artist or whatever artist because it was so me. Initially, I was annoyed because, as a songwriter, you want to get cuts.”

But then: an epiphany.

“I think looking back now, they couldn’t hear anyone else singing it and it wasn’t backhanded. It was actually them saying, ‘Get your [expletive] together.’ It took a second for that to penetrate.”

Duly motivated, Morris reached inside and emerged with My Church, a song she says “was the first time in hundreds of songs that I’d written I thought to myself, ‘Man, I cannot give this away.’ 

“There was something special about that song and in terms of getting one shot, if I had one, that song says everything I want to say. I didn’t send it to anybody.”

The lyrics to My Church deftly fold sin and salvation into the idea of escape — hitting the road and getting away from everything — in a manner reminiscent not of Nashville’s present, but its past: “I’ve cussed on a Sunday/I’ve cheated and I’ve lied,” Morris sings over a sultry, gospel-tinged backbeat. “I’ve fallen down from grace/A few too many times/But I find holy redemption/When I put this car in drive.”

My Church is simultaneously personal and universal, the kind of song that inspires an audience standing on sun-baked asphalt in east Austin to stop staring at their phones and spontaneously sing along, as they did at the Spotify House during SXSW — a feeling that, surely, must be exhilarating for someone wanting to connect on the artistic as well as the performative level.

As our conversation winds down, I read back a quote to Morris she’d given me almost a decade earlier, as we spoke not long removed from the release of All That It Takes: “It never stops,” the 17-year-old Morris told me. “I don’t think you ever get a break from songwriting.”

She takes in her words, a faint smile on her face.

“I think that’s still true today,” she says. “That’s funny that you wrote that down back then, because I feel the same way now. I still — even if I don’t write a full song — I always have a list of notes, of titles, or a line that I might find inspirational.”

Whatever happens over the next 12 months — and there will be plenty; Morris is on the road with Urban’s tour until November, and hopes to tour on her own beyond that — Morris will do as she has done since she first sparked to music, growing up in Arlington.

Maren Morris will keep moving through life, attuned to the world around her, collecting, thinking and reacting.

In every sense of the phrase, her music is her life.

Preston Jones: 817-390-7713, @prestonjones