Maren Morris Grows Into Her Own: 'I'm A Little Bit Of Everything'
Maren Morris' life has been a whirlwind these last few years. Following the success of her major label debut album, 2016's Hero, and last year's dance-pop hit "The Middle," the country-pop singer-songwriter is back with more experiences, more confidence and her latest album, Girl, out March 8.
A rising female voice in a male-dominated country music scene, Morris has been busy exploring her place in the world and adjusting to the changes. Her sophomore album represents that introspection and perseverance of an artist cutting through self-doubt and industry expectations.
Following the success of her first few singles, Morris had to learn how to write songs in the back of a tour bus. Even though it wasn't as structured of an environment as she preferred, Morris says she knew she had to song write on the fly.
"Initially, it was very daunting to start writing for a second record because I was on the road touring for the first time really heavily," Morris says. "I had to learn how to write in the back of a tour bus. It's not quite as structured as I prefer it, but you have to adapt and learn how to be creative and then also go work that night at a show. "
The 28-year-old artist constantly had to empower herself to create music according to her own standards and not anyone else's. That empowerment is apparent in the album's lead single, the R&B-country hybrid, "GIRL." It's a one-woman rally cry of reassurance that continues the climb up Billboard's Country Songs Chart.
Morris spoke to NPR's Audie Cornish from Nashville to talk about the concepts behind GIRL, giving herself time to "fill the well" of creativity after touring, flipping the status quo and more. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link and read on for the adapted interview transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Audie Cornish: At first, I wasn't sure if the song "GIRL" was a message to us out there or if this was a message to yourself.
Maren Morris: It started as just a message to myself and it changes perspective a little bit, the point of view, the way I speak to myself and to someone else throughout the song. But, yeah, it really was a self -reflective, therapeutic write. I wrote that with Greg Christian and Sarah Aarons last year. When I got the demo back from Greg a few days later, I think it just hit me in a way where I needed to hear it and that meant maybe some other people would too.
Cornish: There's a part about drawing comparisons and you're saying, "I don't want to wear your crown." I think for someone who's got a pop career going, that always feels like a pointed line — rejecting being crowned or being put on a pedestal.
Morris: It feels like this because I'm a woman in an industry that is very male-dominated, especially in country music. So, it's very easy to be competitive with other women because there are so few spots sometimes. I think when I was saying, "I don't wanna wear your crown, when there's enough to go around," I was saying to myself, "Quit comparing yourself to this other person." There is room for everybody. Don't let the outside world make you think that you need to be so dog-eat-dog for these opportunities, because that's what they are wanting you to think. Really, we should be fighting that status quo instead of upholding it.
Cornish: You were wrote in Lenny Letter about some of the limits you have felt sometimes in that music. You [wrote] at one point, "The frustration I felt with the perspective of women in country music is that you either have to sing about being scorned by a lover or thinking a boy is cute and wanting him to notice you."
There's pressures basically to be pretty and sexy, but not sexual. What's the distinction there? How do you try and play that out on this album?
Morris: It's funny because I wrote the Lenny Letter piece before I really had any of these songs written, so that was kind of my preamble to write this record. That was the head space I was in.
A lot has changed in just the two and a half years since I wrote that piece. I've put "The Middle" out, I got married, I went and toured the world for the first time. I've had so many huge moments. There are so many things that when I wrote that piece, I didn't know was going to happen yet. Now that I'm putting this record out, and I've had some time to really comb through all of the emotions I've been feeling and distilled them into these songs, I can see that I do embrace my independence and sexuality while also very comfortably singing on the album how in love I am with my husband and how appreciative I am as his partner and appreciative I am that he is my partner. So it's this dichotomy of not having to choose between your own independence and sexuality and also needing someone. I love that there are kind of two parts to this album that that really dive into those elements.
The first half of the record is very independent. It's kind of my point of view on the world, on women empowerment. And then the second half of the record really softens, and is me being a lot more vulnerable and talking about my love for this other human being who's been my equal through this whole process. So, I think I needed some time to really get those songs out. I feel like it's just a more mature perspective. It's okay to say that you're attracted to someone — that's not what I'm trying to deter people from writing about. I just think it's way more fun when you're the woman and you get to be the aggressor instead of putting out the hotness and wanting someone to notice you at a party or tailgate. I wanted to be the one with the power.
Cornish: What did you grow up with that you were kind of in your mind like, "This is my En Vogue moment" [for the song "RSVP"]?
Morris: Toni Braxton. You know, I'm a sort of child of the 90s, so all of that really female driven — everything from Sheryl Crow to Lauryn Hill to Shania Twain — I was all about, and still am. So I think when I wrote this song, the lyrics are actually very country structure.
Just the lyrics. It's like "I'm a glass of good whiskey with your name on it." Like the rhyme scheme is very country, Nashville writing structure to me. I wrote it with Nashville co-writers. So I definitely feel like the lyric is quite country. And then, the vocals and the the track, we really got to amplify that sensual R&B quality. I know all my influences as a kid got to come out when I sang that vocal.
Cornish: What are your responses when people say, "Look, I think you're pandering. I think you're trying to appeal to a certain audience or you're not being true to your roots in some way." How have you come to handle that criticism?
Morris: I mean, initially I'd get pretty defensive just because no one knows my roots except for me. So anyone trying to take umbrage of them, I used to really get defensive about. But I know that when I sing, it's always me that comes out. And even on "The Middle," just certain words that I say — you know I'm from Texas, like they're always gonna be southern sounding.
I don't think that you should hold any artist, especially a new artist, under a certain ceiling because that's how you see them. I've always kind of made moves in my career that were risky but my heart was telling me to do it. I don't think that you should hold any artist, especially a new artist, under a certain ceiling just because that's how you see them.
I've always kind of made moves in my career that were risky, but my heart was telling me to do it. I think in my deepest soul, I am a little bit of everything.
I've always kind of made moves in my career that were risky, but my heart was telling me to do it. I think in my deepest soul, I am a little bit of everything. I grew up listening to really classic country and outlaw country like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. I loved Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Then the 90's part of me is with Dixie Chicks, Shania, Lauryn Hill and the Spice Girls. I mean, there were all of these phases. So I just try to write a good song. I don't try to write a country song because I could write a really country song, because that's what fit the vibe in the room that day, and then the next day we would write "RSVP." I'm not one color.
Cornish: And the song "Flavor" really kind of speaks to that directly right? That seems to be the mission statement of that song.
I sang with Dolly Parton at the Grammys and she's been such a huge influence on me, not only as a songwriter, but just as a woman in this industry. I remember there's this really iconic interview in the late '70s with her and Barbara Walters, and Barbara kind of asks very pointedly to Dolly, "There are a lot of people that think you are going pop." Dolly just had the best answer. She was like, "I'm about bringing Dolly Parton to the world. I'm not about going pop or going this or that. I just want the world to know who I am." I think that that was such a graceful way of saying, "You can't fence me in."
Cornish: The first album is very kind of like, 'young independent woman.' And as you talked about in this album, there were like love songs and there are songs about about finding partnership with someone. And when I think about a song like "Hell and Back" that's a song that is really vulnerable. You really are kind of talking about your flaws in a way.
Morris: I cried during this. Yeah, I was a big mess, crying in the corner [Laughs]. This is one of my older songs. I wrote this a few years ago and it made it to this record of which I'm so proud. But just the simplicity of that sort of love, and that kind of acceptance from someone else where it's like, the skeletons in my closet you liked out in the light. You didn't save me, you didn't think I needed saving. Just that sentiment is so simple and so pure that yeah I get emotional even talking about it because I was so broken the day that we wrote this song. My [husband] really wasn't trying to tape me back together. He was like, "I like these pieces however they lay."
Cornish: It's funny, because usually I feel like this character in a song is like someone that a man is singing about. This is like the first time I've heard the song from the point of view of that woman character.
Morris: That is a huge compliment because I know exactly what you're talking about. It's not like this White Knight complex. It's honestly me saying, [with] all of this mess and all of this brokenness — you didn't think I needed to be saved, but you love me anyway. I'm just so proud of this song and that it made it on this record.
Cornish: Is it weird hearing that kind of vulnerability? I mean, you have to go out and perform this now.
Morris: [Laughs] It's actually one of my favorites to play live. I've done it a couple of times acoustic, but then the actual full band version we're doing for the tour is so beautiful and really respectful of the album version. I love that there are elements of this record that are very much just my songwriter heart coming out. I mean, I love being forthright and sassy and all of that, but really being vulnerable is tough. But I think that it's a side that my fans and a lot of people have not seen from me and this is the only way I know how to share it.
Cornish: You hear the word "girl" in so many country song titles, and so is this the girl singing back?
Morris: I think initially when I chose "Girl" to be the first single, I was looking at the Country Radio chart and there were no women. It was all men, but they had all their titles saying the word "girl" in it. I just thought, How funny and kind of tongue-in-cheek would it be at this point for me to put a song out as a girl, called "GIRL," and then name the album that, and name the tour that and bring my girlfriends out on tour. I mean, it just felt like being in on the joke and moving it forward instead of complaining about it. Just really doing something about it.
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