Photo by Jamie Nelson
Maren Morris Cooks Up New Flavors On 'Girl'
It’s not easy to experience every milestone of your life in the spotlight. Country juggernaut Maren Morris hasn’t had it easy; since the 2016 release of her major label debut, Hero, she's worn a target on her back for genre purists and hate-mongering trolls. She's not afraid to speak her mind, even when costs (and tempers) boil over. But she’s kept her held high, her sparkling crown a little bit crooked, and that hasn’t been more evident than on her second record, Girl, which exposes startling cracks and dents to her psyche.
The album pops open with this emotional confession: "Man, this sh*t's unflatterin', all up in my head again." The titular cut sees Morris writhing around in her insecurities, almost drawing them into herself to find peace, and she does, eventually, come to grips with reality and learns to accept every tattered edge of herself. It’s a long, winding journey, of course, and she digs her heels in on other such standouts as "A Song for Everything" and "Common," a pairing with Brandi Carlile in which the two powerhouses process and cope with the world and their place within the raging firestorm.
Husband and fellow musician Ryan Hurd emerges as a prominent muse for Morris, whose gaze locks with his for the second half of the record. The singer-songwriter has never been more evocative and honest as she has with songs like "Hell and Back," a smokey stunner detailing past traumas and finding each other in the aftermath, and "Good Woman," a handwritten promise to be better in the relationship. "I don’t scare you / And I guess that’s why you didn’t save me / You didn’t think I needed saving," she observes on the former, a weepy shower of strings giving her wings.
Front to back, Girl (co-produced by Morris, alongside Greg Kurstin and busbee on select tracks) is a confetti shower of ambition, tremendous heart and womanhood. Morris is firmly planted in the eye of lush productions that feel as much her usual self as a natural stylistic progression to her songcraft. She's not only entering the second year of marriage to Hurd, but she's riding high off a collection of GRAMMY nominations at the 2019 ceremony, including all-genre nods in Song and Record of the Year for her Zedd collaboration, "The Middle."
Girl is certainly a timely release, particularly in such a heated social and political climate when women continue to struggle to be heard at radio and on the festival circuit. "I think environmentally you just write what is around you or what you’re internalizing. When I started writing for this record, it was three and a half years ago. It was during the release of Hero that I was starting to write for this," says Morris. “So, I’ve gone through a lot of things as a new artist that has been really impactful on my psyche and my heart. There were a lot of things I didn’t think I would get to accomplish so soon in my career."
"While I’ve had success at country radio in a time when there’s been a pretty significant drought for women, it makes it all the more emphasized that there’s a lack of equality. I think as one of the few women who is getting played, I would like to stand up for me sisters and say, ‘Everyone deserves a seat at the table.’ In my own way, that’s where I was coming from when I made this album,” she says.
Maren Morris spoke with The Recording Academy during her recent press tour about finding a new way in the world, diving into vulnerability, trolls, lessons learned in her 20s and much more.
With Billboard, you mentioned how you felt braver on this album in exploring what you called "frightening vulnerability." "Good Woman" is a great example of your grit and willingness to expose all parts of yourself. What provoked this song?
I've been falling in love with Ryan for the last several years, but our marriage the last year has been incredibly inspiring to this project. Writing "Good Woman," I just have never been in a love like this where I was OK to sit down and put words on paper that said, "Thank you for loving me, so in return, I’m going to love you the same way back." I feel so accepted by him. His love is so loud. A lot of times, I don’t know if I've always been the person to give that same amount. With this song, it’s a promise that I will try each and every day to give that love back.
Love songs are so often cheesy or sticky sweet. But "Good Woman" feels very grounded and real to life.
I know what you mean. If a love song is real, you don’t have to worry about it being cheesy or cliche. You always want to avoid that as a songwriter, but sometimes, just saying it like you say it to the person in-person is the best way to go about it. With all the love songs on this record, because there is such a bigger amount of them than there was on my first record, I wanted to touch on all the different facets of being in a healthy relationship this time around and do it in my own way that wasn’t too sentimental where you get lost. But it’s a very real kind of love being depicted.
At what point did such vulnerability start to show up in your songwriting?
I think just the exposure of being an artist in such a social media-driven world has made me feel very vulnerable in itself. Then, personally, my relationship with my husband has grown so much deeper in such a chaotic time in my life. So, really, you dive into the depths of my personal psyche (and his, as well) trying to deal with falling in love but feeling so exposed as artists in public. Really grappling with those terms has been a give and take over the years. Now, we’re in a sweet spot where we know how much of our relationship we want to share with the world and what is private just to us. I think we’ve hit a good balance.
"While I’ve had success at country radio in a time when there’s been a pretty significant drought for women, it makes it all the more emphasized that there’s a lack of equality. I think as one of the few women who is getting played, I would like to stand up for me sisters and say, ‘Everyone deserves a seat at the table.’"
"Good Woman" is perfectly paired with closing track "Shade,” ending the album with a 1-2 sucker punch of emotion. They feel very triumphant, especially when you juxtapose them against the opener, “Girl.” What is that emotional journey for you leading into “Shade”?
Staring the record with "Girl" is a really important move because it’s talking directly to myself and to the listener. It goes through the ebbs and flows of what it means to be a woman today and the insecurities of just being a person where we measure so much of our value on what other people are doing and how their lives are turning out. It felt like a really medicinal song to meet with that anxiety we currently all feel. Going through the journey of listening to the record, you get deeper into the elements that make me up.
Ending with "Shade," sonically, in the most simplest of terms, it just felt good. It’s so, almost Sgt. Pepper's-esque with how weird it goes with the instrumentation. It felt like such a “hell yeah!” moment to end the album on. To be so self-reflective in "Girl" and then in "Shade" to be so partner-reflective, I loved ending there. It almost felt like...not closing the chapter but leaving a little crack for the next record and whatever happens next in my life. I can end there, but it’s an ellipses, not a period.
You co-produced many of the standout songs on the record with busbee [Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum], including "Hell and Back" and "A Song for Everything." What was your creative headspace and starting point of how you wanted to approach the production?
Those two songs are the countrier songs of the album. When you have songs like that that are so lyric-driven, you don’t want to overproduce it. busbee is so great at finding the balance of making it sound like me, which is a little bit of everything, genre-wise, but also adding some air into the production, so you can actually hear the lyrics and be touched by them, hopefully. Production-wise, he has such a great ear when it comes to the L.A. and Nashville worlds. He’s always been able to blend the two so seamlessly and in a really edgy, cool way. That’s why I’ve always loved working with him.
Then, on the other production end, this was my first time working with Greg Kurstin [Adele, Foo Fighters, Sia]. He’s obviously very renowned. I knew that going into it, but I didn’t really know what sound was going to come out. I love what he brought to the table. It was really inspiring to watch him work and create something out of nothing. He plays all the instruments on it. He really created a new sound that I hadn’t really touched on before. He’s never really worked with a country artist, and I’m a little left-of-center in those terms. I think it was a great fit with Greg. I’m excited for whatever we write next. He really took the music in such an interesting way. [Kurstin co-produced "Girl," "Common" and "The Bones"]
Strings are woven into the backbone of this album, making the music have a dream-like quality. How did that become a part of the process?
We obviously had a little bit bigger of a budget for this record. [Laughs.] And I have always loved really orchestral elements to albums when the time calls for it. You don’t want to throw strings on everything. I thought we were really sparing with our use of strings. It was a really tasteful way of incorporating a heavenly sounding instrument. It was another shade of the sound evolving and really elevates it all, as well. I have a new guy [Matt Butler] in the band who plays cello. I love adding elements like that that aren’t expected in a country or pop setting. It’s a really beautiful, valuable element to add to a recording.
The first half of the album digs into your journey to self-acceptance. Now that you’re nearing the end of your 20s, what things have been the hardest to accept of yourself?
I’m pretty stubborn. I don’t know if that is from being a Texan or having been an artist for so long. I’ve learned that I’m not always right. Even though I’m very strong in my convictions, it doesn’t mean I can’t allow someone else’s opinion to meet mine and change my mind. I’ve learned how to have a little more creativity-relinquishing when I’m around really talented people. [Laughs.]
I’ve also learned that it’s OK to have an opinion and not always share it. I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit of a rap, especially in Nashville, of being a really opinionated country artist. That is true. I have a lot of thoughts. I’ve learned you don’t need to share each and every single one. When it’s a big issue, you can just share it with your friends and family, and that’s OK. Then, when you’re really passionate about something and need to stand up for people or yourself, that is when you should speak up.
Speaking of standing up, "Flavor" reads as an anthem against detractors, particularly on the bridge: "Won't play the victim / Don’t fit that mold / I speak my peace / Don’t do what I’m told / Shut up and sing / Oh, hell no, I won’t." What drove you to write this song?
It was really being affected at the time by social media and trolls and people bashing an opinion I would have. People would threaten me with a career-end like the Dixie Chicks and that would happen to me if I kept opening my mouth. And I was so pissed off about that. It was such a cheap shot. The threat of being erased because you have an opinion just felt so unfair, so I wrote this song in the mindset of “shut up and sing / hell no, I won’t." I’m not going to be talked down to or fit into the mold of what you assume I should be. This is my life, first and foremost. In a very sassy way, I wanted to say, "F U!" [Laughs.]