“I used to get my feelings hurt when people would say ‘She’s not country,’” explains genre-blending crossover singer-songwriter, Maren Morris. “I guess ella I’m not country enough for some people and then ella I’m too country for others.”
One of the most successful new artists of recent years in any genre, Morris has more than proven his abilities. However, she still regularly faces criticism from country purists and pop pessimists alike, as she skips from guest vocals on the country-fried stylings of Thomas Rhett’s 2017 hit “Craving You” to the cold, cutting electronics of Zedd and Grey’s “The Middle” in 2018.
But a lot like her home state of Texas, the unshakeable singer refuses to be confined to a box, to a style, or to anyone’s opinion. With her of her sixth album of her, Humble Quest, out 25 March, she carries that same “Don’t Mess with Maren” sentiment into her latest chapter. “After a couple of years of feeling insecure about that or having my pride get hurt by it, I just realized no, I’m always going to be me,” she states. “And I’m not even trying to be that rebellious. I’m just trying to write a f***ing song here!”
There’s more, too. Never one to shy away from a collaboration, Morris, now 31, has also sung with former-boyband elite Niall Horan, megastar Taylor Swift, and joined the league of country it-girls The Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires. However, it’s her de ella serious solo chops de ella which first brought her fame, with Morris’s unique, R&B-tinged twang and homegrown sound dominating the Nashville conversation since 2016 hits “My Church” and “80s Mercedes”.
Admittedly, she wasn’t an overnight success. Facing her de ella share of rejection early on, it took several years and three independently recorded albums – beginning with 2005 debut walk-on, released when she was just 15 – before that initial breakthrough. As a teenager, she even auditioned for American Idol and The Voice. She was turned down by both. But when she was introduced to the world of Nashville songwriting by her longtime friend and fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves, there was no turning back.
“I didn’t do everything right, but I did enough things right to end up where I am. I don’t think I would tell her anything different,” she explains. As the title of her new stripped-back, celebration-of-life album suggests, Ella’s Morris’s career has been one big Humble Quest.
In the lead single “Circles Around This Town,” Morris looks back on how far she’s come. “I just put myself out there in such a cringe-y, vulnerable way in the beginning,” she says of her “scrappy grind” when she first arrived in Nashville. Deeply nostalgic, it depicts the town through the starry eyes of a teenager with big dreams. “I was rediscovering my love for Nashville because finally I was home and off the road,” she says of writing the song, which like the rest of the record was crafted during lockdown.
From an introverted “shy kid” to award-winning, record-breaking musician, Morris was at the top of her game in early 2020. She swept the CMAs with her fifth album Girl winning Album of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year. She’d also just wrapped up a world tour and given birth to her first child. However, it wasn’t long before the pandemic forced her to take a break.
It ended up being a blessing in disguise. “I didn’t have much breathing room to really process any of my emotions,” says Morris of writing 2019’s Girl while on the road. “Even though I’m really proud of it, I was dealing with a ton of that new-artist anxiety and stress.” For all its horrors, she says the one thing the pandemic gave musicians was time. “For the first time, I was able to write songs with no timeline, no pressures. It felt really freeing to just write for myself and not for the machine of the industry.”
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In the beginning, she had to work with her producer remotely and find new ways to create, discovering what worked and what didn’t during a very isolated time. the making of Humble Quest was a steep learning curve, but one she welcomed. “I think I learned to let go of a lot of my neuroses and control-freak issues that make me feel safe,” she says, “All of that got stripped away.”
The result is a highly personal, deeply vulnerable album in which she explores love, loss, life, and the changes that come with all of that. “Any time I put music out it’s something I’ve lived with for a long time and feel comfortable enough sharing with the world,” Morris explains.
Humble Quest is also Morris’s first album without the guiding hand of producer, songwriter, and friend Michael Busbee, who died of cancer in 2019 at the age of 43. She honors his life with the delicate, “What Would This World Do?” “It was such a cathartic and healing process just for me to even get these songs on the page,” she admits.
Not long after Busbee’s death, Morris became a mother. “Having my son at the beginning of the pandemic definitely shaped my perspective in a different way going into this creatively,” she says. She eagerly delved into new subject matter, writing songs like “Hummingbird”, a stripped down and intimate song about her son by Ella, Hayes. “I would never have been able to go there previously,” she says. “It’s one of my most precious.”
Morris married fellow singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd in 2018 and as the soft aura of her newlywed glow faded during lockdown, her love songs became a little less about giddiness and butterflies and more about illustrating a lived-in kind of love. As Morris puts it: “It’s definitely a settled-in, we’ve-seen-some-shit-about-each-other record!”
“But we’ve chosen each other despite that,” she adds of Hurd, who joins her on the album for “The Furthest Thing”. Her husband de ella is on a lot of these songs, whether he’s helping write them or they’re about him. “Certain songs on the project could not have been created had we not gone through our quarantine, rip-each-other’s-faces-off moments,” she chuckles. “At the end of the day, we still drive each other crazy. It was just a really fun project to get to do together… It kind of felt like we got to be Tim [McGraw] and Faith [Hill] for a song.”
A 40-date tour of amphitheaters and arenas across the US will begin in June and after the challenges of the last two years, Morris is approaching her upcoming dates with a gung-ho attitude. With her son along for the ride, she feels “like more of a badass, being able to come back and do this with him at my side”.
“The women that I know that bring their kids out on the road and are still rock stars I have the utmost respect for,” she adds. When she first discovered she was pregnant she reached out to Brandi Carlile and Sheryl Crow, who offered up their advice for being a mother on tour. “You can bring home the bacon and they’re still going to remember that you’re Mom at the end of the day,” was her biggest takeaway from her famous friends.
As for the chances of the crossover star ever picking a side – country or pop – she says it’s not likely. “I don’t know what the future will look like,” she offers. “As opportunities come and it feels right, I say ‘yes’ and I don’t know what the next thing will be.”
That next thing might just involve a tending rendition of “Wheels on the Bus”, as the singer settles into raising a toddler. “I would love to make a children’s record that he would listen to,” she laughs. “I’ve heard some truly awful kids’ music. I would like to help make some of it better!”
‘Humble Quest’ is released March 25
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.