Maren Morris just wanted to take the night off from the stream of online criticism — and worse — that she regularly encounters. Two days after the 2022 ACM Awards where she gave the live debut of “Circles Around This Town,” Morris fired off a tweet at the “turkey-necked fake Christian Karens” who swarm her mentions when she speaks up on an important issue or dares to show a little skin on her socials. “You keep me young,” she wrote, with a cheeky kissyface emoji.
“It was starting to really grate on me,” Morris says. “I am here living out my purpose and making music and trying to connect with people. And there’s just this weird, dark corner of the internet that sees me as a target. I just wanted to laugh it off that night and be like, ‘Fuck off.’ You guys will find a problem with me literally breathing. So I’m just going to tell y’all in no uncertain terms to go fuck yourself.”
Today, Morris is sipping iced coffee in a room at Nashville’s newly opened SoHo House, the hotel-slash-social club in the city’s Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood. The muted gray-and-beige decor is at odds with the runway-ready Morris, sporting new bangs in a pink sweater and black bell bottoms with a touch of bright pink radiating from the corners of her eyes.
Morris could be excused for wanting a moment to breathe and even celebrate. The last two years, give or take, have been a period of steady, sometimes major change for the singer-songwriter, whose breakout hit “My Church” was released during far more normal times in 2016.
For starters, she gave birth to her and singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd’s son Hayes in March 2020, just as the entire world was shutting down due to the pandemic. Days earlier, she had given a milestone performance at Rodeo Houston, a monster of an event in her home state of Texas. She was nine months pregnant and trying to avoid taking a tumble off the rotating stage, but she found the strength — and balance — to power through. Almost exactly two years later, she made a triumphant return to the Rodeo and, this time, felt a little more free. “It felt like a comeback show,” she says. “Coming back and not having to struggle to breathe and sing, because I was not nine months pregnant, was a lot easier this time around.”
In early pandemic days, Morris’s single “The Bones,” from the 2019 album Girl, became a crossover hit that spent two weeks at Number One on the country airplay chart in 2020 — the first song by a woman to do so in more than eight years. It later made it to Number 12 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100. She couldn’t properly celebrate it with her fans, since touring had ground to a halt and social distancing protocols were by then the norm.
Becoming a mother brought new revelations as well. Morris realized she’d not fully grieved the September 2019 death of her collaborator, the producer Busbee, who’d championed her early work and produced her debut album, Hero, as well as most of Girl. For once, the natural born songwriter and performer wasn’t focused on either writing or recording.
“I was obviously going through early stages of postpartum depression and then the grief that I hadn’t fully processed of losing Busbee,” she says. “Music just was not at the forefront of my mind at that moment in time.”
The urge to write songs eventually crept back in, and Morris turned to producer-songwriter Greg Kurstin (Adele, Kelly Clarkson), who had co-written and produced the title track from Girl along with “Common” and “The Bones.” She sent him a rough demo for “Circles Around This Town,” a song about the nonstop hustle of writing songs and making a mark in Nashville that had echoes of her hit “My Church” as well as something new — a “jangly, rootsy, organic edge” — that Morris wanted to explore.
“We started to talk and I remember she was sort of joking, like, ‘Are we doing a rock album?'” Kurstin recalls of those early conversations. “I was excited about the direction. I had some ideas of where we could go, but these songs really solidified the direction for me, hearing these demos.”
Morris’s new album, Humble Quest, didn’t exactly turn out to be a rock project, but there’s an undeniable presence of punchy guitar throughout, as well as a breezy, laid-back feel to many of the songs. It’s a noticeable shift from the slicker, R&B-influenced production that permeated Girl.
Recorded partially in Kurstin’s home studio in Hawaii with additional recording at Sheryl Crow’s barn studio in Nashville (“It was a real patchwork quilt. We made it happen over a long period of time in different cities,” Morris says), Humble Quest reflects Morris’s mindset through a tumultuous period of time, though mercifully there are zero explicit references to coronavirus.
“It’s not a pandemic-themed record, but it was absolutely born during a time that was very uncertain for me as a mother, as a woman, as an artist that wants to take care of their band and crew that they’ve worked so hard to keep on salary,” she says. “There’s no Covid songs, but it was made during a time where a lot of real shit happened to me and the world.”
Instead, there’s a mood of grappling with impermanence, of reaching for comfort in togetherness and companionship, that keeps the project from drifting into everything-is-fucked territory.
“I didn’t want to stew in really depressing themes,” Morris says. “I think the records that brought me out of my doldrums during the pandemic were really bright fun ones.” She cites Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia as a favorite from the time. “I’m not going to go out and make some clubby dance-pop record, but if I’m going to turn the satellite of my music toward the world in this very chaotic and heavy time, I want it to feel light.”
The title track shows Morris taking a hard look in the mirror, reckoning with uncertainty about herself and those hurtful online mentions. “The line between fulfilled and full of myself/I’m trying to find it and I might need some help,” she sings. She’s caught between the struggle to stand up and say something, and the chorus of people telling her to sit down when she does.
“I was seeing online criticism of me coming across full of myself, too self-assured or like, ‘Who does she think she is? She’s obviously forgotten where she came from,'” she says. “I started to question myself, like, ‘Have I?'”
Morris also brings out the sly sense of humor that made “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” and “80’s Mercedes” so engaging in new songs like “Tall Guys,” which nods to her lanky husband Hurd as well as a lot of men. “I’m 5’1″, so everyone is taller than me,” she says. Hurd also co-wrote “I Can’t Love You Anymore,” a groove-driven number that shows off Morris’s ability to sing classic country melodies and also goes big on classic country wordplay to upend the meaning of its title.
“I think about John Prine and Iris Dement singing ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ and Loretta and Conway singing ‘You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,'” Morris says. “Those songs always felt like the realest love songs to me because they made me laugh.”
“In my mind I was thinking of that Seventies Willie Nelson, funky drumbeat on some of those records,” Kurstin explains of the breezy, pedal steel-infused tune. “It’s definitely one of the most ‘country’ songs I’ve ever worked on.”
Morris writes generously about her relationship with Hurd, who recently scored his first Number One as an artist with “Chasing After You.” There’s a plaintive account of two touring musicians missing one another in “Furthest Thing,” a gorgeous hymn of death-do-us-part devotion in “Background Music,” and a potent description of horniness in “Nervous.” The closing song is a piano ballad in which she asks, “What Would This World Do?” if he didn’t exist. Morris and Hurd’s son Hayes also his makes his recorded debut at the top of the gentle “Hummingbird,” which Morris wrote on the day she learned she was going to be a mother.
Lest anyone think she’s oversharing, Morris promises there are songs she and Hurd have written that aren’t intended for public consumption.
“There are some songs that we’ve written separately or together that will never reach a fan’s ears because that was for us and it wasn’t for the world to hear,” she says.
Songwriting remains the heart of what Morris does. She spends hours with her friends and collaborators trying to hear their latest and greatest, as well as who’s currently hot. “Natalie [Hemby] and I call it ‘Demo Jail,’ where we hold each other hostage till 3 a.m., playing each other our demos,” Morris says. “It’s kind of how I gauge what the sound of the town is now.”
Morris has never shied away from speaking her mind, but the fraught last couple years have seen her speak up on issues of racial justice in both country music and the rest of the country, as well as anti-trans legislation in her home state. Occasionally that has meant having to reconsider her words and expand her thinking, when people have pointed out flaws in her reasoning.
“Those are the hard conversations we all should be having. We’re all supposed to be uncomfortable,” she says. “That’s how we know what we’re moving and growing. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. It means that you can admit when you’ve been wrong or you’ve benefited from something that you are complicit in and didn’t know you were. It’s not about saying that you didn’t work hard for what you have.”
Twitter Karens will probably hate it, but she’ll keep right on making music and speaking her mind, thank you very much. And she’ll hold on to the understanding that being humble doesn’t necessarily mean having to apologize for being ambitious and talented.
“It’s such a funny ceiling that only exists really here. I don’t know if it’s a Nashville thing or a country music thing, but it’s funny to compare it against artists in pop or hip-hop, where that sort of bravado is celebratory and it’s not criticized in the same way,” Morris says. “It’s sort of like a mental self check-in, like, ‘Hey, don’t get too big for your britches, but also know you’re a bad bitch.'”