Maren Morris is heading back into the studio. With her 2016 debut album Hero establishing the Texas native as one of contemporary country music’s most exciting – and sonically adventurous – new voices, the Grammy winner is embracing the freedom to paint outside any genre lines. Especially after the success of her collaboration with Zedd, the dance/electronic charts Number One “The Middle.”
Morris tellingly chose that song as the finale of her set in New York City on Friday night, where she performed at Gotham Hall as part of an intimate concert exclusively for Hilton Honors members. But while making “The Middle” her own points to what may be coming from Morris, she didn’t shy away from her country and singer-songwriter cred, offering a serene reimagining of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” and a frisky run through Brothers Osborne’s “Greener Pastures,” which she co-wrote. New single “Rich,” breakout hit “My Church” and “’80s Mercedes” were also highlights, with Morris delivering each with a fluidity, in both voice and body, that suggests she’s never been more at ease in the spotlight.
Prior to her performance, Morris sat down with Rolling Stone Country to offer an update on her second album.
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Has the success of “The Middle” given you more leeway to keep experimenting in the studio?
I think there was already a good bit of that with my first record, but with this one probably more. I think that’s a natural next step for me. I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone a little more on this album.
Having just gotten married, how has your lyrical approach changed?
The lyrics are more grown-up. I recorded my debut album when I was 24; I’m 28 now. Doesn’t feel like that long ago, but a lot has happened in that chunk of time. I’m in a healthier headspace; I’m less judgmental of myself … Keith Urban has actually given me a lot of great advice. He’s like, “This is a snapshot of your life. It’s like a yearbook, so don’t overthink your second album. It’s just songs that reflect those years of time and then you move on and you make another album. Don’t even worry about the deadlines; they whoosh past. Just focus on being in there.” That took some of the heat off me.
That’s a good piece of advice to apply to all of life.
I don’t think you can really set out to make an iconic album and go in thinking, “This is gonna change history.” You go in and record the songs that you love the shit out of and that’s the most important thing, and everything else comes secondary after that. There’s so many songs I’ve written for this new album, but I have a solid 13 songs I’m really confident in. So I think I’ve pushed a lot of the expectation and outside noise out of my brain and I’m just gonna go into a dark studio for a week and begin this sonic exploration.
Who might you be exploring with on this album?
I’m working with Busbee on this record and I’ve written with a lot of the same characters that were on my first album. I’ve written with some new talent in town. I’m not too precious to write with the new guy. I’m really always looking for people that are buzzing in Nashville. Like, “This guy makes amazing tracks, this guy is an incredible lyricist, this girl is a badass,” I just end up being a fan of theirs and wanting to write with them. I’ve written with Kathleen Edwards, and Greg Kurstin and Sarah Aarons, who wrote “The Middle” when I’ve gone to L.A. for writes, so I’ve gotten outta my box with this project. I’m going to be on the road with Niall Horan this summer, so I’m basically going to be singing vocals probably for the record out there and it’ll be a mobile studio. I’m excited.
As you enter this second album phase, what’s the most exciting part of recording for you?
I love sparring back and forth with people and just geeking out over mixes. I love the production element of making records. Even when I moved to Nashville the reason I learned about production was from being in demo sessions from my songs when I was just a writer. I learned my voice sounds better with this certain kind of effect, or what guitars sound too slick and polished. I love everything to sound really trashy and fuzzed-out and soulful … I love giving musicians leeway. There’s gotta be this mutual respect there, because they respect me because these are my songs and I respect them to give them creative freedom to do what they do.