Before Maren Morris' debut album Hero was even released on June 3rd, she'd already been bestowed with a double dose of one of America's most distinguished cultural honors: the televised singing competition cover.
As the 15th and final season of American Idol was getting up to speed, contestant Jenna Renae offered up her version of Morris' breakthrough single "My Church" for judges Keith Urban (who is, perhaps not coincidentally, bringing Morris on his tour), Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. Then in May, contestant Marah Sarah offered up her version of the song as a member of Team Blake on The Voice. Both performances, while vocally accurate, had a stiff formality and vocal forcefulness that's nowhere to be found on Morris' breezy original. Even still, it's a milestone that Morris appreciates for both its appraisal of her commercial talents and a little bit of delicious irony.
"I think about all of the freaking talent shows I've tried out for in my life and I'm so glad I didn't make any of them," says Morris, seated on a couch in a small demo studio situated behind the Nashville home of her last-name-only producer, busbee. "It's full circle, because I was rejected from The Voice. I was rejected from American Idol — and I'm happier for it now."
As the chart-topping first week sales of Hero indicate, things have worked out quite well with Morris never having to listen to Blake Shelton's advice. But the co-signs from two of America's most popular singing competitions, where the songs performed tend to be both recognizable and showy with range, are important because they point to Morris' savvy with melody and groove. "My Church," which Morris wrote with busbee, employs a familiar (though not copied) melody for its depiction of finding peace with the radio blaring, blooming into its instant-classic gospel-derived chorus, "Can I get a hallelujah? Can I get an amen?" that puts Morris at the high end of her range.
"That was originally going to be the bridge," explains Morris. "But at one point I just realized that sort of encapsulates what I'm trying to say about getting to this hook of music being a sanctuary and it was just too catchy to put in the song just once so we wanted to make it the chorus. Sometimes it hits you later on, like, duh, that's the chorus, so why do we keep fighting it?"
That explanation alone should be evidence enough that Morris is woman who works at harnessing the craft, rather than embodying the more romantic narrative of the lone songwriter plucking inspiration out of the sky. There's a studiousness to Hero's hooks that makes them feel worn-in, rather than half-baked. And more than a ring-kissing offering to the radio gods, "My Church" contends that radio listening is Morris' classroom as well as a sanctuary.
"I love listening to the radio because there's something about that discovery, that platform still being the main medium," she says. "And it is changing with streaming services, but I like to listen to what people are listening to and figure out why is this song so catchy. What is it about it? I really break it down to a science and try to figure out what makes a song particularly memorable. And it's usually repetition and simplicity. At least with catchy pop songs that take on a life of their own and become huge smashes."
One key to her melodic inspiration certainly lies in the oft-maligned, globally-minded teen pop of the Nineties. When Swedish mastermind Max Martin wrote hits for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, his scalpel-like precision with hooks made them impossible to shake. She cites the Backstreet Boys song "Shape of My Heart" as an example, where the line "Looking back on the things that I've done" is applied to one melody in the chorus and then another, entirely different one toward the song's end. Morris and her co-writer Laura Veltz appropriated the idea for slinky album opener "Sugar," flipping the chorus lyrics later in the song with a different melody and rhythm.
"I don't know if we did that out of laziness that day or what," she says. "And that's one of my favorite parts of that song because it's so catchy and fun."
Morris' embrace of her voice as another instrument in the mix results in multiple thrilling moments on Hero, where she casually tosses in repeated wordless hooks on "Rich," "Drunk Girls Don't Cry" and "80s Mercedes" that make them immediately identifiable. She looks to Rihanna in a couple cases, mining her signature tics for a swaggering delivery of lines like "me and Diddy dripping diamonds like Marilyn" on "Rich." They're hard to even say with a straight face, which is precisely why Morris thinks they work.
"I've found every time I think something is stupid or overreaching or so silly, [it] is usually the right idea," she says. "Because that came out of a part of your brain that was being unhinged. This is why sometimes it's good to write hungover because it gets rid of your filter. You come out with stuff that you can't overthink because you're hungover. I've written some really good songs that I love hungover because I wasn't overthinking it."
Though a friendship with fellow Texas native Kacey Musgraves brought Morris to town, the closest she gets to Musgraves' affinity for retro stylings is on the piano and acoustic guitar-driven cynics' anthem "I Could Use a Love Song." She's just as likely to reference the bluesy soul of Bonnie Raitt as on "I Wish I Was" and the slow-burning album closer "Once," or the moody atmosphere of Nineties trip-hop in the sexy grooves of "How It's Done." While country radio's hesitation to play women is an issue worth discussing, she agrees, it also affords her the freedom to stretch out stylistically because there isn't some neat formula she has to fit.
"There are so many times I turn on the radio and I hear a guy and I have no idea who it is because it sounds like four other people," she says. "But girls, because there's less of us, I can't compare Cam to Kelsea Ballerini. I can't compare Kacey Musgraves to me. We're both from Texas, cool, we play guitar. I can't compare myself to Mickey Guyton or Kelleigh Bannen or whoever else."
But one of the biggest influences for Hero is undoubtedly Sheryl Crow's landmark debut Tuesday Night Music Club, which was released in 1993 when Morris was three years old but she heard through her parents' CD collection. Amid the sea of angst-ridden grunge and new jack swing, Crow's mixture of pop, rock, country and California cool stood out from the pack. Hero sounds less like a sonic copycat than spiritual ancestor for its all-embracing attitude toward outside sounds and defiance of easy classification.
"I am so inspired by her because she knocked down all the genre lines," admits Morris. "She was a pop artist, because it just spanned over so many different things. [But] it was just good music. And it was fresh. It was catchy and it had these sounds on it that were reminiscent of everything. She sort of created her own genre in that way."
And like Crow, Morris' sense of melody is equally intuitive, conjuring up earworms that linger long after the final tracks and tempering them with the discerning ear of an active fan.
"I feel like when I get into most rooms, melodies come really easily to me and they sound good in my head. I never really know until I hear the song back and it's finished if it actually is good," she says, laughing. "You can get into to something and you repeat it to yourself a few times and if it feels catchy it's sort of just an instinctual thing for me."
Maybe it's for the best Morris never made it on The Voice — she's much better at coming up with the hooks they'll be trying to imitate next season.