In September 2015 Maren Morris released her song “My Church” to Spotify without any label or set plans for a traditional release. Today, just less than a year later, Morris is suddenly looking forward to the biggest summer of her career. On June 2nd, she’ll join Keith Urban for a massive, five-month nationwide tour. The very next day, on June 3, she’ll be releasing her major label-debut Hero, one of the most highly anticipated country records of the year.
For her first few years in Nashville, Morris was working full-time as a songwriter, punching in each day to record songs for artists like Tim McGraw. But when she first listened to the demo of song she had written in early 2015 called “My Church,” Morris knew she had to take a stab at becoming an artist herself.
“It was a really weird decision to make after years of just being solely a songwriter,” says the 26-year-old Texan. “But I knew from the beginning that that song was everything I wanted to say if I ever got the opportunity to get a song on the radio.”
As Morris puts it, “the gamble paid off.” Since its 2015 release, “My Church” has amassed over 16 million streams and has since crossed over to country radio, where it broke the Top Ten in the Country Airplay chart earlier this month.
EW recently met up with Morris just a few weeks before the release of Hero to discuss her journey from songwriter to country-pop phenom, her upcoming tour with Keith Urban, and the Rihanna song she most wishes she’d written.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What type of music did you listen to growing up?
MAREN MORRIS: I grew up listening to everything. I’m all over the map. My parents were products of the ’60s and ’70s so I grew up listening to their catalog. They had the biggest CD collection and it was everything from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana to Sheryl Crow to Journey to Motown. Then, as a family we got into classic country music when I was about nine or 10. I really started listening to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, and that was when I realized I loved to sing. So I just started singing country, but I grew up with a lot of rock and pop.
You can really hear all those influences in your music.
It just comes out innately when I’m in the writing room. The great thing about the timing of me moving to Nashville is that it’s started expanding so much as a city. Musically, everything is here. Nashville stills pays homage to its classical country roots, obviously, but it’s so refreshing to have gotten here at a time where I’m able to write a classic, traditional country song one day and a huge pop song the next. It’s really exploded here, genre-wise.
What are you most excited to learn or take away from your tour with Keith Urban?
It’s a little bit of everything. It’s going to be a fun challenge to have to figure out a way to make my songs translate live, specifically at the same exact time as people are hearing it for the first time on the album. Keith is one of the best performers in the business and I’m just looking forward to watching him work every night. It’s really going to be a master class in being a gigantic touring musician and I’m just excited to be a student every night as well as a fan.
Both your record and Keith’s push boundaries, musically, in a really interesting way.
I think that’s what he had in mind when he asked me to join the tour. He was starting his record and musically he knew it would be a really cool, different fit. It says a lot about his gut reaction to my music.
Maybe one day we’ll see a Maren Morris duet with Pitbull?
Oh god (laughs). Never say never.
Many have pointed out the soft, quiet confidence in your vocal approach. Who are some of your biggest vocal influences?
I’ve always gravitated towards listening to female vocalists. I grew up loving people like Sheryl Crow, Etta James, Chaka Khan. It’s really all over the place, but the root of it all is soul, and that just comes out when I sing. Being from Texas, I have a natural white twang, but I’ve always really been rooted in that soulful background. It’s a lot of nuance and subtleties. I feel like I sing like I speak.
Fans have really taken to your song “My Church.” What do you think they’re reacting to? Do you think people are hearing something in your music that they’re not getting anywhere else?
“My Church” is such a simple message, and I think that’s what touched people and cut through the noise the most effectively with that song. I’ve had fans tell me that the first time they heard the song they instantly knew the words.
That song is sort of part of that tradition of country songs about music and nostalgia, like “Springsteen” by Eric Church or “Tim McGraw” by Taylor Swift, but it’s so much more general.
That’s a good example. When you think about that Eric Church song, it’s nostalgic for that character to listen to a Springsteen record and be taken back. For “My Church,” it’s just talking about music as a whole and maybe when people hear it, they just think, ‘Wow, thank god. Thank god I’m not alone in this feeling.’ It’s a really universal emotion.
There are lots of subtle vocal inflections and sounds on the new album that sound like contemporary R&B. Do you listen to lots of pop radio and R&B these days?
I was actually just listening to the new Beyoncé record. I love her, it’s a Texas thing. I’m just so constantly inspired by how she really has no boundaries and doesn’t need them. She can get away with anything at this point. I also love that Leon Bridges record and the new Rihanna record as well. Anti is incredible. There’s a song on there called “Desperado” and I have such serious jealousy and songwriter-envy that I didn’t write that. It’s so good. She’s a badass. I’m inspired by R&B. I’m inspired by Top 40 pop.
It’s great to hear you singing R&B songs and Beyoncé recording a country-leaning song like “Daddy Lessons.”
It’s really refreshing, and it just solidifies proof that good music is good music. It doesn’t matter if there’s a banjo in it or if it sounds kind of country, just if it’s good. That’s what it comes down to for me as a listener, and as a writer.