"I started out in those writing rooms on Music Row" Maren Morris in conversation

Some artists spend a long time getting to the top, some find it overnight, then there are those who are a combination of the two; they’ve come from nowhere but have done their shift in the background. At the 2016 CMA Awards it’s quite possible that Maren Morris will become an overnight success in the vein that Chris Stapleton was in 2015. But that’s nowhere near the truth. When we spoke with Morris at C2C Country To Country in March 2016 she was a brand new face and had just played to a crowd of about 100 people in the Town Square. In 2017 she'll be on the main stage of the O2 playing to about 20,000.

“I feel like I see myself as a songwriter first, I guess just because that’s what I’ve done the most heavily, over the last few years.” And that’s the truth for so many that seem to have instant success in the country music world. They’ve been grafting for years, building successful songs for major acts, Kelly Clarkson being just one of many beneficiaries of Morris' talents. Despite this newfound success as a singer the 26 year old from Texas thinks “It all starts with the song, anyways. So I think I’ll always consider myself to be a writer first.”

Keeping that focus on the song is easier for her now that she’s taken up residence in Nashville “There’s more songwriters than artists, I feel like people come to Nashville, for the most part, to write. There is a great pool of artists. And I feel like in the landscape of it right now the writing community breeds artists. I mean, myself included, I started out in those writing rooms on Music Row, and then you eventually…some of us get that thing to click in your brain, I wish I could be the one behind the microphone. And yeah, I think there’s such a huge class of talent right now, especially in Nashville. There’s so much innovative creation coming out of there, all across the spectrum, genre-wise. It’s really inspiring. And I think the more writers that come out, the more artists will come out.”

The songwriters rounds that Nashville regularly hosts in its bars and clubs are something that are a right of passage for songwriters, and aspiring songwriters, in the town and a part of Morris’ growth as a writer “I don’t get to do them as much as I used to, just because we’re doing radio and we’re touring. But I feel like, you know, today for instance was so great because we did the Bluebird round. [At C2C the Nashville mainstay The Bluebird Cafe transported its world famous songwriters rounds to London]. It was me, Shane McInally and Barry Dean, and those are guys that I write with back in town, and have written with over the past few years. It really helped shape my sound, and my voice as a writer and artist.” And those smaller , intimate shows are something that the Texan really loves taking part in “It was such a treat, because I’m sort of used to doing full-on shows now, or performing in radio capacities. But I feel like today was so great because it’s really that bare-bones experiences, where it’s just you and your guitar and your friends like you would when you write, and you’re swapping stories and singing on each others’ songs. It’s like you’re really community-based activity. There’s so many rounds in guitar pools that happen in Nashville, that today felt like home, a lot.”

For Morris the real enjoyment in music is the stories that that get told “I feel like when you open up an album, you want to read the liner notes, you want to know who played on it, you want to know who wrote it. I feel like the same way with writing rounds, I would always go see my writing heroes whenever they’d play the random rounds in Nashville. I just felt like I was getting this behind the scenes experience, and like I learned so much from hearing how they got a brilliant song made.” The move to Nashville was an important part of her process of growing as a writer “I definitely moved to Nashville because it has the best writers, I think, in the world, in a very close vicinity. Never did I think I would be in rooms with heroes, which has been the case now. Yeah, at the time I would just, I would write with anyone who would write with me, and I was just busting my ass like five days a week, writing writing writing, and then eventually I got a publishing deal, and a couple of people recorded my songs. And the rest is history.”

History indeed. Before the mega-hit that ‘My Church’ has become were a raft of songs written for other people, with contributions for Tim McGraw and Brothers Osborne, along with the obligatory songs for the Nashville TV series. But does writing for yourself and writing for other differ? “It depends. I mean, sometimes you go in, and there’s sort of a call sheet in every publishing office which says, it lists all the artists that are looking for songs, and by their name, it’ll say what kind of song they’re looking for. Whether it’s a ballad, or an up-tempo, mid-tempo, sometimes it’s helpful because you walk in and you have an idea what you’re shooting after that day, but sometimes it just falls out of a conversation, with your writer or co-writer. Yeah. There’s really no method to the madness, it’s different every day.”

And while not all songs are obviously keepers, ‘My Church’ was a Maren Morris song immediately “Well, that day I wasn’t really going in to write for myself. I had never done that. I just had a title for it, and I went in, and something happened when we finished. We finished the write, and then I went in to sing the vocal for the demo, and hearing the rough board mix of the demo afterwards... I mean it was such a quick process. We wrote the song in under an hour, and had the demo done in the next hour. Listening back, I don’t know, some sort of lightbulb went off in my head, and it was the first time I’d ever had that lightbulb even come on, or flicker. It was like, you need to not play this for anybody.” It’s that cutthroat in that environment and great songs are in demand “I really kept that card close to my chest, and I think I made the right decision. You sometimes hear about writers or artists having a song that they’ve written that another artist will hear, and immediately want to record, and there’s no time really to hold onto it. And that’s why I didn’t want to initially play it for anybody, because I felt like I had something really special in my hands, and I selfishly wanted to keep it for myself. The content of the song spoke so true to me, and everything from the lines about Hank and Johnny and being a sinner, to having music be your sort of connection to whatever you believe in, whatever makes you feel spiritual or what have you. That was so close to me, I just felt like I had to keep it.”

Despite that choice being clear at the time Morris doesn’t approach the process thinking of herself “When you walk into a writing room, you can’t walk in with any sort of ego. It just kills the creative process. For me, at least. And the same when the song is finished, it’s like, there is a price tag attached to it. Which is a strange thing, but because it’s a vocation in Nashville, you go to work five days a week and write, you know, you can’t cherry-pick your favourites.” And inspite of the demand for a good song, everyone starting out has the same aims and ambitions. The one thing you hear constantly about Nashville is it’s sense of community amongst writers “I think the mentality is, just we all want someone to cut our song. There’s no thrill quite like it. My first cut was with Tim McGraw, he recorded a song I had co-written and the feeling I got when I’m hearing this legend sing lyrics that I had a part in, I mean there’s nothing compared that that high. So, ‘My Church’ is really the only song that I ferociously fought for. But you know, I’ve had Kelly Clarkson cut a song of mine called ‘Second Wind’, and I recorded my own version of it too, so, you know, it doesn’t mean that the book is closed on it forever, if you really love it and you love your version of it, I don’t see why it should be an issue to at least record something.”

With her debut record released in June 2016 and now nominated for a number of CMA Awards it’s refreshing to hear that the 26 year old was just happy to have something recorded six months ago “I’m so excited to even have a shot at putting music out there that people will actually hear and love. And I feel like even though it’s hard work; you finish the record and you’ve gotten this weight of whatever you had to say off your chest, you’ve made a piece of art. And you want to share it.” It sweetens the pill when the audience reaction is overwhelming on the positive side “I feel like the reception, especially the response last night in the arena, having people sing ‘My Church back to me, to be able to hear every voice pretty much, and I can see people in the audience singing back every lyric to not just the single but ‘Drunk Girls Don’t Cry’ or ‘80s Mercedes’, that makes all of the jet lag and all of the late nights and early mornings worth it.”

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