It’s no easy feat to simultaneously achieve millions of streams on Spotify and chart at the top of Nashville radio stations, especially with just an EP to your name. You’ve likely heard Maren Morris’ songs performed by other artists on country radio, but when her own “My Church” hit, she knew her transition from Nashville songwriter to Nashville artist was complete.
In Austin, NPR’s Audie Cornish sat down with Morris, who was performing at the SXSW music festival for the first time (and who also played NPR Music a lullaby down by a creek). It was a bit of a homecoming for Morris, who spent her childhood performing in Texas before moving to Nashville. The 25-year-old says she still gets emotional thinking about her whirlwind year.
So what was it like in those early days as a songwriter? Was there the temptation to say, “Now we know how to do this”?
I didn’t really want to force myself onto anybody and tell them my backstory. I guess I didn’t want to color their first impression of me, just being from Texas and having all of this experience. I wanted a clean slate. I wanted it to be solely based off of my talent when they sit in a writing room with me.
Eventually, I was introduced to a girl who was a publisher at Big Yellow Dog on Music Row. They have amazing singer-songwriters on their roster. Six or seven months later, they offered me a publishing deal, so I became a staff songwriter. You go in four to five days a week and they handle your calendar and they hook you up with other writers from other companies. They just book you out for months.
It’s one thing to get a publishing deal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll actually sell a song. But that happened to you, right?
Yeah, and the timing of it was a fluke. This never happens, but I was writing with my friend Ryan Hurd and Eric Arjes, and we wrote this song called “Last Turn Home.” The next day, my publisher emailed it to Tim McGraw’s label. He listened to it and, I think, within the week he went into the studio and recorded it. And that never happens. That was my first cut, and that’s something you never forget as a songwriter: the first time someone cuts your song.
You talked about becoming a professional songwriter, but what made you turn back to being a performer? At what point did you say, “You know, maybe I’m ready to get back out there”?
It took me a while to have that confidence. I think for a long time I was in a little bit of denial over my voice coming back, if that makes sense. I was writing songs that, I thought at the time, I wanted to pitch to other artists. I had some success and I had a few cuts. Then I started to notice publishers and my publisher telling me, “Maren, this song is great you wrote yesterday, but I don’t even know who to play it for. It sounds so you.” At the time, I was pissed off when I would hear that, because as a writer, that’s the way you make a living — to get a cut or a single. It took me a minute to realize, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe it should be.”
Is there one, in particular, on this EP that falls into that category?
“My Church.” That was really the tipping point of me going from songwriter to artist. The second that song was done and we were listening back to it, the first thought in my mind was, “Wow, they were right. I’m not sending this to anybody.”