Since moving to Nashville from Dallas three years ago, country newcomer Maren Morris reckons she's penned hundreds of songs, most in daily collaborative writing sessions at her publishing company. But the key to her success would come to her while listening to the FM radio as she barreled down a desolate stretch of Southern highway.
The result was "My Church," a handclap-punctuated slice of rafter-raising gospel with a modern twist on the saving power of music: "I find holy redemption when I put this car in drive / Roll the windows down and turn up the dial." Morris knew she'd come up with something truly unique. And that it might mean the end of her old life and the beginning of another.
"When I wrote 'My Church,' that was the first time that I've ever had this sense of urgency about a song while feeling really protective at the same time," says the 26-year-old artist of the tune from her major label debut album Hero, which was released last month on Columbia Nashville. After issuing it as a flagship single, the song rocketed into the Top 5 on U.S. and Canadian country charts.
"I knew I had something on my hands that was really, really special, and could also potentially be a huge mistake if I ever gave it away to somebody else. So I didn't play it for anyone, except a few close friends, and I didn't email it, either. I would only play it for them in person on my iPhone."
In retrospect, Morris admits that she may have been a bit overly paranoid. Then again, she'd learned the Music Row ropes the hard way, and understood the temptation to surrender a song to a Nashville artist or music publisher who gets wind of a potential hit. "But at the same time, the song is your truth, so there's a heartbreaking element in giving it away," she says. "I didn't even want that to be an option with 'My Church,' so that was the turning point for me. I decided, 'Okay, I don't just want to write for other people anymore — I want to stand on the stage, and I want to be the voice behind the microphone.' I was finally taking the reins on my music, and taking claim over that song."
Born and raised in Dallas, the mellifluous singer-songwriter had already recorded three self-released albums before relocating to Nashville, moving into a Craigslist apartment rental, sight unseen, and settling into a staff songwriting position. There, she began churning out the numbers, five rigorous days a week. Eventually, she built the confidence to step back into the spotlight on her own.
On Hero, which Morris views as her official bow, she does exactly that. The album flirts with a variety of genres, encompassing r&b ("Rich") anthemic pop ("80s Mercedes"), sultry blues ("Just Another Thing"), traditional twang ("Bummin' Cigarettes"), even reggae-tinged hip-hop ("Drunk Girls Don't Cry").
"My rule of thumb is just an instinctual, gut thing that's been polished over the years," she explains. "I always trust my gut with a song. If it hits me in the soul bone, it's probably okay. Otherwise, I will probably never listen to it again."