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Encore: Maren Morris Makes Transition From Country Songwriter To Artist

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Encore: Maren Morris Makes Transition From Country Songwriter To Artist

Music Interviews

Encore: Maren Morris Makes Transition From Country Songwriter To Artist

Encore: Maren Morris Makes Transition From Country Songwriter To Artist

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/500560171/500560176" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Texas native Maren Morris won new artist of the year Wednesday night at the annual Country Music Awards ceremony. NPR's Audie Cornish spoke to Morris at the annual South by Southwest music conference about her journey and success. This story originally aired on April 1, 2016, on All Things Considered.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last year, singer Maren Morris watched the Country Music Awards from a bar across the street. Last night, thanks to her album "Hero," she was center stage, winning the New Artist of the Year award.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAREN MORRIS: I never thought as a songwriter I'd be standing here today. Thank you all so much for voting for me. My songwriting community here in Nashville - you gave me the courage to do this, so thank you.

CORNISH: Back in March, we met Maren Morris at the South by Southwest music festival not long after the release of her breakout EP. She sat down with us and told us about that journey from songwriter to country star.

She grew up in Texas, singing and performing as a kid and was burned out by the time she reached her 20s. So Maren Morris decided to focus on writing. She packed a suitcase, moved to Nashville, and she landed a full-time job writing for a music label.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MORRIS: I became a staff songwriter, which is, 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, and they just book you out for months.

CORNISH: It's one thing to sort of get a publishing deal, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll actually sell a song (laughter).

MORRIS: Right.

CORNISH: But that happened to you, right?

MORRIS: Yeah, and the timing of it was a fluke because this never happens, but I was writing with my friend Ryan Hurd and Eric Arjes. And we wrote this song called "Last Turn Home," and the next day, my publisher emailed it to Tim McGraw's label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST TURN HOME")

TIM MCGRAW: (Singing) Somewhere familiar, a safe place to land - that feeling you get when you're finally coming back.

CORNISH: This is Tim McGraw we're talking about.

MORRIS: Right.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Superstar...

MORRIS: Yes, right.

CORNISH: ...On country radio.

MORRIS: Yeah, indie artist Tim McGraw...

CORNISH: (Laughter) You might have heard of him.

MORRIS: Up and comer. He listened to it, and I think within the week, he went into the studio and recorded it, and that never happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST TURN HOME")

MCGRAW: (Singing) Oh, thank God that we don't have to be alone. The closer I get, the more that my heart knows. You're like that last turn home.

MORRIS: That was my first cut, and that's something you never forget as a songwriter - the first time someone cuts your song.

CORNISH: You talked about becoming a professional songwriter, but what made you turn back to being a performer? Like at what point did you say, you know, maybe I'm ready to get back out there?

MORRIS: 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. And you know, I had some success, and I had a few cuts. And then I started to notice, like, publishers - and my publisher telling me, Maren, this song is great that you wrote yesterday, but I don't even know who to play it for because it sounds so you.

And at the time, I was very - I was pissed off when I would hear that because, you know, as a writer, that's the way you make a living - is to get a cut or a single. And so it took me a minute to realize, OK, maybe they're right. Maybe it should be me.

CORNISH: Is there one in particular on this EP that falls into that category (laughter)?

MORRIS: "My Church" - that was really the tipping point for me going from songwriter to artist because the second that song was done and we were listening back to it, the first thought in my mind was, wow, they were right. And I'm not sending this to anybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CHURCH")

MORRIS: (Singing) I've cussed on a Sunday. I've cheated, and I've lied. I've fallen down from grace a few too many times. But I find holy redemption when I put this car in drive, roll the windows down and turn up the dial. Can I get a hallelujah?

I started to picture myself singing it on an awards show, and I never did that. It was just, like, a pipe dream. But with that song, it all changed, and I feel like it's paid off. I mean we're a few months into it being on, you know, national radio.

But I just did a country music festival called C2C in the U.K. It was very emotional because we had a two-song acoustic set in the middle of the arena, and it was sold out. So it was 20,000 people. And you only have two songs to win them over. But I got up there, and I sang my two songs, and I ended on "My Church."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CHURCH")

MORRIS: (Singing) I find my soul revival singing every single verse.

And by the time we get to the breakdown chorus, every corner of that place was singing along.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY CHURCH")

MORRIS: (Singing) Can I get a hallelujah? Can I get an amen? Feels like the Holy Ghost running through you when I play the highway FM. I find my soul revival singing every single verse. Yeah, I guess that's my church.

And it was so emotional because, you know, this week is the year anniversary of me writing it. So that day I wrote it, I pictured that. And it happened, and I mean it was hard not to, like, tear up watching the videos of it back because it, like, it came true. Sorry, I'm, like, starting to cry.

CORNISH: Well, it's pretty incredible. I mean you've been on a long road.

MORRIS: Yeah, it's been a very, like, emotional week just going from Europe and then kind of getting to play my home state and this festival where, like, we couldn't even afford to get on the lineup, like, all the years prior.

So, like, being on it now and having people I mean not just sing along to the single but know songs from the EP, songs that aren't even out yet that we've just played live - I mean it's really become this full circle moment.

CORNISH: Well, I'm glad you're back on stage.

MORRIS: Me too (laughter).

CORNISH: And thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

MORRIS: Yeah, thanks for making me cry.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

MORRIS: I'm just kidding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "80S MERCEDES")

MORRIS: (Singing) Feel like a hard-to-get starlet when I'm driving - turning every head - hell, I ain't even trying. Got them Ray-Ban shades, pretty in pink - call me old school, but hey, I'm a '90s baby in my '80s Mercedes. I'm a '90s baby in my '80s Mercedes.

CORNISH: That's Maren Morris speaking with us earlier this year. By the way, the song she imagined singing at an awards show, "My Church" - she sang that one just before winning New Artist of the Year at the Country Music Awards last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "80S MERCEDES")

MORRIS: (Singing) She's my teenage time machine, just keeps getting sweeter with age. She's classic through any decade. The sun's in the sky, glitter on the seats.

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