With 'Humble Quest,' Maren Morris is closely following her compass After a global dance hit, the country star returns from lockdown with an intimate new album — and a new son, who helped inspire it.

With 'Humble Quest,' Maren Morris is closely following her compass

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's not too surprising when a country singer crosses over onto the pop charts - happens all the time. But a few years ago, one country singer went where few others had gone before. She scored a global electronic dance hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MIDDLE")

MAREN MORRIS: (Singing) Baby, why don't you just meet me in the middle? I'm losing my mind just a little.

MARTINEZ: That's DJ Zedd, the EDM duo Grey and country singer Maren Morris. "The Middle" introduced a lot of people to Morris' voice, but with her new album, she wants fans of that song to get to know her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DETOUR")

MORRIS: (Singing) Used to take the roads without a twist or bend. Driving with my eyes closed, I could see the end. Always going somewhere.

MARTINEZ: This is Maren Morris' first album since the pandemic. It's called "Humble Quest," a provocative title that needs a little explaining.

MORRIS: I went through a ton of changes and deterioration and growth. And I had my son at the beginning of COVID. Right after that, like, all touring got blown out for two years. And so, yeah, it was sort of, like, me discovering this new part of myself as a mom and, at the same time, losing a little bit of my identity as an artist. I also lost my friend and producer Busbee to cancer. And I feel like I'm stronger on the other side. And these songs definitely brought me out of a dark place, and they were really healing to create.

MARTINEZ: And you had that first child March of 2020. And the gift, I think, that you're giving your son Hayes is that you wrote a song, "Hummingbird," on this album. Tell us about that song.

MORRIS: Yeah. So at the top of "Hummingbird," you're actually hearing a little iPhone recording of my son.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMMINGBIRD")

MORRIS: Mama.

HAYES: Mama.

MORRIS: Mama.

"Hummingbird" I actually wrote the day that I found out I was pregnant with Hayes. And it was just about meeting this imminent child.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMMINGBIRD")

MORRIS: (Singing) I've been looking out the window for a glimmer, not knowing you've been with me all along. Hummingbird, hummingbird, you're the sound of these strings. Hummingbird, Hummingbird, on my skin, rest your wings.

MARTINEZ: I asked Google this question - I wrote right in the search bar - I said, what kind of genre is Maren Morris' music?

MORRIS: What did Google say? (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: Want to guess what answer came up? Google said country. You're a country artist, according to Google. Are you good with that?

MORRIS: (Laughter) I'm good with that, yeah. I'm fine with the title country artist. All my favorite artists have done all kinds of genres throughout their careers, like Willie Nelson doing an album with Ray Charles. And I'm, like, a huge Linda Ronstadt fan, who was always sort of genre-bendy (ph). So even though I live in Nashville and I'm from Texas and I - you know, I feel like my songwriting at its core is country. I think you can hear a lot of different influences when you've heard any of my records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CIRCLES AROUND THIS TOWN")

MORRIS: (Singing) I drove circles around this town, trying to write circles around this town, trying to say something with meaning, something worth singing about. I've been kind, and I've been ruthless. Yeah, I got here, but the truth is, thought when I hit it, it'd all look different. But I still got the pedal down.

MARTINEZ: Back in January, when "Circles Around This Town" was released, I heard it, and I thought, wow, OK, Maren Morris is doubling-down on country. And it surprised me because Greg Kurstin is producing this. He worked with Adele on "25" and "30." He co-wrote "Hello" and produced Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger." So I thought, OK, Greg Kurstin, Maren Morris - she's firmly going into the pop world. But you didn't. Are you doubling-down on country?

MORRIS: I mean, I think just out of making this record during a time where we had to do it remotely, I wasn't in the room with a bunch of giant track guys. Like, we were just writing through Zoom, and the closest instrument would be an acoustic guitar or a piano. And so I feel like the songs on this album were born out of a really organic sound. Like, we weren't trying to overproduce it or put a bunch of bells and whistles and synths all over it. I think there are songs on this record that are still, like, pretty sonically ambitious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NERVOUS")

MORRIS: (Singing) You make me out of control, out of our clothes. Motion is slow, yeah. You take me, you take me in my feelings, through the ceiling, leaving my inhibitions exposed. You make me nervous.

MARTINEZ: You know, I was wondering if you ever felt that push-pull tension that some country artists have felt when they dare to make music deemed to be more pop.

MORRIS: Yeah, I've definitely felt the pressure of feeling like I'm not country enough for this crowd, or I'm too country for this crowd, and so feeling like the middle child in a lot of ways. But I feel like that's become my strength, is just not fitting into someone else's already carved-out lane. And I'm OK with that.

MARTINEZ: Now, you wrote a letter accompanying this album, and in it, you write how the pandemic humbled you. The death of a friend, motherhood and marriage all humbled you. Maren, what have you discovered about the word humble, and what does the word humble mean to you now?

MORRIS: I just always thought that was such an interesting word because it does mean that you're grounded, but I think that for me, over the last two years, that word has changed. And I think it means you're the closest to your compass that you've ever been. It's how in touch are you with yourself and how it's going to be an ongoing conversation and journey. And I think every day I feel more confident in what I'm doing here and, at the same time, knocked down a peg. So it's just going to be that forever push, pull. You know, it's tough being a woman in the music industry, and it's really tough being in country music because there's just so few of us. And so you stick out like a sore thumb, no matter what you do, even just by existing. So, you know, tomorrow I might be insecure again. Who knows? But I feel like I'm humble enough for me and the people that love me, and that's honestly all I care about.

MARTINEZ: That's Maren Morris. Her new album is called "Humble Quest." Maren, thanks a lot.

MORRIS: Thank you. That was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUMBLE QUEST")

MORRIS: (Singing) I'm on a humble quest. And damn, I do my best.

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