One Year Later, Maren Morris On The Song That Changed Her Life When the country singer wrote "My Church," she pictured an arena singing it back to her. And it happened. "By the time we get to the breakdown chorus, every corner of that place was singing along."

One Year Later, Maren Morris On The Song That Changed Her Life

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Lately there's been a Sheryl Crow-sized hole in the top 40 charts. You know, tunes that are sunny, catchy, a little bit country, a little bit pop performed by someone who knows their way around a melody, a melody that makes you want to sing along. Well, Maren Morris might be able to fill that spot.


MAREN MORRIS: (Singing) We can walk right up the street where the locals roll. We ain't got to go international. Baby, just have an apartment party. We don't need no Hollywood suite.

CORNISH: That's "Company You Keep," one of five songs from Maren Morris's self-titled EP. She's been embraced by country radio, and her songs have been streamed millions of times on Spotify. Maren Morris is 25 years old - young, but with a lot of experience. She was a kid when she started singing in bars around Texas. But by the time most of her friends were in college, Morris was burned out from a decade of performing. When I sat down to talk with her in Austin at the South by Southwest Music Conference, she told me that three years ago she had decided to focus on writing. She packed a suitcase and moved to Nashville, where she actually landed a full-time job with a music label.

MORRIS: And so 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.


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, (laughter)...

MORRIS: Right.

CORNISH: ...Superstar to radio.

MORRIS: Yeah, indie artist Tim McGraw...

CORNISH: (Laughter). Might've 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.


MCGRAW: (Singing) Oh, thank God that we don't have to be alone. 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.


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...

MORRIS: 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."


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

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


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

MORRIS: 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. (Laughter).

CORNISH: No, 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 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: Just kidding.


MORRIS: (Singing) Feel like 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 singer Maren Morris. Her debut album, "Hero," will be out in June.


MORRIS: (Singing) Pop the top down like a summer dream...

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