Country superstar Maren Morris is not trying to play things down the middle. She had pop hits with Zedd on “The Middle” and on her own with “The Bones,” but her third album, “Humble Quest,” carries an extra level of humility in not having any overt pop aspirations. Never mind that it’s her first time doing an entire record with pop maestro Greg Kurstin (Adele, Paul McCartney), whom she’d previously done just a trio of tracks with, following the death of her primary producer, Busbee.
The album — out this Friday — is upbeat, but she speaks with Variety about some, yes, humbling circumstances feeding into the record’s celebratory spirit.
After you had such crossover success with “The Middle” and “The Bones,” it would have been reasonable to expect at least a little bit of pop-leaning stuff on this album. Yet this album feels the closest of any of yours to being straight-up country.
I think maybe, in an influential way, doing the Highwomen record [with Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby] re-sparked something that made me feel like I was at the beginning of my career again, as a 10-year-old touring little honky-tonks around Texas, And then just with the organic way we were writing songs for this album — some of it on Zoom, some in-person — I was writing with Greg, who would start on real instruments. We weren’t writing to 808 loops. I don’t know if it was lucky No. 3 or just feeling settled and solidified as an artist where I am, to not have to chase down a concept or a genre. And I still feel like it’s very much me, and that the music on this record is still very ambitious and exploring new sounds. It’s just different than an extension of “The Middle.”
It’s the first time Greg Kurstin has produced a complete country album, after he dipped his toe in doing three songs with you on the last one. Was it an easy adaptation for him?
Country, even though it’s such a big genre, for some it feels very niche. Greg knew all the iconic names like the Willies and the Dollys, but he wanted, like, a modern research list of the top country albums that I would recommend for him to go listen to from the last 15 years or so. Ryan (Hurd, her husband, and a fellow singer-songwriter) and I both gave him a list of our favorites, production-wise. I told him to go listen to Eric Church’s “Chief,” Miranda Lambert’s “Revolution” and Lee Ann Womack’s “There’s More Where That Came From” — and he came back completely obsessed with each one.
Greg and I don’t go into the room that day saying, “Let’s write a country song.” He starts fiddling around with guitars, and he’s got every synth and keyboard known to man. It just starts musically with him each and every time, and I just wrap whatever idea I’ve got my head around what he’s creating. When we were in Hawaii recording and writing, he did say, “It’s so funny that after the first time we ever worked together, I’m standing on the stage with you winning album of the year at the CMAs” [for the album “Girl”]. Of course Greg Kirsten just falls into winning album of the year at the CMAs. [Laughs.]
Was there a big shift in working with Greg full-time after losing Busbee?
On the last record, Greg was on “The Bones” and “Girl,” so he was already in my life, but yeah, Busbee’s passing absolutely had a shift change on me, musically and emotionally, and lyrically. I mean, it really rocked Nashville, not just our house. He left a huge hole when he died. So I think that there’s life elements to this record that I would not have been able to access had he not been diagnosed with stage four glioblastoma.
Working with Greg solely on this record, it was so easy because he’s not putting on airs. He is the most humble person I probably know, Greg. Considering what he’s accomplished… I’ve met some producers that are just egotistical pricks and totally drink their own Kool-Aid, and Greg is not one of them. He’s very grounded, and just a music nerd and, of course, jazz pianist. So I think that us working together and him discovering and falling in love with newer country artists has been such a fun journey. I’ve just got so much respect for him as a producer and as a musician, because he’s made some of my favorite records of the last 50 years. So I definitely feel like he had a huge influence on me just by being in the room, creating with me. But also his gentle energy was really necessary and needed for me at that time, because it was such a fresh pain of losing Busbee.
The breadth in Greg’s career is significant.
There’s things that he’s done that people don’t realize because he’s been around for so long. Those first Lily Allen records, I was such a massive fan of in high school.
Busbee’s passing affected you, and we know from things you’ve said other things did during this period too. You said you wrote some really dark material for this record you ended up not using.
I’ve been honest about my bout with postpartum depression. Coupled with the pandemic, it was just a recipe for mental disaster. But I was intentionally leaving behind songs that were just depressing. They weren’t the good kind of depressing that could be cathartic and healing for someone to listen to. It was just “Woe is me.” And I did not need to add more to the shit show that our world is right now. As the one that is singing them as well, it just wasn’t really beneficial or helpful to me to in this dark depression .I wanted to access something more enlightened and forward. And so that’s why I decided to write a truth that is not always sunny — I don’t feel like you listen to this record and are like, “Oh my God, this is sunshine and rainbows” — but definitely on the scope of a little more levity and less taking yourself too seriously.
It’s so positive, it almost feels like a honeymoon record in some ways, even though you’ve been married four years.
The honeymoon’s over! [Laughs] In the last couple of years, were either strengthened or broken by the pandemic; you did see a lot of relationships get tested. Mine was, certainly, because we were new parents, and touring got blown out, so it was our first time at home with each other, frankly, in 10 years. Being my partner during that season was very tough on Ryan. It’s funny that you say honeymoon, because it was the opposite of that. These songs were created in us being so over each other, and really trying to get through this time where we were tested in a lot of different ways. But I feel so much more solid with him than I ever have, because we got through it, and this record is a reflection of that.
This is such a hopeful-feeling record, whatever it was born from. But looking over the track list when it was announced, there was one title that made fans feel like there would be at least one big, sad ballad on the record: “I Can’t Love You Anymore.” And then that turns out to be kind of a fake-out — a sad title for a positive love song… in the tradition of Meat Loaf and “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).”
[Laughs.] That’s amazing — probably the first time Meat Loaf has ever been mentioned in an interview with me. That song was Ryan and I laughing at our antics with each other and being able to say, “You’re fucking crazy, but I’m with you for the long haul on this one. Because no one else is going to put up with you but me, and no one’s going to put up with me but you.”
Your new song “Tall Guys” addresses romantic height disparity, something not a lot of songwriters have ever tackled. That certainly seems like your story with Ryan. Not everyone out there had noticed the difference, necessarily, until you recorded a duet for his album, “Chasing After You,” and did a music video where it seemed challenging to have you both in the same frame.
I’m 5’1”, and a lot of people who meet me are shocked that I’m so short. Then Ryan is 6’3”, clearing a full foot over me. This is probably one of my favorite lyrics on this record, because it’s so ridiculous. That was a Natalie Hemby title; she brought that in knowing that I would laugh, and I did. The song says, “And we fly first class because it’s the only way his knees fit,” which is so true and made Ryan howl with laughter. I said, “We’ve got to write this in a way where we end the chorus with ‘Hey, I like all shapes and sizes, but there’s just something about a tall guy.’” But everyone is tall standing next to me. So it felt inclusive, still!
To ask about a line in another song, “What Would This World Do?” — you sing, “I’ll drink all the wine you gave me on my wedding day.” Did Ryan give you a boatload of wine, or what happened there?
Busbee got me a case of wine. He was always such a connoisseur of the finer things — like a good watch, a good suit, great restaurant recommendations in each city. So he was bougie, But yeah, he gave us like a great case of wine before our wedding, so that line was definitely dedicated to a real thing that he did.
What does “Humble Quest” mean to you, that you would make it not just a song title but the album title?
I have definitely felt cut down to size in a lot of ways. There was the worldly humbling of COVID and having my touring and purpose taken away, and then motherhood, and kind of reeling from and celebrating that in a time where no one could really meet Hayes [her son, who just turned 2]. I’d been nonstop touring for five years and not processing my emotions or even experiences.
And then with Twitter — it gets so ingrained into you, that muscle memory of always shooting stuff off the second the opinion forums. And for me, it was humbling to realize I can think something and do it with action, but not shoot it off without truly putting thought into what I’m about to say to the world. That was a learning lesson, and still is, because artists are expected to be content curators at all times. I was like, I need to stop feeling this pressure to constantly perform, whether it be with a song or opinion. “Humble Quest” was born out of feeling like the whole world is on this quest to this regrounded state, caring about things in a deeper way. It’s about sloughing off the superficial things that we used to put so much stock into.
And yet you got a lot of positive feedback for being forthright with your opinions. Along with some negative, too, of course, but you were considered like a hero by a lot of people for speaking your mind. It’s interesting that you had this epiphany of maybe not wanting that to be your brand, as the outspoken person who’s always weighing in on something.
I think you’re absolutely rightful to show people what side of the line you’re on. That’s one thing. But then constantly having to chime in every single time some massive fuck-up happens is just not sustainable to my psyche on a personal level. So yeah, just showing my allyship or feelings through action rather than just characters in a tweet, it was definitely something I think we all should swallow. it’s hard, because we’ve been stuck inside for two years ,and it’s just so readily available — the whole universe in your pocket. I think for me, it was just taking a step back and being like, “This is not good for my mental health state, looking at this screen all day.”
One time you weighed in and it really seemed to have a positive impact was at the CMA Awards, when you used an acceptance speech to talk about how we needed to pay attention not just to women in country but specifically Black women, and you had a list of names. It feels like the conversation really ramped up after that. Now we see a lot of Black women triumphing in Americana and being nominated for those Grammys. And you put Joy Oladokun on your tour as an opener to put some action behind those thoughts.
A lot of people were having the conversation before me. For me, I had literally discovered Linda Martell’s record the week before that and was listening to it that day. [Martell had a lone minor country hit in the late ’60s and still remains the format’s highest-charting Black woman, more than 50 years later.] As I was getting ready for the CMA performance, it was at the forefront of my mind. And the Grammys are definitely have reflected those conversations in a better way than the recent ACMs nominee list is doing. In some ways it’s getting better, and in some it’s staying absolutely the same. So I think it’s just about, be the squeaky wheel, if you want it to get looked at. I want these spaces to feel more inclusive and it’s not just going to be with a speech at the CMAs. It’s gotta be all hands on deck.
And there are a lot of bad players at play, in this town that are actively making sure those women don’t get nominated, and it’s really, really gross. Once the veil is lifted, you just can’t look away. And so I’m really in the most positive, active ways — with the people I hire with my openers, with those I’m writing with — just really trying to be aware of it. Because I am one person, but there’s a ripple effect from just one person. That’s how I feel about the state of things: it’s getting better, but not fast enough.