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

Maren Morris.
Harper Smith
Courtesy of the artist
Maren Morris.

These days, it's not too surprising when a country singer crosses over onto the pop charts – but a few years ago, one country singer went where few others had gone before. She scored a global electronic dance hit. That song, "The Middle," came from DJ Zedd, the EDM duo Grey and country singer Maren Morris.

The single introduced a lot of people to Morris's voice, but with her new album, Humble Quest, she wants fans of that song to get to know her. It is Maren Morris's first album since the pandemic – and its provocative title might need a little explaining.

Morning Edition's A Martínez spoke to Morris from her home in Nashville.

This interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the broadcast version of this conversation, you can use the audio player at the top of the page.

A Martínez, Morning Edition: So, Maren, you've got a provocative album title here, Humble Quest. So I think that might need some explaining. What is your humble quest with this album?

Maren Morris: I feel like the making of this album, not that I would classify it as a pandemic record, but it was certainly created during one ... I feel like I went through a ton of changes and deterioration and growth, and I had my son at the beginning of COVID. And so right after that, like, all touring got blown out for two years. 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, because I wasn't able to work.

And I also lost my friend and producer [Michael James Ryan] Busbee to cancer, who I did my two previous records with. There were a lot of things that changed for me before I was able to sit down and write this one.

You had that first child in March of 2020, right? You had your kid during a time when the world was very uncertain.

Yeah, it was scary – and especially this being my first kid, you're already just petrified and don't know what you're doing. It was bizarre. It was the same week when the hospital was starting to do, like, temperature checks and crack down on any guests being with you. I think we were the only people giving birth on the floor that night, and it was super eerie.

But at the same time looking back on it now, it's been two years – my son's going to be two this week, which is crazy – it was such a precious time for my husband and I to share with our son because it was so quiet and there were no distractions. And I think we'll always look back on this window of time with our son as such a gift because we got to be with him every single day.

Now, I know a lot of people probably come to know you through that huge dance hit that you had a few years ago, called "The Middle." Your new album, though, is not like that at all. And I don't want to call it a rejection of electronic music, but there really isn't a hint of that in this new album. Was building on the success of "The Middle" something you ever considered, maybe even a shift into electronic music?

No, I don't think so. When I put "The Middle" out with Zedd years ago, I was a country artist. And he jokes, like, he had never heard of me because he's an EDM DJ. I don't think country music is the first genre he's going to listen to. But you know, my voice just fit the song.

I always considered "The Middle" to be living in its own universe separate from my own solo work. It was always going to be its own thing – I was never going to try to follow "The Middle" with another giant pop song. It definitely had so many moments and firsts for me to be a part of a song that was that big, and it honestly led me to where I am today. Like, working with Greg Kurstin. I met him through Sarah Aarons, who's a writer on "The Middle," and we met when I did that song with Zedd. And so in a weird way, this giant pop song led me to this album being created with Greg.

I never try to plan or force these giant song moves. I just always trust my gut: "Hey, is the song great? Do you want to do it? Will it be fun?" Yeah. Say yes. And I've kind of done that all throughout my career. I've had a really fluid go of things because I've done "The Middle," I've been on Elton John's project, I've started The Highwomen [with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires], and then my song "The Bones," on my last record, was weirdly crossover from country to pop. I just think I'm always going to be a little different than the norm.

But you consider yourself a country artist still, right? Because I mean, I asked Google this question. I wrote right in the search bar: "What kind of genre is Maren Morris?"

What did it say? What answer came up?

Google said "country." You're a country artist according to Google. You're good with that?

I'm good with that. Yeah. I feel very safe here ... for me, all my favorite artists that I look up to have done all kinds of genres throughout their careers, like Willie Nelson doing an album with Ray Charles, Dolly Parton doing a huge duet pop song with Kenny Rogers. And I'm a huge Linda Ronstadt fan, who was always genre-bending. So even though I live in Nashville and I'm from Texas and 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. So I'm fine with the title "Country Artist."

You're going to be hitting the road in June, 41 dates – most of them amphitheaters. I don't know if you know this, but you're Maren Morris, so I think you could probably sell out arenas. So why mostly amphitheaters?

There's a couple of different reasons. I remember we were starting to plan this tour last summer, in the middle of a pandemic and trying to get touring back together. We had a few on hold, like I was supposed to be doing Madison Square Garden and American Airlines Center in Dallas. And I looked at my manager last summer and I was getting really anxious. I was like, "I don't think I'm ready to do those venues yet." On an artist level, I don't feel ready. Also, we're still in a pandemic. It feels weird to immediately be going into these huge rooms and we're still picking up the pieces of the last two years.

You wrote a letter accompanying this album, and in it you write how the pandemic humbled you. "Shooting off your mouth one too many times" humbled you. The death of a friend, motherhood and marriage all humbled you. Marin, what have you discovered about the word 'humble?' What does the word "humble" mean to you now?

I always thought that was such an interesting word, because it does mean that you're grounded and you don't have a big head about something – but I think that for me, over the last two years, that word has changed. I think it means you're the closest to your compass that you've ever been. It's not for public consumption of how relatable you are. It's: How in touch are you with yourself and your loved ones? Like, the people that know you the closest?

And so, yeah, I think taking that power back with that word is why I wrote the song "Humble Quest" – how it's going to be an ongoing conversation and journey and will probably never end. And I'm okay with that. We're all just awkwardly feeling our way through this weird world.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
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