After breaking out with single “My Church” and earning widespread acclaim for her confident Columbia Nashville set, HERO, Maren Morris quickly became part of the conversation about Best New Artist Grammy contenders (she’ll likely nab her share of noms in the country categories as well). The Texas-born singer/songwriter released a few indie albums in her teens and very early 20s, then relocated to Nashville and focused on writing for other artists (including Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson) for a time before resuming her solo path. Her artistry as both singer and writer made a huge impression on hit tunesmith Busbee (Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, Katy Perry, P!nk, Little Big Town, Florida Georgia Line), who became one of her key co-writers. In this, the first installment of our series about collaboration in the songwriting process, we asked the two friends to discuss each other, creative inspiration, producers and more. The Red Light-managed Morris spoke from the road, where she’s been touring with Urban.

As a writer, Morris is signed to boutique Music City pubco Big Yellow Dog (also the home of Meghan Trainor), while Busbee is with BMG.

How did you end up working together?
Busbee and I were set up through our publishers to write. It wasn’t really the first impression, because that was when we did this guitar round at our friend Lucie Silvas’ house; it was just a few friends in a living room. Busbee had never heard me sing before that night. We went to breakfast one or two mornings later. It was the beginning of the discussion about this record, and I was very skittish about making an album under my name. He really saw something in me that I wasn’t ready to face. It finally forged a great friendship and creative relationship. It was the personal stuff I was going through that pushed me into being an artist again, and he saw a spark there. It took me a while to see it.

Busbee: Sometimes, with certain artists in those early days, there’s a bit of a thing in there, and you’re helping develop it. That wasn’t the case with Maren at all. From my perspective, it was like going, “Hey, do you see that big red dot on your forehead?” It was that clear. For me, it was already there.

She was much further along in the process.
B: Oh, yeah. The solidification of that in the first moment was, she sang that song we wrote the first day, which we wrote for whoever. She was really quiet, and I could tell she was talented and had a great voice, but when I heard her sing her own music at Lucie’s house, it was like, shit, this is one of the best singers I’ve ever heard in my life, and these songs are insane. I felt like I was hearing a great for the first time—I’d never experienced that before. I was like, how do we do this? This was the fall of 2014 or so.

What do you feel you brought to the table?
B: Hopefully, just helping her do her. I know for me, as a producer/writer/co-creator, if I’m at my best, I’m helping other people do what they do best. That’s part of why this was such an enjoyable process—there was no striving, no effort in any of the bad senses of that word. We pushed and challenged each other creatively, but it was always clear to me what she was and what she was doing; my job was almost like an archaeologist’s—to help that come out. It was defined for me in her voice in that moment when I first heard her sing her songs. It was like, holy shit.

Maren, what were you getting from him in the collaborative process?
M: I had worked with several producers by the time I met Busbee, but it was mostly me sort of tinkering around. He just let me do what I do, and that was a really powerful thing to be handed. He’s this melodic savant in so many ways. I’d kinda be done sussing out a lyric and go into the vocal booth, and he’s singing these melodies back to me; I’m like, “You’re crazy—I can’t sing that high.” He’d say, “Yeah, you can—just try it. If it doesn’t work, tell me to f--- off.” When I sang the vocals for “My Church” and “Once,” that was me at the top of my register. It was feeling like we both broke though, and I didn’t know it was possible. We always joke that we’re like this old married couple you see at the restaurant; they know each other’s moves so well that they’re not even talking—they’re in their own worlds, but at the end there’s something really beautiful there. It’s not like a jam session; when we write, we get a vibe going, and then he gets to work and I get to work. Once the lyric is done, he’ll check in every once in a while. He really let me pour my heart out and spread my wings. I never had that confidence before.

It seems like a lot of producers want to put their stink on things, whether it’s merited or not.
M: A lot of people are just trying to put their two cents in, for the sake of just pissing on their mark. There’s a subtle beauty to producers and writers—I’ve been in the room thinking, do I really want this line in because I want more of me in the song? Am I letting my ego get into it too much? You do what’s best for the song, at the end of the day, and he’s got a really great knack for making that happen. 

Ever since I first heard your music, I’ve wondered: Who were the first artists who not only made you want to make music, but gave you the courage and direction to find your own voice?
M: A bunch of them in different genres. There isn’t a particular lane I was inspired by, and I think that comes through on this album. Busbee and I listened to a lot of early Sheryl Crow when we were writing “My Church,” just to get inspired. That Tuesday Night Music Club record—there are so many crazy sounds going on we were inspired by, and it helped us get into the headspace of not locking it in too much. The drum sounds are so distinct, and we were trying to do that in our own way on “My Church,” which is why that drum sound is so crunchy and dirty-sounding. I was really influenced by her at a young age. I also really love Motown, Chaka Khan, classic country lyricists like Dolly Parton and John Prine. I listened to everything growing up; my parents weren’t musical, but they’ve got great taste. One of my favorite records is Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red. It’s so lyrically and sonically bold—[producer] Jay Joyce threw out so many wild sounds, I’m sure they looked at him like he was crazy. But it comes together so well. She’s always been one of my favorite singer/songwriters. That album inspired me a lot.

Morris celebrates her Grand Ole Opry debut with Sony Music Nashville  EVP/COO Ken Robold,
Opry VP/GM Pete Fisher, Opry Entertainment Group prez Steve Buchanan and SMN boss Randy Goodman.

Have you thought about what you might want to do the next time around?
M: I haven’t written a song in so long. That’s the downside of a career exploding—the room for creative flourishing doesn’t happen. I just wrote for the first time [since the album] this last weekend, on the road. It’s not so much about me finding greatness; it’s more about blowing the cobwebs off.

Have your recent experiences influenced the way you approach songwriting?
M: Partly, but I got in a room last weekend, and it’s sort of like riding a bike—you jump back into that headspace. Some people can do it on the road and some can’t. I feel like I’m trying it out right now. At the end of the day, I’m just excited to get back into the studio; Busbee and I have a write scheduled.

I’ve listened to so many great records this year, and I’m so inspired. It’ll be interesting to go back in and see what comes out in the wash. Busbee has always been a great sounding board. His palette is so diverse, like mine. Every few weeks, we’ll send each other something we’re geeking out over. I feel like we’re laying the foundation for what comes next.

Can you say a little about being on tour with Keith Urban?
M: It’s crazy—this is our last weekend in amphitheaters, and then we go into arenas. Most tours are two or three months, and this is about five. Every night I hear so many songs of yours, Busbee! Mine and Keith’s. It’s almost like you’re here.

It’s been so much fun, and watching someone like Keith on stage every night, it just ups the ante on production and live performance. I’ve learned a lot about what works live and what needs work. Not everything translates. But I’m not a quitter; if anything feels weird, I’ll figure it out and try to fix it. I haven’t run into this problem so much; it’s more like, why did I write this song in such a low key? But people in the crowd know the songs more and more, and when I do my own shows it’s going to get crazier. Even Keith has said he’s never seen so many people show up for the first opener. It’s a packed house when we play, and that’s really validating.

Check out Holly Gleason’s interview with Morris, which appeared in our Nashville special issue, here.

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