Superheroes are made for the summer, arriving at your neighborhood multiplex just in the nick of time. Ordinary, everyday heroes, though, can emerge anytime, anyplace, coming to the rescue just when that cliffhanging moment hopelessly starts slipping away.
Cue Maren Morris' grand entrance, front and center as the sonic summer's savior with
Hero, an adrenaline rush of a record that serves as her official introduction to the capital of country music. Her full-length, major-label debut that drops today (June 3) is as poppin' fresh as a box of popcorn for a hungry audience of thrill seekers at a blockbuster movie premiere.
With a firm grasp of her ability during a three-year transformation from songwriter to artist, Morris shopped her music around to anyone who would listen. Sony Nashville signed her to a record deal with the Columbia Nashville imprint in 2015, "and I haven't really looked back since," the Texas native was saying over the phone last week from Nashville, her adopted hometown.
In return for that support, this petite bundle of fire brings a huge voice, an indomitable spirit and some clever crossover songwriting capabilities -- who else would have the playful imagination to rhyme "Prada" with "water"? -- that will take her far beyond the exclusive country club that wants to keep her as a member.
After self-releasing a couple of records as a teenager, Morris felt relatively comfortable making Hero.
"It's hard to call it easy because it's definitely a huge project in my mind emotionally but it wasn't hard because I'm in a city where some of the most talented songwriters and producers reside," she said. "And I've made this record with my friends. ... Nothing about it has seemed like a huge struggle."
Along with her revved-up "80s Mercedes," this '90s baby spans many decades and genres while referencing pop culture icons from Hank and Johnny ("My Church") to Diddy and Marilyn ("Rich"), calls out the bullshit of a L-O-S-E-R's girlfriend when it's warranted ("Drunk Girls Don't Cry") and conveys sweet ("Sugar"), heat ("How It's Done") and heartache ("Once"). That's all in the span of 11 remarkable songs on which she collaborated with some of Nashville's most accomplished writers (Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally, et al.).
Growing up near Dallas, Morris moved to the Music City after turning 20, starting out as a songwriter there before doing what came naturally. Now 26, her rich experiences, a creative curiosity to explore various sounds and a huge upside potential are power tools that can help Morris repair any possible pigeonholes created by country music.
"I feel like it's changed so much, especially in the last year," Morris said of Nashville's broader musical reach. "And not just with women being on the radio. Even men like Chris Stapleton having his voice come through on the radio finally is so refreshing for me as a listener to hear because, you know, we needed more diversity. So for me to be a small piece of that conversation, I feel very humbled by it because I am a country radio listener. So I'm excited that the landscape of it is changing for the better and to be a part of it."
It has been a whirlwind few months for Morris since the release of an eponymous five-song EP in November 2015 that included "My Church." Her first bona fide hit immediately made its mark on country radio stations and gave national outlets such as SiriusXM (Artists to Watch in 2016), The Huffington Post (No. 1 on its list of Country Artists to Watch in 2016) and Billboard (Predictions Issue) reasons to look forward to the new year.
Through the first five months of 2016, Morris' favorite highlight was performing "My Church" at the "Mother Church of Country Music" in February. Opening for Stapleton, her first appearance at Ryman Auditorium -- the former home of the Grand Ole Opry -- was "a huge bucket list moment for me," she said. (See Morris and Stapleton cover Tom Petty's "Free Fallin' " at the Ryman.)
Three months later, she played at the Opry's current location, but not until recovering from a momentary health scare after undergoing a tonsillectomy on May 2.
"It was actually very terrifying because I've never been under anesthesia before," Morris said. "So I think I was psyching myself out and being way overly dramatic. But the doctors at Vanderbilt are luckily some of the best, especially with vocalists. So I was in and out, it was like a 30-minute surgery."
Complications developed a few days later, though, when Morris awoke from a nap with a mouthful of blood.
"I had to be taken to the emergency room because they thought a blood clot had formed where it was healing," she said. "And I just stayed overnight in the hospital and, weirdly enough, the next morning, it was gone. ... After I was out of the hospital the second time, I was almost 100 percent. I think the IV bag of fluids helped the healing process a lot."
A steady diet of ice cream and soup also worked wonders, but Morris didn't raise her voice until making her Opry debut on May 21, when she sang "My Church" and "I Wish I Was."
"Definitely a crazy comeback performance but ...," Morris said. "You know, it took a few minutes for my throat to adjust to singing again because it had been a few weeks, but once the show started and I was singing, it felt like totally back to normal at that point. So luckily -- whew! -- it didn't change anything."
So it's full speed ahead for Morris, whose album release coincides with the start of a tour that entails supporting Keith Urban into November and dates at prestigious summer festivals. She's also scheduled to appear June 6 on The Tonight Show, then June 8 at the CMT Music Awards, where she's nominated for female video of the year and breakthrough video of the year.
Releasing her full-length album debut and going on a high-profile tour,
Maren Morris prepares for the ride of her life.
To capture any major developments as they happen, Morris keeps a journal when she isn't jotting down lyrics.
"I try to be diligent about writing everything down just because while this is all happening at once it seems like a lot of times, you forget a lot of details because it's just chaos most of the time," she said. "Hopefully one day I look back and it jogs my memory about all the incredible moments that have happened, especially here at the beginning."
Actually, the career of Maren Larae Morris unofficially started in 1990, when her first name was waiting about a month before she was born. Her parents Kellie and Scott were watching a Battlestar Galactica rerun from the 1970s that starred actress Maren Jensen.
"And I just remember my mom telling me that when she saw that, she loved it and thought it would sound so great with Morris," recalled this Maren, whose name looks marvelous on a marque and album cover, too.
Morris' musical growth began around the age of 9 or 10, the moment she began singing into her parents' karaoke machine.
"I would sing on it a bunch," said the Wizard of Oz fan whose go-to selection was "Over the Rainbow." "I was mostly just goofing around. It was just fun but then I realized I really do love to sing. And I love to perform, even though I was a very shy kid."
The music of her childhood was a playlist as varied as a lineup at Bonnaroo, where she'll perform June 12. The melting pot of artists ranged from classic rockers such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin ("My parents are sort of '60s, '70s kids," she said) to '90s mainstays like the Cardigans and the Wallflowers to R&B (Chaka Khan) and hip-hop-pop (Beyonce) stars. (See Morris perform a cover of Beyonce's "Halo.")
Songwriting followed after Morris' dad bought her "a cheap Ibanez acoustic" guitar when she was 12.
"I'd always loved writing in school, I loved creative writing and loved writing poems and short stories. But when I picked up the guitar, it just seemed so natural to put music to lyrics," she said.
After the family let a neighbor borrow that Ibanez, "I never saw it again," Morris said with a laugh. But she still has her second guitar (a Martin acoustic) and the Gibson Hummingbird she received for her 18th birthday from her parents, who own Maren Karsen Salon, the hair and beauty business in Arlington, Texas, they named after their two daughters.
While she occasionally plays guitar during her shows and "for writing purposes, I can get by on the piano, but I wouldn't call myself a piano player," Morris humbly said, "I let the professionals play the instruments" on the album.
Adding harmonies and background vocals to the sumptuous sounds that also feature the McCrary Sisters as a choir, Morris puts the virtual mixtape of her past to good use. There's a long list of instrumental contributors that includes John Osborne, Derek Wells and Ian Fitchuk. But the principal musician is busbee (guitars, piano, B-3 organ, synths and more), who also served as co-producer with Morris.
This most significant collaboration resulted in unpredictable twists, background crowd noise and a refreshing burst of energy on an album that's also the perfect soundtrack for a strenuous cardio workout.
Put together by their publishers "probably two years ago," Morris said of the time she first met busbee, "I wasn't thinking about making an album at all. But we just wrote a song that day and I didn't end up recording it or anything but we definitely had a moment where we were like, 'Well, you get me and I get you.' "
More writing dates followed, but it was her visit to his Los Angeles studio last year when they "really struck gold" with "My Church."
"He's a freak of nature," Morris said of the native Californian who's worked with an assortment of performers including Urban, Jason Aldean, Kelly Clarkson, Pink and Shakira. "He's so talented. And he gets the pop and the country worlds because he has a house in L.A. and Nashville and he has written for pop artists and country artists. And our influences early on are very similar. We listened to a lot of the same music, so we knew the direction that we wanted to take this album sonically right off the bat pretty much."
They collaborated on three other tracks that landed on the album -- "80s Mercedes," "Once" and -- maybe Hero's best track -- "How It's Done," which they cowrote with Hemby.
Working with Hemby on "a very random day," Morris said, "I had this line -- 'If you're looking for love, I can show you how it's done.' And it felt like a very bold statement from a woman's perspective especially, but we wrote it and it just ended up becoming this very R&B-feeling jam and, I don't know, it didn't feel country at all but we were just going with the flow that day.
"That's one of the songs on the record that I'm the most eager for people to hear because it is so left field for someone who's only heard 'My Church.' But that's one of my favorites on the record just because it's a true story and I feel like I don't hear that perspective enough from the female side, especially in country music."
While female artists such as Faith Hill and Shania Twain were credited for the pop-goes-the-country craze in the '90s, Morris as a youngster found her own musical hero -- Sheryl Crow.
"She wasn't doing anything anyone else was doing," Morris said. "And I just thought it was so cool that she was the songwriter and played bass guitar and had one of the most original voices I'd ever heard. And her music was just indefinable. So I feel like she's a big hero of mine. I think from an early age I was influenced by really original female voices."
Now it's Morris' turn to take on the role of a lifetime for Hero-worshipping fans. Saying "I'm pretty straight-laced, I have a good head on my shoulders," even the most valiant figures of cinema and sound have their flaws. And this Texas tornado goes on record to admit she isn't perfect.
Adding her human bad habit "to the list of all the things I can't seem to kick" on "Just Another Thing," Morris revealed, "That song is a pretty true statement."
Asked about her vices, Morris said, "I definitely enjoy a drink, anything that basically (laughs) ... I don't know. I'm definitely a low-tolerance kind of person. But in this particular story, I am the person that keeps going back to this very toxic but fun relationship. ... I definitely like some tequila, but I'm not giving that up. I don't feel bad about that one. So, I don't know, ask me in a year. I might have a few more."
Then there's "I Wish I Was," which she has called "the most autobiographical song on this record." Morris sings to a lover she jilts:
I'm not the hero in this story / I'm not the girl that gets the glory
In the 38 minutes it takes to hear the whole album, is it actually possible to witness an antihero transform into a hero? While pondering how Maren Morris' story turns out, just don't expect there to be a cliffhanger.
This Hero already has saved the day.
Maren Morris publicity photos by Robby Klein.