Behind the wheel of her car as she was driving through her adopted hometown of Nashville in the depths of winter, two words came to Maren Morris: humble quest. Having entered her 30s, the singer-songwriter found herself pondering her place on Earth. As a singer-songwriter who worked her way up from a starry-eyed Texan teen to a woman with strong Nashville foothold, Morris was used to having to abide by the uncomfortable, undefined set of rules of staying humble, trying to navigate around unseen pitfalls and dramatic consequences. She felt how “humility” could be a cudgel against women who dared make more for themselves. As a series of major life changes unfolded—new motherhood, an upended existence as musician, a close friend’s death, living and working with one person nearly 24/7—Morris found herself reckoning with humility in ways she’d never imagined, and a breakthrough for her third album.
By early 2020, Morris was ready for some down time after hitting the road in support of her 2019 LP Girl and a banner breakout year among The Highwomen with Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carlile. Within weeks of devastating storms and a harrowing pandemic making their way to Nashville, she gave birth to her first child. Hunkered down with their baby at home in Nashville, Morris began writing the songs that became Humble Quest. Morris found herself drawn to themes that freed her from the dark clouds of everything around her. Meanwhile, her Girl single “The Bones” became a slow-burn hit all its own, netting Morris three CMA trophies and a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song.
When it came time to put her quest to tape, Morris enlisted producer Greg Kurstin—known for his work with Adele, Beck, and Foo Fighters, to name a few—to assemble the project through a mix of remote and in-person sessions. The producer also offered a Hawaiian writing retreat for Morris that proved to be a beneficial change of scenery as the songs continued to develop. Despite Kurstin’s earlier multitasking work on Girl,Humble Quest was Morris’ first time taking on a record without celebrated producer and songwriter Michael Busbee. Having helped Morris hone her own artistry, the celebrated producer, songwriter and confidant died of cancer at 43 in the fall of 2019. In the short time before he passed, Morris and her husband Ryan Hurd co-wrote album closer “What Would This World Do?,” rooting for a friend to keep fighting.
Busbee’s piano made its way to Morris’ basement, and it was there that “Humble Quest” started to take shape in song form. Morris kept writing, and as she enlisted the likes of Jimmy Robbins, Natalie Hemby, Laura Veltz, Jon Green and, of course, Hurd to join her, the songs became a counterweight to the heavy expectations of life and everything else. Humble Quest is Morris’ journey toward her higher self, reveling in the lightness of newly re-evaluated priorities. She celebrates the flashes of life that make the harder parts easier to bear: the unfailing fortitude of friendship, the fizzy delight of a crush in full bloom, the thrill of climbing toward an achievement.
In other people’s hands, humility can be applied as a weight, a set of demands to stay small. But in undertaking her Humble Quest, Morris finds humility as an ever-compounding reward that presents every opportunity for joy as a rare and precious gift. As she’s shown Texas, Nashville and the rest of us, Maren Morris is no damsel in distress. She simply doesn’t give a damn.
When did you start to feel limited by what other people’s ideas of humility are? In country music, in particular, ideas of being “humble” can be weaponized against women as a way of saying, “Stay in your place.”
I look at the last two years, and what it’s done to me as a human being and as a woman, as a mother, as a boss. It’s been a very heavy, humbling year. But also, my song “The Bones” went #1 at the beginning of the pandemic, and broke records, and then I went on and won a few CMAs for it. I was just like, ‘What is going on? How is this song peaking now of all times?’ I remember feeling like I deserved those accolades, but also a little undeserving because there’s just something in me that is always trying to pay my dues and not cut in line, so to speak. Especially for women in country music, the word humble is thrown around a lot. If you start to believe in your own self and success, and even feel prideful in it, you’re starting to lose your roots and where you came from. And it’s almost used as a ceiling.
It’s a weird term that applies to people in maybe some well-intentioned ways. But I think that for me personally, that word is weaponized. And I wanted to, I don’t know, in almost a sly, humorous way be like, ‘Why does a complete stranger get to apply that to you?,’ so I wanted to break apart the meaning of it to me with that song. And then I think naming the album Humble Quest felt like this was my journey to finding what humble means to me, whether it’s seeing eye to eye in your marriage, or becoming a mother, or feeling sexual, or losing a friend to cancer. There are so many things that ended up knocking me down a peg but strengthening me and making me realize what I can withstand. That’s why I wanted to name the album after that, because it was just such a humbling experience to make. And I didn’t want it to feel heavy. I wanted to have it sort of be this antidote to this time. I hope it comes across that way, because it brought me out of a very heavy place.
That imposing mindset is like stealing, in a way, because it often doesn’t recognize the work that goes into major achievements. How do you feel about it?
Yeah, you don’t really see the grind. You only see the the highest point of the mountain. I think that’s why it’s such a personal view of myself, like, am I humble? I really don’t know. I feel like I am. I feel like people around me would let me know if I wasn’t. But I am a confident artist, and I know who I am, and I feel like I can say that knowingly. And people take it as “full of herself.” I guess that’s fine because I truly don’t give a shit anymore. Maybe it’s something about turning 30, motherhood, or what have you. I just started to give less of a shit about outside opinions of those who have no idea who I am as a person.
I think that’s why I was able to kind of stop forcing it so much with this album and stop feeling so insecure about, “Is it going to be as well received as the last one?” or, “Can I make the same things happen again for myself?,” I realized this is all a means to an end, and it’s not going to end well if this is how I treat myself. I got to shake a lot of that off. And probably some of it was circumstantial with the pandemic and having a baby but, just knowing that you cannot control outside opinion of your words in an interview, of your songwriting, of what is a hit or what will flop— you’re not behind the wheel on any of that. You just have to be self-assured and know that you love it. I love these songs, and I wouldn’t put them out if I didn’t. That’s the most liberating thing about this record: I feel the most myself that I ever have.
How do you feel that being a mother has changed your inner creative life?
It just leaves you always feeling raw, just like a raw nerve exposed, and everything is very sensitive. You are so hyperaware of your child’s surroundings and interactions. And I’m still very new at this. I think it’s made me a better listener. I function musically the best—I don’t think I’m the best communicator, I communicate through songs, but this all forced me to do the opposite.
With the song “Hummingbird” that’s on this record¬—I wrote that the day that I found out I was pregnant. I was on my way to write with the Love Junkies, which is Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, who are amazing, and all three mothers. So, I found out I was pregnant that day. I was on my way to write, and I called Ryan and told him the news. The pregnancy test was positive, and they were so excited. The way the world works sometimes blows my mind, because I was on my way to write with these three women that I respect so highly, and they’re all working mothers, and they were the first people aside from Ryan that I told that I was pregnant. We ended up writing “Hummingbird” that day.
By the time we were recording, I wanted to put “Hummingbird” on the album, he was starting to talk. I just got my phone out one morning, and recorded Hayes saying “Mama,” and sent it to Greg. and I was like, “Can you put this somewhere in the song?,” so that’s who you hear at the top of that one. I shed a light on what becoming a mother meant to me before I even met Hayes with that song.
“What Would This World Do?” at the end of the album is about your close friend Michael Busbee, who you lost to cancer in 2019. What was it like for you to approach this project without him?
Yeah, I wrote that with Ryan, my husband, and our friend Jon Green who was very close to Busbee as well. We wrote it before Busbee died when we were still in that space of hope. That’s why it’s titled the way it is, because it was written before he passed away. We were writing it for him as a song of hopefulness that he would pull through it. But obviously, it did not go that way.
I knew that I wanted to end the record with that song, because I hope it’s a respectful way to honor him and what he did for me. Before he passed away, I was able to share with him that we were pregnant, and he was just so excited for us. That was the last thing we chatted about. I still have the text on my phone. I wanted to keep the production super simple. It didn’t need much more than just a piano and vocal. It was our way to honor him and his life and his talent. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to sing that one live, but I’m glad that we put it on the album, because it deserves the end of this chapter.
In the liner notes, you write that these songs were the easiest ones to write—how did that happen for you?
I was writing a lot of these songs with my husband Ryan, and we’ve written so many songs over the years—that’s how we met. But we were in a heavy place. It was a heavy time, the country felt heavy. I was writing a lot of sad, introspective, very depressing music, and it wasn’t helping me to get that out. It was kind of a lot, it was making me stew in my depression more.
With “The Furthest Thing,” and “I Can’t Love You Anymore,” it was really a great exercise with him to just get those songs out. They were so happy. It was sort of like this weird, therapeutic reminder that whatever part of our brain turns on to write a song that day is the highest sense of self, the most enlightened sense of self writing it, even if you’re fighting that day in real life. I looked back at those songs, and I was like, “How did we write these?” we were kind of tense, and it helped get us out of that. And I think that’s what I meant when I wrote that these are the lightest songs that I’ve probably ever written, because they were pulling me out of whatever pool I was drowning in.
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