Country Star Maren Morris Calls Her Mainstream Success "Kind of a Bittersweet Thing"
Maren Morris is at the top of her game — and she’s got five 2019 Grammy Award nominations to prove it.
Though she’s been a staple on the country scene since her debut album dropped in 2016, it wasn’t until she appeared on Zedd’s chart-dominating single “The Middle” last year that the 28-year-old singer-songwriter achieved mainstream success. Suddenly, she found herself with a hit song that peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 (it reached #1 on the Pop Songs chart). We caught up with the singer on all things money — her first paychecks, her unorthodox approach to splurging, and the the mind-blowing money she has gotten used to seeing at gigs.
From a strategic standpoint, crossing over into the world of pop was certainly a lucrative move. It introduced Morris to a whole new fan base, a dream that many country artists struggle to realize. But when she first made the rounds performing with Zedd, Morris — who says she grew up “very middle-class” in Arlington, Texas — admittedly experienced a bit of culture shock. She quickly discovered that her own past concerts had little in common with those put on by the DJ-producer. “The EDM and nightclub circuit was something that I had never really seen before,” Morris tells InStyle. “It definitely opened my eyes to the way that people operate outside of Nashville.”
Now, she’s operating at full potential across the board, managing to establish a pop audience while still embracing her country roots. (Her mass appeal is evidenced by her Grammy nods, which span both the Country and Pop categories, in addition to "The Middle" being up for Record of the Year.) With the recent release of her latest single, “Girl,” things are only looking up from here.
“I’ve done a lot of diverse music in my very short career, but I feel like it's really paid off,” says Morris, who married fellow country singer Ryan Hurd last March. “I was ushered into Nashville by friends in the music industry, so I've always been welcomed into this community of people who are extremely talented and down-to-earth. That's just been instilled in me since day one, and now I'm in a position where I can bring people out on tour that I want, and collaborate on music with people that I want.”
Morris is all about lifting up those around her, and she has no interest in competing with other talented women. “I never want anyone to think that I'm judgmental or comparing myself to them,” she says. “I want to feel really inclusive, and that's why I've chosen to bring all girls out on my support acts this year, and work with women in my crew and management. Comparison is just such a wasted use of energy; it's way more fun when we all win.” Sounds a little like "Shine Theory," and we're here for it.
While she’s certainly proud of her own wins, Morris has been vocal about her frustrations over the paltry representation of women and other minority groups in country music. “It's kind of a bittersweet thing, because I have had success on the radio recently and I don't want it to ever sound like I'm ungrateful for that,” she says. “But at the same time, it's hard to be woo-hooing myself and celebrating when I see my friends in country music who aren’t getting a piece of the pie. And I'm not just talking about the women; I'm talking about people of color, people of different sexualities, people who want to see themselves represented in country music and are making incredible music right now, but it's just not happening for whatever reason.”
Morris is determined to help them make it happen while furthering her own career goals. “I want to continue to make my own music and have relevance at radio, as well as creatively satisfying my own needs,” she says. “But I also want to share that joy with others that deserve the same representation on the airwaves. I don't ever want to quiet down about it, because if we are complicit in the silence, then it really won't change. I feel like you have to be the squeaky wheel to get any oil.”
Keep reading for more on Morris’s humble beginnings, her craziest Vegas club experience with Zedd, and why she’s willing to foot the bill in order to create projects on her own terms.
On her first major purchase, and getting a little too close to her last dollar... “My parents didn't live week-to-week, but it was close enough. I was taught the value of a dollar at a young age, and I think that wisdom has come in handy, going into being the CEO of myself. At 16, I was able to buy my own car — in cash — with my gig money. I remember that being such a huge thing, being able to immediately drive and not be in any debt. Several years later, I moved to Nashville to be a songwriter. I had saved a little bit of money so that for the first few months, I could just float and focus without having to wait tables or anything like that. When I got my publishing deal offer, I had $150 left in my checking account before my first check cleared. I was really cutting it close.”
On feeling like a badass boss… “My favorite thing at the end of the year is giving out Christmas bonuses. And I felt like a badass lady boss when I was able to put my band and crew on salary and health insurance; just sharing that with them makes it feel like less of a lonesome endeavor. I feel responsible now that I've got people who work for me, so actually giving them that kind of security was another big moment and a huge feat.”
On the art of budgeting…“I’ve learned to not overshoot too soon — especially with money. I don't presume to be this financial badass; I just listen to people who are smarter than me, and I have a business manager. I also have a good head on my shoulders when it comes to how I coordinate all of the spinning plates. I don't want to go into the red when I’m building a tour or recording an album. We've gotten creative on how to really maximize my budget for later gain. It's been a really risky but smart endeavor, and I see these crowd sizes grow little by little.
"Last year, I headlined a tour in clubs and they were all sold out. We probably could have played bigger venues, but we always smartly underplay our touring strategy so that we eventually sell out each show. It never feels like, ‘Oh, this tour is going to blow our entire year’s budget.’ We never want to have that conversation. A lot of people get so excited too soon and think, ‘Oh, I have this huge hit song — I'm going to go and buy this crazy car or start jumping right into [playing] arenas.’ Then they don't sell enough tickets or merch and they end up going into debt.”
On how working with Zedd changed her financial outlook… “Zedd is such a humble person for how much wealth and streams he's accrued in his career. He seems very level-headed. The most mind-blowing thing I witnessed in the last year, as far as money goes, was when I went to Vegas to see his set at the Omnia. I was going to perform with him, and his set was from 1:30 to 3:30 in the morning. People were spending money at these tables where they were paying five grand to have the Pink Power Ranger come and sing them ‘Happy Birthday.’ I don't know how much money these people have, but clearly enough to just drop $5,000 on a birthday greeting in a few seconds."
"There was also this package where you could get a picture and have a table and bottle service for the night — just that, and it was over 20 grand. Obviously the people who go to that club are high rollers, but I was just floored that people buy that every single Saturday. It was the most explosive visual of wealth I've ever seen. I was just in the DJ booth, watching all of it go down. I had never witnessed anything like that. It felt like a movie.”
On investing in herself… “I definitely have people around me that help keep me grounded, because I have a lot of creative dreams inside my head that I want to have materialize, whether it's an awards show performance or a photograph or a music video. I've seen country artists and pop artists really on different ends of the scale invest in themselves, and when it came time to talk about doing the music video for my single, "Girl," it was the biggest video budget that Sony Nashville had seen. I remember thinking, ‘If they're not going to cover the entire cost, I really believe in this treatment. I believe in this director. I believe in myself and, if there’s anything that they don't put in, I will cover the rest of the balance.’
"This was the first time I've ever put my own money down and signed a check to pay for my own music video, even though it was the lesser amount [compared to] what the label put in. I still felt like it was a risk, but I'm hoping it pays off. I think I'm at that point in my career where I can invest in myself financially. If you want to have your creative vision purely recognized, sometimes you just have to sign the check yourself. You end up footing the bill because you don't want any part of your vision watered down or discounted by financial restrictions.”
On how her private life has evolved…“I think I've been tackling a lot of personal growth. I started going to therapy for the first time last year, because I don't want my personal life or my professional life to be so different from each other that I can't come home at the end of the day and talk to my husband about it or have him talk to me about his career. I just have been working on a lot of things, emotionally. Getting married was so wonderful last year, and I feel like that's just become such a huge priority, obviously, for me.”
On hustling through high school… “My mom's a hairdresser. When she started her own business, my dad joined and managed the salon with her. My little sister and I really got to grow up in a small business. Eventually, I was the receptionist there and I got a paycheck, but when I wasn’t working at the salon, I'd be playing shows around Texas and touring on the weekends. I basically had two jobs and went to public high school simultaneously.”
On her disinterest in splurging… “I have a weird personality in the fact that I don't obsess over material things, but I appreciate them. I spend money more on experiences, rather than tactile shoes and purses. I'm starting to get around to that, but I think there's just some common-sense guilt instilled in me to not splurge on stuff like handbags. I would take a spa day or a vacation over a Chanel bag any day.”
On being nominated for five Grammys… “Honestly, today, I just woke up with so much excitement. I don't really have any anxiety. I just feel like this past year has been such a whirlwind of different experiences and different songs that were out of my comfort zone, but I'm so happy I ended up doing them. To have the validation of the Recording Academy — which is so revered by myself and my peers — and to have nominations in several different genres in a year where I didn't even release an album is incredible.
"I'm so excited to go this Sunday and see all my friends who are nominated out of Nashville, out of LA, out of all over the world, and just get dressed up. It's like prom! I'm also excited to perform. It's always an honor to be on that stage and I'm very happy they're back in Los Angeles this year. I love New York, but last year was so cold. I’ll be happy to not have to wear a giant-ass coat.”