Momentous Mondays: Influential artists of the Next 5-10 years – Week 1: Maren Morris

Is there any criteria for what determines an influential artist? Influential albums- sure we can figure that one out. Just think about an album that has changed you from the inside out, or one that has sentimental value to you, or one that you’d just know has shaped you beyond the shadow of a doubt (you wouldn’t be the person you are today if that particular album wasn’t recorded and released!); and that’s it. Maybe there are around 20 or 30 albums that you hold dear, that you believe to be higher above all others. But as for the extent of influence an artist has over society as a whole or individuals, across time, all genres and transcending countries, religions, beliefs, value systems and creeds; that’s a big, big mouthful to fully grasp and a gigantic pool of artists to choose from. I guess you’d say that the criteria is different depending on what you value in an artist, whether it is lyrics or music or the artist’s private lives and if it matches up with what they’re singing about… and that’s probably the reason why Jon is in the midst of writing about 100 artists, and even then it’s not a perfect list. The other day though, I started to think about the artists that were not part of Jon’s list, whom were deemed to be seemingly not influential enough. There were obviously some older artists whom Jon found others to be more influential for one reason or another; however if we’re only thinking of influence in the regard that an artist has to be a veteran of x amount of years or x amount of albums, then I’m certain we’d miss out on exploring and listening to a number of up and coming artists whom in the future could be equally as influential or even more so than The Beatles, Queen, Abba, Elton John, Whitney Houston and others. So, I’ve started up a mini-list of 20 artists (note, as of November 2019, this list has expanded to 50 artists!). By no means is it perfect, but it’s a snapshot of artists whom I reckon will take the world by storm in the coming years. Artists whom I reckon may not necessarily be popular, but still impact in a society where listeners are bored with songs at the drop of a hat. Maren Morris is the first artist that I’ll be delving into and exploring, and boy does she have plenty of remarkable songs that are relevant to society that need to be shared with the whole world!

I first stumbled across Maren Morris when Cimorelli covered “The Middle”. At the time early last year I dismissed the song and didn’t think anything of it. It was a pop song about basically ‘nothing that deep’, and besides a catchy beat, I didn’t think it would stand the test of time. Besides, I thought the reason why it sounded a tad grating and weird was that Maren was a country artist trying her hand at pop. The remixer was Zedd (the guy who did “Stay” with Alessia Cara from 2017, the most popular song of that year in my opinion, but again a superfluous and superficial song!), and though Cimorelli did a great job at singing the track, I put “The Middle” behind me (seriously, who names their song the same title as a long running just-ended TV show?). Yet the jewellery store opposite our café kept playing the song over and over. The music video also garnered exponential views, and Maren was quickly becoming one of the most talked about artists. Still I didn’t pay too much attention to her- in my opinion she wasn’t a Christian (which she may be, but at the time I ‘knew’ for a fact that she wasn’t!), so Maren would have to have delivered a superb performance that sent chills down my spine, for me to even consider her as influential or important and impactful. Then came this year and Youtube recommending me to watch “My Church”- Maren’s first single from 2016. Thus began a journey into me quickly finding out one of today’s rising stars, who is in fact destined to be bigger as the years progress.

I really don’t know how Youtube recommends videos to potential viewers, but there may be some element of truth to their suggestions if they’re recommending an active Christian like myself a semi-religious track like “My Church”. So one day this year I took the plunge and watched the “My Church” music video. I wasn’t thinking about how much it would impact me, but in no way did I think about how this song would flip my view on how country music can sound like, and how much it can inspire. See “My Church” is a country song, but so much like a gospel/Christian song it’s not funny! And back when I found out about Maren’s fame and her highly successful debut album Hero, in which “My Church” was the lead single; I realised that Maren was one of the artists that I needed to listen to, just to answer some questions my curiosity had- was she as good or better than “The Middle”, which was pretty popular but outside of her ‘genre’ of country? And the answer was and still is yes. “The Middle” in fact, while the most popular, is in my opinion the lowest point lyrically and thematically in her career. Anyway, I digress.

So as I watched the picturesque video of Maren driving down the highway in one of those prestigious cars (you can tell that I’m not really a car enthusiast or fanatic, or that sort of person!), together with a stirring backdrop of gospel singers; it was evident that Maren’s brutal honesty and her raw emotion is on display here, and certain to change plenty of lives like the 49 million viewers of the video who have already seen this track. And as Maren ardently and fervently admits her faults, yet also relays to us that she finds peace and ‘revival’ when she’s driving along the highway, letting her sins wash away via that avenue; we are presented with a jovial song about the spiritual place where we’re at peace (which is in the presence of God for me, and driving for Maren, but could be anything else for any of you!), yet also a subtly confronting track about questioning whether the places where we go to find spiritual solace and the places where we do church, are actually healthy or not. You see as a believer, I tend to agree upon the line of thinking that if you’re placing something else above God in your life, above the absolute highest thing you could ever devote your life to- if you’re spending every waking moment thinking about that thing that brings you peace, and it’s not God or Jesus; then that’s idol worship, which in my opinion is a scary and dangerous thing, as it leads you down some paths that you may not be able to escape from later on in life.

Others who ‘worship’ something else in their life other than Jesus, and believe in the actual lyrics of the song that their church can be celebrating anything- well they may receive their solace and peace from that thing, and may think they’re fulfilled. Are they really though? That is the million dollar question and from this healthy discussion that we all could have because of this one song- Maren Morris has done us all proud, by bringing forth an issue that we all need to talk about that we never really knew needed examining. What is church and what does it mean for you and for the world? Maren may not be a Christian, but she’s delivered one of the songs over the past few years that has actually strengthened my faith, believe it or not! But hey, what do I know, I’m just a Christian, right? “My Church” nonetheless spoke to me that day, and reaffirmed my belief that church isn’t a building, although meeting up with believers in a structured setting is good for our soul; sometimes meeting up with two or three people in a home for dinner, and communing with God that way- that can still be church and that’s ok. For all of that analysis to come out of that one little song- that’s crazy, right? I’m just extrapolating here, looking deeper than I need to, right? Did Maren really mean everything I just said about this song when releasing “My Church” to the public? Or was it just a catchy country song that outlined that Maren didn’t believe in church and told us all that it’s ok to find our own religion and spirituality? Regardless of the intended meaning, I read into this song something entirely different that has helped me on my spiritual journey, and for that, Maren Morris should be congratulated. But an artist is more than one hit country song and one hit pop song, so…what else has Maren achieved that would have me laud her as a future influencer?

Is it the fact that I reckon she’ll be bigger than The Beatles in the future, or Elvis Presley, or even Taylor Swift? Well I don’t really have a crystal ball, so I can’t predict those things. But Maren’s debut album Hero such a commercial success, which debuted and peaked at number 5 on the Billboard 200 chart, and number one on the Top Country Albums chart, upon release week. That’s some pretty impressive stats right there, but if you’re rolling your eyes and are saying that this only proves that she is a popular artist, and not necessarily influential; then in that respect you’re right. No one can say that one artist is influential, and another isn’t; because we all have different definitions of what influential means to us personally and to us all as a society. But what I will say is that the subject material of Maren’s music is well beyond anything I could even imagine for any other ‘up and coming’ artist- and the fact that Maren seems to have a level head on her shoulders despite her sudden rise to fame and popularity, is by far remarkable and admirable.

“…Hero was a chapter of my life where I was going through a “first love falling apart” phase, and figuring my early 20s out. It’s that stage in life where you’re not ready for marriage yet, you’re not ready to settle down, but you’re not a teenager anymore. You’re in this weird in-between that can be really fun and also really heartbreaking. That’s what the last record was about. And I feel like the last two years, after touring and growing up a bit more — and obviously I’ve found somebody that understands me now, and have fallen in love and gotten married — my [perspective on] songwriting is just a little different. It’s a little lighter than it was the first time around! [Laughs.] I’m not quite as bitter. Me choosing “Girl” as the first single, it’s about transitioning from someone who felt like she didn’t need anybody into someone who very much needs people, and is okay with admitting that. That really frightening vulnerability that I’ve been trying to avoid, I’m not doing that any longer. This album is really about self-acceptance and partner acceptance. The first half of the album is very self-reflective, and it’s more about me. Then the second half of the record transitions into me being the counterpart to somebody else. I didn’t have any love songs on Hero, so there are a lot more on this one, and I think that’s been a really beautiful side to being a touring musician: You never see the person, you miss them all the time, and he’s a musician as well, so we’re constantly writing with each other or about each other. A lot of these songs reflect that. He actually wrote a couple of songs on this album with me. I feel like I’ve grown up more in the years since I released that album. And this is the timestamp of that…” The flagship of any country artist in terms of lyrical content is I guess the song about the relationship. Be it a break up song or a song about how much in love one is with their spouse; relationship melodies are commonplace, perhaps around 90% of all of country songs ever written and performed. But with Maren, the past two albums have included not only country love songs, but more introspective melodies about life that we probably wouldn’t normally see and hear from an artist until they’re well established in their careers. “My Church” is an outright country/gospel melody that I’ve delved deep into more than I probably need to, but Maren rises to the occasion on other tracks that prove that she’s able to tackle other topics just as heavy and controversial. Piano led and acoustic guitar prominent “I Could Use A Love Song” tackles the subject of growing up and the fact that the persona longs for the special  feeling associated with love songs rather than the temporary high they experience through drinks and drugs- essentially longing for the real feeling of love. For Maren to place this vulnerable track on her debut album takes guts, but lo and behold, she did and the track became a single (no surprise there!); while the party song yet lyrically confronting “Rich” (also a single!) dives deep into the theme of trust and whether we can rely on someone who lets us down time and time again. As Maren uses the analogy of us earning money every time someone lets us down, she relays that we’d be rich sometimes, indicating that she is singing to someone who doesn’t keep their promises. Again yet a confronting track on Maren’s debut, but she makes it work and work well- for that I commend her very much.

Apart from “The Middle” with Zedd and Grey (which blew up to proportions that we could never even conceive and fathom!), Maren has recorded duets with plenty of other popular and well-known artists in the business- she must be doing something right to be in so high demand, right? “Dear Hate” (Vince Gill), “All My Favorite People” (Brothers Osborne) and “Common” (Brandi Carlile) are all songs where other artists have sung with her, while Maren has also been the featured artist on songs from Thomas Rhett (“Craving You”), Niall Horan (“Seeing Blind”) and Dierks Bentley (“I’ll Be The Moon”)- and all of these tracks are top notch; like Maren was meant to sing these songs and the songs found their way to her, so to speak. Maren also contributed to the country cover album of Elton John’s biggest singles- singing “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” (I’m sure it was an honour for Maren to cover a song from such an iconic artist!), while I guess it probably would be career suicide if Maren didn’t record a song for the soundtrack of the final season of Game Of Thrones. I’m not afraid to admit that I do not watch the show, and still have no inkling to in the near future, even though people have told me how good the show is; but here Maren does an excellent job in “Kingdom Of One” of a slow but haunting and mysterious ballad about one’s ego getting in the way and doing whatever it takes to arrive at the top, even if you have to betray everyone to get there and be a kingdom of one, where it’s lonely at the top. But out of all of these ‘feature songs’ aka the ones with more than one artist and the cover tracks; the melody I’m most impressed by is the Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey cover of “When You Believe” with Pentatonix, reminding us all that Maren does have faith and belief in something- otherwise she would not have recorded this rendition of such an iconic inspirational song.

As far as sophomore albums go, I can’t really comment. Sure, I’ve reviewed GIRL a few days ago, and I won’t talk about these songs in detail (for that you can read my review!), but I reviewed that album without listening to the debut project in depth. I had no baseline to compare this work of art to. Even now I still don’t, as I’ve only listened to enough of Maren’s songs from her debut to know that she’s an artist that needs to be listened to by all of us. Still, GIRL is one of 2019’s biggest surprises in a good way, and actually encourages me to check out Hero someday soon. With personal highlights being the girl power anthem title track; “Common” with Brandi Carlile about how we as humans have more in common with each other than we think; the poppish 3 minute tune “Shade” about the love for her husband and that he’s the best shade of colour she can ever experience; plus inspirational contemplative and reflective numbers “The Bones” and “A Song For Everything”, there is literally something for everyone on this album- with plenty of relationship style songs, some party songs, some reflective songs and some spiritual songs, Maren has cast a wide net, and succeeded in almost every area that she has invested into. I reckon that this album is a must for those wanting pop and/or country with more of a message than most artists these days; and even if you aren’t a girl and are single like myself, I’m certain that you will glean something from this project. With Maren touching upon a bigger variety of topics here than in her debut, the strength of the entire project of GIRL is reason enough for us to believe that Maren’s career is only just beginning; and it’s a ride that we all should be on, and should want to be on- if only to cheer her on from the sidelines, and wish her well in creating the best art possible that she can.

In such a short span of her career, so much has happened for Maren Morris– it’s hard to believe that it’s real life, and maybe you’d believe it if she were a character in a Hollywood movie. Apart from releasing two full length albums, a ton of singles and other collaborations and covers; Maren has been featured as a performer on sketch show Saturday Night Live, won a Grammy Award (best country performance in 2017 for “My Church”), as well as being nominated for several others, including best new artist in 2017, and best country album in Hero in 2017 also. Apart from the Grammys, other award ceremonies that Maren has been nominated for and/or won awards for in a variety of categories include the Billboard Music Awards, the CMA Awards and the ACM Awards (with Kelly Clarkson covering her song “My Church”!); while she has also been in early talks to form a female supergroup called Highwomen with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires. Maren has also been named chairwoman of Texas Music Project (a non-profit endeavour supporting music education in Texas schools, and also married her boyfriend Ryan Hurd last year. In all of the craziness though, Maren is grounded in the fact that she’s always staying connected to her fans on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like!). Plus from the descriptions of her upcoming tours, a Maren Morris concert sounds like it’d be a fun concert to actually attend. Little piece of information that is quite ironic- Maren is touring Australia as part of her GIRL World Tour this year (Sydney show is one night on August 22nd– a Thursday night!). I wouldn’t say that I’m an absolute fan, but it would be a nice show, and I wouldn’t be opposed to going as opposed to all of the other pop out there; but alas, I’ll be working that night so…there’s that. Potential enjoyable concert hopes dashed right away…but at least I’ll be still able to spin through the albums Hero and GIRL unlimited times, right?

As Maren reiterates in a Billboard interview, the fact that she held listening parties in a few cities prior to GIRL’s album release is pretty cool- “…I didn’t have fans going into my first record, really, because no one had really heard of me. This time, I have such a loyal fan base that I want to put stock back into. I love that they nerd out over lyrics, and I felt like this was such a pure way to be close to them. I loved doing it in a few different cities, because every crowd was a little bit different and they have different favorite songs that they loved. I was definitely inspired by artists that love their fans that much that they would put their own money in and just throw this little house shindig for them…”; and this shows how much she values her fans, her roots, her beginnings. Paying it forward and giving “…people the same opportunities that people like Keith Urban offered to me in the beginning, and Sam Hunt and Niall Horan. It’s just about giving back…”; is part of what sets her apart from other artists, who forget where they have come from. I can’t name these artists who are ungrateful because I don’t know any- but Maren’s generosity and level-headedness that is evident in her interviews, makes her albums sound…I don’t know, more real, authentic? More like an average Jane- which is good as it means that she’s relatable to us! Anyway, I digress, I think I’ve spoken way, way, way too much.

So I’ll leave you guys now, for you to check out Maren’s discography, so that you can be amazed just like I was, at how crazy good these tracks are. Maren has had a short career thus far, and though I reckon she will be more influential as the years and years progress, in terms of lives changed because of her songs, accolades, social media followers, and in terms of just being a brilliant role model to young kids, especially to young women, who are told to act in a certain way in music- but Maren is defying those preconceived ideas right now; right now she is in the time of her life- headlining her own tour and releasing an album that doesn’t really fit the mould of a country album, but who really cares anyway? Maren Morris is coming right at us, guys, so let’s be ready for this exquisite young songwriter who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it!

I love country music, but I also love pop music. But I’m not committed enough to ever deign to call myself a pop star. And I haven’t had these dreams of stepping into that world and having pyro and dancers…I was so inspired by seeing On the Run 2 this past year, and Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour. I love the production. I think I’m just trying to find my space between being this songwriter that loves the roots of country music and the storytelling; how do I marry that and my dreams of having beautiful visuals?

I want to tell country music in my way, where it feels like you leave the show and you feel like you went to the theater. I’m so moved by shows that are everything from stripped-down guitar and vocals to really thought out emotional thinkpieces. At the time in my mind, I was like, “How do I get to there? I think this song is going to help.”

There’s this strategic part of me, but no move is made without my heart really being in the song. And it’s so funny, because these Grammy nominations this year are wonderful and random at the same moment, because I haven’t released an album in the last couple of years, and everything I was nominated for felt like all my risks this past year have been validated.

I had a conversation earlier today about Ariana Grande and how she released Sweetener, and then weeks later released “thank u, next,” and then “7 Rings,” which is gigantic. In six months she’s about to put out two full albums. I was just thinking about how it’s so hard for terrestrial radio to catch up with the creativity of an artist, and the consumption their fans devour their music. I was thinking about myself in those terms. I don’t think I could churn stuff out that quick, but I do get distracted easily. That’s just the spirit of me.

I love my first album but also want to take leaps and bounds and do things that are weird and maybe not the middle-of-the-road path kind of choices. Obviously, she’s one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, and an amazing songwriter and human being. But she can’t be bound by timelines, and her art can’t be either. I really like that mentality going forward, ’cause I think that’s where the future is headed.

Does Maren Morris make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Influential Artists of the next 5-10 years’ list? Is there any song (other than “My Church”, “The Middle” and “GIRL”) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

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