11 Questions with Heather Morgan

By Lauren Tingle

It’s just days after the CMA Awards, and hitmaker Heather Morgan (@heathereleven) is sitting pretty at the Illusions Nail Spa in Green Hills for a celebratory pedicure for a banner 2014. In June, Heather scored her first number-one hit with “Beat of the Music,” which she co-wrote with Brett Eldredge and Ross Copperman. The summer smash is also the year’s number-one song on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart with 760 million audience impressions.

Over the summer, Heather traveled abroad and participated in a BMI-sponsored Songwriting Session at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios. She helped launch a successful Girls Of… songwriter series, which featured a rare Kacey Musgraves and Michelle Branch collaboration last month. And she sponsors children in Africa.

As technicians buffed our toes, NLN caught up with Heather for 11 questions on breaking out and paying it forward.

Take us back to the day you wrote “Beat of the Music” with Brett and Ross. What was your role in the song’s creation?

It was January 2012, and Brett had gotten back from the Bahamas. He was telling us about how he and his brother saw this beautiful girl on this yacht. They took a motorboat over to where she was and when they were close enough to communicate with her, these two huge NFL-sized guys appeared out of nowhere. They turned around and went back. Brett said, “It totally should have had a different outcome to it.”

Ross had already started on a beach theme just from hearing that story. I had kind of a wild day because Kimberly Schlapman from Little Big Town was borrowing my kitchen to film her cooking show Kimberly’s Simply Southern. I had 17 people in my house that morning with a TV crew, management and Kimberly cooking chicken potpie. And it looked like the Kardashians had moved in. So, I kept pushing the writing appointment back. When I walked in, Ross filled me in on the story and played me the track. I had not even put my bag down and I was like, “Oh, fallin’ in love to the beat of the music!”

It was almost as if I heard that over the track they were playing. It’s not something I had written down. I remember asking, “Did y’all just say that?” It was the easiest write. Brett came up with blue diamond eyes and then we had to do Mexico because of the rhyming.

I think it was Ross’ idea to have the bridge right after the chorus, which is really different. People have asked us if we did it on purpose and it was just one of those in-the-moment calls of, “Hey, why don’t we go to a bridge?” Why not? There are no rules.

We did a demo that day with Brett singing and I remember looping around the neighborhood listening to the song on repeat. I thought, “I’m going to get pulled over just loitering.” I texted Brett, “I don’t know what this means, but I literally cannot stop listening to the demo. I’m so excited about it!” He was like, “Great job on that hook! Yeah, I’m doing the same thing, too.”

How did you guys become friends?

Ross and I met during the Key West Songwriter’s Festival in 2008. I played the first night and he happened to be there. He had just moved to Nashville from Virginia by way of London. He was like signed to Sony U.K. and had some singles that did really well over there. I think he got homesick and wanted to be in Nashville. We booked an appointment right after Key West and it just went so well that I think we booked the next Tuesday, and the next Friday, and we would write on Sundays.

I knew Brett through mutual friends. There was this big group of 15 friends, and he would always be at barbecues or watching football. He was just one of the guys in the group. Everybody was stupidly talented. Some were artists, some in publishing and some in management. Seth England was in that crew and he now manages Florida Georgia Line. Looking back, I didn’t know stuff was falling into place. But Brett and his brother were always there.

How are Brett and Ross as collaborators?

The three of us have written a bunch of stuff for the new project that Brett’s working on, and it’s just really easy. We anticipate where our heads are going musically. I’ll throw out an idea and if they think it’s dumb, they think it’s dumb. If they think it’s great, great! It’s like having two brothers that happen to be really awesome at making music.

What are your thoughts on the life of a single from birth to the top of the charts?

Every star has to align. No one star can budge. To have a number-one is magic. It was January 2012, when we wrote “Beat of the Music,” and then to get that onto the album was a year. Then Bring You Back came out in August 2013. Then in June 2014, “Beat of the Music” hit number-one. Then Brett won CMA’s New Artist of the Year. It’s just nice to see it pay off.

How many times have you been told “No” in your career?

This will be my 10th year as a pro songwriter. You get so used to being so close to a career-making cut you can almost touch it. I’ve had a lot “almosts” happen. There was this one Sara Evans opportunity. She recorded a song I wrote with Marv Green. It was supposed to be a title track single. I think that was about 2007, and my parents sent me flowers and it was going to be the moment that kicked everything off. She ended up changing producers. It was so hard to digest because I heard her recording. I knew it existed in the world. It became my first major, “Not happening.”

That’s when I realized this business is freaking hard. You know you’re talented, and you know everyone else is, too. Those moments are completely out of your control. All you can do is work hard, be kind and have patience. That was a big lesson. And I remember it was so hard because I had already been doing it for two years of just wanting to be there, wherever there was. I wanted to be there.

What did you learn from that experience?

The good part about that is, it made me write harder. Thinking about what happened, I really question whether I would have met Ross on the Key West trip because that would have been the next year. The timing was so perfect for him to be transitioning to Nashville, and for me to be open to throw the rules out the window and just write whatever. It really solidified our writing relationship. I look back now in hindsight and think, “Thank goodness,” in a way. I couldn’t have predicted all I thought I was going to do.

You’ve been doing this since you were a child. What do you have to say about the timing of your success?

I’ve been to Africa twice now, and I sponsor two children there. Two years ago, I went there to take a time out from Nashville. I remember feeling the world’s big but we all have a lot in common. We all want to be loved. We all want to be recognized. Coming back, it changed the way I wrote. I think it changed the way that I interacted with people.

I remember I was getting on a plane for home when I got a call that Eli Young Band was cutting a song that Liz Rose, Mike Eli and I wrote. Then, when I got off the plane, Universal Music said Lauren Alaina had just cut a song that Jimmy Robbins and I wrote. Then Keith Urban had cut something. It was really wild. I couldn’t control it. I literally didn’t have access to the United States! It would have cost a fortune on my Sprint plan.

That proved to me that if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. But you’ve got to work it. Ever since then, it’s just been a completely different writing experience. I found the joy in just making music.

Has there been any interest in releasing an album?

A lot of people ask, “Why don’t you sing?” Well I love to do that whenever I get the chance, but there is some crazy high from finishing a song that you love and creating something out of nothing. I feel more confident to make an EP, but also there’s this other side of me where I want to capture this moment musically because we change so much even if we don’t recognize it.

I admire Lori McKenna because she always makes these gorgeous records. When I picture Lori and then I hear her music, it all meshes so nicely together to who she is. That’s kind of what I aspire to do — to figure out how to blend that into what I’m doing.

It would be to fun to hand my music to the girls in Little Big Town and just be like, “Hey, use it as a coaster or listen to it.” But yeah, and I love singing. It’d be fun to have my music in TV and film. That’s kind of on my bucket list. But you never know who will relate to your music. It’s just nice to have authentic connections with people who do the same thing as you, and who have influenced you a little bit whether they know it or not.

What’s your secret to personal happiness?

Realize that it’s not going to last forever, so be in the moment. You’ve got to be in the moment of creating it. Enjoy the small victories and enjoy the connection. It boggles my mind in the best way that we get to sit around and create this art with each other and that we come from all over the place.

Sometimes I think of Ross as this kid from Virginia and I’m a kid from Texas and Brett’s from Illinois. Somehow the world conspired to bring us together and make this moment happen and it’s a big deal. But at the same time, it’s just a bunch of kids making music like we did in our bedrooms. Enjoy the connection with people.

Obviously, you need the success to stay in it, so people care about what you’re doing and it can make sense on paper and stuff like that. But just to enjoy the process of it because it is so cool. In 30 seconds, you can really get down to who people are and what makes them tick.

Which moments have been the greatest hits of your career so far?

It was crazy when Brett sang “Beat of the Music” at the ACMs. I actually did not go and I kind of regret it not being there for that moment because I didn’t realize he was going to sing it. I don’t know why I thought he might sing “Don’t Ya.”

Then there was a trip in the springtime where The Band Perry flew some songwriters to Savannah on private planes to come to see the show, and it was just this cool experience. It was with a bunch of people I just loved and it was such a good hang with everybody.

The Country Throwdown tour was an incredible eight weeks of my life. I connected with the Eli Young, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Brad Tursi, Sarah Buxton … Emily West was on that tour.

In the finale, Jamey Johnson would invite one of us from the songwriting tent to come up and sing with him. It was always an old school song. I sat side stage with Randy Houser, and we watched Jamey out there with Willie Nelson.

Randy’s manager told us, “Willie’s about to sing his medley at the end. You guys need to go out and sing with him.” Randy and I looked at each other and thought, “Seriously?” We went out there, and I remember making eye contact with Willie Nelson. He just smiled at me, like, “I don’t know who you are, but let’s sing.” We sang “Amazing Grace” and “I’ll Fly Away.” I remember thinking, “Get off the stage,” in case he wasn’t pumped that I was onstage uninvited.

I ran down the back steps and set my guitar on a picnic bench. I had a Sharpie in my guitar, I turn around and Willie Nelson is not more than six inches from my face. He said, “Thanks for playing on my stage tonight.” It was very kind. I remember fumbling through the words, “Thank you! Will you sign my guitar?” Randy and I were standing there beaming but we could not talk.

Kelleigh Bannen has become one of my really cool friends. I went on the road with her and toured a little bit. She’s invited me to play on the Grand Ole Opry with her. So it’s like all these bucket list moments happen the way you wouldn’t expect.

Were you involved in any events this year that could potentially become a platform for discovering new women in music?

Caitlyn Smith, Maggie Chapman and I were at Music City Tippler when we got the idea to throw a girls’ night writer’s round. But we didn’t want it to be typical. Everyone who participated got guitar picks in pink, yellow or purple — very girlie — as a, “Thanks for being a ‘Girl of Summer.'” We decorated the stage a little bit like a Pinterest project. We ended up having 15 girls, and it just felt powerful and beautiful.

We did a Girls of Fall and partnered with a charity called Amplify Nashville. The Sutler donated a portion of the bar to Open Table. I don’t know how many people stood outside in the cold and rain to get in because it was so packed! Kacey Musgraves and Michelle Branch sang “Leave the Pieces” and then Kacey did a new song called “Biscuits.” Lucie Silvas and Kate York played.

I was so just proud of it because for me, personally, I think about Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Kitty Wells, I think about those girls back in the day. There’s going to be a moment when we’re pushing 90 — if we’re all lucky enough to be alive and we haven’t lived too hard — we’re going to see that we were that moment for one another. Being a number-one songwriter, I want to kind of parlay this opportunity into experiences for others.