Borrowed Heart: A Q&A with Singer-Songwriter Heather Morgan

Photo by Blythe Thomas

Heather Morgan, a Texas-native singer-songwriter, is accustomed to life outside the spotlight, having written for artists like Keith Urban, Maren Morris and Dierks Bentley. Yet with the release of her debut album Borrowed Heart, Morgan is ready to make a name for herself as a solo artist. She tells stories from her own perspective for the first time, describing the feelings of heartbreak, strength and healing she experienced during her writing process.

Borrowed Heart came about after a spontaneous trip to Joshua Tree National Park. With only flip flops, high heels, a red carpet gown and borrowed guitar from Jason Mraz in her possession, Morgan found her voice and embraced vulnerability. The album came after a period of darkness and hurt, resulting in a cathartic and deeply personal collection of songs.

Now, with her stories out for the world to hear, Morgan chatted with American Songwriter about the creation of Borrowed Heart. From the transition process from writer to artist to the inspirations behind the songs to the people who helped her in her creative process, Morgan refuses to hold anything back.

Borrowed Heart is your debut album as an artist. What was the transition like moving from solely being a songwriter to songwriter/artist?

I’ve always been an artist along with being a songwriter and knew I wanted to make this record for that reason. This transition has felt organic, important, honest, raw and beautiful. I also feel like I’ve grown as a songwriter in the writing room because of how this project has opened me up and connected me even more with my creativity. I think art begets art, and giving myself this time and space to make this record has allowed me to be challenged, to bring a vision to life, and to celebrate a part of me that was patiently waiting for the right moment. I’m so excited to be able to tell people I actually have music out now. When I’ve been asked in the past where someone can listen to me, I’ve always said, “I’m going to make a record soon.” So, I am so grateful soon is now.

Was there a specific moment when you decided you wanted to pursue being an artist and release your own songs? 

There were little moments that added up along my journey to making Borrowed Heart. I started writing with Lori McKenna about six years ago, and getting to know her showed me another way to do artistry. I am in love with writing songs, so the way she writes for other people and makes records has been very inspiring to me. Another lightbulb moment happened when I saw Gillian Welch perform in New York at the Bowery Ballroom a few years ago. I looked around at everything that was happening in there that night and something clicked then, too. It was just Gillian, Dave Rawlings and this room full of cool New Yorkers hanging onto every word of her voice and guitar. It was special and so authentic. Every time I would see Patty Griffin play, I’d get the urge to want to be in the studio as an artist recording my own songs. The moment that made me ask Paul Moak if he would be interested in making a record together was the moment he sent me a song we wrote called “We Were A Fire.” The song encompassed so many things I wanted to have in a song representing my artist side. It captured a real experience; there was an edge to the instrumentation; the writing had imagery and metaphor; and the melody had range and pop sensibility. And, I couldn’t stop listening to it. Paul sent me the song as I was boarding a flight to LA, and I listened to it on repeat the whole way there. I think I kept it on repeat because it was everything I had imagined for so long and finally had it there to listen to.

What is your songwriting process like? Is it different each time or do you have a specific way you like to write a song? 

I’ve had co-writers describe my songwriting process as a stream of consciousness that I get on and just go. It can depend on who I’m writing with and what it’s for. When I’m writing solo and for myself, I love chasing personal emotion; but I’ve been getting braver about taking those personal songwriting elements into co-writing sessions. When I’m writing by myself, I describe songwriting as unraveling. I usually have something in mind, and I will sit and play guitar over and over while I’m singing and each pass I might add a word, or change a rhyme, or find the angle I didn’t quite have the pass before. I unravel the song until it’s done. That’s how I wrote “Your Hurricane.” I sat on the quiet porch of this house in Joshua Tree all morning and afternoon. I sang that chorus idea till I had it, and then, I sang verse line ideas over and over again. I was living in the emotion of that song at the time, so I was also making sure the lyrics lined up with the heartache I was feeling. Capturing emotion is really important to me. I do love writing to a track or top-lining. I love hearing something for the first time and feeling like a song just falls out of nowhere because of the emotion or color the track creates.

The title Borrowed Heart comes from feeling like your heart is “borrowed” when others sing your songs/stories. That seems like a pretty vulnerable thing to do. Do you ever get nervous about getting so personal? How do you overcome those anxieties? 

The title Borrowed Heart carries a few meanings for me. I loved it because I have had the chance to write for and with so many incredible artists and have shared parts of my heart and life for that endeavor. Making this record has given my heart a chance to speak for itself. It’s been really fulfilling but also anxiety inducing. One of my friends gave me some great advice regarding that the other day. He said to “tell anxiety to shove it because excitement gets this one,” and I’m taking that advice to heart. I felt the title was also the lesson I learned from living out the other songs and what I want next in love – to give my heart to someone that knows what he has.

I’m really looking forward to sharing the vulnerability on this album. I feel like I have this gift (and curse) for feeling things really deeply, and it requires me to sit in the middle of hurt or sorrow sometimes or whatever emotion it might be to create something from it. Some of the songs are about a heartbreak I never want to experience again; but the songs that came from those low points mean so much to me now, I wouldn’t have them without the pain I felt. Being open to real life has really stretched me as an artist and writer. I’ve never felt more confident or capable in the writing room, and I think, that comes from making this album and letting myself become braver about sharing something real. I think knowing how good it feels to write a really personal song, even if it hits a nerve, overshadows the anxiety every time.

What is your background in music? How did you first get into songwriting?

I started writing songs at a very young age. I was barely in elementary school. I’ve been told when my great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Sweden, he wrote songs to learn English so it must be in my roots somewhere. I started playing guitar in high school and putting all of my songs together with chords and discovered Patty Griffin and Darrell Scott. I grew up in Texas, so there was this amazing music scene I got to be a part of. I played blues bars, dance halls, frat parties, college bars, a couple of weddings with a band I had that was based out of Austin. I just wrote all of the time between gigs and would play songs for friends or at shows. I was playing a show with Radney Foster once outside of Dallas, and he really encouraged me to move to Nashville. It was already in my mind to make the move after I graduated from TCU, but it wasn’t long after that conversation that I made the move; and about a year after moving to Nashville, I got my first publishing deal.

You’ve talked a lot about your time visiting Joshua Tree National Park and how that inspired a lot of the songs off the record. What was that experience like for you? 

I went to Joshua Tree spontaneously to write. I had been wanting to write by myself for a while, but I just hadn’t had time with my songwriting schedule. The stars aligned though when I was at the ACM Awards in Vegas, and I was able to change my flight and get out there for five days. I borrowed a guitar from Jason Mraz and got an Airbnb and it was magic. I think the time alone to hear my thoughts and feel the heartache I had been carrying around was what I loved most about it. It’s this vast and glorious landscape and there is such a serene feeling to having all of that space, time, and beauty to create in. I spent Easter there this year writing again because it is just so inspiring.

Which song off Borrowed Heart are you most excited for people to hear? 

I’m really excited for people to hear the song “We Were A Fire.” It’s the song that made me know it was time to start this project, and that I wanted to make the album with Paul. I knew the song was unique and powerful and hits a nerve. Paul Moak really pushed to make that song happen, too. The day we wrote it, I had thrown out another idea that we were having a hard time with. Paul said he wanted to try something else and that he knew I kept all of these song ideas in my phone from the solo writing I did late at night. He said he wanted me to share one of those ideas or he didn’t want to write at all. I’m so glad he said that, because it is by far, one of my favorite songs to be a part of.

You recently released “Arms of a Lion” September 21, which you co-wrote with Lori McKenna. How did that relationship come about? What inspired the song? 

I started writing with Lori in 2012. I remember one of her sons was going to prom that night, so all of these high school students were lined up in the McKenna front yard taking prom pictures after we finished our song. Lori has this angel thing about her, she’s like an angel that tells it like it is, and I just trust her with my song ideas and the life advice she gives. I had saved the idea “Arms of A Lion” in my phone prior to a trip to Boston to write with her for a few days. The idea seemed like something she would connect with and definitely did. We had written one song; and we were about to go to dinner when I asked if I could tell her my idea for the next writing day, so I just threw it out there. She immediately went to this cool piano organ that she has in her writing space and started playing these gorgeous chords and singing, “Shouldn’t love be easy/why’s it seem so hard?” I was so happy she wanted to write it with me. To me, the song was inspired by hindsight and the surprise of getting hurt when you think you’re in a safe place to be trusting and vulnerable. Lori is a major part of this album coming to be. She’s been so encouraging with her words and belief. I’m very grateful for these songs she’s written with me and that she has always seen me as an artist as well…maybe even more than myself at times.

You’ve also talked openly about living with synesthesia, which allows you to see sounds and taste colors. How does that impact you as a songwriter/artist? 

I remember I had a voice teacher in high school explain this to me when she was helping me learn a piece of music I was having a hard time with. She kept saying the name of the note she wanted me to sing and I kept missing it. When I pictured the note as a color, I nailed it. Whenever I perform at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, I never write out a set list because you usually play about five songs in a round. Whenever I’m deciding what to play next, I sometimes think in terms of color – like: “maybe I should play the pink song next, or the red song, or baby blue song.” I see certain colors when I hear songs, so it has been a bonus to all of this creativity. I’m actually painting every song on my album right now. I minored in studio art at TCU, so it has been another way to bring this whole project to life and be vulnerable in a whole other realm and medium. It’s been really exciting…and messy.