Maren Morris and Zedd Know What You’re Thinking: How Do You Top the ‘The Middle’?

MAIN-PRESS-PHOTO-2 - Credit: Sophia Matinazad*
MAIN-PRESS-PHOTO-2 - Credit: Sophia Matinazad*

As undeniable pop goes, it’s hard to top “The Middle,” the unstoppable 2018 banger that brought together new-country heavyweight Maren Morris, German-Russian DJ Zedd (a.k.a. Anton Zaslavski), and the EDM duo Grey. The unlikely collaboration spent 40 weeks on the pop chart and was used in a Target ad; to date it’s logged over 4 billion streams. “‘The Middle’ was a once-in-a-lifetime song,“ Morris tells Rolling Stone. “It’s definitely one of the biggest songs I’ve been a part of, and it really opened me and my work up to a much larger audience. It was a moment in time, and no one in our camps could have predicted the reach it had.”

But top it, they’ll try. Morris and Zedd, working this time alongside the EDM duo Beauz, have reunited for “Make You Say,” a looser, lighter grooved kiss-off (“You’re gonna miss the way I made you say — ‘oh my god‘”). This past weekend, they teased the track online. “Should we do it again?” Zedd tweeted on Aug. 13, alongside a new photo of the two. “Round 2?” Morris coyly replied on the same platform. Two days later, Morris posted a 14-second snippet of the track on TikTok.

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Today, the full song officially arrives — with a bevy of expectations and comparisons. “‘The Middle’ is such a perfectly tied-with-a-bow, airtight pop song — there’s no filler,” Morris says. “Make You Say’ is more of a dancy, blissed-out bop to me. It’s so hard to compare the two. It would be such a killjoy to go into this and think, ‘How do we outdo ourselves?’”

As seamless and instantaneous as its success was, “The Middle” had a particularly stressful, drawn-out backstory. It came to life as a track written by the production team Monsters & Strangerz and Australian singer-songwriter Sarah Aarons; Zedd eventually came aboard as producer and co-writer, along with Grey (brothers Kyle and Michael Trewartha). As many as a dozen singers, including Demi Lovato, Charli XCX  and Camila Cabello, cut vocals for the track; for various reasons, none of those versions was released.

When word trickled out that the song was still in need of a voice, Morris cut her own version and got it to Zedd. “I sent a very scratchy demo of me just singing Sarah’s parts,” Morris says. “At the time I didn’t know the entire backstory of how many vocalists were sending in things, but I thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll throw my hat in the ring.’ I’m glad this country ass of mine tried at all.”

Zedd heard what he’d been looking for and he and Morris assembled in Nashville to record her final vocal in late 2017. Morris was fighting a cold that day, and she thinks what she calls her “balls-out rasp” added to its appeal.

Once the song became a phenomenon, Zedd admits he heard from some of the artists whose vocals weren’t used. “Some people take it better than others,” he says. “But I’m always pretty transparent about the process. Some tones fit the songs better than others. I’m friends with most of the people who were going to cut and I knew their tone wasn’t going to make sense and I said right away, ‘I love your voice but I’m pretty sure this isn’t the right tone.’”

By comparison, the making of “Make You Say” was a relatively seamless process, even though it took nearly as long as “The Middle.” The track, originally an instrumental, started coming together in 2018, when Zedd was working with DJs/producer Johan and Bernie Yang, a.k.a. Beauz. “We had a couple of people top-line it,” Zedd says, referring to adding a lead vocal. “But it sounded disconnected between the track and the vocal. When I work on records, it can take years. It’s waiting for the right partner and moment. Here the instrumental track was timeless. I didn’t feel the need to rush it out.”

As a result, the track sat in the can for a bit until Zedd played it for Charlie Puth, who (with his frequent collaborator Jacob Kasher Hindlin) wrote a vocal part and lyrics and turned it into “Make You Say.” This May, when Morris was in tour rehearsals, Zedd sent her that tape with an eye toward her singing it. “I didn’t have the brain to absorb a new song so I kind of left it there for a second,” she says. “Then I listened to it again a few weeks later and it was so catchy but simple. It’s not comparable to ‘The Middle’ at all. It sits in its own space.” Adds Zedd, “Compared to ‘The Middle,’ we didn’t have a gazillion types to nail the record. Maren was the only one who cut it.”

Still, some similarities between the song exist. The two reunited in the same Nashville studio, even using the same microphone that Morris employed for “The Middle”; like that song, “Make You Say” was wrapped up in a day. (Zedd thinks he was on the same flight there and back.) Wanting to be “extremely sensitive and respectful of something someone else had started,” Morris only tweaked a few words here and there to convey a woman’s point of view, but she largely adhered to Puth’s lyric. She and Zedd did revise the bridge and the outro, where her voice goes from whispery delivery to a leave-the-pain-behind roar.

For Morris, both “The Middle” and “Make You Say” made her realize just how many collaborators can be involved in making a few minutes of pop: The writers credited on “Make You Say” are Zedd, Morris, Puth, the Yang brothers, and Handling (whose songs have also been recorded by One Direction, Maroon 5, Jason Derulo, and Britney Spears). “It’s just wild how different pop music is from country [music], the way things are created,” she says, still looking wide-eyed as she describes it. “The Nashville way of writing is you and one or two other writers are in a room writing for four to six hours a day. You don’t get to go back and rewrite it and bring in other people. That’s more of a pop world thing.”

As far as any comparisons between “Make You Say” and “The Middle,” Zedd, at least, is trying not to think about it. “It’s so hard to follow up ‘The Middle,’” he says, adding that the song marks the first time he’s released two singles in a row with the same featured singer. “It will live in its own universe and do what it will do, and that’s all that matters to me. We did the best we could. And if people like it, that’s an added bonus.”

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