By Bree Davies
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This time last month, Matt Morris was on stage with Justin Timberlake, performing in front of millions on the Hope for Haiti Telethon. And that was on the heels of appearing on Letterman — a thrilling gig for any artist, much less an unknown one. But right now, the thirty-year-old singer-songwriter, whose vocal range is every bit as impressive as Timberlake's and perhaps even more expressive, sounds just as excited about the fact that his first headlining gig at the Bluebird this weekend is nearly sold out.
"Isn't that awesome?" Morris exclaims, his voice crackling with unmistakable glee. "I'm so excited!
"What I'm experiencing right now," he continues, "comes from the decision to enjoy these moments. Because, despite what it may look like from the outside, we still have no idea what's going to happen — like, we have no idea where this is going to go. And some people would say, 'Oh, I know where it's going to go.' It's like, 'Well, you have some secret. I don't know how you know, because I don't. You know?'"
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The vulnerability underlying Morris's statements is endearing. Maybe it's because he's at the front end of his career and hasn't really had a chance to become jaded and cynical and self-absorbed like so many other artists, but there's just something refreshingly sincere about the guy. He's gracious, polite, and operates without a sense of entitlement — which he'd certainly be justified in having, considering his pedigree and powerful affiliations.
Morris's father, Gary, was a country-music star in the '80s, and Morris himself is a protegé of Timberlake's, who signed him to his label, Tennman Records — something every bit of press he's garnered thus far has mentioned. The obvious implication, of course, is that because of Morris's association with Timberlake — whose name has the clout to open doors that most artists spend a lifetime knocking on — fame and fortune will be handed to him.
Granted, Morris has been given an undeniable leg up compared to other emerging artists — one that's allowed him to skip a few steps — but ultimately, he recognizes that he's going to have to work hard and not squander this opportunity to make a name for himself. Timberlake's certainly not cutting him any slack.
When the two were in the studio recording Morris's debut, the presciently titled When Everything Breaks Open, which Timberlake co-produced with Charlie Sexton, Timberlake pushed him to deliver the best vocal performance possible. "I didn't feel that good about it in the moment," Morris recalls. "It was late and I was tired; I'd been recording for days. But he said, 'I really think you have a better one in you,' and so I had to say, 'All right, fine, let's try it again.' And it turned out to be a great vocal. And we were able to get there because we hold each other to a really high standard."
The friendship between Timberlake and Morris dates back to when they were both castmates on The New Mickey Mouse Club. At the time, they were on equal footing — and despite Timberlake's current stature, they've maintained a similar relationship today. The friends have a profound appreciation for each other's art, which is why the former 'N Sync heartthrob has chosen to champion Morris through his new label. "Justin respects me," Morris affirms. "He respects my need to make decisions as is best for me. He's someone who really knows me well and believes that I do something that's worth hearing."
Before the Mouseketeers met in South Florida, Morris was just a precocious kid with deep Denver roots. "My grandma jokes about it," he says with a laugh, "but between the Hernandezes and Vigils and the extended families on both sides, I'm related to a third of the city."
The Hernandez side comes from his mom, Teri, while the Morris name comes courtesy of his father, who moved to Denver from Texas in the early '70s, establishing his music career here long before his son was born in 1979. Gary and Teri split up when Matt was still an infant, and he stayed behind with his mother, living in the Barnum neighborhood until fourth grade, then moving to Bear Valley with his mom and stepdad, Ken. Matt was in sixth grade at Sabin Elementary when he joined the cast of the New Mickey Mouse Club, and spent the better part of the next five years in Orlando, living in the Mouse's shadow.
Morris was part of an outfit called MMC, which he describes as Disney's first attempt to manufacture a band. He went on a fourteen-city tour of Target stores across the country, but never felt much artistic ownership in the group, just sang backing vocals and occasionally took the lead. So when the show wrapped and MMC was given a chance to tour Europe, Morris turned it down. "It just didn't feel like the right thing to me," he explains. "The choreography and singing these songs that I didn't write and that I didn't even necessarily like that much — at the end of the day, I was listening to other kinds of music. I was playing Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes 24/7; I was in my basement lighting candles and listening to the Feels' first record. To me, I was going into more introspective music and paying more attention to it, and I didn't want to bop around on stage. And so what to some people seemed like a really bad decision, passing up on an opportunity to explode in Europe and after that become a superstar — it just didn't make sense to me."