EMI Nashville artist Kylie Morgan’s musical and commercial ascent has the Oklahoma native on the move. After celebrating her first nomination (for breakthrough female video of the year, for “If He Wanted to He Would”) at the CMT Music Awards show in Austin, Texas on Sunday (April 2), she heads to San Diego to kick off her first headlining tour on April 6.
The outing, in support of her debut radio single, “If He Wanted to He Would,” which stands at No. 43 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, wraps April 29 in Kansas City, Mo.
“I’m excited and it’s going to be a crazy time,” Morgan tells Billboard during a recent visit at the UMG Nashville offices. “With my show, I want to create a little mini-movie I can take people through; I want them to laugh, cry, dance. I want people to feel all of the emotions and to be able to check out for 75 minutes when they step into the venue and just focus on being there.”
Morgan is one of a deep slate of female country artists spearheading their own headlining tours over the past year, from newcomers to legends, including Kelsea Ballerini, Priscilla Block, Danielle Bradbery, Wynonna Judd, Jo Dee Messina, Reba McEntire, Lily Rose, Caitlyn Smith, Alana Springsteen, Tigirlily Gold, and Carrie Underwood.
“It’s exciting,” Morgan says. “I feel like there is a shift happening. I’m like, ‘OK! I see all you amazing women. Let’s go!’ For me, it was important to be able to keep up with the boys when it comes to the live set. I have a song called ‘I Only Date Cowboys’ that I wrote specifically for my live set, because I want those up-tempo points in a show.”
Billboard caught up with Morgan to discuss her path from gymnast to charting singer-songwriter, and her surge from opening act to headliner.
You have previously opened shows for Little Big Town, Maren Morris, Kip Moore and others. What is something specific that you have learned from opening for other artists?
I’m a sponge. Every night, I watch and figure out the things I love and don’t love, what works and what doesn’t work. We have a little section in our show that we’ve always done, and I learned it from Kip Moore: He has his full band part of the show and then does an acoustic part of the show that feels so one-on-one with him. That’s one of my favorite things that I’ve learned over the years, is just to find those moments to be one with the audience.
There’s an extra level of vulnerability there.
There’s no hiding it, right? No special effects, no Auto-Tune or background vocals, all this stuff. And truth be told, that’s my favorite part. I fell in love with country music being the voice, guitar and lyrics. And for me, especially writing my own songs … talk about being vulnerable. I’m literally there, like, reading my diary to a bunch of strangers and not hiding behind anything and that can get very emotional, in a beautiful way.
“If He Wanted to He Would,” which you wrote with Ben Johnson and Zandi Holup, is such a big sisterly, advice-giving song.
We looked up the title quite a few times, because we were like, ‘Really? No one has written this?’ We were shocked, because you hear that phrase all the time. I say in the song what I would say to my little sister — and what I needed to hear, looking back, when I was in a toxic relationship around age 16. I wanted to be raw, honest and give tough love. The amount of messages I’ve received that say I’ve helped them brings me so much joy.
You grew up in Oklahoma and were involved in gymnastics early on.
My poor parents. I’ve always been nothing to 90. I was a gymnast for 10 years and did dance and softball. Finally, my parents said I needed to pick one. Of course, when you’re a gymnast, you think you’re going to the Olympics. Around 12 or 13, I realized I was not good enough to go to the Olympics — and then after a few sports injuries, I realized it just wasn’t sustainable.
How did you go from gymnastics to music?
I always loved writing and performing, but didn’t put it together because I didn’t play an instrument at the time. I got my first little pink guitar for Christmas when I was 12. I learned my first three chords, and that’s when it clicked. I wrote my first song on guitar and then walked into my living room and told my mom, “I’m gonna skip college, move to Nashville and be a country artist.” Coming out of gymnastics, she knew the commitment ability was there; I wasn’t a half-asser. So when I started this dream, it was even more of a commitment. And it turns out more people go to the Olympics than succeed as a female in country music. [Laughs.] I was like, “Gold medal? CMA Award? I’m just going to try for both.”
You were still a teenager. What was your game plan for touring and performing?
I realized I didn’t want to play bars; that wasn’t my crowd. I couldn’t even get into a bar. I first came to Nashville at 15 and set up co-writing sessions; one of those was with Liz Hengber [known for several Reba McEntire hits including “For My Broken Heart”] and Rob Crosby [Martina McBride’s “Concrete Angel”]. We wrote a song called “Phoebe,” about bullying. I had dealt with that. As a teenager doing music and touring, people in my hometown didn’t understand it — it was a “You think you’re too good for us” kind of thing. High school was awful for me, so I ended up doing school online, so I could travel and tour. When we wrote “Phoebe,” I put it on YouTube — and in three days, it got like 70,000 views, and that was before going viral was really a thing.
I was able to start building a fanbase through touring schools and colleges, from 15 to 19, and to help make a difference in these kids’ lives.
You moved to Nashville at 19. How did your music publishing deal with SMACKSongs come about?
It was such an answered prayer. I knew Russ Zavitson [of Zavitson Music Group] before I moved here and stayed with his family for a while. He was like my Nashville dad. They helped me set up a co-write with Walker Hayes and one with Brandy Clark. Later, I had just met my now-husband [musician Jay Allen], and one of the moments [where] I knew we would be together is when he sat at the kitchen table with me for hours and literally just guessed every publisher’s email address, and we sent out my SoundCloud link to everyone.
I did meetings, got passed on, and then [SMACKSongs’] Robin Palmer called. Walker had signed with SMACK and they found my music through his catalog. SMACKSongs’ Shane [McAnally] came to my show at the Bluebird Café and then said he wanted to sign me.
What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned from working with SMACKSongs’ team, including Shane, Robin and Josh [Osborne]?
The last person standing wins. Get into as many writing rooms as you can and cancel the least amount of times as you can. But also — to be open to growing and be humble, because you’re [only] as good as your last hit. I know songwriters who have had so many hits, but they are from 10 years ago and they can’t get a publishing deal now. So, the biggest thing I’ve learned is to not have an ego, learn from others and work your a– off.
What are the essentials on your tour rider?
We have red wine, almond milk for coffee, Throat Coat tea, a veggie tray… and I have to have beef jerky.
You also have a yoga certification. How does yoga impact how you approach your live shows?
There’s a body awareness and it helps me realize what part of the song I can accentuate with body movement and how to naturally move, rather than just [to] choreograph everything. That’s what’s exciting to me, when a show is never exactly the same — when you have fans that follow you to different shows, you don’t want them to see the same thing. I love how yoga has integrated itself into my onstage movements; I’m able to try new things and still feel confident.