Photo: Patrick Melon
PJ Morton Loves 'Gumbo,' Maroon 5, SZA & New Orleans
PJ Morton has quite the impressive résumé. R&B singer/songwriter/producer. Keyboardist with Maroon 5. Collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Lil Wayne, BJ The Chicago Kid, India.Arie, Erykah Badu. There isn't much the New Orleans native hasn't done.
He broke through in 2002 as a contributing songwriter on India.Arie's Best R&B Album GRAMMY winner Voyage To India. By 2005 he released his debut album, Emotions, followed by 2007's Perfect Song with the PJ Morton Band and 2010's Walk Alone. The same year, Morton began filling in as keyboardist with Maroon 5. He became a permanent member in 2012, contributing to the band's 2012 album, Overexposed, and 2014's V, which earned him three GRAMMY nominations.
In 2013 Morton released New Orleans, a solo project including the Best R&B Song-nominated track "Only One," a duet Morton performed with Wonder. His latest album, Gumbo, sees the GRAMMY nominee self-releasing an R&B masterpiece that covers topics such as racial identity, religion, romance, and even the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love."
In this exclusive Recording Academy interview, Morton opens up about Gumbo, Maroon 5 and collaborating with SZA, and why he's glad to be back in his hometown of New Orleans, among other topics.
You self-released your latest album Gumbo. What prompted that decision and what that process was like?
I knew that I really didn't want any outside forces coming in when I wanted to do this record. I wanted to say what I wanted to say and I thought that I didn't really want to have a corporation behind it this time. I've done that before, my previous solo record, and I just felt like I was clear on the vision on what I wanted this to be and felt like I could do it.
You've named the album Gumbo because it's a mix of different themes, including racial tension and religion. Why was it important for you to talk about these topics, especially now?
I think it's the climate of where we are in America and in the world, in general. I feel like there's a line between being an artist and being an entertainer, and sometimes being an artist you have to speak on some things that make people reflect on where we are and reflect on the times. And so for me, I really wanted to speak to those issues and give voice to them really. A lot of times when you're just entertaining you're trying to make people forget what's going on in the world and forget their problems. But I wanted to give a voice to them and let everybody know we're all going through this together, so I wanted to deal with all those different types of issues.
Gumbo features a cover of "How Deep Is Your Love" by the Bee Gees. Why did you pick that cover?
That was fun for me. I have so many songs that I love and my heroes, like Stevie [Wonder] doing "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" or D'Angelo doing "Feels Like Making Love." I always wanted to do a cover on my record and I always loved "How Deep Is Your Love." It's one of my favorites and I think with a lot of Bee Gees songs I always felt the soul in there but I just felt like I could take it a notch up. I wanted to put my soulful touch on a song that I think is one of the best songs ever to be written, to be honest.
Maroon 5 recently dropped the track "What Lovers Do" featuring SZA. How did that collab come about?
We had two people we were thinking that could fit on the song. We knew it had a cool vibe and wanted to put a dope female artist on it. SZA is one of our favorites right now. We're loving her music. I've always been a fan of her. I think it was just the right time. A lot of this is just timing and fitting the vibe right, and when she did it we knew it was a perfect fit.
You've worked with a lot of different artists. Do you have a favorite collaborative moment?
Erykah Badu was my very first tour ever, first time on a tour bus, first time learning all the rules to tour and she was just an amazing first. She was an amazing boss. I've heard horror stories of people on tour and she was just an amazing spirit — still is, still very supportive, [and] was very supportive then. So that definitely was a favorite collaboration for me. But India.Arie is my first mainstream placement on a record. I was in school at the time at Morehouse [College] in Atlanta and we met up. She usually writes most of her songs so this was rare for me to even get a song to her and that one song kind of changed my life. [She] won a GRAMMY for that. That was my junior year, [and it] won Best R&B Album. It kind of switched everything for me in my life, so that's definitely up there on my list. Me and India are still great friends and she gave me my start.
#TBT to my VERY FIRST tour! @erykahbadu was the best boss .. don't know why @keyonharrold's name is Keyon Clark.. had to be like 2003 Repost from @lockjohnson #tbt Recognize any names in that there tour book? A lot of great relationships were forged on and off the stage...True family bonds. @erykahbadu gave us some sweet platforms...Thanks #NedaStella #MD #WorldWideUnderground #WeShookUpTheWorld @chinahblac @keishajackson @keyonharrold @pjmorton @rceeezy @bruthab76 @djbeverlybond
You recently moved back to New Orleans. What is your favorite part about being back in your hometown?
The food! Yeah, I love the food. I love being back. I think it's the people that I love the most [about] New Orleans, aside from being closer to my family. There's a vibe of love in the city of New Orleans. And also as a musician, there's a sense of freedom when creating. The reason I was really able to lock down and block out all the noise was because New Orleans just wants you to make something special. They don't care how you do it, they don't care how many records you sell, they don't care if it's on the radio. They just wanna see the value in what you do and there's a lot of integrity in music because it's our culture there, so I just love being a musician. I wear it as a badge of honor in that city. And the people just support that in a major way.
You've been on tour for Gumbo for a while and recently wrapped some shows with Maroon 5. How do you stay grounded when you're on tour?
Communicating with my family. I always tell people I don't know how people did it before FaceTime. My father was very busy and I guess it was payphones back then, but being able to FaceTime with my family and communicate with my family keeps me grounded. That's my base. That's the reason why I do this. That's the reason why I'm running all across the world doing music. But knowing that my family is there and rooting for me and there for me to support, keeps me grounded. Keeps me from going crazy out there.
Songwriting, producing, touring, label proprietor. You've done a little bit of everything. What is your favorite role to play and why, and is there something else you want to do in the music business that you haven't done yet?
That's always a tough question. I think producing and performing alike. Producing because you get to use the studio as your instrument and bring all of these different things together to make this one beautiful thing. And that's just fun to do as a musician, as a producer, to be able to bring that string orchestra, bring horns in, and say I want you to play that beat or use this sound. It's always just fun. You get to be a mad scientist. But performing is also my favorite because it takes you awhile to create those things then put them out to see how people feel about it. When you perform you know whether people like a song right then, and when they do it's probably the best high that you could ever feel, being on stage, and having people sing your song word for word, something that you worked on, put your blood, sweat and tears in. So performing is up there for me too because it's just so instant, amazing.