There’s no denying that life for PJ Morton – the New Orleans based singer/songwriter, performer, producer and long-term member of American pop/rock band Maroon 5 – has been pretty good lately.
Having already completed a momentous run of sold out live shows across the states, and delighted fans with the surprise release of a string of critically acclaimed singles, the multi-talented star also earned a GRAMMY Award for Album Of The Year, honouring his contributions to Jon Batiste’s ‘We Are’. The accomplishment marks his fourth consecutive year of GRAMMY wins, adding to trophies for Best Gospel Album in 2021, Best R&B Song in 2020, and Best Traditional R&B Performance in 2019.
Fresh from his big win at The GRAMMY’s, Morton continues his roll out of new music with the unveiling of his eighth studio album ‘Watch The Sun’ via his own label Morton Records, alongside the LP’s latest single ‘Be Like Water’ featuring American rapper Nas and legendary recording artist Stevie Wonder.
“On a personal level this record feels to be something of a bookend.” PJ tells us on a Zoom call from his home in the US as we commemorate ‘Watch The Sun’s’ release. “On my album ‘Gumbo’ I felt like I had re-discovered who I was, and in many ways this new music serves as a continuation of that, only now it’s coming from a much more self-assured place.” Quick to check himself, the ‘Claustrophobic’ singer adds with a wry smile “Now that’s not me saying I suddenly have all of the answers, or that I have my entire life figure out, because believe me, I don’t (laughs).”
Keen to explain the profound meaning behind his new material further, Morton adds: “But to be serious for a second, and totally taking my personal connection to these songs out of the equation, I felt this strong urge in the early stages of creation, to make music that would resonate with people on a deeper level, and provide them with some sort of healing because let’s face it, after the two years we’ve had, we’ve all got some healing to do haven’t we?”
“I know it’s been so dark for you, but just wait ’til the morning & watch the sun come shining through…”
As the world celebrated the dawn of a new decade in a blaze of fireworks and revelry on January 1st, few could have predicted what 2020 had in store for the entire world.
Aside from crippling political duress, continued uncertainty over Brexit and the fallout from ‘Megxit’ plaguing parts of the U.K., raging bushfires caused catastrophic damage to both civilians and wildlife in Australia, whilst over in America citizens of all races rallied together to call for social and racial justice after the killing of George Floyd brought renewed attention to the ongoing issue of racism and police brutality. Perhaps the most shocking moment of the year arrived in the form of a global pandemic, which paralysed economies, devastated communities and confined millions of people to their homes.
Bunkering down in New Orleans with family, PJ’s existence as a booked and busy recording artist was placed on an indefinite pause. A period of adjustment was to be expected for the singer, as he settled into his ‘new normal’ – spending quality time with loved ones, and learning to lean in to moments of stillness without experiencing pangs of guilt, for fear of not utilising every hour of the day productively… a stark contrast to the relentless, fast paced life he’d lived previously, pre the pandemic.
“I’m hyper aware that everybody’s situation is different – regardless of there being a pandemic or not – that’s just fact; we all face challenges and struggles, and no amount of ‘success’ or money in the bank will change that.” PJ says as he begins to try to unpack how the last two years affected him personally. “And so to that point, there can be no getting away from the reality that life during the lockdowns was tough for the majority of people… but there’s levels to that toughness if you see what I’m saying? I mean nobody can deny that it’s been easier for some, and much harder for others… but, you know to kind of explore that thought a little further, I believe you can have a great life and still have found the lockdown hard right?”
“For me, even though I know that I was incredibly fortunate to have not struggled in the same way that I know a lot of people did, I’ll admit, I found that period to be quite a challenge. It was a shock to my system to all of sudden be based in one place for such a prolonged period of time, and to not be constantly on the go felt really unsettling to me at first, because going, and going and going was all I’d known for so many years. But, as time went by I think I learnt to enjoy living a quieter life, and I feel grateful to have had that extra time with my family – not everybody was so lucky.”
I felt this strong urge in the early stages of creation, to make music that would provide people with a sense of healing.PJ on his desires to create a body of work that would serve as a spiritual tonic for those who have suffered greatly over the course of the last two years.
As he heads back out into the industry, we wonder how it feels to suddenly go back being on a schedule and having every moment, of every day meticulosity planned to the nth degree by managers, assistants and advisors. Pausing for a moment to chose his words carefully, Morton says: “Well as I’m an independent artist, I have total overall control of what I do but… I can’t lie, it’s been kind of jarring jumping right back into this world again (laughs). But like everybody, I’ve done a lot of thinking and reflecting throughout the last two years, and I’ve put some serious thought into how I want my work life to be moving forward. I’m happy to say, there are things in place now to ensure that I never go back to that non-stop way of working without taking a break.”
“Again, I feel I need to say, I know how lucky and fortunate I am to be able to do what I love everyday and call it ‘work’, but I’m still a human being, and there needs to be some boundaries and book ends in place so that I don’t burn out, and therefore as a result miss out, on what’s really important.”
In a bid to help lighten the mood, PJ adds with a smile: “I know I have a new appreciation for what I do now that’s for sure! Being back on stage and performing to people again has been incredible – there’s nothing that can replace that feeling you get from playing your music live in front of a crowd. We tried to do the whole virtual performance thing, but it didn’t really do it for me, and I didn’t get the same buzz, because as a performer I thrive off that connection and face-to-face contact with people… I’ve actually really missed that. So I’m super happy to be back, and so excited to share my new album ‘Watch The Sun’ with the people.”
“Where Am I Going?..”
Made up of 11 original songs, each written and produced with the purpose to explore the different complexities people of all ages face in the often chaotic, yet extraordinary modern world, PJ eloquently describes the album as an “unapologetically soulful painting about the true challenges in life and love.”
Featuring the singles ‘My Peace’, ‘Please Don’t Walk Away’ and ‘Be Like Water’ as well as collaborations with artists including Stevie Wonder, Nas, Jill Scott, JoJo, El DeBarge, Chronixx and Wale, the overall nature of the record finds Morton in a place of personal contemplation, as he ponders and delves further inward, both musically and spiritually, like never before.
“This record, and these songs very much tell my story.” PJ says of ‘Watch The Sun’. “They reflect who I’ve been, who I am and who I hope to be, but also who I think we all are at this point in our existence as a human race.”
Explaining his thought process further, Morton adds: “For the first time in my lifetime, it feels like the whole world went through exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time – we suffered loss, we endured heartbreak, we felt isolated, we grew, we evolved; we questioned ourselves and we questioned each other. I believe those shared experiences, during that period of darkness, connected us as people and as a planet, because we went through them together. So again, as much as these songs tell my story, because of what we’ve all been through, they also tell our collective stories too.”
As for the albums title, the ‘Don’t Let Go’ singer says: “‘Watch The Sun’ is as a sort of metaphor, that hopefully reflects and speaks to the place where we all are now, or where we hope to be in the future. It’s about each of us allowing ourselves the grace to take a moment each day to look up at the sun, and remember that it sets and rises everyday, just like I believe we as people can too.”
PJ Morton x Chronixx – Watch The Sun (Official Audio)
With every facet of each song serving as a direct reflection of PJ’s personality and soul, it’s clear ‘Watch The Sun’ is a body of work Louisiana native has waited his whole life to make.
“Somewhere along the way, I feel like I arrived at a place where I was able to just accept everything that has been, and look forward to everything that will be, in the the future.” Morton says of the personal growth he experienced throughout the course of creating what was to become his eighth studio album. “I felt compelled almost, to take the time to assemble all of the knowledge that I’ve gathered throughout the course of my journey through life so far, and turn it into song.”
Pausing for a moment to collect this thoughts, PJ continues: “Do you know what’s funny though? And this is kind of coming to me in the moment, so forgive me if I go off on a tangent here… (laughs). But as healing and as cathartic as this whole process has been (making the album) it’s not been without its challenges and its struggles, to the point where there were moments when I’d be thinking to myself, ‘what am I doing, and why am I doing this again?’“
“I’d kind of ignore those thoughts as best I could until one day, all of a sudden, out of the blue comes this thought in my head telling me that I just need to stop – put down the pen, leave the studio and take a break! I know that maybe sounds a little dramatic, but the truth is, at that point in time if you were to have taken me out of that world that I’d created around myself, I wouldn’t have had a clue who I was! And I say that because this need, and this desire within me to be, and become a musician, first transpired when I was 12-years-old, and I’m now 41… (laughs), so that’s a huge chunk of my life dedicated to solely one thing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I had to figure out who I was as a person, away from and without making music.”
I believe those shared experiences, during that period of darkness, connected us as people and as a planet, because we went through them together.PJ on how he believes the events of the last 2 years have helped unite us as a race.
In the midst of all that soul searching, and tying to find a balance between both personal and professional growth, the laptop PJ had been working on mysteriously crashed, and as a result erased all of the material he’d been working on throughout the course of the first lockdown back in the spring of 2020.
“I honestly took that incident as a sign to stop!” Morton says of the doomed computer. “It felt like someone, or something, was telling me that I needed to be more present and enjoy this beautiful life that I’ve been given. We’re all guilty of getting caught up in the everyday hustle of trying to make a success of ourselves aren’t we? And in my case, I think work was maybe starting to consume me a little more than it should have done, so it felt like it was the right time to figure out what was important to me outside of my career.”
In the year that followed, putting pen to paper to make sense of his feelings, without the pressure of a looming deadline to write, record and produce an album became somewhat of a lifeline for Morton, who says the process of adult journaling and writing for the love of writing, played a vital part in him being able to make sense of his life to this point.
“I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth this past year.” PJ reflects. “It’s felt to have been both a transitional, and transformative time in my life and my outlook has changed me in a lot of ways, not just from a personal point of view, but from an artistic one too! In fact when the time came to go back to work properly, I was surprised at how much my creative process and approach to making music had changed.”
“Before I would go into the studio, sit down at the piano and jam it out until I had a concept or a melody for a song.” Morton says of the way he’d previously worked. “But this time around, I ended up building the majority of these songs around different drum patterns and rhythm sequences – which probably doesn’t sound like much of a change to some people, but for me it was kind of a new, revolutionary way of doing things, and I loved it.”
In a somewhat unforgiving industry, where you’re only ever perceived to be as good as your last album, and encouraged to always keep a media presence for fear that a younger artist may swoop in and steal your spot should you ever dare falter or fail, it takes real courage for any musician to take the time out to try new things – something of which PJ acknowledges maybe true, but equally doesn’t pay much attention too.
“You can’t keep going all of the time!” Morton concedes. “You can try I guess, but it’s more than likely you’ll crash and burn if you do. On reflection, that period of purposefully not making music was the best thing I could have ever done, because it allowed me to hit my reset button, and as a result I’m looking at things through fresh eyes. But I think what’s been most exciting of all, is the freedom I’ve felt to do whatever I want musically.”
“One of my hobbies during lockdown became experimenting with different sounds and synths.” a smiling Morton says, his voice sounding animated and excited as he relives the memory in his mind. “In fact I remember buying a bunch of them (synths) in those first few weeks of being back at home in 2020, and immediately falling in love with how liberating they sounded. Overtime I began to hear these epic string arrangements in my head, that I then became obsessed with trying to recreate as a symphony of synths… which I don’t mind admitting is a hard thing to do (laughs). And I say that because it’s one thing to hear something in your mind, and a whole other thing to try to then bring that idea and sound to life! But I gave it my best shot, and I’m so happy with what I’ve come up with and the music I’ve made.”
Barely pausing for breath, PJ continues: “Hip-Hop as a musical genre has also played a huge part in influencing the overall style and sound of this album, and I think that’s because of the way those types of songs make me feel, and how they resonate with my soul… that being said, I was super aware that I couldn’t just hit everyone with a Rap album out of left field and expect them to accept such a radical change (laughs). So as a way to try and incorporate elements of those types of songs into my work, I’d find myself taking classic Hip-Hop tracks that I loved, and almost reconstructing them and imagining what they would sound like if I were to remake them in my own style.”
As much as I’ve always wanted to be successful, I’ve never felt the need to chase success.PJ on his relationship with the concept of ‘success’.
Did he ever question any of these changes, or feel like this new way of working might throw up a bunch of problems somewhere down the line?
“No I really didn’t.” the singer says matter of factly. “Because before I even knew what I wanted to say on this album, I knew how I wanted it to sound! There was a type of mood and vibe that I wanted to create right out of the gate, and that was one of freedom and liberation to reflect how we’ve all been feeling these past two years. So going into the studio and laying down the musical foundations for these tracks first, really helped to inspire the lyrics. Don’t get me wrong, at heart I’m a soul artist – and I know that! Soul music will always be at the core of everything I do, and I believe its influence can be heard throughout the record; you might just need to pause for a minute longer to really hear it.”
As well as being proud of his soul roots, Morton also takes great pride in being a fully independent artist – working and operating solely on his own terms, and towards his own goals. Whilst adopting this approach gives a person total creative freedom, it can also present a number of challenges that artists signed to a major label might not have to deal with. Making such sacrifices, however big or small, are well worth it in the pay-off according to PJ.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time where my choice to be an independent creative entity has caused me such stress that I’ve felt the need to rethink things. And I think that’s because as much as I’ve always wanted to be successful, I’ve never felt the need to chase success.” PJ says confidently. “My driving force has always been to make music that feels authentic – that’s it! It’s not about following a trend, it’s not about trying to get played on the radio, it’s not striving to achieve major chart success… although that would be nice (laughs) it’s about doing what I love, and always remembering the reasons why I wanted to do all of this in the first place. And in my opinion, when you have a lot of outside influences coming in and telling you who to be, and trying to manage every aspect of your career, that’s when things can start to go wrong.”
“People talk to me a lot, and seem super interested to know what it’s really like to be an independent recording artist, and I tell them all the same thing – I believe it to be the best way to go about making your dreams become a reality, especially in todays world, where we seemingly have more and more virtual access to people that we’ve ever had before. In years gone by you’d need to have sufficient finances to book studio time, you’d had to have management to arrange your gigs, and to achieve any kind of real, tangible success you you’d need to have the backing of a record company! Now, you can make beats in your bedroom, you can use social media to connect with your audience and grow your following, and then you have all of the various platforms on the internet to share your music as and when you want – I think it’s brilliant!.. it’s not always easy, but nothing worth having is!”
“The better benediction…”
As an inspired artistic soul, who thrives in the freedom of creativity, PJ Morton is a man on a mission to make the world a better place.
“Sometimes it feels music is the only thing that is able to truly unite us…” PJ says thoughtfully as we begin to wrap up our interview. “I know I said it at the beginning of this conversation, so please forgive me for repeating myself, but I strongly believed and will forever to continue to believe, that music has the power to heal us, and that belief I have in that ideal, is what continues to drive me to do what I do.”
“I want people to feel the authenticity, that I believe radiates from the music I make, so that in turn they feel inspired, and confident enough to be unapologetically authentic in their own lives. We all have that power within us, it’s just that sometimes we need to be reminded of how special we are, and if I can the person to remind somebody of the light they possess inside of them, then my work is done.”