“It’s All Love”
The most heavily traveled road in American music begins in black church congregations (Baptist, AME and Pentecostal, among others), and leads to any and all forms of secular music. That’s the road PJ Morton took, and it has led him on a remarkable professional journey. Morton’s skill set is rooted in gospel music — he grew up the son of two preachers. But as an award-winning songwriter, singer, and producer, as well as the keyboardist in the platinum-selling group Maroon 5, and head of the New Orleans-based Morton Records, he seems especially charmed.
But Morton says his embrace of secular music was not always popular with gospel fans, who made clear that they wanted him back to help “fight the devil.”
“I’ve been free from that, years ago,” he tells Gwen.
And yet, with rare exception, his secular music embraces wholesome themes of romance and social reconciliation, suggesting the kind of family entertainment that welcomes gospel music lovers into his tent.
Morton counts Stevie Wonder, Brandy, the Beatles and James Taylor among his musical influences. But he’s also a fan of Prince, D’Angelo and rapper L’il Wayne. He says great songs aren’t defined by genre — “It’s all soul music at the end of the day.”
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Sometimes Love Isn’t All You Need
In April, 2017, PJ Morton released Gumbo on his fledgling independent label, Morton Records to relatively little fanfare. Since it was first released, Morton’s refreshing songwriting and inspired performance on Gumbo has won over fans and critics alike, and the album was nominated for two Grammy Awards.
Morton said that previously he’d mostly written love songs. But on Gumbo, he explored a broader range of subjects — one inspired by the work of Marvin Gaye. Here, he tells Gwen about the power of Gaye’s 1971 hit record, What’s Going On.
I listened to it a lot and watched interviews with him and I think in that way it was a pivotal record for him, in the sense … me, I always talked about love and relationships only. Or not only, but mainly. Love and relationships. And I said, “Man, I can’t.” It was just too heavy at the time to just talk about love. I’m like, I got to talk about other things. That is where the name Gumbo came from. I wanted it to be a bunch of different subject maters all in this one pot. But the Marvin Gaye movement and him doing “What’s Going On,” was a big influence on me making Gumbo.
Big Ideas in Tight Spaces
The song “Claustrophobic” was one of the earliest singles from the album. It explores the challenges Morton faced trying to avoid the undue interference of record executives in his artistic process. Here, he tells Gwen about the incident that inspired the song.
That was literally in a meeting that this song was birthed. I was saying what my vision was and I was getting some crazy opinions wanting to make me mainstream or do what they thought I should do that would make me mainstream and recommending producers who were hot on the radio at the time… I went to the studio after this meeting and wrote this song and got my thoughts out.
But a lot of times these companies, to their detriment, sign these artists and see the artist as the beginning. Not developing in a way. They see, “Oh, I can do this to them and we can add this piece and I’ll add this producer and I’ll make them what I want them to be,” not considering, “Why don’t I sign people that I actually believe in? That have what it takes to create who they are and what they are going to be.”
I think now in the streaming age, where a lot of it is direct artist to fan, it is getting back to people being originals and being themselves … Now I think that is starting to hurt labels where they were trying to create a cookie-cutter type of thing. People don’t want that. They want something real that connects.
Check out the music video for “Claustrophobic” here:
PJ Morton is no stranger to the awards handed out each year by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Morton has an impressive 14 Grammy nominations and two wins as of this writing (December, 2020). The awards come from his work as an independent artist as well as his membership in Maroon 5.
In 2018 Morton was nominated for a personal best four Grammy awards. Three of these nods came from his solo work — including a Best R&B Album nomination for Gumbo Unplugged (Live). He won his first Grammy for his performance of “How Deep Is Your Love.”
The next year saw three nominations and one more win — Best R&B Song, for “Say So.” In 2020, Morton’s gospel background led him to another Grammy nomination for the album, The Gospel According To PJ.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Though Morton primarily plays his own songs, he also performs music from the Flamingoes, the Bee Gees, and the Chi-Lites among others. But one particularly surprising choice has since become the closing number to almost all of Morton’s live performances:
Morton’s Musical Doppelgangers
Among PJ Morton’s many original songs, a few share names with other soul, gospel and R&B classics. Morton says it’s not intentional, or at least subconscious. But just in case, we’ve compiled a playlist of Morton’s songs alongside their doppelgangers.