PJ Morton spoke with Okayplayer about representing New Orleans music, his new album Watch the Sun, collaborating with Nas and Stevie Wonder, and more.
PJ Morton wanted to record in seclusion. So he went to Bogalusa, Louisiana and settled into the mythical Studio in the Country, where legends like Stevie Wonder, Allen Toussiant, Betty Davis and Frankie Beverly recorded. With this history — and the lush, forested environment surrounding the area — Studio in the Country magnified the sound of what would become PJ Morton’s new album, Watch the Sun, which is out today.
Morton held residency at the studio grounds with his band and had round-the-clock recording access and limitless inspiration, leading to collaborations with Nas, Jill Scott, Wale, and Stevie himself. Watch the Sun is also his latest effort on his independent label Morton Records, which also boasts Morton’s protégé Jojo Martin and Memphis sister group Jcksn Ave.
Prior to Watch the Sun, Morton was in a state of reflection. At the start of the pandemic, the New Orleans musician took a pause after losing material when his laptop crashed. Where some artists would have become discouraged, giving up on their creative streak, Morton regrouped back home, giving himself a moment of stillness before diving back into his gospel origins with his Grammy-winning album Gospel According to PJ: From the Songbook of PJ Morton.
With collaborations from Smokie Norful, Yolanda Adams and his father, Bishop Paul S. Morton, Gospel According to PJ was celebrated for Morton encapsulating an anointed sound. The album was also his last release of 2020, dropping three back-to-back albums in total that year, including PAUL and The Piano Album.
As Morton’s first album in two years, Watch the Sun bridges multigenerational features with progressive soul, a testament to his authenticity in his musical career which nearly spans two decades. Ahead of the release of Watch the Sun, Morton spoke with Okayplayer about representing New Orleans music, Gumbo originally being planned as his final album and R&B being rooted in gospel.
Congratulations on Watch the Sun. I wasn’t expecting for the title track to be Caribbean-inspired.
PJ Morton: Well, it wasn’t the title track initially. It was just a song on the album, but the more I started thinking about what the album meant to me and what mindset I was in during this album, it just kind of brought me back to what I say in the intro. I felt like we were in our darkest time in the world while I was working on this record, but it sure as the sun sets and rises every day, so will we. It just gave me hope and inspiration, so I just felt like that should be the name of the album.
How long did it take to record this album?
I have voice notes as early as March 2020 – as soon as we got shut down I started with some of the ideas, and then my laptop crashed. I took note from that to just step back and stop for a second and be present. It was the best thing I could do. So two years, ultimately, because I worked on it little by little through that whole time. This is the first time I worked on an album where I worked on some music ideas and melody ideas and I wouldn’t write lyrics for six months, or a year, [for] some of them. I just really wanted to be super intentional and be able to have time to live with these things to know that they’re exactly what I want to say.
New Orleans had some very big wins during the Grammys. What do you want listeners to understand about New Orleans through contemporary music?
Well, I think it’s amazing that we’re still here – it goes in waves. I think it really speaks to how New Orleans marches to the beat of our own drum. New Orleans is responsible for the first and only original American art form of jazz music. That started right in New Orleans and it started because a horn player was like, ‘I know what y’all are playing with your horns, but I want to do it this way.’
That music became jazz and our jazz didn’t become contemporary jazz, our jazz became R&B with Fats Domino and those guys. Then, R&B turned into rock and roll – Elvis was chasing Fats Domino. So I think it’s just a modern version of that. When you listen to a Jon [Batiste] album, when you listen to a Lucky Daye album, whether you’re a fan or not, you can say that it is different from what is out there. I think we thrive on going against the grain of things and it just makes me very proud to be from New Orleans and still be marching to that beat.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of Gumbo, which was also your first self-released album [on Morton Records.] How have you evolved since then?
It was the first album that I made at home in New Orleans, which was very different for me. I think it was the start of me fully being comfortable in my own skin and really saying things exactly how I wanted to say them without without strategy, without overthinking – it was me really just locking in. Gumbo was supposed to be my last album. In my mind I was kind of over the industry and moved back home to New Orleans and I was going to start a sneaker store. I did a bounce mixtape [Bounce & Soul, Vol. 1] and it kind of made me fall in love with music again, without over-thinking. The comfort of it I think is what’s evolved more and more with this album. I feel like Gumbo is the start of something and Watch the Sun is maybe the end of that something, whatever this run was – the era of this feeling. It feels like a complete thing, I feel very proud.
But the evolution I think has been as a producer, as a label owner releasing my own stuff. People talk about the Grammys — that I just won my fourth Grammy — but I don’t think people really talk about the fact that I’ve been able to do that independently as Morton Records, because I don’t talk about it much. I just want to play the game, so I don’t care if somebody has a bigger team or has more budget. That is what I’m really proud of, that I’ve been able to show the city the possibilities, you know what I’m saying? You don’t necessarily have to be on a major label. You don’t have to have the craziest budgets, but you can just stay true to yourself musically and it can cut through.
I can definitely see that confidence, especially in 2020, because you released three albums that year.
[laughs] Yeah, I guess I did. I didn’t mean to but that’s what happened.
Do you feel like you feel like you were under pressure to do that? What was the musical headspace you were in?
It was no pressure, it was actually having fun. The Piano Album [released in] 2020 and that was songs I have previously done, but I wanted to do them in a different way just at the piano. When I do live albums, I don’t like to do brand new songs because my favorite part of all my all the live albums I’ve always loved is people being able to participate. When they’re learning new songs, they can’t participate. So, I was just having fun. The Piano Album probably took me two hours to record with my friends in a room, so there was no pressure. I think that’s why this music has been able to flow sort of organically and really connect because there isn’t pressure.
There’s no label telling me I’ve got to put out new albums, it’s only what I want to do. The deluxe Christmas album, as well [Christmas with PJ Morton (Deluxe Edition)] right after PAUL. I didn’t realize how much fun I was having really until the pandemic just paused me – I didn’t realize how fast I was moving. But at that time, I was just kind of going with the flow and what my supporters were wanting from me, for sure.
So prior to recording Watch the Sun, as you said, you lost some of your material after your computer crashed. How did you regain the inspiration to create?
Much like the bounce mixtape that I did in New Orleans right before I did Gumbo, there was a gospel album [Gospel According to PJ] that I started on right before the shutdown. Once it shut down, I didn’t want to put it out because I had a whole vision of it being a documentary, and me going to all of these gospel greats and documenting that. Then I started to think of how people needed inspiration at that time. It became a really selfless thing where it’s like, “Yeah, I’m gonna finish because I feel like this needs to be out.” But much like that mixtape, the gospel album was songs I had written before. I didn’t have to go into my brain space and feel the pressure to write songs and create, I was just producing them.
When I just have fun like that, it kind of disarms me and allows me to just be open. Working on the gospel album right after the crash is what popped me back to like, “OK, you could be creative, you know how to be creative.” That is really what helped me, because I think the crash was welcomed for me because I was moving too much. We just had been shut down, and like I said, I got voicemails from March 2020. That’s when I just flew back from Argentina two days [before] – that’s where we were, I was with Maroon 5 when we got shut down.
I went home and I’m like, “Alright, I’m home. Boom. New songs.” And I felt like [lockdown] was God telling me like, “Just chill out. It’s OK, you can do nothing.” Somebody sent me a podcast on happiness and they were talking about Taoism and that’s where “Be Like Water” comes from. Being okay doing nothing to be more effective doing something. I was in that mode and I had to learn those lessons and I believe the crash happened for a reason, but it was the gospel album that kind of popped me back into being creative.
You had mentioned working on your gospel album. As someone who draws their musical identity from the church, how important is it for a Black artist to familiarize themselves with church music?
Well, I think it is the root of everything. I don’t know that I would say it’s absolutely necessary for somebody to familiarize themselves with it, because they get it one way or another. They may not know that they’re getting that and feeling that, but for people who want to know what the root of it is, I think it’s important to dig into that. I probably consider myself a soul music artist, and I do think where R&B and gospel kind of meet.
Gospel — in the feeling of it — and R&B, maybe in the lyrical content of it, but that is where we get Al Green. that is where we get Marvin [Gaye]. That is where we get Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway – it’s because they were at that intersection and I think it does answer a lot of questions on how we get to whatever music there is, it all is basically rooted in the church. When we think about our ’90S R&B producers – all the R&B that you love, they go back to being church musicians, almost all of them. It’s just so ingrained in our music.
I feel like we’ve kind of lost that essence of singers that are developed in church choirs.
Oh, yeah. No, that’s a real thing. I mean, for me I had to come back to that to be honest. Not until because when I was living in LA, I wasn’t going to church as much. I didn’t really have a home church in LA, especially in the beginning. It wasn’t until I moved back home and came back to my family’s church that I realized, “Oh my God, this is so much a part of why my music sounded like it did and why I feel like soul music is missing in a lot of areas.” Even if you’re talking about a woman, even if you’re begging, it’s still church there.
It made us feel a different way, and this is crazy because even if you’re not a believer anymore, like the community of what it was, the gathering of it. it was this feeling whether or not you believed it, you couldn’t stop the feeling. It’s like when I play in these clubs, and that feeling comes in the room. It’s like whether you believe it or not, you can’t deny that you feel this. That’s what motivates me to keep that alive because I see how hungry people are for it when I play.
Watch the Sun has an all-star cast with features from Nas to Jill Scott. Was there a specific collaboration on the album that you wanted for a while?
With Stevie [Wonder] we had collaborated before, but only him playing harmonica [“Only One”] and it was my ultimate dream to have him singing on a record, like a proper duet with him. So [“Be Like Water”] was a big one for me. The DeBarges are a group that I grew up on. When you talk about going from church to straight singing, they were church kids who took over the industry. To have El Debarge on the album is really a dream come true, as well.
I never dreamed that Nas would be on an album of mine. I just looked at Nas in this certain place. But when I finished “Be Like Water,” I could only hear his voice on it, it was haunting me. I just reached out and thankfully that came together, but the ones that were that I always wanted and kind of happened on this album would definitely be Stevie as a duet and El Debarge.
What is your favorite Nas album?
I guess It Was Written really spoke to me. I’m more a Nas song person than an album person, because as a preacher’s kid, I wasn’t able to listen to stuff until later on in life. I wasn’t experiencing it real time. So I had to go back and catch up. So I know the big songs with Lauryn [Hill], “If I Ruled the World,” but I had to go back as an older teenager and get back to Nas. But Illmatic is a classic, I just love how complete and compact it is. I would say Illmatic is probably my favorite Nas album, until some of these new ones.
I’m really loving where he is right now, which is why I was thinking of him, he was front of mind. A lot of these new records are some of his best, as well. I don’t know if it’s blasphemy to say that, but as a later Nas fan, I just love where he is now. I relate to it and just seeing grown-ups rap and it [doesn’t] feel corny to me is a feat – it’s like watching something that’s never really been done outside of him and JAY-Z, and they’re showing a whole new generation how to be older rock stars.
Studio in the Country has delivered some of the best albums in history. Were there any albums from the studio that you looked to while recording Watch the Sun?
I didn’t take note from them, musically, I just felt like it had to be sort of a promised land to be this studio in the middle of nowhere for these masterpieces to come out of there. During the pandemic, for artists, we were totally shut down from performing live and touring. It was replaced with Zoom and virtual performances, like I was as busy, and still felt like I wasn’t giving myself enough unplugging. So Bogalusa and Studio in the country was second-tier unplugging. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know we’re all set down, but I need to even get away from home.’
So just the inspiration of being out there with nothing around you but trees and green and pines – when I asked Stevie about it, it popped into his mind so quickly. He was like, “Oh my God. Yeah man, we were fishing.” It has a magic out there. Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” is one of my favorite Stevie records, but I wasn’t really thinking of anything musically. It was just the spirit of those things that happened. I just feel like that same magic as in the walls and the lights and everything because it does feel like that studio is stuck in time. So I was just so inspired by what it was and the fact that they had made these masterpieces out there.