Okayplayer talks with PJ Morton, the musical chef about being real, finding the soul in everything and why Bruno Mars was not responsible for appropriation.
Though he’s molded his music to fit the variant soundscapes of mainstream music, nothing about PJ Morton’s artistry feels temporary. At this stage of his career, with whatever he pens, plays, or sings, Morton says he’s committed to the source of his inspiration: soul.
To some, Morton exists on the peripheral of popularity as the keyboardist in Maroon 5 and music director for Solange. To many others, he stands at the center of artistic adoration. PJ Morton doesn’t have to fight to be seen; he commands with authority and ease. As formulaic as forging a career in the music business has become, PJ’s success been less methodology and more music. He’s bounced from seemingly all ends of the industry, writing and producing for artists across genres, from India.Arie to LL Cool J to gospel musicians like Fred Hammond and Heather Headley.
Now, those names and spaces are all realms in his own world.
He released his major-label debut, New Orleans, through Young Money Records. And though the album’s lead single, “Only One,” featuring Stevie Wonder, was nominated for Best R&B Song at the 2014 Grammy Awards, he left the label and straddled the scene, navigating the industry and Los Angeles for a stint that he says drained his spirit.
So, he left Los Angeles to rejuvenate his solo career, amidst the magic of his hometown, New Orleans. He started his own label, Morton Records — a transition that led to his most realized and masterful project yet, Gumbo, which spawned two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Album. Where genre-bending has grown into a ploy for plays, PJ assumes the role of sound-shifter with sincerity. Soul, R&B, pop, rock, gospel — PJ has dabbled and mastered more than most. His soulful, string-backed arrangement cover of the Bee Gees classic “How Deep Is Your Love”— pulled from his latest album, Gumbo Unplugged, a live studio version of Gumbo — is a testament to that.
PJ sat down with Okayplayer to talk about authenticity and appropriation, the success of Bruno Mars, the significance of church and community in black music, finding the soul in everything, and what’s missing in music today.
Okayplayer: Would you credit part of your success on Gumbo to moving back to New Orleans?
PJ Morton: One hundred percent. I say that New Orleans was like the fifth band member on the album. It played a huge part in allowing me to focus and free my mind. What I love about New Orleans is that we don’t care what everybody else is doing. That’s kind of what gives us our charm. New Orleans is like no other place I’ve ever been in my life. When I went back home, I kind of re-fell in love with music and re-fell in love with the reason I wanted to do music. And that is as responsible as anything else as to why Gumbo felt the way it felt.
OKP: You left L.A. to go back to New Orleans, and I think you said you had an experience with L.A. [Hollywood] just being empty and vapid and kind of superficial and claustrophobic. What do you make of that effect L.A. has on so many artists and on you personally?
PM: A lot of times, when people come to L.A., they move searching for a dream. My dream was already here; I moved to L.A. because I joined Maroon 5. But after about six years and I had done all those things that I set out to do, and when I really wanted to say something, that is when I kind of couldn’t find myself in the city. I had engulfed myself in the industry so much that I had lost my voice — what I wanted to say and who I wanted to be.
Because I’m in this hugely successful band, part of it was separating myself from the success to really hear. I love Los Angeles, and the band was from Los Angeles. They’re not the Hollywood type; they showed me the real side of L.A. The frustration came when I started to work on a solo album. I just had left Young Money, and I was having new record company meetings. And that started to blow me [laughs]. When it was time for me to have to deal with industry record company types, that’s when it kind of did strip my spirit.
OKP: You’re the son of two pastors. Talk about the significance of the church in your music and in black music in general. How intertwined do you think black music is with the church?
PM: Some of the soul that I had lost and some of the connection that I had lost— I didn’t realize was because I wasn’t really connected to church anymore. Soul music is 100 percent church music, talking about love, talking about life, and everything else connected to that. From gospel music came jazz and soul music. From soul music and jazz came hip-hop. They’re all connected. Maybe part of the reason why we’re missing some of the substance in music is because of the church — a lot of people aren’t connected to church as much. And I don’t even mean belief; I mean that environment. We used to have foreigners come to my dad’s church all the time from France, from all over the world, and they might not even believe in what we believe in. They didn’t believe in Jesus, but they could feel that spirit and that energy. And I think some of the lack of that is maybe what happened to soul music and R&B music.
OKP: There’s been this whole discussion about authenticity versus mimicry versus appropriation in terms of black music like soul, funk, and R&B centered around Bruno Mars, in particular. The conversation has been revolving around him, but it’s not a new conversation. As someone who’s done pop and rock, R&B, and soul, and funk and your ‘authenticity’ is unquestionable, what do you make of all of this?
PM: A lot of times, I don’t think it’s the artists’ fault. I’ve been lucky and blessed enough to not have to chase anything. I grew up with things, and I grew up with money around me, so I never really had a lot of respect for money— where I felt like it was worth me not being myself. I know everybody doesn’t have that experience.
But, if authenticity was supported, then I think a lot of people would be authentic. If authentic soul music was supported and on the radio and the number one songs on the radio and selling millions of records then I bet you would find a lot of authentic soul people out there. So, I think it’s a lack of support that forces some artists to say, “well, I gotta do what’s poppin’ right now or I won’t be able to eat.”
As far as Bruno goes, I think Bruno probably grew up with the same influences that I had; soul, Motown music, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder. So, I don’t think he’s a great example of somebody appropriating. He’s just being who he is. And it just so happens he’s not like a full-out black dude, that’s not his fault. But I do think, and this is no diss to him, if somebody black—Usher, even—were to do “Uptown Funk” at the same time that Bruno did it, it would probably be on urban adult contemporary radio. It’d be an R&B hit. Because Bruno is who he is, it has something to do with how he looks, he gets supported by mainstream more. So, I don’t know that the appropriation is Bruno’s fault. Or that conversation—I don’t know if he’s the right target. We should blame society and the culture.
OKP: What made you want to cover the Bee Gees, other than it being a great record?
PM: Honestly, I just always loved that song. I looked up the top ten biggest songs of all time, and I was like, ‘Man, I love this song. I didn’t know it was so huge.’ It’s so melodic. It’s a song that I’ve always loved when I heard it. I heard the soul in it.
OKP: What is your definition of success? With all of your accolades—the Grammys, the credits, the reviews, the acclaim—do you think that you’ve reached your own definition of success at this very moment?
PM: My definition of success now is doing exactly what I wanna do. My definition of success is freedom, and I feel like I accomplished that. It’s crazy that I was trying to be strategic and craft songs that could be big on the radio, you know… This is the record that I didn’t strategically say anything like that—not musically, at least. Since my very first album, it’s the one that’s really gotten the most attention and the most accolades. I feel like there’s more work to do, always, but as far as peace of mind and freedom and doing exactly what I wanna do, I do think I’ve reached that success. I feel very blessed.
Watch PJ Morton’s cover of the Bee Gees classic “How Deep Is Your Love” above and stream his latest album Gumbo Unplugged (Live) below.
Ivie is a Nigerian-American, native New Yorker, and journalist covering culture. Usually on-air, on deadline, and on point. @ivieani