Catching up with multi-talented, Grammy award winning singer, songwriter, producer, PJ Morton, was truly a blessing. Between a full touring schedule with Maroon 5, arguably one of the pop music’s most impacting bands, recently inking a deal with perennial chart topping record label, Young Money, dropping a new EP, and raising a 14-month old son, PJ Morton has a full plate and we were fortunate to get in a few words in between bites.
The New Orleans native is on the brink of stardom without compromising the rich musical meshing of styles and genres that created his unique, versatile sound and without abandoning the legion of fans that followed him as a successful independent artist. He is charting a path in the music industry that is both a throwback—preservation of the past and a fresh face to the future of good music for the soul.
During some precious down time, which he reminded me was “all relative”, iRock Jazz spoke with PJ Morton recently about the rich heritage of New Orleans music and jazz that influences his music, Stevie Wonder’s continued impact on generations of music lovers, his new free EP, Following My First Mind, and his upcoming tour including a stop in Oakland at Yoshi’s Jazz Club.
iRJ: I have been following your career for some time now since Mountains and Molehills to Interested for India Arie, to production for DeWayne Woods and now Maroon 5. You have lent your unique sound to everything from gospel, to hip hop, R&B, rock, pop and more. How do you stay unconfined to one genre?
PJM: It was something that was never an effort for me because I was just always into so much. Being born into the church and gospel music is one part. Another part is that I’m a big fan of R&B music and soul music because of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. Then my mom introduced me to The Beatles when I was a little kid and I got on to James Taylor really early. You know it was something that I did; I never really tried to do different genres. It was always just how it came out, it was a very natural thing and it’s very natural for me to just go from one thing to the next with it still remaining me. I’m the thread in all of those different things.
iRJ: It seems that your audience has followed you throughout your journey from genre to genre even the gospel audience as well, who sometimes in the past with alot artists, such as Sam Cook, maybe abandon artists’ because the music became “secular”. I have found that you still have a solid fan base when it comes to all the music you are doing.
PJM: Yeah, I think I’ve just made it easier because I was one of those people in church that was a fan of other types of music. So, when I became an artist and was in control of my music, I found a way to make music that people felt comfortable supporting outside of the church. And I also got an understanding and a revelation of where that music has its place in the world even for Christians. I think it made an easy transition for a lot of Christians and gospel music fans to follow me even into the non-sacred music places. It’s crazy for people to serve this huge God and think this little section of gospel music is just his music and he doesn’t have his hand on jazz. That blows my mind. Jazz has to come from God.
iRJ: You grew up in the church, of course, your father is the great Bishop Paul S. Morton, a find artist in his own right, I might add. Tell us how the church prepared you for your musical success?
PJM: I think it shaped me in a lot of ways. One, I guess being a pastor’s kid, not only just growing up in church, but being a focal point of that by being a pastor’s kid, it kind of prepared me for people, you know, dealing with people. And dealing with people paying attention to me and understanding how to treat people and deal with people all together—that’s one level of it. And then of course, the thing about church is as a church musician, gospel is only lyrically consistent. Musically and sonically, you can have a jazz gospel song, you can have a calypso song, you can have a reggae song—all types of stuff, so it kind of made me have to learn all types of music and be able to be a chameleon and play anything. So, it definitely helped me while going into all these other types of genres. I was like “I’ve played all of this and done all of these styles”. In church every Sunday you (musicians) are playing a different type of song, it wasn’t just one thing. It definitely helped me all around.
iRJ: Growing up in New Orleans with its rich musical tradition, particularly jazz music, can you talk about the jazz music you heard in New Orleans and how it may have influenced your music?
PJM: It was all around even before you notice it—it’s just everywhere and always there. In my high school, St. Augustine, our jazz band was amazing. I played piano in the jazz band and I was just amazed by these musicians who were playing this music in high school, but their uncles and their grandfathers and their dads had done it. That’s the history of New Orleans, we pass down those things. I think the way it’s influenced my music is definitely on the brass side. I think that’s one thing that puts me just a step above even if I do a hard R&B record, I’m going to have some horns in there somewhere just because that’s where I come from and I connect to that. That brass is important to me and something that is missing in our popular music today, so it’s something I like to use to keep me a step ahead and just a little bit more musical than most in pop music.
iRJ: Brass really elevates the sound to almost a regal or royal nature and adds another rich layer like a big band sound.
PJM: Right. And even seeing that live just takes it a step further and you say, “Wow. They are serious musicians; they are messing around. They have some horns up there.” Yes, that’s definitely my New Orleans influence, 100 percent.
iRJ: Earlier this year, the Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans stopped by Yoshi’s in San Francisco and the typical reserved jazz audience turned into a Mardi Gras style party.
PJM: Yeah, man. It’s New Orleans, it’s always a party.
iRJ: It’s obvious that your musical influences are icons like Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and The Beatles. Are there any jazz musicians that have influenced your sound? What jazz artists do you listen to today?
PJM: Not directly. Chick Corea is an artist that I used to study as a young musician when I only wanted to be a musician and I was just focused on keys. Before I was singing or writing, I used to listen to Chick all the time and I love Oscar Peterson. I think when I got into songwriting it was taking the spirit of the music (jazz) as opposed to being directly influenced. I think with jazz music, the music speaks more than what the words are saying. It’s more about the music speaking. So, when I became a songwriter I put the music back a little bit and it wasn’t about the performance of it, maybe live it’s still more about that—you will see that when you see the live show. I started to lean more on singer-songwriters than just jazz musicians, but I think that was the basis and the spirit of when I was leaning to be a keyboardist.
iRJ: I think about some of the great singers and songwriters in jazz, Billy Strayhorn, for example and Louis Armstrong. Their impact was amazing.
PJM: Yeah, with Louis Armstrong, that’s what I mean about the spirit and I look at an artist like Trombone Shorty. It wasn’t the playing so much that affected me as was the spirit. New Orleans is about performance. Like you mentioned about the jazz club, New Orleans brings the party and that is just in me, that is what I know. We gotta bring energy because that ain’t gone work in New Orleans. New Orleans has swag.
iRJ: As a musician on the outside of jazz, what do you think jazz music can do be more popular or appealing like pop music or hip hop, with younger audiences? Or do they even need to change anything at all?
PJM: I don’t know that they need to change. With jazz being the original American art form that started here, I think elements of it need to stay there. Of course, I have some jazz musician friends like Kenneth Whalum, who used to play with me in my band and he fuses some rock and hip hop influences. Of course, Robert Glasper just released an amazing record. You know, they recently did Leno and Letterman. So, I think it’s doing that. I think it’s just going to be a natural progression. I think when you start to try is when it messes everything up. I think it’s them doing it effortlessly and people are getting on to it and looking at it a different way. Even the skits on Robert Glasper’s record are speaking to that, the subject of how people are looking at jazz music. I think its happening and it just needs to take its natural progression and I think it will grow. All it takes is one song.
iRJ: Listening to your new single, “Heavy” the Stevie Wonder influence is unapologetically there. The San Francisco Jazz Collective will be at Yoshi’s in Oakland this weekend playing the music of Stevie Wonder. Can you talk about Stevie Wonder’s impact on your sound and how his music continues to inspire generations of old and young alike?
PJM: Oh man. I could on go all day on Stevie. I was talking to someone about Stevie the other day. I kind of feel like one of his sons—how I’m supposed to keep his legacy alive. It’s more than just being a fan of his for me, its way deeper than that. Stevie indirectly taught me how to write songs, and taught me how to infuse compassion into the music. Talking about him impacting generations right now—I was 13 and it was like 93’ or something like that and I’m listening to records from 1969. Somebody gave me some music of Stevie’s and I know who Stevie Wonder was you know. I knew “I Just Called to Say I Love You”—I knew the hit records. Somebody gave me a CD and it had a song of him when he was younger and it changed my life. So, my dad would give me allowance and every week I would buy another Stevie CD. I’m buying them in chronological order, so I’m going from like 69’ to the seventies up until I had everything. This was in the 90’s so it was brand new to me. I think that’s what Stevie continues to do. I’m sure there is some 13 year old kid right now who heard Stevie do something and is out looking for everything of Stevie’s like I was. For the people who aren’t going that far back, they are listening to PJ Morton’s “Heavy” and I’m screaming to the mountain top, “Stevie is the reason I am!” So, hopefully it leads them in that direction and it does what it did for me. I can’t even explain the impact of Steve. It was never just me trying to be him, but just to have the spirit of that because I listened to him so much. Those influences can’t help just to fall out.
Watch the lyric video to PJ Morton’s new single, “Heavy”, featuring Adam Levine:
iRJ: With a sound reminiscent of Motown and on a new label, Young Money, who in your estimation is doing music like the old days with a variety of genres, who are some of the artist that you can think of who represent that creative legacy of “The Sound of Young America” as Motown was coined, today?
PJM: Well, you know it’s odd and you have to look at it a different way, but I feel like my label mate, Drake, has done his part in changing the face of hip hop. He’s even brought back the singing and making it hip hop music melodic. I don’t think he considers himself a real singer-singer, but his melodies beat mine a million times. He’s so melodic. Drake is definitely one of those people. I also think Beyonce definitely carries that spirit of before us. She can still sing, but she’ll make you dance with these new records that relate to young America. I think Kanye West is also somebody who represents the creative, not caring spirit of young Motown. Those are three of mine that I feel like are doing that today and I’m trying to do my part today.
iRJ: What can listener’s expect from the new EP, Following My First Mind, which recently released this week?
PJM: It’s very different that Independently Major, the mixtape, in a sense. That’s why I’m calling this one an EP and not a mixtape. Independently Major was basically my demos of stuff and things I didn’t use for albums and music I had written for other people. I didn’t mix it, master it or put things in to it; I just wanted to give my fans something while I was gone (on tour). This EP is very different than that because these are real records that I put my heart into to write and I feel like this would be an album that I would sell. I’m just happening to be giving it away for free. I’m giving it to the masses to eat—they are hungry out there. I have all the hope in the world that people will buy my music. I just want to make people believers again. I think a lot of artist started putting one good song on an album and the other 15 were bad. I think the trust level has gone way down and that’s why now we have iTunes where people are buying one song instead of whole albums. I’m just trying to regain the trust of public and I have no worries at all that when I’m up to sell something that people will support it. But for now, this EP features Adam Levine on “Heavy”, Jazmine Sullivan is on a classic soul song, Lil’ Wayne is on a hip hop/R&B song, I have this new artist, Chantae Cann, on this Beatles type of song. So, I think the fans can expect every sector of me on this EP. I did everything I wanted to do from rock, to R&B, to soul, to pop; it’s kind of a gumbo. I feel like since joining Maroon 5 these last couple of years and joining Young Money, there are new eyes that weren’t looking at me in my independent years. I feel like I need to reintroduce myself in a way. So, this is kind of a reintroduction to get to know me in these seven songs.
iRJ: Has playing with Maroon 5 allowed you to validate the music you’ve been doing for years with new audiences?
PJM: Yeah, I think even being able to open up for Maroon 5 with my own stuff—that’s been validating as well as the Young Money signing. I didn’t come changing myself to get signed, I just kept doing what I was doing and people paid attention and now I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and reach more people doing it. That was important to me and validating me in choosing the path that I’ve chosen for years.
iRJ: Yoshi’s is a traditionally a jazz club, but the audience appreciates a diversity of music. What kind of show can the Yoshi’s audience expect?
PJM: Energy—a good time. We come to have fun and make you feel something. I always want it to be an experience between me and the audience. I like the audience to give as much as I’m giving and I’m giving it all. Musically, there will be full instrumentation. We will be bringing the horns. We are coming with it and bringing some real music to the Bay. It’s about that for us. If we don’t have fun we want to quit.
iRJ: What’s next besides touring for Maroon 5 for you right now?
PJM: Yeah, doing my tour of course and we will be out for a month doing the Following My First Mind Tour and then I’ll be out with Maroon 5. Our record comes out at the end of June. We will be out of the road while I’ll be still writing because I plan to put out a full record in the fall if all goes as plans. So, I’ll be writing, staying inspired, and just trying to some good music that I can put out—and I’ll be selling at that time!
Check out PJ Morton at pjmortononline.com for upcoming tour dates and to obtain a free download of his new EP, Following My First Mind.
By Johnathan Eaglin