If you're a fan of Maroon 5, you've heard PJ Morton's work before. The New Orleans-hailing musician has been playing keyboard for the group since 2010 and became an official member in 2012. Morton's keyboard skills can be heard on hits like "One More Night," "Animals" and "Cold."
But all the while, Morton has crafting his own music, with its own soulful Stevie Wonder-esque sound. Morton self-released his first solo album, Gumbo, in April 2017. (NPR Music deemed it one of the most slept-on R&B projects of the year.) The album, and the song "First Began," have earned Morton two 2018 Grammy nominations in the categories of best R&B album and best R&B song.
Gumbo is up against some heavyweights in the album category: The competition includes Daniel Caesar's Freudian, Ledisi's Let Love Rule, Musiq Soulchild's Feel the Real and Bruno Mars' 24K Magic (Mars' album is also up for record of the year and album of the year). Morton acknowledges that he's a wild card in the race, but says he says the Grammys as a celebration of music as an art, rather than sales, spins or streams.
"This is a small group of people that get nominated," Morton says. "And I'm against giants. To me, that makes me feel like my art is giant as well."
Click the audio link to hear the full interview with NPR's Michel Martin.
On a resurgence of R&B in the past few years
I definitely think there's a resurgence in hip-hop and R&B [in] urban music — black music, in general. And I'm glad to be a part of that. Fortunately and unfortunately, I was gonna have to be doing this music anyway: It's what is true to me and real to me, so I'm happy that a light is being shined on it again. I just think it's very important music. It's music that we feel very deeply, and I think people are in need of connection right now. We want to fill each other right now because the world is a bit crazy. And I think it's music that goes straight to the heart. I think that's why it's called Soul music at the root of it, because it gets straight to your soul. And that's whether we're partying or we're saying something serious. I think anytime we do that, it comes from a real place, and I think that's needed today.
On his gospel roots and his father, Paul Morton's, influence
I'm such a fan of him ... I love that guy. He was the first artist I ever got to see and learn from, and I'm still such a big fan of him even though he's my father. I'm on the road quite a bit. I used to be his music director at church, and I used to travel with him as his traveling musician for years, but then my life and career got a bit busy. So we don't as much, but it's special when we do get a chance to do it.
On his internal conflicts growing up within the gospel tradition
I didn't want to let my father down. I knew that he'd like me to be probably a preacher, let alone, at least be a gospel singer. So when I didn't want to do either, I felt like, 'Man, I might disappoint him.' So that was first, and then my father accepted what I did so much and became so supportive. And then I was concerned with the community because they were a few steps behind him, because he knew me personally and knew where it was coming from and knew it was a real thing with a real purpose for me. The church and the community was kind of a conflict, but then I got free of that, and I haven't really looked back since.
It's years ago now, but I think it's that same old story — no different than what Al Green and Same Cooke and Aretha [Franklin] went through, you know? Singing devil music, or they would say, 'You should be using your gift for God.' I actually wrote a book about it some years ago called Why Can't I Sing About Love, and it was addressing that because I wanted to not only free myself, but free some other people from that thinking that gospel music equals God as opposed to your gift and how he's gifted you.
On the song "Religion" and his faith
I'm always coming from a place of love, but I started to write this song during the presidential campaign, and I saw a bunch of Evangelicals getting behind President Trump, and having to ignore a lot of things that he'd do and say in order to be comfortable to put their support behind him — [who] in the end fully put their support behind him. So they had to ignore the hatred that he spewed a lot of times, the division that he was promoting, you know? Words we wouldn't say ... All of that had to be ignored to still say, 'Hey, this is our candidate. This is the guy we believe should be the president.' That kind of brought me — not to get too deep — back to slavery days, where they would read the Bible and show the slaves, 'This why you're supposed to be slaves.' [They'd] find ways in the scripture to validate that and that's where that line comes from: "Your God had nothing to do with that." ... It freed me. I've been in church all my life and still am a strong believer in my faith, but it freed me. This is what I've always wanted to say.
On maintaining his own artistic authenticity amidst industry pressure
This happened after a meeting with a record exec, and they were telling me that maybe I should think about working with DJ Mustard [Laughs] — and this is no diss to DJ Mustard, because I like DJ Mustard songs — but DJ Mustard and my music ... it was so far off base. And I'm like, they have no interest in who I am, they only have interest in 'That's hot on the radio? Let's get a hit. Let's maybe get you in with DJ Mustard.'
I started to get further away from that conversation while I was in the meeting. It started to sound like Charlie Brown teachers. I just wanted to be myself, and I'm like, 'Man, if you don't want to sign me for being myself, then I'm cool, that's fine. Find somebody that fits DJ Mustard or whatever producer, you know?' It just showed me how usually the endgame is just trying to find a hit song, and these days sometimes it doesn't even matter who the person is as long as they can put their [label] on it.
Web editor Sidney Madden and web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, as we mentioned, the Grammy Awards are tonight. And we wanted to meet one of the nominees. And if you are a fan of Maroon 5, then you have probably heard our next guest in action.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MORE NIGHT")
MAROON 5: (Singing) You and I go hard at each other like we're going to war. You and I go at rough. We look keep throwing things and slamming the doors.
MARTIN: PJ Morton has been playing keyboards for Maroon 5 since 2010, becoming an official member in 2012. But all the while, he's been crafting his own music with its own soulful Stevie Wonder-esque sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRST BEGAN")
PJ MORTON: (Singing) Yes, we've got something special, let's hope. Hold on and don't let go.
MARTIN: That's "First Began" from PJ Morton's solo album, his latest. It's called "Gumbo," a nod to his New Orleans roots. NPR called it 1 of its 5 R&B Albums That You Slept On In 2017. That song and the album are nominated for two Grammys tonight, which was a good excuse to check in with PJ Morton. He's with us now from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.
PJ MORTON: Good to be here. Good to be here. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Well, first of all, congratulations on the nominations. What is it like to be nominated? I mean, where were you when you found out? I mean, who calls you? Does your agent call you or, you know, how does that work?
PJ MORTON: I was in my hotel room. I was on the road on the last few dates of a tour. And I knew they were coming out, So I was waiting by the phone to see. And then I got a text from one of my guys in management. And they said, congrats on your nom. So I was like OK, I got one. And then I went to look at the list, and then I see album. And I kind of broke down because I'm like, man, I really wanted that one because, you know, I look at it as a body of work. So I was in my hotel room happily by myself, so nobody could see me shed some tears.
MARTIN: I'm sure there were just some onions getting cut up in there.
PJ MORTON: Yeah, man. I don't know why they cook those onions in hotel rooms.
MARTIN: I know. I know. It happens like that.
PJ MORTON: It's crazy.
MARTIN: You grew up in the church. Both your mother and father are pastors. And your dad is also a well-known singer, a gospel singer with quite a few of his own albums. And, in fact, not to be mean, but if YouTube counts are any gauge of success, you know, your dad is...
PJ MORTON: He's beating me? I knew it.
MARTIN: Let's just say that he's in the running.
PJ MORTON: Still beats me.
MARTIN: I actually have a clip of the two of you singing in church. Let's - can we - let's just play it. Here's Bishop Paul Morton and PJ Morton.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PJ MORTON: (Singing) And let go.
PAUL MORTON: (Singing) Come on, let go.
PJ MORTON: (Singing) Let go.
PAUL MORTON: (Singing) And just let God. He can fix it for you.
PJ MORTON: (Singing) Let go.
PAUL MORTON: (Singing) He can turn it around.
MARTIN: Do you two have a chance to sing together very often these days?
PJ MORTON: We used to, not as much these days. I'm such a fan of him, just even - I was smiling just listening to that. I love that guy. He was the first artist I ever got to see and learn from. And I'm still such a big fan of him even though he's my father. I used to be his music director at church, but then my life and career got a bit busy. So we don't as much, but it's special when we do get that chance to do it.
MARTIN: You know, a lot of great artists come from the church. I think most people in this country know that Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Sam Cooke, to name just a few. And you actually started your career writing gospel songs but then went on to work with people like, you know, India Arie and Maroon 5, of course. I wondered, was that ever a conflict either with yourself or with your community?
PJ MORTON: Yeah, both initially. I mean, first with myself because I didn't want to let my father down. I knew that he'd like me to be probably a preacher, at least be a gospel singer. So when I didn't want to do either, I felt like, man, I might disappoint him. So that was first. And then my father accepted what I did so much and became so supportive. And then I was kind of concerned with the community because they were kind of a few steps behind him because he knew me personally and knew where it was coming from and knew it was a real thing and a real purpose for me. So the church and the community, it was kind of a conflict. But then I got free from that and haven't really looked back since, you know.
MARTIN: Well, how is it a conflict? I mean, what do people say? Do they try to shame you and say what are you doing that when you should be here lifting up the Lord?
PJ MORTON: This is years ago now, but yeah, I think it's that same old story that is no different than what Al Green and Sam Cooke and Aretha went through singing devil music. Or they would say, you should be using your gift for God, you know. And I actually wrote a book about it some years ago called "Why Can't I Sing About Love." And it was addressing that really because I wanted to not only free myself but free some other people from that thinking that gospel music equals God as opposed to your gift and how he's gifted you and being able to talk about not only God but the things he's created - love, life. These are all God's dominion. So I think the book helped a lot of people and me just remaining who I was.
MARTIN: I noticed that you wrote a book about it, which is something that a lot of people wouldn't do, which I thought was noteworthy. But I also know that you continue to reflect on your faith and the role that it plays in your life even if you're working in a different genre. And you have to know that one of the songs on the album caught my ear called "Religion" - very blunt about something that I think many people talk about but not necessarily sing about. So let's play it and talk about it a little more.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RELIGION")
PJ MORTON: (Singing) I don't think I like your religion. Don't always make the best decisions. Not saying you don't have good intentions. I know that you are only human.
MARTIN: OK. So - subtle.
PJ MORTON: Right.
MARTIN: Well, tell me about it. How did this come to you?
PJ MORTON: I started to write this song during the presidential campaign. And I saw a bunch of evangelicals getting behind now-President Trump and having to ignore a lot of things that he do and say in order to be comfortable to put their support behind him. So they had to ignore the hatred that he spewed a lot of times, the division that he was promoting, I mean, words that we wouldn't say, you know, grabbing people by things. All of that had to be ignored to still say, hey, this is our candidate. The Christians, this is the guy we believe should be the president.
And that kind of showed me. And it brought me back - not to get too deep - but like back to slavery days, where they would have - read the Bible and show the slaves why you're supposed to be slaves - this is why, look at the Bible - and find ways in the scripture to validate that. And that's where that line comes from. Your God had nothing to do with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RELIGION")
PJ MORTON: (Singing) Your God had nothing to do with it, nothing to do with it.
A lot of times, religion in its form - original form - is with good intention. And it's with love. And it's with community. But somewhere along the line, sometimes humanity slips in there and it becomes less about God and your own agenda. And I think God has nothing to do with that agenda sometimes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RELIGION")
PJ MORTON: (Singing) Nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with it.
MARTIN: And that leads me to another song that I wanted to talk to you about that also struck me. This is called "Claustrophobic."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLAUSTROPHOBIC")
PJ MORTON: (Singing) PJ, you're not mainstream enough, yeah. Would you consider us changing some stuff? Oh, like everything about who you are. No offense, we're just trying to make you a star.
MARTIN: This struck me because, I mean, it goes on to say that, you know, oh, we'd like you to be more thuggish. We're not going to say some of the words. But you go on to say that that's not you. But there is a part of me that wants to ask, are you ever tempted? I mean, do you ever say, well, let's say I did curse more or something like that and present myself as different than I am? I mean, and I don't know how much the house with the swimming pool means to you or whatever it is that's the thing that you're supposed to want. I mean, does that ever cross your mind?
PJ MORTON: Well, first of all, my childhood, I was able to grow up in a way where I had things that I wanted, you know what I mean? So my value for money wasn't huge. Then I'm fortunate enough to be in a huge pop band that does very well, and that satisfies my needing hit records. So yes, I have been tempted. I think "Gumbo," this record, is the result of all these years of me trying to figure it out. I went through all those ups and downs - Joining Maroon 5 and feeling like OK, I got hits, oh, now I see what that feels like - all this is a result where I am right now for me to be able to be who I am 100 percent. Do I want hit songs? Yes, I would love them. But I want hit songs that's who I am and not somebody else.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STICKING TO MY GUNS")
PJ MORTON: (Singing) I'm sticking to my guns till my work is done. I'm sticking to my guns till my work is done.
MARTIN: So are you going to go to the awards ceremony tonight? I do want to mention we are speaking to you in advance of the Grammy ceremony. Are you going?
PJ MORTON: Yes, I'm going to be there with bells on at the Grammy Awards. I do want it. Let's be clear. I want to beat everybody I'm against and love, but I want to win.
MARTIN: That's PJ Morton. His latest album "Gumbo" is up for two Grammys tonight. He joined us from our bureau in New York. PJ Morton, thank you so much for joining us. And congratulations on everything.
PJ MORTON: Thank you so much. It was good to be with you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STICKING TO MY GUNS")
PJ MORTON: (Singing) So you can give me all you got. You can throw it all at me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.