Dun-Well Doughnuts isn’t your mom’s pastelería. The East Williamsburg hub for vegan confectionery delights has no concern with fitting in. Playing above our heads as we order several sweet-sounding treats are tunes most certainly hailing from the ‘30s or ‘40s; they’re so sonically antiquated that not even Shazam recognizes them. The shop’s furnishings give off a rustic feel that doesn’t quite match the area outside, which is (as of now) virtually untouched by gentrification.
It’s clear we’re in a spot that’s content with going against the grain, which pairs well with the overall M.O. of the artist peering over his wire-frame glasses to glance out the window while nomming on a glazed donut. He’s a soulful musician who grew up listening to pop and rock icons, and infuses traditional R&B as well as good ol’ instrumentation into his work–– he’s known for performing live adaptations of his songs with a full band in tow. Much like Dun-Well’s playlist, he doesn’t adhere to people’s sonic expectations.
“I’ve felt like an outcast [in the industry], but I've always been a loner anyway, so I thrive being by myself. I'm cool with it, I'm totally comfortable with it,” PJ Morton says as he sips water from a white paper cup on a climate-confused day in early August. The New Orleans native, who sports an all-black ensemble with multi-colored Nikes, acknowledges that his music doesn’t always fit into a mainstream box. Still, his passion for his craft has paid off in spades.
Morton is the keyboardist for the platinum-selling pop/rock band Maroon 5, but has found solo success outside of the Billboard Top 40. He won his first Grammy Award earlier this year for his lauded cover of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” which was featured on the live recording of his highly-favored, self-released LP, 2017’s Gumbo. He’s lived his personal dreams by performing at Super Bowl LIII, on Saturday Night Live and with artists like Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. Despite huge moments in his career, his latest album PAUL (released on Aug. 9) is a feel-good journey back to basics.
“[With Gumbo], it was so much about 'I need to be heard, I'm tired, this may be my last record,’” he notes. “This time, it's really like, 'Okay, you got a lot of the good things you asked for, now what? What are you gonna say now? How are you gonna be honest now? What stories are you gonna tell now?'”
The 10-song project—which boasts guest appearances from Rapsody, Jazmine Sullivan, JoJo and more—is oozing with nostalgia in more ways than one. Smart production and samples recapture the days of Motown and R&B, evident by the album’s opener “Ready” and The Gap Band-sampled “Yearning For Your Love.” PAUL also has gentle nods to the simplicities of human emotion, as certain tracks amplify the importance of possessing child-like, carefree self-confidence. This particular theme is central to the track “Kid Again,” featuring two of Morton’s three children.
“Although most people call me PJ, I came into the world as Paul, and I feel that's my purest form,” he says of the project’s straightforward, yet calculated title. “Paul is the child, and throughout the album, the nostalgic theme is me continually telling myself, 'Go back, reset…’ I was really trying to be as honest as I can, and I don't mean 'honest' as in storytelling honest, I mean the presentation and production is honest… I want [fans] to feel good, and I want them to like the songs, but I want them to hear me in saying, ‘This is Paul, this is who I am, and I want you to be who you are.’"
Additionally, PAUL turns up the volume on pro-blackness, an enormously necessary topic during a time where outsiders are working ‘round the clock to keep us muted. Political commentator Angela Rye schools non-believers about police brutality and racial inequality on the project’s thought-provoking finale, “MAGA?,” and the soulful Morton urges listeners to continue Nipsey Hussle’s marathon in their communities on the funky, retrospective “Buy Back The Block.”
“I think the more we started to get pushback and the more America started to get divisive, the more I felt pride in being black, and I wanted to make that known and to stand on that,” Morton explains of the album’s key elements. “I think that art should reflect life. It's important for us as artists to be the voice of the voiceless, right? I can be louder and tell our story for people who can't tell it for themselves.”
An admittedly “curious” preacher’s kid who grew up in the Crescent City, Morton has always known music would be his life. He was introduced to some of his heroes as a youngin—his mother acquainted him with the stylings of The Beatles, and he locked in on The Fab Four after noticing he bears the same first name as Sir McCartney. As he matured, he developed an appreciation for James Taylor, Donnie Hathaway and his future collaborator, Stevie Wonder (he garnered his first solo Grammy nom with Wonder on the track “Only One”).
When prompted as to why he didn’t pursue gospel full-time despite growing up in the church and around the genre, Morton discusses that he found it too “limiting.” However, he still infuses elements of his roots in his music today (“I was experiencing too much in life, I was gaining too much knowledge in life to only talk about God specifically,” he says).
“I like the grind of [making music], and I love getting to the next level. If there's no forward movement, I'm not enjoying myself.”
Instead, he continued to expand his palate and repertoire by learning how to play multiple instruments such as the drums and keys. As a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, Morton further learned the ropes by working closely with producers such as Bryan-Michael Cox, Jazze Pha, and Jermaine Dupri, who helped shape the way he approaches and crafts a tune. Ultimately, he says the “freedom” he grew up with in NOLA helped to light a fire under him to truly pursue the art form.
“There's a high badge of honor that you wear if you're a musician in New Orleans,” he details. “‘I'm not gonna play with it, I'm not gonna joke with it. If I'm doing music, then we're gonna do it for real.’ I think that speaks to the way I try to present my art into the world. I think the qualities you have to have to be a musician there are to take it seriously and to play from the heart.”
“I was a musician before I was a songwriter, before I was a singer, and I always wanna wave that flag for musicians to be here,” he affirms as he discusses his versatile voyage through the art form. “The reason I’m able to work on so many [genres] of music is definitely that New Orleans attitude. We just do what we want, we kind of just march to the beat of our own drum.”
As detailed in his Gumbo song “Claustrophobic,” there were apprehensions about his lack of mainstream success as a solo artist early in his career. On the track, he details higher-ups discussing difficulties finding him a market (“Would you consider us changing some stuff, Like everything about who you are,” he sings, “No offense, we're just trying to make you a star”).
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is how people look at me,’” he said of the comments made to him early on. “I took [the negativity] as ammunition and gas to go wherever I was gonna go next. We choose a path that's a little different… ultimately, I really just wanna make beautiful things and hope people like it. If they don't, I'll keep it moving, and we'll keep creating.”
What is the pinnacle of success that PJ Morton wants to achieve? He’s already won a Grammy, he’s already had hit songs, and he’s already worked with one of his idols. He details that all of the mountaintops he’s climbed are simply a bonus, and what would be paramount for him is to just create. No worries of sales or chart positions–– just a man, his distinctive approach to his craft and his artistic freedom.
“I love music so much, I would do it for free,” he smiles. “So, if it feels like I could do this for free and still be happy, that's my nirvana. I can say that if I didn't have that cushion or fallback of Maroon 5, I would still be on this journey here and still going.”
“I want as many people in the world to hear my music and to be affected by it,” he continues. “If nothing ever happens anymore [musically], I'm still very blessed in this industry. I like the grind of [making music], and I love getting to the next level. If there's no forward movement, I'm not enjoying myself.”