Thank goodness that PJ Morton trusted his gut.
“PJ, you’re not mainstream enough / Would you consider us changing some stuff / Like everything about who you are / No offense, we’re just trying to make you a star,” Morton sings on “Claustrophobic,” a song from his 2017 album Gumbo. “PJ, you’re not quite street enough … can you switch your style up a little more? You can be yourself later, for now we need the radio.”
Whatever advice he got from out-of-touch record execs was nonsense. PJ Morton being himself has served him well: the album that hosted the above lyrics earned him two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song. He took home his first Grammys trophy himself this year with the Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for his “How Deep Is Your Love,” one of three nominations at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards from 2018’s Gumbo Unplugged.
Along with the hardware, he also got one of the most memorable experiences of his life. As a member of Maroon 5, he headlined the Super Bowl LIII halftime show in a performance with Travis Scott and Big Boi. His beloved football Saints may have gotten robbed in the weeks leading up to the big game, but New Orleans still has plenty to celebrate with Morton’s recent success.
“I felt [the energy] even when we were rehearsing with nobody in there. But then, when you feel that audience in there and you know it’s live, it’s just—to me it started as nervousness a little bit and then it just turned into excitement, knowing that you’re reaching all these people. Really for me, it’s a sentimental moment,” Morton said. “Our manager passed away last year, and I remember, since I’ve been in the band for nine years, the Super Bowl was just something that we were always looking [forward] to. For Jordan [Feldstein] to not be here for this made me reflect a lot on that and reflect on my life as a musician and the things I’ve did that ultimately got me to the biggest gigs a musician could want.”
Rather than celebrate his accomplishments for the rest of the year, Morton is using them as momentum. Weeks after the Super Bowl, he had the Valentine’s Day release of “Say So,” a beautiful new duet with JoJo.
VIBE caught up on the phone with PJ Morton prior to the Grammys as he sat in his studio in New Orleans to chat about his nominations, his journey into creating his sound, the Super Bowl halftime performance and New Orleans Saints, and whether black musicians and fans should still care about the ceremony.
What were you doing when you found out about you were nominated a second time?
It was about 5 a.m. in the morning, I had to wake up, I was on the West Coast and that’s when I found out, but this year, I was more just in shock. I was shocked about [being nominated for] Best R&B Album, I wasn’t necessarily expecting it. I [was nominated for] Best R&B Album last year and…whew, I almost shed a tear last year. This year I was just in shock (laughs). I called my family and shared the news and it was amazing.
At this point in your career, what does the award mean to you?
It still means a lot to me. I’ve yet to win one [until now] as a solo artist or as an artist period. It still means that it was voted by your peers. It’s voted on by the professionals in the music industry so that always means a lot. You definitely want to impress your friends. So this is like impressing your friends, known or unknown, who are amazing artists, musicians, and engineers so it still means a lot to me.
There’s a lot of conversation about the validation of these type of awards when it comes to black music. Which one means the most to you? The validation of the Academy or the people?
Ultimately, I make music for people, whether I win an award or not. Like I said, I was up for two Grammys last year and didn’t win, but it didn’t take away from the impact that I had on the people who’ve been supporting me and being able to go out on the road and sell out tours, that’ll always mean the most to me. [The Grammy] is like a cherry on top, the award and the validation from them. I make music for the people first.
And a lot of your success reminds me of your song “Claustrophobic,” considering the story behind that song. Do you feel like you’re fitting in nowadays or are people recognizing your individuality more?
I think individuality is being more celebrated in general these days. Before, the big labels and everybody were able to prove to us what was hot and what’s supposed to be the best thing and everything. I think that the way the industry is moving now, people are able to make their own decisions. They don’t have to listen to the radio if they don’t want to or listen to anybody who tells them who to listen to. They can go and create their own playlist and find the artists they love. For me, now I’m able to stand out a little bit more and my fans are able to choose on their own without anybody having to feed it to them. I think that part is being celebrated, who I am in “Claustrophobic” and really fighting to be myself. I think people connected to that more than anything.
What was the real life experience that lead you to create that song?
It was a combination of things, but the last straw was that I had just left Young Money and was looking to go into working on a new record and I took a meeting with a label and the meeting had went so bad. These people didn’t understand me at all. I remember myself kind of checking out of the meeting even before I left. I knew I had to get out of there both figuratively and [literally]. I was ready to just move on and do something else. And that meeting kind of put me on my path to leave Los Angeles and move to New Orleans and really find myself again.
How long did it take you to find your niche all the way? I know you’ve been through some ups and downs with that.
That’s the other side of it. I feel like I’ve been myself the whole time. It’s not like I’ve made some huge transition and made some music that I’ve never made before. I’ve always kind of done it like this. But I think it was more so when I wasn’t making music, when I was trying to make music and couldn’t really get to myself and couldn’t figure out who I was. It’s just more of what I’m talking about in “Claustrophobic,” but any time I’m making music, I feel like I’ve been my authentic self. It was just a matter of making sure I got back to that and gotten back to it fully. And I feel like, for me, it’s always a journey. You live, you evolve, you grow, and I think the art reflects that. I never feel like I’m done learning and growing. I think it was all through the journey that I found my niche, but if you listen to my first album 10 years ago, you still hear the same PJ, you still hear the same instruments so it’s not like I drastically changed or found some new sh*t I didn’t have in the beginning. I’m always perfecting it and growing and evolving.
Let’s go back to the Grammys for a second. In previous years, they’ve gotten many awards wrong when it comes to our music and some would argue that both black artists and fans should no longer care about them or other mainstream award shows. Do you think that they’re relevant at all to black music?
I think black people—so there’s two levels to the Grammys, right? I think the voting usually gets it right because you have small committees who are making sure—and these committees are industry professionals. So, the R&B singers and the R&B producers are the ones who make sure that the right artists, the right songs are in the right category. Even [from] last year to this year, I think the categories are right, the songs are right, whoever I’m up against I think all of that is right. I think sometimes when you get to the general voting where sometimes people who aren’t experts in those categories have to put their vote in when they don’t even know what’s been going on in the streets or what’s been going on in these genres. That’s when sometimes it goes a little left. So, I think they’re relevant. I think the Grammys are relevant. When the Grammys work when they’re designed to work, it’s a beautiful thing. So, I don’t need to be voting in the country category because I’m not listening to country all of the time and I’m not creating country music. But when the country guys are voting for country music, then they’ll get that right. I think that’s what it comes down to, it’s being able to stick to what you know. In that sense, I think they’re relevant for sure.
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With this new influx of new R&B and jazz artists, do you think that at this point, both genres are getting the respect they deserve?
I definitely think it’s getting better, it’s growing. I don’t know if it’s getting the full respect that it deserves but it’s going in the right direction. We’re getting more love.
I’m sure you’re familiar with Jennifer Lopez performing the Motown tribute at the ceremony. Who are some legends that you think should get deserve a tribute that might not have had one before on that kind of platform?
That’s a good question. I think sometimes we wait until people die before they get a tribute. I think we’re at the point where probably Anita Baker deserves a tribute. Chaka Khan, maybe. It’s so many people who’s had an impact, I don’t think Al Green has had a tribute [since his BET Awards tribute in 2008] and that’s one of the soundtracks to America.
On your Super Bowl halftime performance, the New Yorker called it an “artless spectacle.” How did you and/or Maroon 5 handle the negative criticism?
I mean, I think the other side of when you play—when you have that many people watching you, at one time, you can’t expect for all of it to be good. What I haven’t heard out of everybody is the critique that they sounded bad (laughs), which is what I wanted to accomplish. I think they had expectations for us to do something other than play our songs. I think what gets you to the Super Bowl is lots of success and we’ve been blessed to have hit songs and successful tours for years and years. Like I said, I’ve been [in Maroon 5] for nine years while the guys have been a band for 20 years and to have success like that and still currently have success with a huge #1 song with “Girls Like You.” I can’t really let a bad critique [bother me]—or really not even bad, all of it just like a regular “it wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad,” that’s what I’ve been hearing.
To have a lot of that success over the years and to make it to the Super Bowl and to allow somebody that gives a “regular” critique to sway me in any way, it just doesn’t do anything to me. I’m happy. I wanted to make sure that we play the music well and that we sounded good and we put on a good show. I’m sorry that we couldn’t (laughs) live up to the expectations like I think we were supposed to do some backflips or something like that or do some other things, but I just wanted to play the music and that was our plan from the beginning and that’s what we did. I’m proud of my bandmates for doing what we do. We’re musicians and we play music and entertain people. That’s what we did.
As we both know, the actual Super Bowl game was terrible. As a New Orleans native, how did you feel about the Saints not making it to Super Bowl?
I was deeply hurt! I was deeply hurt, man! We should have been there. I thought that the call was as obvious as it gets, and I don’t think I’ve seen a worst no call blunder in my life watching sports. It was bittersweet with for the Saints not to be there. They should have been playing and it would have been a more exciting game too. It was disappointing and we should have been there. But at least one New Orleans native made it to the Super Bowl.