PJ Morton is in the midst of his greatest musical life yet. Since 2017, he’s released six albums—his most recent, Watch The Sun, is the latest from his label, Morton Records. After 16 Grammy nominations and four wins, he’s done submitting to anyone else’s will except God’s and his own.
To free himself of pressure, he ventured to the hidden studio in rural Louisiana where Stevie Wonder worked on his 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Though he already felt it was time to reflect, life further proved that it was time to be still and intentional.
“I just had to go a little deeper and get under another layer and really give that vulnerability,” he candidly explained via Zoom. “The different process for me this time was that I just lived with a lot of the music beds before I ever got to lyrics, which is just not my norm. I have a bunch of voice notes from like, March 2020, and it was just like it was coming so fast. That was when I was happy about the pandemic.”
However, just as Morton found himself in a groove, his laptop crashed, and he lost all of his new music. “All I had to show for them were these voice notes. And thank God that saved me,” he explained. Taking the sign to slow down in all aspects of his life, including with his wife and children, he opted to “live first and then speak about it.”
With VIBE, Morton discussed the process of merging all his musical lives into one on Watch The Sun, where his journey as an artist began, independence, fluidity, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk about your time at Morehouse. I heard there was a lot of happenstance that took place early on to get to this lane that you’re now in. How did that part of your life affect your musical journey today?
Atlanta in Morehouse, the whole AUC [Atlanta University Center] experience ] was a big part of my development. Before that, I wasn’t really an artist. I was more like a songwriter-producer; I wanted to sing, but I didn’t really see that avenue for me. Getting to Atlanta with people like Janelle Monae coming up with me, it was just a special time. I was just experiencing and for me, it just opened up my world in a spiritual sense. Then in my career, I moved off campus and met India.Arie my second year at Morehouse.
Her brother happened to be living in the same apartment complex that I was in. I was playing a piano and she heard me. We started talking about Stevie Wonder; one thing led to another, and we became friends. I wrote a song [“Interested”] for her second album, [‘Voyage To India’] which won a Grammy during my junior year at Morehouse. When I graduated, I linked with Jermaine Dupri. Atlanta was right in the middle of everything, a big piece of how I got from point A to B.
I’ve heard a lot that you choose to be an independent artist because you like your independence. Why do you value your freedom so much?
Well, that’s how I started. It started out as a necessity, really. I wanted to, like everybody else, be signed to a major label. All my heroes were—Stevie [Wonder], Michael Jackson, everybody huge was signed to a major label. At one point, that was the only way, especially in Black music. White rock bands and white folk singers, they understood that independence, that they could make a career. But for us, it seemed like we needed a machine and a system. I started watching and studying people like Dave Matthews and seeing how I could turn that into what I was doing. And there were some guys before me like Eric Roberson and Frank McComb who were in the soul space, and I could see how you could do it.
Once I finally got that major deal that I thought I wanted, I realized, “Oh, I really am supposed to be indie.” Those times you want what you can’t have, and when I was in that system, I’m like, “Nah, I’m for sure. I’m supposed to be an independent artist.” Now, it doesn’t even look independent anymore, which is beautiful. It used to be a stigma. You start winning Grammys and stuff, then you look like you competing. It’s a beautiful thing.
This album has elements of funk, soul, pop, R&B—so many different layers. With it being similar to what you’ve tackled throughout your career overall, were you purposely trying to have a myriad of things on the album?
No, I think that’s my most honest expression. I was influenced and still am open to everything. I’m always listening to anything that moves me. It doesn’t matter. The Beatles and James Taylor actually were as impactful for me as Stevie [Wonder] because I’m an R&B/soul singer. As far as a songwriter, pop music and singer-songwriter music was as influential for me. This album is sort of like a magnum opus in a way, you know—it’s like all the things I’ve gathered over the years, it’s all on this album. It all came together and wasn’t intentional. It just was where all of these songs were taking me.
Very organic for you.
Yeah. Very much so. No forcing. Be like water.
You’ve talked about how people don’t always understand your vision for things, trying to box you into one certain label or genre. You’ve said you just want “PJ to be PJ.” What does that mean, and how did that manifest in this current album?
I haven’t felt that way in a long time, actually; people started leaving me alone, especially as things started to ramp up. I think I’ve proven who I am long enough now where they don’t box me as much. But I think, like you said, there’s so many places that I go on this album and that is just really me. That is no forcing. That is without thought at all, and that’s the way it manifests itself. You know, I feel like the album is half love songs and half life songs. That has been a big transition and probably a result of everything because I only talk about love and relationships basically. [On] Gumbo, I really challenged [myself] to talk about more than that. “First Begin” was the only love song on that album. I really challenged myself, and I feel like even the way this is both. It’s kind of like Gumbo was not trying to do that. Paul got back to the love songs, and Watch The Sun is all those things—a good mixture of them. That’s how it manifests itself.
As far as the guest features on your album, it’s stacked.
I’m really big on not thinking of specific features before I create. It can seep into the creative process and guide you while you’re creating. I just don’t believe in that, so I created these songs in a pure way. Because I started off as a songwriter-producer, I’m always looking like, ‘Who could fit this? like, “Oh, I hear this person on this.” And that’s what it became, literally. I’m like almost to the point where I get obsessed like if I can’t this person on it, I don’t even want to put this song out. These songs started calling for it. When I heard that intro of “Still Believe,” I said I need that Jill [Scott] poem. [With] “On My Way” it was like, “I’m not putting this out if I don’t hear El [DeBarge] on it.” Of course, it was the same way I felt about Nas and Stevie Wonder. Like what is going on? This is crazy.
With Watch The Sun being considered your magnum opus, are you getting into films next? Scoring and composing?
I think that is a natural progression for me. I’m scoring an animated film right now that I’m really excited about because the director was already a fan of mine. I could just really be PJ in another way. I get to create these weird songs, but it’s still me. I’m not forcing anything, but I would love to continue to do more of that just because I feel like my songs are so visual anyway, that making music to visuals is very appealing to me.
I do want to take a break after this [album] because I feel like I’ve put so much into this. I don’t have much to say after this, just get on the road and play it and let it come to life live, which is what I enjoy most after an album. There’s also a musical that I’m working on as well that I’m doing the music for. So, I just continue creating as I’m inspired.
So, naturally, my final question would be about ”The Better Benediction.” It’s not your traditional gospel song, but I know you have gospel influences. How did that particular song come to culminate in this album?
It was really just a groove. It was actually another song before—a song that I had for years, and we were trying to record it, and we were not beating the demo. Like, the band. Musically, the demo was just good, and I just could not beat it. I started switching the chords a little bit, and we played that groove for like 10 minutes. It kind of put us in a trance a little bit. For me, I just wanted it to be something that you could chant or something that was repetitive. It just felt like in spirit, not necessarily sonically, but it did feel like the end. It felt like, ‘all right, good night,’ the rolling credits song. Like a benediction, like growing up in church when we’re all let out, and they say the last prayer and put protection over you. I just wanted to end on a positive note on the album and send everybody home on that note. That’s why I called it the better benediction. Say that three times.