PJ Morton Taps Into His Purest Form With 'PAUL'

Aug 11, 2019

It's been a good year for PJ Morton. In February, the musician headlined the Super Bowl with his Maroon 5 bandmates and won his first Grammy. Now, he's on tour for his latest and perhaps most personal album, PAUL, out now.

The record's simple name, shared with none other than the singer-pianist himself, is a testament to its personality. Morton's family and friends have always called him PJ to distinguish him from his father, Paul Senior. Morton likes that nickname but still, he explains, something about the name "Paul" distills himself and his voice.

"I came into the world as Paul. It's the purest form of who I am," Morton says. "My journey and my quest is always to try to get to the purest form of who I am artistically."

Over the past few years, there have been a few moments when Morton considered giving up his solo career. When he moved home to New Orleans from Los Angeles almost four years ago, he says, it was with the intention of quitting his solo work. And before PAUL was announced, it had been rumored that Gumbo (2017) and its follow-up live version, Gumbo Unplugged (2018), would be Morton's last solo releases.

But through that time, Morton found new success that kept him going. Gumbo was nominated for two Grammy Awards. The next year, Gumbo Unplugged was nominated for three, one of which it won for the song "How Deep Is Your Love." Those wins required Morton to find confident footing as an individual artist, footing that continues to ground him in PAUL. Given Maroon 5's popularity, carving a space for that individuality has been easier said than done.

"I started to have all this success with Maroon, and I got confused as to whether I was supposed to chase that same success, whether I was supposed to create music that translated to Maroon 5 fans," Morton reflects. "It just all became kind of confusing and cluttered for me in my brain. And I had to step back to say, 'Who is PJ and what does PJ want to say?'"

On his latest record, Morton says what he wants to say loud and clear, speaking from a city where his attachment is evident. Like Gumbo before it, this album was recorded in Morton's hometown of New Orleans. "PAUL was just a continuation of being home and being in my zone, my comfort zone," Morton says. "I believe I'll stay home in New Orleans now forever. I don't think I'm moving anymore."

Morton's commitment to New Orleans colors PAUL. On the track "BUY BACK THE BLOCK," Morton calls for his community to invest in itself. The song opens with a clip of a newscast announcing rapper Nipsey Hussle's death. Morton describes how that event was a call to action for him.

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"One of the main things that drew me to him was the way that he took care of his community, and really invested in his community," Morton says of Hussle. " I think that's just very important... He was in L.A., but I think my version is to do it in New Orleans. And other people are supposed to do it in their cities."

Recently, Morton's efforts to "buy back the block" have manifested in his work to save Buddy Bolden's historic New Orleans home from demolition. Morton says that the jazz pioneer's house is currently undergoing renovation, and will soon become a museum and a music clubhouse for local children.

PAUL's closer, "MAGA?", takes on the idea of community from a different angle. "If I see another black boy die at the hands of this / I don't know / Don't wanna lose control," Morton sings in the first verse. On the chorus, he questions the implications of the MAGA slogan: "Make America Great Again / I think they mean it was great for them / 'Cause it wasn't so great for everyone back then / So when?"

Morton characterizes "BUY BACK THE BLOCK" and "MAGA?" as two sides of the same thematic coin. "I think we're talking about lifting up a certain community and I think we're talking about ignoring that same community," he says. "And for that reason, that same community having to invest in themselves and make sure that there's ownership, and that there's some control there."

It's clear from PAUL that Morton has figured out what he wants to say as a solo artist, at least in this moment.

"I'm just much clearer, much more at peace," Morton says. "And this will probably always change. I'll have to learn and have growing pains for something else later. But right now, at this point, I feel like I'm just super clear on who I am and what I'm supposed to be doing right now. And it feels good."

Web intern Rosalind Faulkner contributed to the digital version of this story. Listen to the full aired interview at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's been a good year for artist PJ Morton. He headlined the Super Bowl with his bandmates in Maroon 5, won his first Grammy and is on tour now for his new and most personal album yet, "PAUL."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KID AGAIN")

PJ MORTON: (Singing) I'm  going back to all those dreams I once had before I let all these things in my head...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's been a long journey from playing the keyboard for Maroon 5 to gaining success as a solo artist. PJ Morton joins me now from our studios in New York. Welcome.

MORTON: Yes, thank you for having me. Good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about the title of this album. Paul is your real name, right?

MORTON: Paul is my real name, yes, but because my father's name is Paul as well, my family has always called me PJ just to distinguish us in the house.

(LAUGHTER)

MORTON: But for me, you know, even though most people call me PJ, I feel like I came in the world as Paul. You know, it's the purest form of who I am, and my journey and my quest is always to try to get to the purest form of who I am artistically. And that's why I thought it'd be a good name for this record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KID AGAIN")

MORTON: (Singing) You just need to believe like a kid again, like a kid again, kid again. You just need to...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, what is the kind of difference between being part of a group like Maroon 5 with a very distinct identity and then trying to find your own voice outside of that?

MORTON: Well, I mean, I think being in a band, you know, it's majority rule. So, I mean, I love my band, I love Maroon 5 and I love what we do, but it's not always what I'm saying individually. It's not what I would speak to and everything that I'm thinking and going through all the time. So I was actually a solo artist before Maroon 5. So it's always been a lot of support. I think a lot of the struggle was me personally. I started to have all this success with Maroon, and I got confused as to whether I was supposed to chase that same success. It just all became kind of confusing and cluttered for me in my brain. And I had to step back to say who is PJ and what does PJ want to say?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRACTICING")

MORTON: (Singing) They always told me my ideas would never work. Go to college, get your degree so you could go to work. Yeah, because you're going to need a backup plan just in case anything happens. That’s the only thing...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about what PJ wants to say in "PAUL." You recorded this album in New Orleans where you grew up.

MORTON: I did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It seems like it's giving you the clarity that you were looking for.

MORTON: Exactly. It's true. It's true.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUY BACK THE BLOCK")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Confirming that rapper Nipsey was shot and killed outside his clothing store here. I was talking with a lot of people out here who are...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's a song on this album called "Buy Back The Block," and it starts with the news of rapper Nipsey Hussle's death when he was shot earlier this year.

MORTON: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the song has an uplifting beat. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUY BACK THE BLOCK")

MORTON: (Singing) We got to buy back the block. Oh, buy back the block. Yeah. Oh, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did you want to say with this song?

MORTON: You know, Nipsey Hussle's passing - and I didn't know Nipsey personally - but his passing really kind of was a call to action for me. I think that his life meant something. And one of the main things that drew me to him was the way he took care of his community and really invested in his community. And I think that's just very important. And for me, he's in LA, but I feel like my version is to do it in New Orleans. And - but I think...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you saved the former home of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden from demolition in New Orleans, right?

MORTON: That's right. Yeah, we're renovating his home now and turning it into a museum and also a music club house for kids. I feel like Buddy Bolden's - the reason he thought of this new thing jazz is because he wasn't complacent and he wanted to break out of any boxes that were there. And I just want us to continue to innovate the way he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUY BACK THE BLOCK")

MORTON: (Singing) Got to stick together. We all we got. Buy back the block.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Buy back the block.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's another song I wanted to ask you about. And it's called "MAGA?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGA?")

MORTON: (Singing) Make America Great Again. I think they mean when it was great for them because it wasn't so great for everyone back then...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So talk to me a little bit about this. Why did you feel it was important to talk about this political moment in your music?

MORTON: I'm trying to see when we'd like to go back to. You know, when you say Make America Great Again, what period are you talking about? Because a lot of times, they're referencing the 1950s when you had the American dream with the white picket fence. But at that same time, we couldn't drink from the same water fountains. You know, we couldn't vote the same way. We couldn't do a lot of the same things that these people who would like to go back to this America were able to do. So it was really just a - it's a simple question for me, and it came out of curiosity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGA?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Make America Great Again. Again, when?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you see the song "MAGA?" and "Buy Back The Block" any differently right now? I'm speaking, of course, of the mass shootings that have taken place and just the rise in hate crimes generally. Are these songs sort of two sides of the same coin in a way?

MORTON: I think so. Yeah, I think they're all connected. I think we're talking about lifting up a certain community. And I think we're talking about ignoring that same community. And for that reason, that same community having to invest in themselves.

. (SOUNDBITE OF PJ MORTON SONG, “YEARNING FOR YOUR LOVE”)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your parents are deeply religious. Your father is a preacher, your mother is a pastor. And I understand you still perform in churches.

MORTON: Sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How come?

MORTON: For better or worse, really, on certain things, it shaped me to have integrity, you know, to have a standard in my music and in life and also not just go back and perform. But I feel like even the way - you know, when I started, these love songs and secular songs, as a lot of church people call it, weren't accepted there. You know, the fact that I can perform in churches now and do my own music just speaks to some of the trailblazing that I had to do, some of the getting beat up that I had to do younger, you know, and growing up in this. So it's important for me to reach back and continue to try to instill whatever I have into the community that raised me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEARNING FOR YOUR LOVE")

MORTON: (Singing) My heart is yearning for your love. Oh...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: PJ Morton's new album is "PAUL."

Thank you very much.

MORTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEARNING FOR YOUR LOVE")

MORTON: (Singing) Yearning for your love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.