As a songwriter and musician, PJ Morton has basically done it all. For the past half-decade, Morton has earned Grammy Award nominations (and wins) every calendar year (including most recently this year for his work on Jon Batiste’s seminal record, We Are, which won Album of the Year). Morton, who grew up in New Orleans, has played multiple instruments, sang in the church, and collaborated with some of the biggest names in the history of the art form. But while all of this makes for amazing memories and has allowed for many accolades, it can burn someone out. And that’s exactly what happened to Morton.
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In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, he felt it acutely. When the pandemic hit, Morton figured he could take a break for a few weeks, not knowing the crisis would continue for a few years. But the time off helped a great deal. When it first hit, Morton went back to his native New Orleans and began working on some music on his computer. But when his computer subsequently crashed, he had to take a real deep breath.
“I took it as a sign,” Morton tells American Songwriter, with a laugh. “After I went crazy for a second. I took it as a sign to stop and kind of be present, to just live and do the things that I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to do with my kids and my family. That rejuvenated me as a songwriter. It refreshed me. I was getting burnt out and I didn’t realize it. I was moving so fast.”
The result of his break was time to reflect. But, of course, that soon led to the process of making his next album: Watch The Sun, which is set to drop on Friday (April 29).
“For me,” Morton says, “it was processing all of that. That got me to writing this new record and digging a little deeper than I had before. I didn’t know what the future was. So, I reset. And I think I’ve written some of the best music that I’ve ever written.”
On Morton’s new LP, there are great songs and great cameos. Perhaps the standout is his recent single, “Be Like Water,” which features both Stevie Wonder and Nas. Also on the record are Jill Scott, Wale, JoJo, and more. And to create the LP, Morton says, he went deeper with his subject matter and became more vulnerable in his songs.
“It was necessary for me to be more intentional,” he says, “and make it more than just about good music. That wasn’t going to be enough for me on this record. I feel like I had to share and connect in deeper ways. That has been refreshing for me. I want to continue to grow.”
Morton’s growth as an artist first began, though, when he was a child. Morton grew up in a musical family in one of the American centers for music: New Orleans. His dad was a singer and his uncle was a skilled keyboard player. On Christmas, his father would have his children perform in impromptu family talent shows. Morton played drums at three years old, guitar a little later and he began playing piano around eight. It was around then that music began to truly take hold.
“I felt like it was certain melodies that made me emotional,” he says. “I felt them. I could understand that certain chords did certain things to me, made me feel a certain way.”
Yet, even then, Morton found himself on the shy side of things. It wasn’t until he was 14 years old that he began to sing in public—thanks, again, to his father. He began then to fall in love with Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, and even James Taylor. He began to write his own songs, picking up on segues, chord changes, and the like in other artists’ works. Before then, song structure and artistic choices hadn’t been on his mind. Now, they were. Fast forward to Morton’s adult life and all of that work and putting himself out there has paid off. First, as an independent artist then as a one signed to a major label, and now (happily) back to an independent.
“When I was coming up,” he says, “unless you were a jazz player or signed to Cash Money or No Limit and you were a rapper, you couldn’t get your songs out there. It was pretty limiting.”
Early in the modern history of New Orleans, there were many music stars (see: Fats Domino). But those artists were often taken advantage of, which has perhaps led the city to be gun-shy when it comes to working with major outlets or letting big business into the Crescent City. But Morton found a way for himself. First, he worked as an indie artist then later in the early 2000s, he began working full time with the popular rock group Maroon 5. That led to a deal with Young Money, which he enjoyed. Now, though, he’s back to working for himself. Whereas he’d once been rejected by every major label, now he’s a multi-time Grammy nominee and winner.
“It’s all been necessary for my journey,” Morton says. “It’s amazing that we’re here now.”
In New Orleans, surrounded by top talent, Morton was able to make music “freely,” he says. He took in the spirit of the city and allowed it to flow through him. Not only did he work with Batiste on his new multi-time award-winning LP, but he created a standout record all his own. Top tracks on the new Watch The Sun album include the hypnotic “The Better Benediction” and poetic “Still Believe,” which features the sweet-sounding Jill Scott. It’s another accomplishment in the line of many that include his work with Batiste.
“Winning album of the year [for We Are] is crazy,” Morton says. “I didn’t expect that. But I’m just along for the ride. All thanks to Jon. He brought along the city for this one. It’s a beautiful thing.”
With enough momentum to power the International Space Station, Morton is set now for an upcoming tour. While making his new album “took a lot out” of him, he says, he’s now ready, focused, and excited to play the new songs live and see what they’re made of in front of audiences. With such a large amount of live performance downtime now behind him, he’s ready to hit the road again and showcase his wares on stage.
“That’s when they really start to find their way,” Morton says of the songs.
And when it comes to his love of music, he says it’s always been a reliable pal.
“It’s always a constant friend,” Morton says. “Whether I’m writing it or listening to or producing it, music is just constantly there for me.”
Photo by Patrick Melon/ Courtesy Shore Fire Media