It hits me at the end of our call. Two words: ‘Much love’.
There are artists who live their craft. That means there are no walls between them and their muse. No brittle mask they need to wear to reveal or conceal. Most crucially, even and especially if they’re not aware of it, there’s no off switch filtering out the life-permeating essence of their endeavour. When PJ Morton ended our Zoom call with, “much love”, I heard that luscious R&B lilt in his voice, that register that splits the difference between richness and sweetness to a sublime, heart-destined degree.
PJ Morton can’t turn off the R&B in him even if he wanted to. That’s why he’s won a Grammy. That’s how he won Maroon 5 over, a band he now plays in as a permanent keyboardist. That’s why his recent solo album Watch the Sun is the sensually luxurious, emotionally soul-celebrating and emphatically virtuosic experience that it is.
In this chat with us, he affirms the difference between doing and living and explains how it keeps his artistic world alive.
Congrats on a fantastic record! Before we get into it, I'd like to know your thoughts on the new Kendrick album.
Thank you! Kendrick's the artist's artist, man. He makes the world stop for a minute. I'm on my third listen. But I have to play it more. He's saying so much stuff that I have to take in spurts. I just love how freely he creates. What a time to be alive! To be making music while Kendrick Lamar's making music.
As an artist who inherited his medium through family and the church, how much room for experimentation – if any – is there within your craft?
I think there's a lot of room – that's what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to take those foundations and take them to different places. Like where Prince and Michael Jackson took James Brown. They took it two different places. We have to go into other avenues. Hip-hop didn't exist when Stevie Wonder was initially making music. That's why I'd put drums where he maybe wouldn't. Building on what came before allows us to expand and evolve.
How big a role does the gospel tradition play in your musicality?
It plays a huge role; it lends itself to just about everything I do, starting with the soul of it. I'm never ok with doing something that doesn't move somebody because everything about where I come from is about moving somebody with the music. Even if it's not stylistically gospel, it's in everything I do. As far as the aesthetics of it, they're what move me. The soul I heard in the first songs that I learned made me feel something. That's the well I always go back to drink from.
Fantastic. With Watch the Sun, what made you want to release an album of, essentially, love songs?
To be honest, that was selfish on my part. I made this album for myself. I made songs that I needed to hear, songs that I needed to get me through certain times. Songs that allowed me to get my emotions out and express how vulnerable I was feeling. That's what processing the times brought me. When we were in lockdown, these were the emotions that I was processed. So I made it selfishly, hoping that other people can relate.
It's known that your computer crashed as you were making the album. How did you keep going after that?
That's the thing: I probably didn't need to go on. I needed to stop and process. I was in such a rhythm from moving that even when we stopped, I didn't stop. It wasn't until my laptop shut down that I realised I needed to chill for a minute. I realised that there's nothing I'm competing for – everybody's in lockdown. We could actually stop and take a minute, which is something I've never had in my life. It was an adjustment to get there – and I was devastated in that moment – but it really gave me some depth and allowed me to really live more and eventually, made me a better writer and producer. It was a reset that ended up being a great thing.
A big chunk of real estate on the album is devoted to you asking for forgiveness from the lover you've wronged. What inspired that choice?
I see it as half-and-half: Half-love story and half-life story. The love story was what I had gone into in the years leading up to the pandemic. It was the lull of the pandemic that brought us back together in a deeper way and made it possible for us to deal with some things. Before that, I'd be gone so much that I wouldn't have time to deal with what was going on in my relationship. By the time I had written those songs, I had gone through them and come out of them on a greater side. I was able to process them and put them into words.
That was the inspiration: My life. I write songs in a way that talks about some of me, but also about other people as well. But this was all me.
This is something you're very qualified to answer: What it is about R&B that makes it such an eloquent tool to express the nuances of the human condition?
It has something to do with the foundation of the chords that built the genre. They borrow from gospel music and the church, those chord and melody choices. As we build on the genre, they don't get lost. They still matter. I think we've been lucky to carry the torch of that emotional connection of R&B.
Is that why you're so drawn to nostalgia and the past, as much as you plant your flag on new ground?
It's just what touched me the most when I was the most impressionable. I knew of Stevie Wonder because I was an '80s baby. He was huge. When I heard his music at age 12, I was transformed. I wasn't listening to what my friends were listening to or what was popular. I didn't even know what was current at the time. Besides, I wasn't listening to new Stevie! I was listening to '60s and '70s Stevie! That's what formed me – and never left. I take that with me no matter how current I become. I'm always coming back to that because that's what moves me.
And I can't move anybody else if I can't move myself. It's got to be believed.
Lastly, would you consider yourself to be an R&B purist?
No. I wouldn't consider myself an anything-purist. I just think that the gift – creativity – is too big to be 'purely' anything. We've all borrowed from and listened to all kinds of things. We've all had different experiences. It'd be a shame to limit anything that's musical and creative. Even if I don't like it, I'll always support the creativity behind trying to spread your wings. Purism isn't what I relate to at all.
I think the reason I'm still around is because I never got stuck in anything. I always kept growing, and that included the Internet, from MySpace on. I didn't fight it. I didn't have a major label and the Internet was all I had. It's like, 'Be like water'.
I'm going to find out my way of living in the world we're in now.