PJ Morton on new solo album and performing with Maroon 5: 'This is an amazing life'

Morton's new release, 'Watch the Sun', features collaborations with soul singer Stevie Wonder and hip-hop star Nas

PJ Morton performing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April. A week later he was playing with Maroon 5 at the Pyramids in Giza, Egypt. AP
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PJ Morton is living his best life.

As the keyboardist for Maroon 5, he has played sold-out shows in arenas around the world, as well as a rare concert in May, in front of the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt.

In April, Morton, as a songwriter and producer, received a Grammy Award for his contribution to We Are by Jon Batiste, which won Album of the Year.

The same month, he also released his best album to date as a solo artist, the critically acclaimed Watch the Sun, featuring collaborations with soul singer Stevie Wonder and hip-hop star Nas.

Listening to this list of achievements, which all occurred within six months, Morton, 41, allows himself to feel that little bit of satisfaction.

“You can say that I am firing on all cylinders,” he tells The National. "It is pretty amazing and these victories are all the more sweet because I took the long route to get to where I am.

“And that journey includes a lot of people saying 'no' and disappointments. So right now I just feel grateful because I remember a time when my career was not like it is now.”

The son of a preacher man

His level-headedness and humility stems from him growing up in a spiritual household.

Morton was born in New Orleans. His father was a gospel singer, so Morton's first interactions with music occurred while performing piano as a child during church services.

He entered the music industry as an artist for hire, and he did well for himself. He contributed to India Arie's Grammy-winning 2002 album Voyage to India and collaborated with RnB singers Faith Evans and Musiq Soulchild.

In 2010, he joined Maroon 5, initially as a fill-in for former member Jesse Carmichael, before becoming full time two years later.

Despite the commercial pop sounds explored by the group to great success, it is luscious song arrangements and the reflective lyricism of gospel music that Morton draws from when working on his solo albums, of which there are now 10. Watch the Sun lovingly captures both.

It is a stirring and uplifting work composed during a time of deep uncertainty.

With Covid-19 shutting down live events for nearly two years, Morton found himself at home with nothing to do.

His resulting anxiety was heightened when a computer hardware crash wiped out an early batch of songs he had written for Watch the Sun.

"It was devastating and it was really then that it hit me that a lot of us, because of the pandemic, will not be doing anything for a while," he says.

"I realised I had to sit back and really think about things and process what was happening. It was really from that point that I eventually began writing songs that became the album."

Watch the Sun is Morton's most ruminative work. It jettisons some of the experimentation of his 2017 album Gumbo.

Where Gumbo relished in its fusion of hip-hop, gospel and soul, the new album is streamlined and even-paced.

The approach complements Watch the Sun's introspective themes, a lot of which are captured in song titles such as the neo-soul number My Peace and the funky Be Like Water, the latter featuring the aforementioned guest slots by Stevie Wonder and Nas.

Morton describes these tracks, Watch the Sun's fifth and sixth, as forming the thematic heart of the album.

"They speak of the need to find balance during the pandemic where there is a lot of uncertainty," he says. "I remember just struggling to find that balance during the lockdown and it really came down to a combination of holding on to my peace of mind — which inspired the song My Peace — and at the same time being like water. Meaning you have to pivot and be open to change."

Maintaining that balance remains ongoing for Morton.

Not only does it allow him to keep working on an established solo career as a songwriter and producer alongside being a member of one of the world’s biggest pop bands, but it keeps the self-confessed “church kid” steady in the tumultuous world of music.

“I am a walking dichotomy and I think that a lot of us are like that.

"What I have learned is that everything is necessary. You can't have art without entertainment, or be so serious all the time and not have fun. All of it is important and necessary.”

Taking his show on the road

Morton says his Maroon 5 commitments won't clash with promotional plans for Watch the Sun.

He plans to combine both by performing intimate evening solo concerts in some of the cities the band visits.

"I can see myself doubling up on certain things and doing piano pop-up shows in places that have good venues and piano bars," he says.

"I love it because it gives me more experiences. I remember back in May I played a solo show in New Orleans, then days later I was playing in front of thousands of people at the Pyramids in Egypt and then in Abu Dhabi.

“This is an amazing life and something that not a lot of people have experienced. So I am just grateful for what I have been blessed with."

Scroll through the gallery below to see Maroon 5 performing at Abu Dhabi's Etihad Arena

Updated: June 21, 2022, 7:02 AM
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