The singer, keyboard player and producer sings about not fitting neatly in any box on the song from his new album, "Gumbo."
P.J. Morton has had his feet in a number of musical streams. He grew up in gospel, and saw one possible future that direction. He also signed to Young Money Cash Money, so another possible future laid along the R&B/hip-hop path. His own R&B instincts often lead in a more timeless, Stevie Wonder-like direction, and in the midst of all this he entered the pop world when he joined Maroon 5 in 2012. Morton returned to New Orleans last year to launch a new label, Morton Records, and his first release, the Bounce & Soul Vol. 1 mixtape didn’t exactly clarify things. If anything, it restated his interest in all of the above.
Morton played Jazz Fest’s first weekend with Maroon 5, and he returns today to play Congo Square at 3:30 on his own. He has a new EP, Gumbo, and it’s no easier to boil down than his CV, but even more than Bounce & Soul Vol. 1, it suggests that a career that embraces all of his interests is possible. He sings about not falling neatly in any camp on “Claustrophobic,” and rather than reach for a metaphor that might mediate the experience, he takes listeners into the board room and folds lines he heard in meetings directly into the song. “PJ you’re not street enough,” one sings at one point.
“I was still living in L.A. when I wrote the song,” he says. “I was having these meetings, and it felt like they were all reading from a script. It was like they weren’t really hearing me, and were instead going off the way they thought things were supposed to be.”
As labels encouraged him to pick a lane, Morton was in a unique position to understand the trade-offs on the table. As part of Maroon 5, he knew what doors the labels could (and couldn’t) open, and he knew what it could mean to have them bring all their tools to bear in support of an artist. These weren’t abstract terms, so he knew the consequences of choosing to retain his creative freedom. Still, how could he really go into business with someone who only wanted to see part of who he was musically.
“It was easy to write about in the moment,” Morton says. “Writing is my release. I went to what I know and got my feelings out.”
He was frustrated, but the executives weren’t telling him anything he hadn’t already realized about himself. “I’ve lived in-between things my whole life, and I’m okay with that.”
Morton acknowledges that it was also easier for him to stick to his guns because, with Maroon 5, he has been able to reach a lot of his more mainstream goals. He wasn’t desperate to get in the game because he was already in it, and he wasn’t desperate for a sweet contract because he’d already got paid. “All of those things I’ve aspired to; I’ve hit most of them,” he says.
My Spilt Milk will have more with PJ Morton on Gumbo and Morton Records after Jazz Fest.