Morton the label owner has goals for Morton the artist for the first studio release from his Morton Records.

pj morton photo by greg miles for my spilt milk
P.J. Morton by Greg Miles

When P.J. Morton released Gumbo earlier this spring, it had a job to do. He had released 2008’s live album Live from LA on his Morton Records, but at the time the label was more of a placeholder. He returned to New Orleans in 2015 to make a go of it, and Gumbo is the first studio album recorded specifically to be released on it. Morton wants it to say what the label was about.

“We had a good time making music without the pressure of what’s going to work on radio,” Morton says. “Radio and things like that didn’t go through my mind, and that’s the tone I want to set. While I want Morton to be successful—and I know that it will be—it won’t be at the cost of trying to cater to certain things. I think we’ll establish a movement where radio and those things will have to come to us rather than us play a game to get to them.” 

Morton will play a free (with RSVP) pre-Essence Festival “Soundbytes” jam at the Ace Hotel’s Three Keys with guests DJ Beverly Bond and Teedra Moses, and Friday he will host the free Morton Records’ Day Party BBQ at 411 S. Rampart St. with music by DJ G-Cue and performances by 3D Na’Tee and Denisia. They aren’t on the label, but Morton thinks he'll be able to make an announcement about signees soon.

Morton moved back to New Orleans with a mission. He left town in the early 2000s because he didn’t see the musical future he wanted at home, but now that he has realized many of his dreams as a member of Maroon 5 and a solo performer, he came back to help some hometown talent reach similar goals without leaving. 

“What I love about New Orleans is, they don’t really care what’s going on in the rest of the world,” he said last year. “That’s why I think it should be packaged and shipped out. I want to get this sound and get this talent and make it here, but it’s all about exporting for me.”

Morton is talking to a few prospective Morton Records artists, but at the moment he is his label’s flagship artist, and Gumbo highlights the specific space that he—and by extension, his label—occupies. At Jazz Fest this year, his set on the Congo Square Stage made it clear that he has gospel in his background as Morton performed pop funk and soul with spiritual fire, but there were no secret messages. He wasn’t sneaking the Lord into the corners of his songs, but his years of singing in church as a minister’s son means he can easily access the uplift in front of a crowd.  

Claustrophobia” on Gumbo deals the challenge others have had getting a handle on a guy with that fire, a hip-hop background, and a love of Stevie Wonder. In it, he recalls label meetings where he was told, “PJ you’re not street enough” and “PJ you’re not mainstream enough.” In the chorus, he rails against feeling artistically boxed in by others:

But I must admit, I'm claustrophobic
I have a hard time trying to fit into your small mind
And I have a habit of dreaming bigger than anything
I can see right in front of me.

Being told all the things you’re not sounds painful, but Morton says the conversations were frustrating more than anything else. “I’ve been aware that I’ve lived between things my whole life,” he says. “When I started with the R&B stuff, it was inspirational but it wasn’t inspirational enough to be gospel. Then it wasn’t edgy enough to be the hardest R&B thing. Now I’m in a pop thing, but I’m not pop enough to be pop. I embraced that a long time ago, and lived somewhere in the middle. That’s who I am and I’m okay with that. It doesn’t hurt that I have a release that’s very mainstream too.”

The song was written out of frustration with very real conversations he had with label reps in Los Angeles, and he understood the trade-offs coded into those conversations. “I knew what it was to have all those things that they were giving me key words to, so I know what it takes to get that as well.”  

He brought in rapper Pell to contribute guest bars on the track. He’d worked on some Pell’s tracks, so they already had a relationship, and Morton thought Pell made sense because he occupies a similar space. “He’s not right down the middle either,” Morton says. “He could speak to the subject and bring a fresh perspective to it.”

Morton recognizes that his Maroon 5 success has made it easier to pursue his own vision, but his vision isn’t a radical one. His instincts lead him in broadly accessible directions. You can hear the past 40 years of R&B and funk in his sound, and Morton wanted Gumbo to be conventionally musical with string arrangements and analog keyboards and synthesizers. His sound doesn’t reflect radio’s priorities, but it wouldn’t take an aneurysm to get a program director to play tracks from nine-song mini-album. He also wanted to speak to the dramatic times we live in his way. “Most of my music has been about love and relationships, but I felt like I had to say more this time around.” Since he comes from an inspirational background, Morton doesn’t meet cynicism with cynicism. Instead, you can see his message in his song titles: “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” “Alright,” “Sticking to My Guns,” and “How Deep is Your Love?” (A Bee Gees cover). 

As a label owner, he has goals for the album, but they’re the goals Morton would set for himself as an artist as well. “I know what I want to sell to make my money back,” he says half-joking, but his bigger goal is to have an impact—something harder to measure. “There’s a certain feeling of victory that I’ll know when it happens. But Gumbo is more of a statement piece, and if it makes that statement, I’m happy.” He works from the belief that if the release has an impact, the numbers will follow.

As a label owner, he has to deal with the realities of getting into the label game at a time when the record industry is a grease fire. Streaming is growing, and the payouts to artists for streaming are stingy at best. As frustrating as it is, Morton got a glimpse of what streaming means for his fans when he took Gumbo down from the streaming services to make a few tweaks. “People went crazy,” he says. “It’s not on Apple Music anymore! It’s not on Spotify anymore! And I went Wow. Some of these people were real fans, but they didn’t buy the music. They streamed it. That’s the way they listen to music.” He’s not sure what the best way forward is, but since no musician won by fighting with his or her fans, he knows he can’t fight it. 

“If this is what you do naturally, let me build something that makes that work. Ultimately, I want people to listen to it. If you’re not going to buy it, listen to it a lot!