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The Piano Album
Release date: 2.14.20
Label: Morton Records
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“Everybody calls me PJ,” says GRAMMY-winning solo artist and Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton, “but I came into this world as Paul. That struck me as the perfect title for this album because Paul is the purest form of who I am, and that’s exactly what these songs are. They’re the most honest expression of myself and my art that I’ve ever made.”
Recorded at Morton’s own studio in his native New Orleans, ‘PAUL’ is indeed a work of self-reflection, but more than that, it’s mirror held up to the rest of us, a powerful reckoning with modern America that’s unafraid to ask the tough questions and illuminate the difficult truths at a time when we need to hear them most. There is joy in Morton’s music, to be sure, but much like the gospel songs he grew up on, it’s tempered here with a recognition that there is pain in this world, too, and that we all share in the responsibility to lift our brothers and sisters up towards a better tomorrow. Fueled by a blend of old-school soul and vintage R&B that’s infused with 21st century pop and hip-hop sensibilities, Morton’s songs focus on love and hope, but they pull no punches, celebrating the lasting power of pride, determination, and success while simultaneously calling out the cruelty of injustice, oppression, and prejudice. The result is a timely record, but also a timeless one, an ambitious and profoundly moving statement from a visionary writer, performer, and producer who just two years ago planned on permanently retiring his solo career.
“In my mind, ‘Gumbo’ was going to be my final record,” Morton says of his breakout 2017 release. “I had moved back to New Orleans at the time, and I decided I was just going to record the solo album that I’d always wanted to make, the way I’d always wanted to make it, and then call it a day.”
Who could blame him? Between his considerable work in the studio and on the road with Maroon 5, serving as music director for Solange, and running his own label, Morton’s plate was already overflowing.
“I was exhausted,” he confesses. “I was struggling to figure out who I wanted to be and where I could fit in as a solo artist, and it honestly left me feeling pretty defeated. Coming back to New Orleans inspired a lot of new growth and perspective, though, and it helped me realize that the best thing I could be was myself.”
Hailed by NPR as one of the year’s most noteworthy R&B albums, ‘Gumbo’ debuted in the Top 10 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, garnered a pair of GRAMMY nominations, and racked up more than 15 million streams on Spotify alone. Invigorated by the album’s reception, Morton returned the following year with ‘Gumbo Unplugged,’ a live reimagining of the record that prompted another three GRAMMY nominations (including a win for Best Traditional R&B Performance) and landed him interviews and performances everywhere from The Daily Show, CNN, and TNT’s Inside the NBA, to The Tonight Show and the NPR Tiny Desk. The New Yorker praised Morton’s “buttery-smooth vocals,” while BET raved that he had “the soulful, passionate taste that R&B yearns for,” and Offbeat hailed him as “a once-in-a-generation talent” in a 2018 cover story.
“Success put me in a place of gratitude,” Morton reflects. “That GRAMMY win didn’t just represent a song for me; it represented all the years of grinding and dedication.”
Success can be a tricky thing, though. With a GRAMMY under his belt, Morton felt the weight of expectations for the first time in his solo career, and when the pressure to repeat what he’d pulled off with ‘Gumbo’ threatened to derail him, he decided to focus on getting back to his roots. That meant returning to his home studio in New Orleans and tapping into his truest, most spontaneous self; it meant reconnecting with Paul.
“When you start to get strategic, that’s when you start to get in trouble as an artist,” Morton explains. “I realized that those ‘Gumbo’ records connected with people because they were honest and pure, and if I wanted to connect with people again, I had to get back to being honest and pure and making music I was passionate about.”
That undeniable passion is on full display with ‘PAUL,’ which showcases Morton’s gifts as a bandleader, songwriter, and studio wizard in equal measure. While he’s joined by a number of guests on the album (JoJo duets on the heartfelt “Say So,” Rapsody contributes a verse at the top of the progressive jazz-tinged “Don’t Break My Heart,” and Jazmine Sullivan shines on the classic soul of “Built For Love”), Morton demonstrates more confidence in his solo abilities here than ever before. Album opener “Ready” alternates between a pulsating R&B groove and a hip-hop breakdown as it channels the carefree fun of falling in love, while the solemn “Don’t Let Go” advocates for perseverance with a gorgeous gospel-meets-vocoder a capella performance, and the playful “Kid Again” goes full 90’s throwback in its celebration of the innocence and limitlessness of childhood.
“That childhood mentality is something I’m always striving for,” says Morton. “When you’re a kid, you’re not afraid to dream big, but as you grow up, life tends to make you think smaller. Dreaming big is the way you change the world, though.”
Morton makes it clear on the album that there’s much in this world that’s in need of change. “Practicing” (which features an appearance from acclaimed Nigerian-American rapper Tobe Nwigwe) embraces the power of tearing up the rules and marching to the beat of your own drum, while the potent “MAGA?” tackles the willful blindness of the president’s favorite catchphrase with an assist from prominent political commentator Angela Rye (“America is great / For who?” she asks), and the raucous street party feel of “Buy Back The Block” belies its mournful roots in the death of Nipsey Hussle.
“His passing inspired me to want to move to action,” explains Morton. “I imagined this song as an anthem for ownership, for going back to our neighborhoods and protecting them and growing them.”
Morton did just that in New Orleans, saving the former home of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden from demolition and raising funds to convert the space into a museum and recording studio with a focus on fostering the next generation of local artists. The house was located just steps from the church where Morton’s father preached and where Morton himself first began playing music, so it held a special significance.
“I didn’t grow up playing ‘traditional’ New Orleans music, but I’m a New Orleans boy through and through,” he explains. “Buddy’s the one who planted the seeds for what we consider ‘traditional’ now, and I don’t think he’d just want us out there repeating what he did. He’d want us to build off that foundation and create something new and meaningful with it. That’s the spirit of New Orleans.”
Honoring your roots while blazing a trail toward the future has been Morton’s guiding principle from the start. After all, that’s how Paul became PJ, and, with this brilliant new album, it’s how PJ got back to being Paul.
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