Interview: PJ Morton Is Sending A Message To All Of The Dreamers With “Claustrophobic”

After auditioning for a spot as a keyboardist for the American pop-rock band Maroon 5, the multi-faceted PJ Morton left an incredible mark on the group. What was supposed to be a temporary fill-in would later take Morton across the world touring alongside lead vocalist Adam Levine, Jesse Carmichael, Mickey Madden, James Valentine and Matt Flynn, with whom he has been touring with since 2010. The son of a Canadian gospel singer who has a natural charm would not only go on to win Grammy awards and collect notable songwriting credits but also snag the opportunity of a lifetime collaborating with none other than the legendary Stevie Wonder. It is safe to say that at 35 years young, PJ Morton has hit milestones that only one could dream of.

Once I got over the fact that, coincidentally, PJ’s father was from Windsor, Ontario (the same city in which I attended University), I collected myself but not before we joked about the fun facts that make up the city of Windsor and the perks of Detroit, Michigan being within close proximity. The New Orleans native walked me through the interchanging themes on his upcoming album and broke down how his southern roots have inspired him to continue to think outside of the box that society so often tries to put us in. His new single “Claustrophobic” featuring his New Orleans brethren Pell is the soulful anthem for the dreamer who is brave enough to remain true to his/herself.

Shantel Noel: Tell me about your new single “Claustrophobic.” What inspired you to write this song?

Initially, it was of out of frustration. I’m an artist who has chosen, outside of being apart of Maroon 5, to follow a path that is not necessarily the most popular one. Those in positions of power are usually trying to adjust you and tailor you to fit what they would like to sell to the masses. This was at a time where I was going around to different labels, kind of letting them listen to my music, and it was at that point where I realized what was most important to me. Yes – I want a lot of people to hear my music. Yes – I want to play huge venues. But I don’t want to do it at the expense of not being who I am or at the expense of not saying what I want to say. That is basically where this song came from. For me, it became the anthem for the dreamer and a message to all of the doubters.

Claustrophobia is when you can’t be in between small spaces, and it wasn’t a physical thing for me. Mentally, it felt as if there were so many opinions and thoughts being bounced around. In a sense, my brain started to feel claustrophobic. It felt as if my mind was in a box. My brain wasn’t able to breathe, so I guess it’s essentially about claustrophobia of the mind.

With the release of the new single, can we expect a full length album anytime soon?

My new album Gumbo is going to come out this April. It’s the first album I’ve created since moving back to New Orleans. I’m really excited about it!

Why the name Gumbo?

I named it Gumbo because I’m talking about a number of different things. Of course, there’s the New Orleans reference. It’s something that represents the city. Prior to this, all of my music has been about love and relationships. I LOVE love, but this time around I address the climate of the world right now. I discuss how divided America is, the racial tension, and then there is “Claustrophobic,” which touches on creative freedom. I also talk about my religion on the album. I thought it was a pot of gumbo because I was mixing a bunch of things together.

We cannot talk about gumbo without discussing the go-to food spots in New Orleans. What are some of your favorite spots?

You definitely have to go to Gene’s Po-Boys. You want to go and get a snowball from Hansen’s and my favorite and my favorite shrimp po-boy, which is different for everyone because there are so many options.

I’ll have to pencil in a trip out there to specifically hit up these spots!

Yeah! [laughs] If you’re visiting New Orleans, that’s what you want to get into.

What are some of the challenges that you face when it comes to pursuing a solo career and juggling Maroon 5?

Scheduling is still a bit of a challenge. Since Adam has been on The Voice, it has definitely carved out some time for me. I know that when he’s going to be on TV, we won’t be touring because he’ll be busy shooting. Another challenge is having people assume that my music is the same as my band’s music. The two are not the same. That would probably be one of the bigger challenges, actually. The expectation of living up to being as big of an act as my band is.

I’m glad you touched on that. I want to know what type of advice you would share with young creatives who are currently struggling with reinventing themselves, especially today where a new artist is born every second thanks to the immediacy of social platforms and the power of the Internet.

It’s a bit cliché, but I mean it when I say you have to be true to yourself. If you want to reinvent, make sure that you are reinventing for yourself because there is so much music and so much competition that the one thing that is going to separate you from the rest and give you longevity is being an original. I think for me, being a solo artist as well as being a part of Maroon 5, we are both being who we are. That is all I’m pushing for, being genuine and being original. The gift of the Internet, and there are many curses, is that people can find you. You can find your people. If your thing is playing beats on a table, that might not reach everyone but you will find those who share that interest. You really have to follow your heart during this climate because that is another thing that is going to separate you from the rest.

You have a very unique sound. It’s not that easy to pinpoint where your influences come from. That said, who would you say has influenced your style over the years?

That’s a gumbo too. [laughs] I’m a preacher’s kid. It kind of started with Gospel music, which I think is basically soul music. James Taylor and Stevie Wonder layered in with a few old school sounds that I discovered as a teenager would be some of the influences that I kind of mixed together to create my own sound. The dichotomy of my interchanging worlds has brought my interest in different genres from pop music to rock music to soul music and R&B. I would basically say Prince, The Beatles, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder and Al Green have influenced my work.

New Orleans is known for its rich culture, especially when it comes to music. What elements of the overall culture have shaped your musical style?

New Orleans ingrains in you this type of respect for music. You grow up respecting musicians, the way you would doctors and lawyers. We hold that in high esteem. I’ve always had respect for the music and I’ve always understood its power. I can’t get away from the horns and the rhythm. It’s just always apart of what I’m creating at that given moment. As New Orleanians, I think a lot of times, we get stuck on its history and what its done in music but the most important part about New Orleans is the innovation. We took something out of nothing and we put two things together and created Jazz. Today, Jazz is celebrated so much but we don’t celebrate the innovation and the process of making something out of nothing and really making it our own. I think what I would like to do, now that I have moved back to New Orleans, is continue to innovate. I don’t want to only focus on our past but I want to celebrate the innovation that is in our blood.

At this stage in your career, you’ve accomplished quite a bit. From Grammy awards, songwriting credits and touring with a major musical act, what would you say you are most proud of and why?

I think what I’m most proud of would have to be collaborating with Stevie Wonder. It was literally something that I dreamt of but it wasn’t necessarily something I thought could happen. There are some amazing things that I have experienced but having Stevie on a record of mine and then being nominated for a Grammy for that same song – that was really the pinnacle of my career. I honestly felt as if I could just chill after that. I mean, I got to collaborate with the person who influenced me to want to pursue this thing. To me, that is as full circle as it gets.

What were the dots that needed to connect in order for that to happen?

I think it was just meant to be. It wasn’t difficult at all. At this point in Stevie’s career, he doesn’t need anything. I am not making him relevant or anything like that [laughs]. He literally has to want to work with you at this stage in his career. He literally has to like the song. I think the real challenge is getting the music or the idea to him. Luckily, I knew a drummer that used to play for him. His drummer connected me to one of Stevie’s assistants who happened to be a fan of my music already and she happened to be from New Orleans. She passed my music along and it was basically one of those moments where the stars aligned. That was it. He liked the song and it all just happened so fast. I was in disbelief. I thought I was going to cry when I heard the song. I was on the road when he recorded it, they emailed it to me, and I honestly thought I was going to cry. I didn’t, but I kind of wanted to just to commemorate that moment [laughs]. I kept staring at the speakers. I also met him right before he recorded it. His assistant introduced me to him and we talked about the track. That was a really special moment for me.

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