The (Not So) Secret Life of PJ Morton

PJ Morton has a lot in common with New Orleans, the city he was born in and in which he now lives once again.

He should be a household name from his work with Maroon 5 alone but mention him to your best friend and you’ll probably come up with a blank stare. Indeed, many people interact with a New Orleans influence in their daily life, though they wouldn’t necessarily know it. It is Morton’s goal to change that.

He and his two-piece band (bass and drums) are traveling the US on a 19-city tour, and will be at South on Main this Saturday night. They’ll be testing out new material in this stripped down formation, as well as playing songs Morton has become known for as a solo artist.

“At the basis of who I am, songwriting is something that’s very special to me. Being a musician, instrumentation is important. But for me, I want people to be able to hear the songs.”

Truly, it’s impossible not to really hear a PJ Morton song. Like Drew Brees, Morton’s music is instantly appealing, and consistently surprising. His keyboard playing is like the perfect light roux; able to let the flavor of the feeling, the weight of the words, shine through.

Morton is living history. His family ties go way back into the city’s pages, which is evident on stage, where he exhibits all the charisma of a pastor in his prime, much like his father and mother before him, at the lectern of either location of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church.

New Orleans, Morton’s most recent and aptly titled (though he wrote it in L.A.) full-length LP, opens with audio sampled from a home recording his dad made of him playing piano when he was around eight-years-old. And the picture just gets more vibrant from there.

Morton mines the cobblestone streets of the Crescent City, and strikes gold several times during standouts like “Never Get Over You” (a lightning bolt of a love song with an enormous horn arrangement and a verse by Busta Rhymes), “Heavy” (a pop/rock tune played with a little help from the falsetto of Maroon frontman Adam Levine), “Only One” (where Stevie Wonder ends the song with a signature harp solo), and “Hard Enough” (a roots reggae-tinged number about seizing the day in spite of the naysayers). And that’s just during the first six songs. The second side is my favorite, however, with a mix of brilliant songwriting augmented with classic synthesizers such as the Moog (on tracks like “Always Be” and “Go Alone”). The air of Wonder is evident here but it feels fresh and new and at his best, Morton is transcendent, with that way of singing the universally specific that all truly great artists have.

Wonder was instrumental to Morton’s development. Piano is both artists’ primary instrument and they share the ability to show and not tell. “I remember my dad used to give me a small allowance and there was a Circuit City where I . . . would buy a Stevie CD every week and go in chronological order,” Morton said of his chief influence. “So I basically became a super fan at 13; while my peers were listening to whatever was hip on the radio I was just in a Stevie trance. So . . . when I did start to write songs it kind of came out like Stevie, because that was . . . my example.”

And the music doesn’t stop with New Orleans. In March of this year, Morton released Bounce & Soul, Vol. 1, a mixtape that showcases his hip-hop influences and includes a spectacular nearly-all-NOLA guest list including Trombone Shorty, Juvenile, Lil’ Wayne, and Mannie Fresh.

“[Bounce is] like the music I grew up on, [and] being able to get Mannie and Juve, they’re like the kings of this city” Morton said. “So just the fact that I was able to get them on and they were excited to be a part [of it] was really cool. And we got an amazing response, especially here in the city.”

Speaking of New Orleans. There are many reasons he’s home now, back in the Bayou from Los Angeles, flying semi-solo instead of with five. One of them is to start a record label from the ground up.

“I’m focusing on building Morton Records here: building a studio, building the offices. I’m just really inspired to be [in New Orleans].” Morton explained that, when the hurricane came through, it destroyed infrastructure, including the music business Louisianians listen to. “But now that I’ve had some of the success that I’ve had, I wanted to bring it back home and really [shine a light on all of the talent here].”

Morton already has two artists signed: JoJo Martin—who has been a background singer in Morton’s band for ten years and has a single out now called “Run On,” —and Jcksn Ave. (pronounced “Jackson Avenue”), a group of five blood-related sisters that write their own songs, play their own instruments, sing, and dance.

“Those are the two things I’m excited about right now,” Morton said. “And, of course, more of my music.” He expects to release a Maxi-single in July, with a new album to follow in the winter. And on top of all that, he goes back on tour with Maroon 5 in September. If Morton keeps moving like this, soon, everyone will know his name and the city he comes from.

Doors at 4pm, show at 9pm, $20 admission. Call 501-244-9660 for reservations.

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