Black Music Month: PJ Morton’s ‘Watch The Sun’ LP Comes at the Perfect Time in His Career

The versatile album features numerous high-profile collaborations.

PJ Morton hit many ups and downs during the COVID-19 pandemic, just like we all did.

The New Orleans-based Soul singer had ideas of how his musical career would progress over the past two years, but had to make audibles – like when his hard drive crashed, killing a bunch of new music he planned to release. And while he released two albums during the height of the pandemic – 2020’s Gospel According to PJ: From the Songbook of PJ Morton and The Piano Album, it’s his new release, Watch The Sun, that was actually his “pandemic album.”

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On Watch The Sun, PJ regales tales of love in the balance, despair, and hope laced into soulful-jazzy instrumentals that alternate with Reggae drum beats and soulful island strings throughout. It’s also very versatile as R&B, gospel, soul, and hip hop all make appearances at some point, fitting into the vibrant and captivating melodies, most of which are produced by Morton himself.

The new LP is also a self-admitted “bookend” for Morton in his long and accomplished musical career, noting that its release creates an opportunity for him to tour and interact with fans, while also biding him time to exercise other attributes of his creativity. spoke with PJ Morton about his new album, how it came together, and the outlook he has on his career moving forward.

BET: How’s the touring life been especially since you just dropped this new album?

PJ Morton: It has been amazing, man. I think everyone’s appreciation is at another level on both sides – on the artist side and the audience side, so it’s just making for better experiences, being together and knowing that all of this could be taken away easily.

BET: Yeah it was taken away, at least the live show element due to COVID. For your LP, you went to Bogalusa, Louisiana – not too far from your hometown — to record Watch The Sun at the Studio in the Country where so much music by legendary artists has been recorded. First, why was that the place for this and did you feel any sort of magical aura while you were there?

PM: Yeah, well really I was just looking for a place that we could live and work, so it was on a short list of studios that had housing and places you could sleep. So after I started looking at it being what we needed and being far away because I wanted to get away from everything, I started seeing all the historic stuff done there and it just felt like it was perfect.

As soon as we pulled up I felt like magic. It just made me want to create and gave me space to create. There was no pressure, it was just like going with the flow out there and it was a big part of why I was able to make the record I wanted to make.

BET: Did you have any plans prior to heading to that studio that you scrapped once you got there or created new ideas due to you being away from what’s perhaps comfortable?

PM: Yeah when we went up there that was after I was ready to really start developing the songs. I had small ideas, no lyrics to anything but I had melody ideas. I had tracks, I had drums beats that I brought out there. So I had pieces of songs but nothing real yet. That’s why I wanted to go up there to build those ideas and that’s what we did.

BET: You were actually pretty busy during the first year of the pandemic in 2020, dropping two albums (Gospel According to PJ and The Piano Album). Now you’re back with Watch The Sun. Talk about transitioning from those creatively during such a time of uncertainty to now where things are looking up a bit.

PM: What’s crazy is Watch The Sun is more of my pandemic album than those. The Gospel album had been more in development, I had started the ideas and I was able to finish it during the pandemic, but those were songs I had written before and was doing them on different artists. The Piano Album was recorded at the top of January so it was before everything shut down and I was able to release it right before the pandemic, but that was done. Our spirits and the reaction on that album — it had nothing in mind about the pandemic.

This Watch The Sun album is after I processed being in the pandemic for two years basically, going through all the things that we went through. This really is, I’d say, my pandemic album, where you can hear the effects of it.

BET: Listening to Watch The Sun, I feel it’s a perfect spring-to-summertime album. It also provides some messages of hope, but also despair. What were some of the concepts you were going for when recording this and sonically what did you want to accomplish?

PM: That was what was first for me – before any lyrics, I was making the music. Musically it was important for me to have certain intentions there. I knew I wanted to have a reggae song on there, I knew I wanted to have an Afrobeat influence on there, so I was influenced by the music first, and I wanted to create a musical journey even before I knew what I wanted to talk about. And that’s where a lot of those feelings came from.

With even “My Peace” [it’s] feeling like a ‘90s R&B song but then like a Mint Condition [influence] and then having an OutKast sample on it – all of that came before I had any words at all. I was focused on that and that’s why I think, even with “So Lonely,” which is an up-tempo song — it’s kind of a sad song — but it’s up-tempo because I was dealing with that expression of what the music was doing first and that’s where it led me.

BET: You’ve said that your laptop crashed during the early stages of recording this album. How did that affect your process and what kind of audibles did you have to make to get back on track?

PM: I think it wouldn’t have been as introspective, it wouldn’t have been as vulnerable if I had been going with that energy when I was first working on it before it crashed. That was literally right when we got home from the pandemic. I was looking at it as, you know when you have to go home earlier – it was a happy thing at first. You don’t have to work for now? Oh cool. So I was just in my normal little workaholic mode and not really processing anything going.

I think my computer crashing – although it was devastating in the moment – it was the reason I stopped and actually took a minute and processed everything. I had been moving so fast prior to, and I think that was the part of me going inward and really figuring out that I wanted to say something a little deeper than just something surface.

BET: “Be Like Water” is amazing. Let’s just put that out there. Not just because of the Nas and Stevie Wonder features, but they certainly didn’t hurt being a part of it. Everyone brought it. It’s also a very Stevie-esque record. Tell me about putting that one together because that has to be two bucket-list collaborations you got to cross off in one song.

PM: Yeah, I was just going with my vibes, again, I had the drums first actually. It was just that drum pattern. It was kind of weird and I was drawn to it and after a while I started putting some keys to it and I think the harpsichord was the first thing I played on it and it felt very easy and just like put me in the mindset immediately. But I wasn’t thinking of that at first. I started writing the song and there was this break there, and I’m like, “Oh man, Nas would kill this.” I’m only hearing Nas’ voice on this and it was bugging me man and I just went on a mission trying to get to him.

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I started thinking of everyone I knew that knew him and eventually got to him and he was working on album but they were open to it. I just happened to be working with Stevie on his album, and I was like I bet he would like this song. This is like you. This is right up your alley. And he loved it and he was down and I went out to California and recorded him.

And then I sent it back to Nas like just letting y’all know, Stevie’s on it now. And they were like, “Oh, Nas has always wanted to work with Stevie, it’s definitely going to get done.” Here we are, it’s like a dream come true. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. When I hear you say, Nas and Stevie [Wonder], that’s crazy to me, you know?

BET: Specifically Nas though, what’s it like working with him now because he’s having a renaissance of sorts. Both King’s Disease and Kings Disease II were superb albums. And he was definitely in his bag with the verse he provided you. How has him being at his peak really helped out what he provided you?

PM: Yeah I think it’s amazing. I think he’s making some of the best music in his life or in recent years, and I think that’s just hats off to him, of course. He was working on magic when I sent this to him and I didn’t know he was working on that. He just came out and I was like, “What?” I didn’t know [King’s Disease] was coming out. But then [Gabriel "G Code" Zardes] who helped me get to Nas, my New Orleans homeboy, he said that you caught him at a good time, he’s in the studio. So like I caught him at that time.

What stood out most to me about this is that I was asking for it and we’re kind of getting to the deadline, and he was like, “Nah he got it, he’s got like three verses,” and he was like, “He’s just going line by line.” And I’m like wait, Nas is taking his time? He’s going to be in that bag so that’s when I knew the verse was going to be crazy before I heard it because he’s taking his time on it. Sometimes these guys give you a verse real quick, you know what I’m saying. But that’s why he’s Nas probably. Even me, whatever artist. I’m going to treat this like it’s my last verse and he gave me heat, man, and I’m like this is crazy.

BET: It’s almost like he’s having a full-circle moment in his career, which could be said for you as well. Where is your headspace now that you’ve dropped a pretty deep catalog of solo efforts as well as collaborative ones?

PM: Honestly man, it feels like a bookend. After this album, because of course, we’re going to work on this album for years. We’re going to get on the road and go crazy with this but after this, I kind of want to chill on making music competitively a little bit. I just want to create some stuff that’s fun to me that I don’t have to worry about doing a whole promo run.

I just want to create and I also want to find some muses to where it’s like I can take some voices that I want and make what I want to make out of them. I think it’s going to be a lot of creating but not necessarily in a competitive space, because when I’m in this space I’m really working as hard as I can. I just want more balance in that so I’m just looking forward to this next chapter man. And also this Watch The Sunshine. It’s going to be amazing. It’s going to be a good run man, I’m excited.

BET: You were a part of Jon Batiste’s We Are album which basically swept the Grammys. What was it like being a part of it and how big of a smile did you get when it became so decorated at the Academy Awards?

PM: I just couldn’t be happier for it to happen to a better person. Jon is such a solid person. He brings everybody joy, so it’s awesome to see good things happen to good people. Working on the record was really just fun. We were just experimenting. He sent me a bridge that was totally different from the rest of the song. He was like, “Just do your thing on this.”

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I was on the road. I think I recorded it in my hotel room, and it became this “Boy Hood” record and I added my homie Trombone Shorty on it. It truly is like the three kings of New Orleans on this record. Three young kings I should say and it really is such a cool thing for all of us to be on this record, but then for it to get this much love is beyond. I don’t think anyone expected all of that, but it’s just a beautiful thing.

BET: June is Black Music Month, so in honor of it, what would you say Black music means to you?

PM: Black music to me means resilience. It means power and love. Black music is American music. It’s so important to who we are as a culture. It has been used to escape, come together, cry together, fight together and show love. We wouldn’t be where we are without black music.

BET: I’m sure you’re going to take some time to celebrate this album release, and rightfully so. You’ve also been touring, but once the smoke clears, what’s next for PJ Morton?

PM: Yeah it’s no pressure, it’s no pressure to do anything but the things that come genuinely and organically. I think also, we’re just focusing a lot on film and TV and creating. I’m scoring an animated film right now, so I’m looking to do a lot more of that stuff too where I can lend my creative voice in different ways. I’m really excited about that as well.

BET: Are you working on anything that might be different than what your fans may expect from you?

PM: Well we’re working on a store here in New Orleans. It’s going to be a clothing store, a lifestyle store. And I’m also going to do this cool thing called The Market where I bring in musical acts. It’s going to be an outside thing with vendors. It’s going to be like a mini-festival each weekend. I’m working on that. I hope for that to be a thing that brings people from all around the world, so I want to build it up and really make it a New Orleans staple. I guess there’s always some sort of music involved in it. So I’ve got my hands involved in a lot of different things.

Listen to PJ Morton’s Watch The Sun album here.

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