PJ Morton was in the middle of touring in South America with Maroon 5 (he is keyboardist for the band) when the coronavirus pandemic brought the music industry to halt.
With time on his hands, the two-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, and producer found himself revisiting his church roots. The seeds were first planted back in 2016 during a recording session with gospel legend Le’Andria Johnson. At the time, the pair had completed four songs when her record label decided to go in another direction creatively. “I was cool with it but I'm like, ‘Man, I got these songs that I love. I should do something with them,’” Morton tells BET over the phone.
But it wasn’t until late last year when his vision began to take shape. Then, the pandemic hit which put pause to his plans. But it didn’t deter him. Transitioning from the studio to remote recording sessions over Zoom and Facetime, Gospel According to PJ materialized in the span of a month. A feat that feels even more remarkable given the star-studded features of gospel’s most revered and anointed talents assembled on the project, such as Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams, Commissioned, and The Clark Sisters.
Ahead of the album’s release on August 28, the New Orleans native spoke to BET.com about how Gospel According to PJ is relevant to the times we’re facing now and how he’s letting go to let God takeover.
BET.com: What have you been doing during the pandemic?
PJ Morton: In the beginning, I just shut down clearly because it was all new. I was trying to listen and see what I was supposed to do with the time and not try to rush it. Then, at some point, I started to get creative again. It's been good for me [as] someone who travels on the road probably seven months out of the year. It's good to be home with family and everything. Time has become the most valuable thing to me in my life. That is what I was lacking before this. [Between], doing my solo stuff and touring with Maroon 5, I was nonstop. So it was good to just stop for a minute and breathe and reset.
BET.com: You've released music across blues, jazz, and bounce, and now this album. Though gospel has always been infused in your work, what inspired you to release a gospel album now?
Morton: It had been in my mind. I kind of stayed away from gospel being a preacher's kid. It was always kind of forced on me and I didn't see that as my path. But I never really left gospel as a songwriter. It's where I got my start. I thought it was a good time now that I've found some of the success that I've always wanted in R&B music. Winning Grammys these last couple of years and, of course, Maroon 5 being very successful, I just thought it was a good time to return to my roots and present a gospel record that I would want to hear.
I was going to pause it because of the pandemic. But for me, gospel music is music of inspiration, hope and love. and I just feel like right now people need that more than ever.
BET.com: You assembled quite the lineup with some gospel music’s most revered singers: The Clark Sisters, Commissioned, and Mary Mary. How did you manage that?
Morton: I don't know. God made that happen. [Laughs]. Luckily, I started [in this industry] when I was 15 years old so I have been blessed to gain relationships throughout the years. A lot of them have watched me grow up as a kid first playing music for them and for my dad, and then becoming a songwriter. I have personal relationships with everybody who's on this record. I will say that maybe the biggest plus of the pandemic, of making a record doing COVID, is everybody was home. I reached out, like I need y'all and that worked out.
BET.com: Is there a song that's a personal favorite for you?
Morton: Right now I would say ‘Repay You’ is one of my favorites with J. Moss. And, I love how we redid ‘Got To Have You’ with Kirk Franklin. That happened last minute. I was planning on having another artist on that song and they couldn’t do it. I called Kirk last minute and was like, ‘Kirk, I need it in three days.’ He came through and here we are.
BET.com: Tell me about “So In Love.” What was your vision for the music video?
Morton: It originally was supposed to be The Walls Group. The day before the session, an emergency happened and only Darrel could go to the studio. So it was just him on the song and I didn't want it to just be a solo song. So I called Zacardi Cortez and asked him if he could make it to the studio. They both live in Houston and we had just that day. He said he could be there in 40 minutes. So this was all in real time. I was on a Zoom session with Darrel while he was in the studio. [Zacardi] rushed to the studio, did his verse and everything. Darrel Walls and Zacardi are arguably two of the best male vocalists in the world. To have them on a song together is amazing and for it to be the first video is super cool.
BET.com: You recently celebrated the one year anniversary of your album, Paul. Before you released that album, you had said Gumbo was intended to be your last album. So in a way, things have kind of come full circle with this new album. Did you see this all coming together like this?
Morton: Not at all. Looking back, I think Gumbo was me letting go of all of it. ‘Cause the reason it was going to be my last album is not because I didn't love music anymore, but I just felt like my place in music wasn't significant. It was like people wanted something else and what I had to offer was just seemingly not what people wanted. I was like I'm gonna just bow out. I made Gumbo with that mindset and it's almost like when I let go and just decided to be myself, and make exactly what I wanted to make without having any expectations of radio or awards or press, it became my most popular album. The remake of that became even more popular.
For me, it was kind of a tap on the shoulder to say it's not time to give up yet, you know? I think that was just God reassuring me that it was necessary and I did have something to offer. But, no. I didn’t think four albums were going to come after that. I thought I was done. I was going to just focus on producing and writing. I was never going to give up on music, just PJ solo albums. That just showed me that it wasn't time yet.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
(Photo: Matt Robertson)