PJ Morton on Soul Music

The New Orleans Singer Discusses the Feel of Soul, Style, and Gumbo

PJ Morton

Alex Smith

PJ Morton

PJ Morton’s got soul — lots of it. The New Orleans native, who plays at Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Friday, November 30, has inspired and excited legions of listeners with his warm, passionate, jubilant reinvention of classic soul and R&B sounds. Both a touring soloist and keyboardist for Maroon 5, the abundantly gifted singer/songwriter infuses the lessons of his gospel-shaped upbringing into whatever he plays. I spoke with Morton about his new Christmas album, the feel of soul music, style, and gumbo.

How does it feel to have your Christmas album out, and how did it come together?

It feels great to finally have it out. For me, this was a long time coming. I wanted to do a Christmas record for years and just never felt like it was the exact right timing. I took my time in doing it. I’m so happy that people have it now. The way I picked the songs was kind of a combination of some of my favorites, but also, some of my favorites didn’t necessarily make it — what was important for me was to be able to have a fresh take on Christmas records. They’re out every year, and they’ve been done a million times. It was really important for me to be able to do a fresh take, even if it was a favorite of mine. If I didn’t feel I could do something new to it, I opted not to do it.

To what extent do you see yourself as a preservationist of soul music, and to what extent an inventor?

I wouldn’t call myself a preservationist, but I do always want to acknowledge the past. I think it comes naturally because I respect what came before me and am influenced by what came before me. It’s a natural progression, but I’m always trying to give a fresh, new take. I don’t want to sound like I’m stuck in the ’60s or ’70s. When people say, “Man, this feels old, but it feels new, too” — I always like this reaction. That’s kind of who I am.

How about New Orleans specifically — how do you see yourself as fitting in with what is new there, musically?

I think I more than fit in. I think I’m a leader now and what new New Orleans represents. There’s always been a freedom to New Orleans; you can do what you want to do. As long as it’s good, people are down to support it. At some point, we got so stuck on the fact that we created jazz music that it became a little too sensitive and a little too — what’s the word I want — it was too much focus on that, and not the thing that created jazz, which was the innovation, the not wanting to settle for what was already there, the creation of something new out of what existed. So I think the new generation is more about the innovation, not just paying homage to one style, but to create something fresh and new.

What has this year taught you about being an independent artist?

Well, I feel like the industry is definitely changing quickly. I’ve been independent before and I’ve been solo before, but now we’re turning a corner. It’s really the best time in the world and the best time in our history to be creative. You’re able to create easier and able to get to people easier, and people are listening to more music than they ever have in the history of listening to music. It also levels the playing field in a way; there’s more competition out there, and you got to figure out how to stand out, and a way to be heard through all the noise. That’s really how I’ve discovered that it’s more like cable television — there used to be just, like, the top four networks, but now it’s like, you can find your niche audience and really serve that audience and it really benefits you and you have a thriving career by doing that.

Can the feeling and feel of soul music be taught?

I think it can technically be taught; what’s going on can be taught; but the feel definitely can’t be taught. It’s something you kind of got to have. It doesn’t have to be a certain type of person, it doesn’t have to be a person that looks a certain type of way, but it’s something you inherently feel and express. So yeah, I’ve seen people teach soul music, but you can’t teach someone to feel. For someone to feel you in soul music, you’ve got to feel it; that’s the part that can’t be taught.

How are things with Maroon 5 these days, and is it hard to balance with your solo career?

It’s been great. The band has been great. I’ve been juggling the thing for eight years now, so I’ve kind of gotten a better handle on it now. Of course, you know, with both of our schedules being crazy, there are scheduling challenges, but it’s no big thing. It allows me to open up shows and do double duty; I’ve opened up with the band and closed with the band. So, you know, besides the little scheduling conflicts sometimes, it’s great, man. I can easily say that Maroon 5 has changed my life in a big way and added to my solo career in ways that I can’t even quantify.

You’re a very well-dressed individual. Is there anyone or anything that inspires your style?

It’s like a gumbo, no pun intended. I’m inspired by a lot of different things. It’s a hard question. I’ll see a sailor in his uniform and be inspired by that or see a skater skating on the street and be inspired by that. I am really all about feeling. I think personal style is really when you’re creative. It’s your first form of expression, so for me it’s always been connected to anything creative. How I dress is how I feel.

Who makes the best gumbo you know, or where do you find it in New Orleans?

Well, my grandmother, God rest her soul, was always my favorite gumbo. If I had to pick a restaurant in New Orleans, I’d say Little Dizzy’s Café.

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PJ Morton plays at Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Friday, November 30, at 7 p.m. See velvet-jones.com.