PJ Morton is gumbo. That isn't to say the New Orleans musician, who's nominated for two Grammys, is an anthropomorphic stew, but symbolically, it is easy to see why he named his album after Louisiana's state cuisine. Morton's résumé is a mixture of disparate ingredients: keyboardist for Maroon 5, former Young Money artist, Stevie Wonder collaborator, and more. Musically, it shouldn't make sense, but in a playlist landscape defined by the dissolution of borders, it does.
Gumbo isn't as readily catchy as Bruno Mars' 24K Magic or as insular and icy as Daniel Caesar's Freudian, both of which it's up against for Best R&B Album. However, that is the secret power of Morton's project. Gumbo is warm, comforting, and familiar in a way that most post-Drake R&B isn't. Morton has the type of soulful musicality that can only be forged in a place like the church and honed after years of music-industry adaptability and pressure. It is easy to hear his reverence for Wonder on the album, but that knowledge is bolstered by his admiration for a rapper like Future.
MTV News spoke with Morton about Gumbo, how he juggles his solo career and time with Maroon 5, and being nominated for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Album at the 2018 Grammys.
"I tried to hold back the tears because of knowing what I put into this album and knowing how I did it and moved back home to New Orleans," he said. "It kind of went against what people thought I should do."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MTV News: So you've been nominated for and won Grammys in the past for work with India.Arie, Maroon 5, and your solo work. Is there still that sense of excitement, especially since Gumbo is such a personal album?
PJ Morton: I don't think it's ever felt quite like this. Probably because I wasn't thinking of any awards, any radio, any marketing, or anything when I made this record. This is really me just doing me and it's the first one on my indie label, Morton Records. So this feels like a win more than the others, because it's just like you said, so personal and close to my heart. So this meant the most.
MTV News: How do you juggle creating and performing mainstream records with Maroon 5 and an album like Gumbo, which sounds and feels like such a black album with black themes?
Morton: Ultimately, it's kind of all who I am. It's kind of the dichotomy of what makes me, me. As much as I was influenced by Stevie Wonder and Al Green and Prince, I was also influenced heavily by James Taylor and The Beatles and Sting. So I think it's all a part of me.
The same goes for Maroon, actually. I mean, as pop as we get, those guys have all been fans of black music, and Adam, I think his singing pattern is closer to the black singers of the past than white singers of the past. So I think we find somewhere in the middle, and it was a natural fit for me to be on both sides of the spectrum.
MTV News: So you recently worked with SZA on "What Lovers Do." Is it weird competing with a recent collaborator like her for Best R&B Song now?
Morton: No, it's not weird. I mean I am honored to be competing. I think she made one of the best records this year, and the Grammys, when it works the right way, is supposed to put the best against the best. I'm proud that she's up there for those Grammys and I'm proud to be in any categories with her.
MTV News: Artists like Frank Ocean and Vince Staples have come forward in recent months to discuss feeling boxed in as black artists in categories like hip-hop or R&B, when their records can be more in line with genres like electronic or rock. As an artist who has a foot in the rock world and in R&B and soul, do you ever feel that same restriction from the outside?
Morton: I think that's a very real thing in my experience as a songwriter. Before I was an artist, I could be working with a black artist who was totally doing pop music, but because they were black, it automatically said, "Oh yeah, you're an urban artist," no matter what your music sounds like. I think that's something that's deeply rooted in our music industry, always has been. You know, we always had to, down to the Motown days, had to do to win black music first and then it had to crossover to pop music.
MTV News: There was recently a Vulture article called "Pop Music's Feature Problem," and one of the bands that they used very prominently was Maroon 5, citing how you guys are now working with artists like Future, A$AP Rocky, and SZA. They were kind of presenting it as a problem. So what do you feel about this?
Morton: I think music is music. I think at the end of the day, this is a business, but we got into this to have fun. So working with who we want to work with and who we're fans of I don't think should be determined by what type of music we make or whether we're black or white.
You know, I'm in Maroon 5. I don't know if that makes it OK. But I'm a black dude in Maroon 5, and I'm a fan of Future and A$AP Rocky and SZA, and everybody else, and so are the other guys in the band. So you know, I don't see that as a problem as long as it's a natural fit and nobody's being used — you know what I'm saying?
If it's a natural fit and you make a record that Future fits on, then why not get Future to rap on it, you know? So I think that's that's just that's just somebody reaching a little bit. At the end of the day, it's music, and we're supposed to be having fun playing music.