PJ Morton of Maroon 5 Moves Home To New Orleans, Opens Record Label

February 16, 2016


When PJ Morton left New Orleans 14 years ago, he didn't plan to return. 

The musician, who's now the keyboard player in Maroon 5, was always going to come back for some of his mom's cooking and check in at the Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church, which his father, Bishop Paul S. Morton, leads. But he wasn't planning to actually move home.

"I was OK being away," Morton said in an interview with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune during the final days of Carnival. "I used to feel smothered here, in a way, and it kind of represented me not being able to be free. But something clicked for me, and it all changed."

Morton moved home just two months ago and he brought more than his wife and three kids with him. He also brought big plans for the local music scene, chief among them a brand new record label he envisions as "the New Orleans Motown."

"We've always been leaders in music, and we still are. ... That's the gift and the curse of not thinking bigger than New Orleans. The blessing is we go by the beat of our own drum and, creatively, we don't care what's happening around us," Morton explained. "But we have no choice. (This) is about giving some infrastructure to that." 

In his first few years away from New Orleans, Morton quickly made a name for himself. While a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he met a friend in the same apartment complex who turned out to be India.Arie. Morton and Arie collaborated on a track that ended up landing as a bonus on Arie's 2002 album, "Voyage to India." The project earned the pair a Grammy, and Morton was still just a junior in college. 

The leap eventually led to others, and Morton eventually joined up with Maroon 5 as an auxiliary keyboard then permanent member of the band. He also released his own solo major debut on the similarly locally bred Young Money label. Morton titled the R&B project after the city he came from.

Since then, much of his life has been spent on the road with Maroon 5 or backing his solo work.

"It's amazing. Maroon — being a party of that — it's definitely changed my life. Those guys are so amazing, just as people in general."

When "The Voice" came out and Adam Levine, Maroon 5's lead singer, "took on these outside projects, it cut out time for me to be able to do my other stuff," Morton said. "It's almost like this perfect balance because I know — you can look at the calendar and see when Adam's shooting life shows — so I know we can't book anything here, so let me do this."

Morton started mulling over his own label before deciding to move home to New Orleans, so he's already got two artists signed to Morton Records. The move, though, put things into a new perspective.

"Visions change," he said. "My vision of it is to be a New Orleans Motown. ... I want to pull from New Orleans talent, develop it and put it out to the world." 

Morton hopes to have about 75 percent of the label's artists be local, homegrown talent and to, perhaps more importantly, provide a vision of what a modern major industry label can do in the city. 

"It's amazing, some of the musicians who play in the Quarter and that's been their life, but for me, I wanted more than that. I knew there was more than that for me," he said before citing his time in Atlanta seeing the industry growth of groups like OutKast.

"We're visual beings, humans, and once I saw it, I got it. I could always have done that, but I didn't have any examples. Even if I don't sign this or that artist, they're going to be able to see how it's done. ... I hope it inspires others to do this right in a real way."

Morton plans, which include a festival and an open mic night, somewhat center on having a building secured for Morton Records in New Orleans by the end of the summer. It's an important point for him. He was signed to Young Money Cash Money, but he never physically had anywhere to actually go. 

"We took that special New Orleans dust, gave it to the world, but never brought it back here," he said. "You can bring attorneys, bring artists here, bring infrastructure." 

Morton Records' first project will be a mixed tape he's calling "Bounce and Soul," and features a mix of both those ingredients with Trombone Shorty, Juvenile, Lil Wayne, Fifth Ward Weebie, Dee-1 and Stevie Wonder, who collaborated with Morton on a track for "New Orleans."

Meanwhile, Maroon 5 will bring Morton home Sept. 5 to perform at the Smoothie King Center, which will be one of the final stops of their most recent world tour.

All of that travel did its job to reveal to Morton something important about New Orleans and the rest of the world. 

"You understand how much of a gem it is. ... With the way cities — not just in America, but all around the world — are starting to look the same, you really come here and realize, man, this is a special place," he said. "They don't let you touch what makes it unique, so now I'm fully in love and don't plan on leaving. ... It's all becoming one place. But not New Orleans. It's just New Orleans."

Morton finally made the decision to move back home while he was in Australia on tour with Maroon 5. He called his wife, who's also from New Orleans, and talked it out with her. 

"It was really a last-minute decision," he said. Because of the tour, the family had about three days to make the move. "I just kept hearing New Orleans. ... She was happy to come home. She was always wanting to come home."

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