PJ Morton, performing Thursday at Motorco Music Hall in Durham, could be used as a perfect example of how quickly things can change for artists in the current music climate. While congratulating the R&B performer on his recent Grammy win for the single “Only One,” from his major label debut album “New Orleans,” Morton clarifies his current label situation.
“I left Young Money/Cash Money Records right before I recorded the new album (‘Live Show Killer’), so at this time I am totally independent again,” he explains. “You know, it wasn’t based on the success or lack thereof of ‘New Orleans,’ it was just based on the differences in our approaches to how we wanted to put the music out and promote it. There’s no bad blood or anything, we just decided to go different ways.”
Even in an industry where emerging artists feel pressure to succeed immediately or be cast away by cost-cutting record labels, the handling of Morton by his former employer is unique. Despite an album that reached No. 1 on the iTunes charts and a Grammy win, he’s on the road single-handedly promoting his brand once again.
Morton’s association with label always seemed odd. Cash Money, headed by rapper Lil Wayne, has always been a haven for hip-hop stars, while Morton’s sound is clearly influenced by jazz. Morton doesn’t shy away from the suggestion that it seemed like an odd pairing from Day One.
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“It was, it was,” he admits. “That’s what excited me about it, to be honest with you – that it was such an odd pairing to begin with. It never made sense to the public that I would be an artist on their label. Based off of the first conversations I had with them at the time that I was signing, I thought that we could do some really special things. R&B artists who have signed on to hip-hop labels in the past have led to some really great things, as long as everyone believes in the music.
“This didn’t totally work out, but that’s OK.”
While Morton is still hard at work on his attempts to break into mainstream radio, his live shows are must-see events thanks to his energetic showmanship onstage. “Live Show Killer,” his new live album, is his first independent release since his departure from Young Money. Morton felt that there was no better way to reward his fans, and perhaps gain new ones, than by putting the live experience on disc. When it came time to do so, Morton invited a live audience into the historic Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles to capture the energy of an intimate performance. He’s excited to share the finished product with listeners.
“I knew I wanted to do a live album to try to catch what we do onstage,” he says. “A lot of people have left my show and wanted to hear what they just experienced, and when they go to the studio album they discover that it is quite different. I wanted to capture that real-life experience for people. Doing it in the studio was just my attempt at being unique and ahead of the game. There have been so many live albums through the years, and I just wanted to do something that I had never seen done, which is basically to set up a concert in the studio with a stage and audience and capture it all there in a controlled live experience.”
The setting of the performance was no accident. Always mindful of the music history around him, Morton chose Henson Studios for its past work with many of his heroes. The very room where he cut the new album has held more musical legends than nearly any other recording space in the world.
“That particular room, Studio A, is where they performed ‘We Are the World,’” Morton explains. “All of my heroes in one room: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones were all in this one room. I mean, the list goes on of course, there were so many. That room is just a special place where magic was made and it’s historical now, so I just wanted to make my own history there. I was very deliberate in getting that room.”
When Morton finishes his current tour, he’ll have to get back to his day job, the same as many young musicians. Of course, instead of the service industry jobs that many singers take on to make ends meet between paying gigs, Morton is a member of a multi-platinum selling band: He joined pop superstars Maroon 5 in 2012 as a temporary replacement for the band’s keyboardist. That soon became a full-time position, as he deftly contributed background vocals and keyboards to the group’s last two albums.
While Morton appreciates the opportunity to work with such a talented band, he makes it clear that he is still determined to make a name for himself in the music world. Whether playing small venues with his own music, or selling out large amphitheaters playing behind a pop superstar, music lovers will have to notice Morton in the years to come.
“It’s challenging, just because of my schedule,” he says. “But it helps a lot that Adam (Levine, Maroon 5’s lead singer) is on TV for a defined schedule so I can set aside time to work solely on my solo stuff. I just balance it, though, you know? I have a couple of weeks left on this tour, and then I’ll go straight into Asia and Australia for a month in September. It’s nonstop, but it’s definitely a good problem to have.
“It’s hard for me to complain about my life, because this is what I asked for, and I get to do it at a high level every day. I’m just appreciative.”
Who: PJ Morton, with Carolyn Malachi
When: 8 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 20)
Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham