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PJ Morton talks new album 'Cape Town to Cairo'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The last time PJ Morton made an album, it was in the middle of the pandemic, and he had the luxury of time.

PJ MORTON: I had a lot more time than I usually have. I got to cross every T and dot every I, but I kind of felt like I was starting to not really tap into that instinct, where it was becoming more brainy than it was heart, you know, and soul and gut.

DETROW: So where do you go to find more heart and soul and gut? Well for Morton, you go to Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF PJ MORTON SONG, "WHO YOU ARE (FEAT. MADE KUTI)")

DETROW: PJ Morton is a busy guy. He's been the keyboardist in Maroon 5 for more than a decade, and he's also in demand as a songwriter and a record producer. He's won five Grammys in the past five years. Last fall, he set off on a 30-day musical adventure, performing across Africa, while also writing and recording a new album along the way.

MORTON: I needed to inspire myself. I wanted to completely create on the continent, not write anything before I got there, not write anything after I left. I didn't give myself a way out this time.

DETROW: In other words, no time to cross any T's or dot any I's. And the end product is out now. It's called "Cape Town To Cairo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO YOU ARE (FEAT. MADE KUTI)")

MORTON: (Singing) Tell me, do you really know who you are? - because if you don't, you won't get that far.

DETROW: Let's go on a little bit of this journey with you. Let's start at the beginning. You start off. You get to Cape Town. One of the first songs you work on is called "Simunye."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMUNYE (FEAT. SOWETO SPIRITUAL SINGERS)")

MORTON: (Singing) I hope it's not too late before we see that simunye.

DETROW: Can you tell us about it?

MORTON: "Simunye," yes. When I got to Cape Town, I just felt there was a feeling of peace. I mean, the people were so welcoming. People were saying, welcome home, and it felt so genuine. And I didn't know what would happen. And I tend to have, like, really bad writer's block, too. So I was just praying that that didn't happen, like, in these 30 days...

DETROW: Yeah.

MORTON: ...You know? So - but I sat at the piano, and this artist, Jonathan Butler, I'm a big fan of, who is from Cape Town - I saw him, and I immediately knew the idea. I just needed to ask him a word that represented, like, you know, togetherness or - and he was like, well, this is - he came to the studio, and he said, simunye. He was like, it means we are one. And I said, that's it. I went straight to the piano. Man, it started to write itself. It was almost as if Africa was waiting for me to get there to unlock some of these things, man. And that's kind of when I started to relax and say, OK, let's trust whatever this is. I mean, something is here. So let's just go with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMUNYE (FEAT. SOWETO SPIRITUAL SINGERS)")

MORTON: (Singing) Now's the time for us to take a stand - mmm (ph) simunye.

DETROW: You wrote that when you got to South Africa, you were feeling the pride of feeling like I belonged to something bigger than myself. Can you tell me more about that feeling?

MORTON: Yeah. Well, I think, it's - you know, I mean, Mandela is such a huge figure when you get to South Africa. I mean, he represents freedom. He represents people uniting. And so I think you feel that unity being there. I felt like I was being united back to something that was foreign to me, but also, like, very familiar to me. And so because these songs were being written from my gut, you know, I actually didn't understand what some of these songs were about exactly until I've now listened to them. You know, I'm just trusting the writer in me that's been writing songs for a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PJ MORTON SONG, "SMOKE & MIRRORS")

DETROW: The next stop is Lagos, Nigeria. Why Lagos?

MORTON: Oh, my God. I mean, Lagos, man, to me, is the leader in African music, at least the pioneer in a lot of ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKE & MIRRORS")

MORTON: (Singing) You laughed at me.

And, man, I got there and felt the energy of Nigeria. And I could just not stop thinking of home. I could not stop thinking of New Orleans. When I see them dancing, when I see these horn players, these percussionists...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKE & MIRRORS")

MORTON: (Singing) All the way down.

...I'm like, this is like home. Like, it's blowing my mind. I'm eating the food. I'm eating Jollof rice, and I'm like, this is jambalaya. Man, this is New Orleans. There's no way this isn't connected.

DETROW: Did that surprise you - that deep connection that you were feeling?

MORTON: Yes, I had no idea. I mean, of course, Louisiana - and New Orleans specifically - is just a big part of slavery, you know? And that African influence lended itself to us creating jazz in New Orleans, you know? And so I wasn't surprised, but I was that it was just so natural to me. So I was so inspired, we went and played three songs live in the studio. And by the way, all those songs, those are one takes.

DETROW: Really?

MORTON: You know, that was our first take. We went in there and...

DETROW: How often does that happen?

MORTON: Not very often, man. And I tried to get - you know, "Smoke & Mirrors," we tried to play it again because Reggie, my engineer, he was like, man, I wasn't even all the way set up. I just had a mic in the room. I was like, man, I'm sorry. It's not as good. You know, us trying to play it now that we know it is not as good. So we just stuck with it. I just stuck with my gut.

(SOUNDBITE OF PJ MORTON SONG, "SMOKE & MIRRORS")

DETROW: So by the time you get to Ghana, which was the next stop, what stuck out to you the most of the Gana stretch of this trip?

(SOUNDBITE OF PJ MORTON SONG, "HOME AGAIN")

MORTON: Yeah. Well, Gana - unfortunately, I got sick in Ghana. So we had an amazing show. I mean, one of my toughest shows because I was literally throwing up five minutes before I went onstage. But my consolation was like, if I throw up, we're going to go viral, so let's just...

DETROW: (Laughter).

MORTON: ...You know, just have fun (laughter). But I ended up not throwing up. It was a tough show but an amazing show in Ghana. Like, the crowd was so great to us. I met amazing musicians. We finished up some stuff. But also, the most significant part about being there is us going to Cape Coast and going to the dungeons there, these small little dungeons where hundreds of enslaved people were there waiting, and then you go and you see this opening that leads to the water and leads to the boats.

And it's the point of no return and where they went to, you know, the new land. And that really hit me, man, 'cause I hadn't physically seen that, you know? Of course, we've heard that story. And we know this, but, like, to actually be there and feel it and know that the feet of these people have walked right here and done this was really heavy, you know, and put a big exclamation point on the trip up to that point.

DETROW: And it's interesting 'cause you're talking about the connections that you were feeling, and there's a lot of joy in that, and there's a lot of energy in the music. But the reason that connection exists is a very terrible, terrible reason.

MORTON: Yeah, that's correct. The music that I love and what I consider myself, you know, a soul singer, a soul musician has always been birthed from pain. But what comes out of that pain is joy, you know, and uplifting, you know, and gospel music, you know?

DETROW: Yeah.

MORTON: These things came from pain. So, I guess, for me, it is what I know. It's just inside of me to know how to take that - those terrible situations and try to find some joy in them. This was that on steroids, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME AGAIN")

MORTON: (Vocalizing).

DETROW: I want to ask about the end of the trip. You're in Cairo, which, you know, has a lot of a different culture and historical influence than other parts of your trip. How did being in Cairo impact your songwriting? What sort of energy were you feeling there? What were you thinking when you were putting together those final songs?

MORTON: Yeah, so I was basically more recording in Cairo. It was a point where most of the songs were done, and I also had no more shows. We took a boat ride on the Nile, where I listened to the album. I was, like, resequencing stuff while I'm on the Nile taking this ride. It was just like, oh, man, what did we just do? You know, like, what did we just do in these 20 days or whatever? But it was really laid back in Egypt, actually. It was a beautiful thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE DREAMERS")

MORTON: One hand in the air for all the dreamers. First, they laugh and say you'll never make it.

DETROW: How different would this album have been - or do you think it would have been possible - if you had just taken this trip, let it all sink in, and then come back to sit down to start writing? - 'cause I'm thinking it is a wildly different kind of writing. But I'm thinking about when I'm on reporting trips and kind of the urgency of writing something in the moment versus taking my material back, and it's just always a different feeling and a different kind of story.

MORTON: Yeah, I don't know that it would have happened. I think one of the big differences would have been me trying to fit everything into what I do, you know, like, put it through the PJ thing. Like, oh, this is maybe a little too pop, or I don't know if I'd have wrote "Simunye." You know, it's like a hymn. You know, it's like a anthem or something. So when I am not putting that through a filter, this is what happens. I do a Afro Cuban inspired song, you know, in "All The Dreamers." You know what I'm saying? So no, I think my brain would have totally gotten in the way. And although I took a diary of everything that happened, I don't know if I would have been able to capture the actual feeling like I did if I was trying to, like, recreate what I felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF PJ MORTON SONG, "ALL THE DREAMERS")

DETROW: That's PJ Morton. His new album, "Cape Town To Cairo," is out now. Thank you so much.

MORTON: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF PJ MORTON SONG, "ALL THE DREAMERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.