Listen

On 'Still Here,' PJ Morton Reflects On Surviving 2020

Dec 9, 2020
Originally published on December 9, 2020 8:13 am

From the outset, 2020 has been a roller coaster for R&B singer PJ Morton. It began in January when he won a Grammy and lost one of his heroes, basketball star Kobe Bryant.

"Of course, it's amazing to win a Grammy, but there was a dark cloud," Morton says. "So for me, even before the pandemic, it kind of started as a weird year."

A few months later, Morton embarked on a major tour playing keyboards for Maroon 5. They were in South America when the pandemic forced them to pull the plug. Morton rushed home, where he's been ever since, but the rough year wasn't done with him. He lost an uncle to COVID-19, then contracted the disease himself.

If the year had a bright spot, it was that Morton — the son of a pastor, raised in the church — was able to record a new album, The Gospel According to PJ, which was itself recently nominated for a Grammy. Being stuck at home freed him up to finally make the gospel record that he'd long been thinking about, and it freed up many of the gospel stars he'd been hoping to work with on it.

"These songs, you know, gospel in particular, this is what people need," he says. "This is the light that is needed for this darkness right now, so a combination of that made me say, 'We're just going to have to figure it out.'"

PJ Morton spoke with NPR's David Greene about turning his year of extremes into a new song, "Still Here." Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


David Greene: Your whole family contracted COVID-19, right?

PJ Morton: I passed it on to my whole family except my youngest, my daughter. And it was a big challenge.

Were you getting to work on this song, and then you and your family got sick? Or had you already gotten sick while you were writing the song?

When we [first] talked about the song, I hadn't gotten it yet. I think it was soon thereafter that I got COVID-19 and went through it. That was a really, really reflective time for me. So it was after that I started to think about what I wanted to say. My mother-in-law lives with us as well, and I was really worried about that.

Did she get it too?

She did, yeah, she got it as well. Literally the whole house. We had to quarantine from each other in the house. That was emotionally kind of draining for me, not being able to really get close to my daughter. My wife had to wear gloves and masks to bring her food throughout the day.

You have an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 16-year old. Your 8-year-old did not get sick, and you were trying to keep away from her as much as you could.

That's right. When we were all done quarantining, it was like, big hugs all around, because she couldn't really be close to her parents or her brothers. But the fact that we made it through gave me even more — because I think I was already reflective — gave me even more of a perspective on life in general.

You sing in this song, "We've seen the worst of our lives and yet we survived." Are you talking about you and your family, or all of us?

I think I'm talking about my human race family, all of us. I think that is maybe one of the more fascinating parts about this. Being from New Orleans, Katrina felt like our first pandemic. It was the same type of, you don't know what's going to happen day to day. But what's so fascinating about this pandemic is I was going through it with my friends all around the world. I was actually in another country when it started to get bad. That's who I'm talking to. We've all seen something hitting the whole word at one time. Then you stack on racial division and you tack on all these other things. When I was thinking of that, I was thinking of everyone.

I can't stop thinking about how we began this conversation with that moment in January, losing Kobe but also you winning a Grammy. I mean, there's something about that that has remained sort of a theme for you this year: fear, illness, loss, but also an album that's gotten a lot of great attention and sounds like it was really important to you.

Extremes, indeed! The gospel album that I felt was so necessary for now is Grammy-nominated, [so] it's like, oh man, that low took me here. But it further explains that I don't really have control. I only have what's in my hand, in my mind, what I can do. The rest is really gonna happen, and I can't worry myself and obsess over the end . All I can do is what's right here. And extremes, indeed, has been the theme.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's get back to the MORNING EDITION Song Project. It's the series where we ask musicians to write a song about the COVID era. Today's guest is P.J. Morton. He's an R&B singer from New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KID AGAIN")

P J MORTON: (Singing) But sometimes life gets hard, and you just don't know. You could still do all those things you dreamed of before.

GREENE: P.J. Morton says, from the outset, 2020 has been a complete roller coaster for him, beginning in January, when he won a Grammy and lost one of his heroes on the same day. It was the day basketball star Kobe Bryant died.

MORTON: Of course, it's amazing to win a Grammy, but there was a dark cloud. I mean, we're also in the Staples Center, you know, like, where he was Kobe. So for me, even before the pandemic, it kind of started as a weird year.

GREENE: Such extremes in one day.

MORTON: It's true. I didn't know how to feel.

GREENE: A couple months later, P.J. embarked on a major tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAYPHONE")

MAROON 5: (Singing) I'm at a pay phone, trying to call home. All of my change...

GREENE: Yeah, he plays keyboards for Maroon 5. They were in South America when the pandemic forced them to pull the plug.

MORTON: It just happened so quick, and we had to rush home. And I've been home since.

GREENE: And that brings us to one of the high points in all this because P.J. - who was raised in the church, the son of a pastor - recorded a new album. The pandemic freed him up to finally make this gospel record that he had been thinking about, and it freed up many of the gospel stars he was hoping to work with, even if they couldn't do it in person.

MORTON: These songs, you know, gospel in particular, this is what people need. This is the light that is needed for this darkness right now. So a combination of that made me say, let's - we're going to just have to figure it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD CAN/LET GO")

MORTON: (Singing) And let God, oh - let go. And let God - and let God - let go - let go. And let God.

GREENE: When we contacted him a few months ago to write a song for our project, things seemed to be going pretty well for P.J. In fact, it wasn't even clear what he was going to write about. But that problem took care of itself.

MORTON: Yeah. Well, it was a daunting task kind of to try to put it into words, what we've been going through. This pandemic has hit me personally. I lost an uncle, my dad's brother.

GREENE: I'm so sorry.

MORTON: Yeah. Thank you, man. Thank you. Went through COVID myself.

GREENE: Your whole family did, right? You and your family were...

MORTON: I passed it on to my whole family, except my youngest, my daughter. And it was a big challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL HERE")

MORTON: (Singing) Well, 2020 is almost gone. Some days I didn't know if I could go on. But there's so much inside of us that we still need to achieve. And in crisis there is opportunity. And we are still here.

GREENE: I got to ask you the timing - were you getting to work on the song and then you and your family got sick? Or had you already gotten sick while you were writing the song? How did this work?

MORTON: When we talked about the song, I hadn't gotten it yet. And I think it was soon thereafter that I got COVID and went through it. That was a really, really reflective time for me. So it was after that I started to think about what I wanted to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL HERE")

MORTON: (Singing) I miss my friends hanging 'round and performing in front of screaming crowds. But I know that we'll get back to the way things used to be. It's just that sometimes it's so hard to see. But we are still here.

My mother-in-law lives with us as well, and I was really worried about that.

GREENE: Did she get it, too?

MORTON: She did, yeah. Literally, the whole house. And we had to quarantine from each other in the house - not being able to really get close to my daughter. My wife had to wear gloves and masks to bring her food, you know, throughout the day.

GREENE: This is your 8-year-old, right? You have an 8-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 16-year-old. But your 8-year-old did not get sick, and you're trying to keep away from her as much as you can.

MORTON: That's right. So we wanted to make sure that she didn't get sick, yeah. When we were all done quarantining, it was like big hugs all around because she couldn't really be close to her parents or her brothers. But the fact that we made it through gave me even more of a, like, perspective on life in general.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL HERE")

MORTON: (Singing) We've the seen the worst of our lives, and yet we survived. We didn't think we could, but we're still here.

GREENE: You sing in the song, we've seen the worst of our lives, and yet we survived. Are you talking about you and your family or all of us?

MORTON: Yeah, I think I'm talking about my human race family, all of us. Being from New Orleans, Katrina felt like our first pandemic, you know. It was the same type of - you don't know what's going to happen day to day. But what's so fascinating about this pandemic is I was going through it with my friends all around the world. I was actually in another country, you know, when it started to get bad. So that's who I'm talking to. We've all seen something hitting the whole world at one time. You stack on some, you know, racial division and you tack on all these other things - when I was thinking of that, I was thinking of everyone.

GREENE: I can't stop thinking about how we began this conversation with that day, losing Kobe but also you winning a Grammy. I mean, there's something about that that has remained sort of a theme for you this year.

MORTON: Indeed.

GREENE: Fear, illness, loss. But also, you know, an album that - it's gotten a lot of great attention, and it sounds like it was really important to you - extremes.

MORTON: Extremes, indeed. Like, the gospel album that I felt was so necessary for now was Grammy nominated. You know, it's like, oh, man, that low took me here. But it further explains that I don't really have control. I only have what's in my hand, you know, in my mind, what I can do. The rest is really going to happen. And extremes, indeed, has been the theme, like I said from the very beginning, from January.

GREENE: Well, P.J., I really enjoy talking to you.

MORTON: Same here, dude.

GREENE: And I'm really sorry about your uncle.

MORTON: Thank you so much, man.

GREENE: I'm really grateful that you and most of your family made it through this and are healthy.

MORTON: Thank you so much. I appreciate it and enjoyed talking to you, too, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL HERE")

MORTON: (Singing, vocalizing) Oh, we're still here (vocalizing).

GREENE: That's P.J. Morton. His song for the MORNING EDITION Song Project is called "Still Here," and you can hear it in full on our website npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.