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

PJ Morton's new track for <em>Morning Edition</em>'s Song Project, "Still Here," is about working through a year full of challenges and loss.
Matt Robertson
Courtesy of the artist
PJ Morton's new track for Morning Edition's Song Project, "Still Here," is about working through a year full of challenges and loss.

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 is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.

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