How PJ Morton Went from “Cape Town to Cairo” and Back to Record His 'Special' New Album: 'Quite a Journey' (Exclusive)

The Grammy-winning musician tells PEOPLE about his new 'Cape Town to Cairo' album and how a transformative 30-day trip across Africa led to the "eclectic" project

<p>Patrick Melon</p> PJ Morton

Patrick Melon

PJ Morton
  • PJ Morton’s latest album, Cape Town to Cairo, inspired by a 30-day trip to Africa, is out now

  • The five-time Grammy-winner told PEOPLE about the transformative voyage that led to his "eclectic" collection of songs 

  • Morton says he plans to release a documentary about the making of Cape Town to Cairo 

PJ Morton is different now.

Last fall, the five-time Grammy winner and Maroon 5 band member, 43, embarked on an extraordinary voyage across Africa to record his new album, Cape Town to Cairo, out now.

The charming, nine-track LP — created in 30 days during travels to South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt — meshes sounds of the diaspora across pop, gospel, jazz, R&B and soul. It’s perhaps Morton’s most experimental project to date, but the transformative journey to create it was unlike anything he anticipated.

The concept for the album began as a small but mighty challenge for the acclaimed singer-songwriter, who typically records wherever he’s currently living or in his musically rich hometown of New Orleans. But after pulling out “all the stops” on his 2022 opus Watch the Sun — which featured Nas, Jill Scott, El DeBarge, Stevie Wonder and more, and was also recorded in the same rural Louisiana studio as the latter’s 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants — the musician found himself still “searching for inspiration.”

So, he jetted off thousands of miles away to Africa, from Cape Town to Lagos to Accra to Cairo and back to Johannesburg to create a masterful work that echoed Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning, African-inspired album, 1986’s Graceland.

Only Morton wasn’t chasing more accolades or special “sauce” to take back with him to the States. He instead tasked himself with getting fully immersed in the African cultures he encountered, from the food the locals ate to the clubs and churches they frequented to the music that fueled them.

The end result was a cultural exchange of musical brilliance that culminated in the “best trip” of Morton’s life — and a sonically sprawling album that he calls a “special, magical thing.”

Related: PJ Morton to Create New Song for Tiana’s Bayou Adventure Ride at Disney Parks (Exclusive)

“I feel blessed that I was able to have this experience that I can share,” Morton tells PEOPLE. “Eventually I want to do a pilgrimage where I do that exchange and bring people to Africa every year, especially Black Americans, just to understand that connection and feel it.”

From collaborating with local acts such as Fireboy DML, Mádé Kuti, Asa, P.Priime and The Cavemen. to capturing the emotions of his quest, the indie artist tells PEOPLE all about the African expedition that changed his life, both musically and personally — and how it concluded with Cape Town to Cairo.

<p>Courtesy of Morton Records</p> PJ Morton 'Cape Town to Cairo' Cover Artwork

Courtesy of Morton Records

PJ Morton 'Cape Town to Cairo' Cover Artwork

Cape Town to Cairo started out as a seed of an idea and quickly became a transformative journey for you. At what point during your trip to Africa did you realize you were onto something special with the album?

Maybe day one. I have really bad writer's block at times, so I was just hoping that this wasn't going to be that time. But that first day in Cape Town, I got in the studio, and it was almost as if Africa was just waiting for me to get there to release everything because I wrote three songs that first day. And after that, I was like, "OK, you can relax a little bit. You're not [having] writer's block, actually quite the opposite. It's like a wealth now of songs coming to you just being on the continent."

What made you turn the making of this album into a 30-day recording challenge?

I think, for better or worse, we were just going to see what happened. We were documenting it. We are creating a documentary that's going to follow the album because I wanted to see [the process]. I've never seen myself create anything from scratch, but I felt like that's what would make it special. Just to release an album today is not really as appealing to me. So this was like, "I want this to be a project. I want this to be an experiment. I want people to see the vulnerability in that and know that they can do that." Hopefully, this has people challenging themselves.

<p>Cedric Tang</p> PJ Morton

Cedric Tang

PJ Morton

How did you feel when you first touched down in Africa?

It was quite a journey. We noticed right when we landed that the power went out in the airport. It was almost as if like, "All right, come on, you're earning your way into Africa." But when we finally made it to Cape Town, it was peace.

And Cape Town is beautiful. That's one of the things I can't wait to show the world. The images we've been shown of Africa throughout our lives were just contradictory. That's where [single] “Smoke & Mirrors” came from. I felt like I was lied to immediately. This beautiful greenage everywhere in Cape Town and the mountains and water. That's not what they showed me growing up of Africa, it's just not. This is pure beauty. So that was just a lesson in itself.

And then when the people tell you, "Welcome home." In Africa, it was hitting me every time, man. I could really feel the love in that, and I really felt like they were welcoming me home.

How challenging was this recording process compared to your previous albums, considering you didn't write any music before or after you left Africa?

Man, it was a challenge. Because for me, I couldn't just write songs, that wasn't the plan. I could write a bunch of songs in 30 days, but do I want them to be on my album? Do they belong together? Are they saying what I want to say? That's a totally different thing altogether.

I've been writing songs a long time, so that wasn't the challenge. But writing them for me and writing them in a way that I felt lived up to what I try to do with bodies of work [was]. But I was really open and present, so I wasn't expecting a lot. I just really surrendered. In some studios, they don't have the things I'm usually used to, but I didn't take them as challenges. It's almost like these were welcomed obstacles that felt like a video game. It's like, that's just what I got to jump over to get to the next level.

<p>Patrick Melon</p> PJ Morton

Patrick Melon

PJ Morton

You collaborated with a lot of local artists and producers on this new album. What was the chemistry like when you met these artists for the first time and immediately got into the studio?

It was a little awkward sometimes because I'm not even used to having people in the studio with me. I don't like people looking at me when I'm writing. A wrong look could make me second-guess my lyrics and stuff, so I usually don't have people there outside of my engineer [Reginald] “Reggie” [“Nic” Nicholas]. But this time I surrendered. I took it as like, “They got to be in here, we're trying to finish, let me put away what I'm usually used to." So I embraced it.

This album incorporates so many different elements across R&B and soul, jazz, pop, and gospel, which have ties to the diaspora. Did all of that energy hit you while you were working on the album, or did you feel like that was naturally going to happen when you got to Africa?

No, I had no idea. All I kept telling people was like, "I don't have any songs. I can't tell you. I know that would make you feel better. It would make me feel more comfortable, too." But I usually filter those things. Pop songs come up to me, and I'm like, "All right, this is my R&B album. Let me not put that on here, we'll save that for something else. This gospel idea coming out, let me save that for somebody else." Because I didn't have the luxury of time [with this album]. It was all just shooting out at the same time, all these influences. I'm a preacher's kid who's in a pop band — who’s an R&B singer [that] used to be signed to Young Money — in Maroon 5. I'm all over the place. I always have been, organically, too.

So now when I didn't have time to filter it for everybody, it's like, well, yeah. “Simunye [(We Are One)]” comes in like a spiritual; “All the Dreamers” is an Afro-Cuban song; “Count on Me” is like a pop song; and “Please Be Good” is like an Afro-R&B song. So I allowed all these things to come out without filtering them because I didn't have time. It's like, you’re just going to get all the PJ this time, all with the blanket of Africa on it. It was a special vibe.

You didn't go to Africa just to make this album. You also wanted to immerse yourself in the different cultures, communities, food nightlife. How enriching was that for Cape Town to Cairo’s final product?

I think that's what made it real. I know we're obsessed with first week [numbers], but ultimately, time is going to show that it was a real thing that happened, and it was a real connection. It wasn't just a record — it was something deeper than that. But I think that made all the difference than some artists out here who may be following a trend of Afrobeat because it's hot at the moment. It wasn't a trendy thing for me, and time will tell how eclectic the album is.

But spending that time, for me, that makes it a real thing. Because every time you mention a song, it brings me right back to the place. So I'm so happy that I didn't just go there to make a record and be in the studio; that I actually experienced everything through the locals. I wanted all of it, and that did make all the difference.

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