PJ Morton didn’t just make an album with Cape Town To Cairo. He connected with Africa. The longtime Maroon 5 keyboardist traveled through the continent for 30 days recording his album while infusing the music with the history of Nelson Mandela, immersing himself in the love felt for Fela Kuti, and rethinking how he grew up viewing the beautiful continent.

“During the pandemic, they repurposed some of the actual jail cells, with the bars still on the windows, into studios in there because Mandela was all about creativity and expressing yourself,” Morton told REVOLT. “A place that once was for prisoners is now for freedom and creativity. So, working there had a weird feel to it because it was so heavy.”

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the multi-talented musical visionary explains the complicated logistics that goes into recording an album in Africa, how he learned to produce vocals for Stevie Wonder, and how Maroon 5 might be returning to the Songs About Jane sound that started their career.

For your Cape Town To Cairo album, you chose to record in different countries in Africa. It’s difficult enough to record in America. What were the logistics of recording like that?

I think part of my ignorance, as an American, was not understanding how huge Africa is. I thought I was going to fly from South Africa to Nigeria like I would fly from New York to Chicago. Nah, it’s like nine hours. I wanted to engulf myself in the culture, so I took my band with me. I took about seven or eight people with me to Africa. I booked out different studios in each country. I had writing camps where I had producers there. Some artists would just pull up on me. This was my first time experimenting with letting other producers be involved in the process. I had to write these songs first even before I bought in other artists and stuff.

If the song doesn't work at the piano as a real song, all the production is not going to make it a good song. So that was my process. Since we only had 30 days, I would have to write my first thought, basically. I didn't second guess it; I just went with it. The experiment was about trusting your instincts and what felt good before you start to let your brain get into the process.

Anything unique about the studios you worked in?

In Johannesburg, on Constitution Hill, where the Supreme Court is, is also where Nelson Mandela was in prison in the 1960s. During the pandemic, they repurposed some of the actual jail cells, with the bars still on the windows, into studios in there because Mandela was all about creativity and expressing yourself. A place that once was for prisoners is now for freedom and creativity. So, working there had a weird feel to it because it was so heavy. You are in the control room writing, and there are bars on the window. I wrote “Thank You” there. I was still feeling gratitude just from the experience. In Ghana, we went to the studio that Fela Kuti actually worked in when he had to leave Nigeria for a minute and stay in Ghana.

Did you do anything that influenced the music you made?

When I think of “Smoke and Mirrors,” that was a real thing. The first line is, “You lied to me.” I was feeling that. We landed in Lagos on Fela's birthday, and there was a free festival happening that they do every year called Felabration. They always end it on his birthday. So, we dropped our bags and went straight there. I was feeling that spirit. “Smoke and Mirrors” is talking about how, as I grew up, the images I saw of Africa and the narrative around it just wasn't what I felt when I got there. Nobody ever really talked about the beauty of Africa. Nobody really talked about the richness of the people. I was feeling lied to. I was feeling like all of this was smoke and mirrors.

That’s beautiful. What songs from the album do you associate with parts of Africa?

“Smoke and Mirrors,” “Who You Are,” and “All The Dreamers” make me think of Nigeria. They bring me directly there. Who you are has some [Ghanaian music genre] Highlife on it. It feels like New Orleans to me. It feels like the music I heard in the streets growing up. Of course, when I hear “Simunye (We Are One)” and “Thank You,” they remind me of South Africa. The people of South Africa are just so warm and have so much love. Simunye is a Zulu word. When the people of Cape Town started coming in the studio, they were saying the song felt like home. That was my second day there when I wrote that. It let me know I was in the right place.

Let’s go back into your 20+ year music career. Who was the first artist you worked in the studio with that made you feel like you made it?

During my junior year at Morehouse, I produced this song for India Arie who was just coming off her first album getting a bunch of Grammy nominations. That was the first time I got a real check. I remember I had to go on a family vacation after, and I had to meet my parents and sisters late because I had to record India. India and I met because I moved into this apartment complex that her brother lived in, and I was playing the piano in the lobby. Sometimes she would come and play me songs on her guitar. She unlocked something in my brain because at that point I was still a teenager writing for gospel artists because my dad was a pastor, and that's what I had access to. But in my heart, I always felt like I didn’t want to just talk about God. India wasn’t necessarily soul music, and that's what connected me. That's how we meshed. She really was like a mentor for me. She showed me I could be myself. I could do R&B soul music. There was somebody else that's different like me. I don't even know if she knows she had that impact on me.

What’s one of the most memorable studio sessions you’ve ever been in?

When I worked with the great Stevie Wonder. I don't know how many people get to produce Stevie Wonder's vocals, but we were doing the “Be Like Water” song and he wanted me to actually produce his vocals. I was really nervous because you don't really want to tell Stevie to do it again. That showed me why he is who he is and why he's a great. The greats are never not students, man. He felt that I was nervous and told me, “You have to actually produce me.” I put that nervousness down, and I just became myself. He’s already hit me about Cape Town To Cairo. He called me on Father's Day and told me how much he loved it.

You’ve been in Maroon 5 for over 14 years. Their sound has become a bit more pop-leaning than their earlier album Songs About Jane. Do you know if they have any plans of revisiting that earlier sound?

Some of this new stuff is feeling like that to me. We played “This Love” and “She Will Be Loved” every night. We played “This Love” at the Super Bowl. When you see us live, it makes more sense because everything is still so soulful. The way Adam [Levine] sings is so soulful. I'm certainly soulful playing keys up there. That's still the core of the band. They love that album. We always talk about doing shows where we play the whole album through. Some of the new stuff is feeling a lot more like the earlier stuff. So, stay tuned.

What do you have coming for the rest of 2024?

We're going on tour everywhere. We’re doing London, Paris, and the Netherlands. We do the US tour all throughout August. Then, we go to Africa in September for our Africa tour. We’re doing Durban, South Africa, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, Kenya, and Accra, Ghana. I don't think that an American artist has done an African tour this extensively. So, I'm really excited about that. My memoir Saturday Night, Sunday Morning comes out on Nov. 12. For that, I’m putting all these stories together. I don't really talk about my life too much. I thought it was a good time to probably let people in and understand how I got to this point. It’s going to be a busy year.