A conversation with Maxwell: 'I didn’t get to have a life for so long, so I went and lived one'
In a genre crowded with auto-tuned voices, an auteur's sensibility is a tough find in R&B these days. But it wasn't always like that -- in the late '90s, the field was defined by such neo-soul artists as D'Angelo, Maxwell and Erykah Badu getting in touch with their freaky side, and not just the bedroom meaning of that word. These were true eccentrics, channeling their cracked, shadowy visions of romance.
After three highly regarded albums, Maxwell, not unlike his compatriot in smooveness, D'Angelo, disappeared, leaving fans with little more than the whisper of his 2001 cover of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work," rendered even more misty and ethereal than the original. Maxwell was gone but not forgotten, as he stepped away from showbiz to lead a normal life. He vacationed in Mexico, imbibed the bubbly and enjoyed waking up in the mornings with no particular place to go.
He was also still listening. "I think Chris Brown is an incredible, enigmatic performer," he said in a conversation Thursday. And he praised pal Raphael Saadiq's new album too. After seven years out of the limelight, Maxwell, a Brooklyn native now based in Manhattan, recently returned to tour, in preparation for his new album, "Black Summers' Night," a trilogy that, in part at least, is expected to land early next year. (You can also hear a snippet of the track "Pretty Wings" on his MySpace site.) Speaking from Vegas, Maxwell talked about his absence, the art of the album and his dream legacy.
How does it feel to be back on tour after such a long absence?
I’ve been rejuvenated. It’s been so long. It’s completely natural now. I’m not feigning anything. Not that I was before but by the 300th show it starts to feel like “Groundhog Day.” The opportunity that came for me in the late '90s, to be able to resume this whole experience, it’s amazing. I was really worried. You walked away and what if they’ve all forgotten you? But that didn’t happen. People seem to get what we did way back then. That’s more special than having a hit record and everyone shows up to hear the hit single.
You haven’t released an album since 2001. What have you been up to?
I took a break. I needed to go live to what I always felt I could live up to. For one, the industry was changing. I took the opportunity to step away. I did most of the things most people had already done in their 20s. My first alcoholic beverage was when I was 30. And I’ve made up for a lost time, believe you me. I’m not a saint. I didn’t get to have a life for so long, so I went and lived one. While I was away, I was having a good time not being pressured to do anything. I loved waking up and doing whatever I wanted. Not worrying about how I looked or what I ate. It felt good not having expectations. I’d bump into someone every now and again, and they’d say, “Where are you? Are you OK?” And I’d say, “Yeah, don’t worry about me.”
How have you seen the music industry change since you’ve been gone?
It’s become a singles market. The art of an album, it’s a lost art. When I try to put something together, I want it to be experienced as a whole. Hit songs are great but classic records mean more. People just get “that song” now. The record company has been hiking the pricing for years. The fees used to be $19.99 for a CD; basically, you’re buying artwork and plastic, and maybe one song was good. Quality control is at the fore now. People know what they can get from downloading. They think, "I want something good and I want a lot of it."
Are you feeling any of those old pressures now from Sony?
No, they just started hearing the album. They just want me to be ready. They want it to be right. I’m out on this tour and I wouldn’t do that to myself if the album wasn’t ready. I’m in a very good place. I’ve got a lot of support.
So you've been working on a trilogy. What’s your new work like?
I kind of look at it like the Fool, the card in Tarot. It’s not a bad card, but it’s not great either. It means everything is up in the air, you can land on a jagged rock or something nice and soft. It’s stepping off the cliff, it’s a guy going into the world a little bit. When I took my break, I just went into everyday life, though I didn’t have the 9-to-5 job issues that most people have. I was finding myself without a music persona, without an afro. I had a girlfriend at the time. We broke up and it was all personally my stuff to work with. It’s a journey into the dark and back into the light.
At one point, you had really mastered the form of the anticipation song. It was all slow build and not a lot of climax.
It’s different now. Most of the songs start right up. It’s a climate thing. When I was coming up in my 20s, there was more patience for buildup. Now it’s the multi-tasking, ADD generation: You can watch a movie, write an e-mail, listen to a song; my music now reflects this get-to-the-point kind of thing, though not necessarily on the third disc of the trilogy.
Why did you decide to make a trilogy?
For the challenge of it. Can I do something good in three parts, join them together, have them be individual but also work together? I knew it was going to take a while. If you don’t do that right, you can have a bunch of filler.
Did you use any albums as models?
I thought of movies more. "The Godfather" and "The Lord of the Rings." What made them work? What made them lag? I tried to avoid any of those issues. Probably in between discs 2 and 3, I’ll release a live record. The second one is more of a gospel thing, a funk, house thing. I love gospel. It makes me want to dance even more than dance music.
Who have you been listening to for inspiration?
I’ve been going through Al Green’s YouTube clips. I had the great honor of paying tribute to him at the BET awards and he’s performing with the same power and same passion now as he was in 1973. That’s something to aspire to, to be that badass forever. Now that I’m 35 and I’m looking at my career, I’m wondering what kind of legacy I want to leave behind.
And what is the legacy you want to leave behind?
A lot of babies. I want a lot of babies that are made through my music, to my music. A sense of family, connection and romance. I want people to feel really romantic when they hear this music. That’s my biggest hope.
-- Margaret Wappler
Maxwell performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium, 665 W. Jefferson, Los Angeles. $79.50-$175.50. ticketmaster.com
Photo by Seth Wenig/Associated Press