Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1078

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Maxwell: Soul sharing

Maxwell Maxwell Maxwell Maxwell

Back in 1996 - on releasing his Double-Platinum-selling debut LP âMaxwellâs Urban Hang Suiteâ - New York singer/songwriter/ producer Maxwell was universally acclaimed as a leading pioneer of the then-emerging âneo-soul movementâ⦠2009, meanwhile, has seen him return from an extended eight-year hiatus, with his US chart-topping, long-overdue fourth studio album âBLACKsummersânightâ.

Recorded as the first instalment of a trilogy entitled âBLACKSUMMERSâNIGHTâ, said current LP boasts a live, and often raw, sound attained throughout its nine tracks by a tight 10-piece band; while Maxwellâs mature, sensual and emotionally-open songwriting unfolds as his instantly-recognisable falsetto-cum-baritone delivers songs varying from the hauntingly-intimate, US chart-topping ballad âPretty Wingsâ to the brassy funk of the new UK single âBad Habitsâ and punchy, Latin-percussion-driven âColdâ. Meanwhile, elsewhere the accessible melodic thump of âLove Youâ contrasts boldly with the sombre, acoustic guitar-strummed âPlaying Possumâ and the soundtrack-flavoured uptempo groove of the albumâs instrumental closer âPhoenix Riseâ.

Born in Brooklyn, New York in May 1973 to a Puerto Rican father and Haitian mother, Maxwell (who sadly lost his father in a plane crash at just three years old) started out singing in his local Baptist church. At 17, meanwhile, he began writing his own songs, using a cheap Casio keyboard given to him by a friend. Initially inspired by the early-Eighties R&B of groups like The SOS Band and Loose Ends, by 1991 he was performing on the New York club scene before eventually signing a recording contract with Sonyâs Columbia label in 1994.

Since which time Maxwell - though initially labelled by the press âintroverted, bohemian and shyâ - has unquestionably emerged as one of contemporary black musicâs most critically-acclaimed artists (not to mention most desired sex symbols!). His four studio albums to date comprising 1996âs breakthrough romantic concept-LP âMaxwellâs Urban Hang Suiteâ; 1998âs Platinum-selling âEmbryaâ; 2001âs US chart-topping âNowâ; plus his aforementioned, 2009-released, current âBLACKsummersânightâ.

Currently in the midst of his first European tour in 11 years (including four UK dates), a hoarse-voiced but nevertheless forthcoming Maxwell (having now dispensed with his once-signature Afro!) celebrates The Return Of The Max (!) by speaking in-depth to a highly-receptive Pete Lewis

PETE: What was the background to you releasing âBLACKsummersânightâ as the first part of an album trilogy?

MAXWELL: âWell, I love concept records, and I love records that FEEL like albums - you know, ones that give you a sense of someone actually CRAFTING something, as opposed to just revolving around a one-off hit single. So - with me at the time having three albums left to do to complete my contract with Sony - the idea came to me of doing the âBLACKSUMMERSâNIGHTâ trilogy. But then, to make sure every song worked WITHIN the trilogy, I knew Iâd need to take time out to CREATE it. And so what next came into play, interestingly enough, was eight years of actual life experience! You know, it wasnât about just me sitting in a room trying to fabricate some scenarios so I could meet my quota and not miss my boat, so to speak... And, while it was scary to walk away, take time out and not be part of the industry for so long, I have to say Iâm very happy I took my time. Because we not only completed this first instalment, but weâve already also written the second and third parts of the trilogy too!â

PETE: So what did you want to achieve musically with âBLACKsummersânightâ?

MAXWELL: âI wanted people to feel that what they were listening to was literally happening in front of them, and I definitely wanted to celebrate musicianship. You know, I wanted to veer away from the electronic sound thatâs sort of dominated music in recent years with stuff like the auto-tune. Because to me hip hop has taken everything over so much that people donât really know what soul or R&B IS any more - itâs all become one big, messed-up THING! Plus, on this album I was blessed to work with truly amazing musicians who were really, really talented at what they did and were able to kind of flesh-out the vision of these songs and their tales of heartbreak and loss - and basically bring to life all the things that are the reason why this first part of the trilogy is the âBLACKâ part of the trilogy.â

PETE: And what inspired the lyrics?

MAXWELL: âWell, as I said earlier, the inspiration was real life itself. You know, while I was taking time away from the industry I came across a relationship that took me by surprise. Because, although Iâd always romanticised by TALKING about getting married, Iâd never actually met someone that really made me wanna DO it before! So, when that came my way, it was surprising - even though, at the end of the day, it didnât really work out the way I THOUGHT it would⦠But then eventually I guess, thereâs always a reason for why things happen. And the music side of things, in terms of this record, really did work out BECAUSE of that loss! And the REALLY good thing about all of it is that she and I are still friends. We still support each other as people, and I think Iâll always have her in my life on some level. Not only through the music that I do - thatâll celebrate the time we had together - but also because we really are spiritually connected in a special way.â

PETE: How do you see yourself, with âBLACKsummersânightâ, having progressed from your previous three studio albums?

MAXWELL: âWell, Iâve always wanted to make music that I could sing when I was 50 or 60. You know, even at the age of l9 I was like âIf we do a song, letâs make sure that I can sing it when Iâm 55â⦠And as an artist I can now say that, at 36 years old, I really am a MAN! As opposed to who I was before, which was a boy trying to give the SENSE of a man. You know, these days I know what Iâm here to do; I know what I CAN do; I know why I should PUSH myself a little bit more⦠So while yeah, the apprehension and the humility are still there - and I donât think the insecurity will EVER leave - at the same time, the confidence is definitely greater than it was before! Especially with whatâs happened RECENTLY! I mean, Iâd be lying if I told you that, after eight years of being away, to come back and have an album debut at Number One - in a world where itâs all about The Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift - wasnât incredible to me!â

PETE: The first two singles from âBLACKsummersânightâ - the old skool ballad âPretty Wingsâ and funky, brassy âBad Habitsâ - represent the two opposite emotional sides of youâ¦

MAXWELL: âI like to celebrate the fact that, as men, we have the right to be as delicate, as emotional and as precious as women. While at the same time me we have the right to be as ferocious, as strong and as bombastic as them too! I mean, I think that ANYBODY of ANY gender has a double-sided sword that they should wield at their leisure whenever they want, because there are too many stereotypes around that dictate how people are supposed to BE and ACT. You know, not to hate on hip hop, but I do think a lotta people there are just too uptight about the natural right to be emotional. Whereas I think soul music does represent everybodyâs ESCAPE in that way - especially for men who are particularly reserved. You know, for me it is our opportunity to express emotions that weâre not generally allowed to express. Itâs almost a window to the soul, to let women know âHey, God bless you for the children that you can make, for the wonderful things you wear for us, for how nice you smell⦠But donât ever forget ladies, we go just as deep! We cry just as much as you cry; we get scared just as much as you doâ⦠And for me the polarised aspects that represent the difference between âPretty Wingsâ - with its fluttery lightness - and âBad Habitsâ - with its hardness - showcase perfectly the dichotomy and the double- mindedness of what we all are as human beings. And Iâm very glad that music and art allow me to REPRESENT that.â

PETE: Letâs talk briefly about your early New York background, and how it shaped you as a person and artist

MAXWELL: âIâm a West Indian man who was born, and grew up, in East Brooklyn... But, though it was a rough neighbourhood, I donât actually believe that your surroundings become YOU. To me itâs how you THINK that makes you the person you are. So, though there was lots of violent stuff going on around me every day when I was growing up, music was all I heard and art was all that really motivated me. So in that way, I guess I kinda had my head in the clouds! You know, I could have been living in the countryside or on an island somewhere! Because what I felt inside when I listened to music made all the concrete became like a garden!â

PETE: So how did that lead to a full-time career in music?

MAXWELL: âTo be honest, it just HAPPENED! You know, though my stage persona would sometimes suggest otherwise, Iâm actually a lot shyer than you could possibly imagine. So I never actually dreamt that big. I basically just thought maybe, if I was lucky, Iâd be able to write a song for somebody and perhaps get some sort of recognition as a songwriter. So I started out making the rounds of the publishing companies, just trying to get songs placed on peopleâs albums - when one day someone at one of the companies heard something I was doing and thought âIâd like to LISTEN to this guy, Iâd like to MEET this guyâ... So I went along, thinking I was going to meet someone about placing songs - and the meeting ended up being about me becoming an artist, and the place ended up being Columbia Records!â

PETE: How do you now look back on working with legendary former Motown writer/producer/singer Leon Ware and iconic Seventies funk/soul guitarist âWah Wahâ Watson on your 1996 debut LP âMaxwellâs Urban Hang Suiteâ?

MAXWELL: âIncredible! I mean, PICTURE it! Iâm like 21 years old, and Iâm sitting there with Leon Ware, who as a gift gave his âI Want Youâ album to Marvin Gaye! You know, that was an album heâd completely written and sung by himself; Marvin Gaye heard it, said âI want this recordâ ... And Leon was like âOK. Sure! You can have it!â... Now thatâs an AMAZING selflessness right there! And then you have Watson - you know, Iâm such a big fan of what he did with Barry White and all that Motown stuff⦠And so to work with both those guys was like an incredible golden opportunity, and one that I donât think Iâll ever forget!â

PETE: You then proved your staying-power with your 1998 Platinum-selling sophomore set âEmbryaâ, whose vibe was distinctly different from your debut LPâ¦

MAXWELL: âWell, you know, everybody in this industry always wants you to keep repeating yourself. Whereas I knew, without a doubt, that I definitely wasnât gonna do âMaxwellâs Urban Hang Suiteâ Part 2! I didnât even care if it was gonna end my career - I just knew that there was no way on earth I was gonna go and repeat myself, because it would cheapen what that first record STOOD for. So in some ways I purposefully went, I guess the word to use is, aquatic! You know, whereas âUrban Hang Suiteâ was like a mountain with all this land and earth and dirt and ground, I knew my second record had to be all about the WATER! And what that in turn also did was, give me some space to not have to conform to one particular style - particularly in view of that whole neo-soul campaign that was running around at that time. You know, I believe that change is very important in an artistâs life and I respect artists who take chances. Whereas I DONâT respect people who are trying to meet quotas and trying to sell the same amount of records they sold before. Because to me thatâs scaredy-cat-type stuff.â

PETE: Your third studio LP - 2001âs âNowâ - actually became your first US chart-topper. Nevertheless, it was after that release that you decided to take time away from the industryâ¦

MAXWELL: âWell, I just think that any time that you can take a break to be a human being, it actually helps your art. I mean, everything I do, I do because ultimately I need my real-life experience! Because I donât wanna end up a characature of myself! I donât wanna be the same guy wearing the same Afro 17 years later because thatâs all people know me as - because then it becomes almost a joke! You know, people progress, people grow, they get old... Thatâs just the way life IS! And by changing my appearance and cutting my hair I did get to have a little anonymity and get to reclaim a bit of my youth - which had gone, because most of my twenties Iâd spent being scrutinised and under the spotlight.â

PETE: Do you feel the climate of the music industry at the time also had something to do with you taking eight years out?

MAXWELL: âYeah, with the changing of the tide and the whole internet revolution that was almost destroying the music industry, I also felt I needed the room to breathe so I could work on what my next project would BE. Which turned out to be this trilogy! And also, to be honest, I do feel thereâs something unnatural about somebody whoâs ALWAYS THERE! You know, one reason Bob Dylan has endured as an artist is because every so often he leaves the industry for about five or six years to go and live a normal life! So yeah, I was just happy that I was able to walk around more and more without being recognised, that I could go to a bar... I mean, I even got the chance to actually INTRODUCE myself sometimes! Which is something that hadnât happened in my life for a LONG time! I could eat, I could get fat⦠You know, it was nice to be able to be just âa guyâ again!â

PETE: So what can we expect from the remaining, upcoming two parts of the âBLACKSUMMERSâNIGHTâ trilogy?

âThe âSUMMERSââ part will have more of a gospel/Fela Kuti/social commentary-type vibe to it than anything Iâve ever done before. I guess itâs sort of my philanthropic side finding its way out, in that it deals more with world-type relationships than one-on-one personal relationships. While musically itâll be upbeat with me exploring the African gospel connection while also taking into consideration how much Ireland and Irish culture also play a part in the hymns and gospel music we have today. Then the âNIGHTâ instalment will pretty much be what people really want from me, hopefully! In that itâs basically a complete slow-jam record - where you just PUT it on and GET it on, if you know what I mean! You know, itâll be full of the ballads that you can slow-dance to and that you can conceive children to! So basically Iâm trying to cover all bases.â

PETE: When you first came out in the mid-Nineties, you were hailed as one of the pioneers of the then-emerging âneo-soul movementâ. What are your ideas on that now?

MAXWELL: âWell, the easiest way for me to describe that whole situation is by comparing it with the time in the Eighties when you had Sade, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran - this massive influx of UK artists into the The States, and all being bracketed together as âThe English Soundâ. You know, that kinda situation where everyone comes in a wave. And I think the greatest challenge of every artist, when you rise as part of a certain âsoundâ, is to know how to INDIVIDUALISE yourself... And, as I said earlier, I think âEmbryaâ was that moment for me. It was the moment that sort of said âYou know what? By hook or by crook Iâm going to stop this perception. So that I can have a career that goes past this fad, so to speakâ⦠I mean, as far as those artists that came out the same time as me, I think theyâre ALL amazing - Angie Stone, Erykah Badu, DâAngelo⦠But, as a 36-year-old man, I do think itâs now my responsibility to individualise myself and to really make sure people know that this is who I am, and that is who THEY are.â

Maxwell performs at Academy, Manchester on October 30; HMV Hammersmith Apollo, London on October 31; plus 02 Brixton Academy, London on November 13

Maxwellâs album âBLACKsummersânightâ and single âBad Habitsâ are both out now through Columbia

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