Maxwell: Soul sharing
Back in 1996 - on releasing his Double-Platinum-selling debut LP ‘Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite’ - New York singer/songwriter/ producer Maxwell was universally acclaimed as a leading pioneer of the then-emerging “neo-soul movement”… 2009, meanwhile, has seen him return from an extended eight-year hiatus, with his US chart-topping, long-overdue fourth studio album ‘BLACKsummers’night’.
Recorded as the first instalment of a trilogy entitled ‘BLACKSUMMERS’NIGHT’, said current LP boasts a live, and often raw, sound attained throughout its nine tracks by a tight 10-piece band; while Maxwell’s 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 ‘Pretty Wings’ to the brassy funk of the new UK single ‘Bad Habits’ and punchy, Latin-percussion-driven ‘Cold’. Meanwhile, elsewhere the accessible melodic thump of ‘Love You’ contrasts boldly with the sombre, acoustic guitar-strummed ‘Playing Possum’ and the soundtrack-flavoured uptempo groove of the album’s instrumental closer ‘Phoenix Rise’.
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 Sony’s Columbia label in 1994.
Since which time Maxwell - though initially labelled by the press “introverted, bohemian and shy” - has unquestionably emerged as one of contemporary black music’s most critically-acclaimed artists (not to mention most desired sex symbols!). His four studio albums to date comprising 1996’s breakthrough romantic concept-LP ‘Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite’; 1998’s Platinum-selling ‘Embrya’; 2001’s US chart-topping ‘Now’; plus his aforementioned, 2009-released, current ‘BLACKsummers’night’.
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 ‘BLACKsummers’night’ as the first part of an album trilogy?
MAXWELL: “Well, 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 ‘BLACKSUMMERS’NIGHT’ trilogy. But then, to make sure every song worked WITHIN the trilogy, I knew I’d 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 wasn’t 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 I’m very happy I took my time. Because we not only completed this first instalment, but we’ve already also written the second and third parts of the trilogy too!”
PETE: So what did you want to achieve musically with ‘BLACKsummers’night’?
MAXWELL: “I 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 that’s 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 don’t really know what soul or R&B IS any more - it’s 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 ‘BLACK’ part of the trilogy.”
PETE: And what inspired the lyrics?
MAXWELL: “Well, 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 I’d always romanticised by TALKING about getting married, I’d 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 didn’t really work out the way I THOUGHT it would… But then eventually I guess, there’s 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 I’ll always have her in my life on some level. Not only through the music that I do - that’ll celebrate the time we had together - but also because we really are spiritually connected in a special way.”
PETE: How do you see yourself, with ‘BLACKsummers’night’, having progressed from your previous three studio albums?
MAXWELL: “Well, I’ve 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 ‘If we do a song, let’s make sure that I can sing it when I’m 55’… 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 I’m 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 don’t think the insecurity will EVER leave - at the same time, the confidence is definitely greater than it was before! Especially with what’s happened RECENTLY! I mean, I’d 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 it’s all about The Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift - wasn’t incredible to me!”
PETE: The first two singles from ‘BLACKsummers’night’ - the old skool ballad ‘Pretty Wings’ and funky, brassy ‘Bad Habits’ - represent the two opposite emotional sides of you…
MAXWELL: “I 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 everybody’s ESCAPE in that way - especially for men who are particularly reserved. You know, for me it is our opportunity to express emotions that we’re not generally allowed to express. It’s almost a window to the soul, to let women know ‘Hey, God bless you for the children that you can make, for the wonderful things you wear for us, for how nice you smell… But don’t ever forget ladies, we go just as deep! We cry just as much as you cry; we get scared just as much as you do’… And for me the polarised aspects that represent the difference between ‘Pretty Wings’ - with its fluttery lightness - and ‘Bad Habits’ - with its hardness - showcase perfectly the dichotomy and the double- mindedness of what we all are as human beings. And I’m very glad that music and art allow me to REPRESENT that.”
PETE: Let’s talk briefly about your early New York background, and how it shaped you as a person and artist
MAXWELL: “I’m a West Indian man who was born, and grew up, in East Brooklyn... But, though it was a rough neighbourhood, I don’t actually believe that your surroundings become YOU. To me it’s 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!”
PETE: So how did that lead to a full-time career in music?
MAXWELL: “To be honest, it just HAPPENED! You know, though my stage persona would sometimes suggest otherwise, I’m 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, I’d 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 people’s albums - when one day someone at one of the companies heard something I was doing and thought ‘I’d like to LISTEN to this guy, I’d like to MEET this guy’... 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!”
PETE: How do you now look back on working with legendary former Motown writer/producer/singer Leon Ware and iconic Seventies funk/soul guitarist ‘Wah Wah’ Watson on your 1996 debut LP ‘Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite’?
MAXWELL: “Incredible! I mean, PICTURE it! I’m like 21 years old, and I’m sitting there with Leon Ware, who as a gift gave his ‘I Want You’ album to Marvin Gaye! You know, that was an album he’d completely written and sung by himself; Marvin Gaye heard it, said ‘I want this record’ ... And Leon was like ‘OK. Sure! You can have it!’... Now that’s an AMAZING selflessness right there! And then you have Watson - you know, I’m 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 don’t think I’ll ever forget!”
PETE: You then proved your staying-power with your 1998 Platinum-selling sophomore set ‘Embrya’, whose vibe was distinctly different from your debut LP…
MAXWELL: “Well, you know, everybody in this industry always wants you to keep repeating yourself. Whereas I knew, without a doubt, that I definitely wasn’t gonna do ‘Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite’ Part 2! I didn’t 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 ‘Urban Hang Suite’ 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 artist’s life and I respect artists who take chances. Whereas I DON’T respect people who are trying to meet quotas and trying to sell the same amount of records they sold before. Because to me that’s scaredy-cat-type stuff.”
PETE: Your third studio LP - 2001’s ‘Now’ - actually became your first US chart-topper. Nevertheless, it was after that release that you decided to take time away from the industry…
MAXWELL: “Well, 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 don’t wanna end up a characature of myself! I don’t wanna be the same guy wearing the same Afro 17 years later because that’s all people know me as - because then it becomes almost a joke! You know, people progress, people grow, they get old... That’s 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 I’d spent being scrutinised and under the spotlight.”
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: “Yeah, 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 there’s something unnatural about somebody who’s 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 hadn’t 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 ‘a guy’ again!”
PETE: So what can we expect from the remaining, upcoming two parts of the ‘BLACKSUMMERS’NIGHT’ trilogy?
“The ‘SUMMERS’’ part will have more of a gospel/Fela Kuti/social commentary-type vibe to it than anything I’ve ever done before. I guess it’s 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 it’ll 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 ‘NIGHT’ instalment will pretty much be what people really want from me, hopefully! In that it’s basically a complete slow-jam record - where you just PUT it on and GET it on, if you know what I mean! You know, it’ll be full of the ballads that you can slow-dance to and that you can conceive children to! So basically I’m trying to cover all bases.”
PETE: When you first came out in the mid-Nineties, you were hailed as one of the pioneers of the then-emerging “neo-soul movement”. What are your ideas on that now?
MAXWELL: “Well, 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 ‘The English Sound’. 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 ‘sound’, is to know how to INDIVIDUALISE yourself... And, as I said earlier, I think ‘Embrya’ was that moment for me. It was the moment that sort of said ‘You know what? By hook or by crook I’m going to stop this perception. So that I can have a career that goes past this fad, so to speak’… I mean, as far as those artists that came out the same time as me, I think they’re ALL amazing - Angie Stone, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo… But, as a 36-year-old man, I do think it’s 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.”
Maxwell performs at Academy, Manchester on October 30; HMV Hammersmith Apollo, London on October 31; plus 02 Brixton Academy, London on November 13
Maxwell’s album ‘BLACKsummers’night’ and single ‘Bad Habits’ are both out now through Columbia
Words PETE LEWIS