Maxwell: The Idolator Interview

Becky Bain | March 15, 2010 1:30 pm

Maxwell took an eight-year break after releasing 2001’s Now, spending most of the last decade perfecting his ambitious R&B trilogy, beginning with 2009’s BLACKsummers’ night. “These records are the records I’ve always wanted to make in my career and my life,” the 36-year old singer/songwriter told us recently. “It’s interesting that I’m getting to do them at this time in my life.”

So far, patience has paid off—the first release in his trilogy, the album Maxwell refers to simply as Black, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and scored the R&B star the first two Grammys of his career. Awards and accolades aside, he couldn’t be more appreciative of his fans sticking by his side during the years he stayed mostly silent. “If I consistently put records out, maybe I’d be jaded.”

While putting the finishing touches on his upcoming tour with Jill Scott, the sensitive singer revealed a bit more on what to expect on his next two albums, why he prefers going it alone in the studio, and how Radiohead inspires him more than you’d ever imagine. Find out below.

Where does the title of your album come from? I wanted three singular words that could exemplify the sound and the feel of each album and then still be put together in one sentence and sound like one thing. And it sort of worked out that way. You can call one [album] Summers, and call one Black, and call one Night.

Why did you want to make a trilogy instead of just, say, a double album? And why wait so long in between albums? I had it hit me six months after I had done my last tour for Now, the last record that came out in 2001. I knew I wanted to do a trilogy and it’s gonna take a lot of time, take some living. And there was all this stuff with the industry and the Internet and how it’s changed the way music was sold. That was a transitional period for everybody, for sure. In the wake of all that, and trying to accumulate all this kind of music and experience at the same time for the albums, we did all three records. They’re all pretty much done and I’m waiting on the second and the third, [wondering] when the right time to drop it is, I don’t want to be too premature. I’m just waiting and seeing. I’ve got lots to keep me busy between now and then anyway!

Your songs “Cold,” “Pretty Wings,” and “Fistful of Tears,” along with many other tracks on Black, have a very melancholy tone. What inspired that vibe? Not that “black” is synonymous with dark, bad or messed up things, [but] it conveys a certain somber feeling. That’s kind of why the record deals with break ups… Real life affects your art. I found myself in a situation where my expectations were not met. Not that that person was messed up or anything—sometimes reality comes and checks you, and I kind of got a reality check. But it inspired a lot of creativity for the record.  Something that was kind of painful actually made my work more important and interesting to people in the world, so I’m pleased about that.

Black‘s instrumental closing track, “Phoenix Rise,” sounds cheerier and more upbeat than the rest of the album. Is that what we have to look forward to with the remaining records? Night will definitely be more of a bedroom record. A serious, experimental, sonic voyage into the bedroom. [Laughs.] It’s really about production, and I’m excited about the third record a lot, because I’ve always been a big fan of compilations of ballads. I’ve always thought if I could make a record, I’d love to make a record where its just slow records, down tempo.

And Summers? Summers will be much more uptempo. I always like a little melancholy in the music, but it will have a bit more up feel than you’ve heard from me. Hopefully a lot of the soul will stay there and people won’t feel like, damn, he went and changed on us! But I’m excited about it.

In your song “Playing Possum,” you’re pleading for somebody to “wake up from your constant possum playing.” What does the term “playing possum” mean to you in this context? A dead relationship? Truly as it plays out in the song, it is indeed that. After you’ve broken up with someone, you see the possibility of getting back together, but then the person is just laying there unable to. It was my way of making a plea about having been aware of it being over. [But] it’s kind of two-fold thing. Sometimes, in my time away, it seemed that I was playing possum in terms of my work.  It’s symbolic for my career at the same time.

So many R&B artists are pressured either directly or indirectly to include featured rap stars on their albums, or similar collaborations. But Black is all you. Were there ideas for collaborations, or do you prefer just to record tracks by yourself? I love working with people. I’ve done some things—I’ve had the opportunity to work with Alchemist and Nas—but I haven’t done many things, because I don’t want to water myself down a little bit. It is sometimes difficult to truly mesh with everyone because I strive to do something that’s super timeless and doesn’t have the pretense of a pairing of two big stars kind of feeling. Sometimes I think that can eclipse the whole song. I personally enjoy certain collaborations that I have heard people do, but if it doesn’t have a symbolic creative purpose it just feels, like, why would these people be doing this music together?

Any collaborations on Summers or Night? I think I’m gonna be open to doing that, unexpected collaborations, the unlikely collaborations. I’m just waiting for this album to run its course before I take up meetings with various people to see what they think about certain songs.

You’ve cited Radiohead as one of your main influences. What about them inspires the way that you create your music? I think they’re incredible. I think their super experimental. They color outside of the lines. They represent true creativity and true courage in their work and it’s always great when you hear what they do, especially the last album [In Rainbows]. You say to yourself, wow, they’re really good now, and in a couple years, they show you that they’re even better. I don’t think there’s any band that really has that kind of lockdown. But I love Grizzly Bear, I love a lot of different things that are more alternative.

I know you’re a big Nine Inch Nails fan—one of my favorite covers you’ve ever done was Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” for your MTV Unplugged performance in 1997. You made it into a lively, poppin’ sex jam! [Laughs.] Blast from the past! Thank you.

That MTV Unplugged also featured your elegant spin on Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” Can we expect to hear more covers from you? I love to do the covers live… it’s always fun to do [a song] from someone else that you really admire that you can do in front of people and get that raw interaction with them as you do it. So I might keep within the vein of that formula. Because just that kind of song in a studio, sometimes it feels weird, especially if you love the song so much, I don’t know how possibly it could beat the other studio recording that people will hear and know. When you do it live, you escape the possibility of really failing. It’s you and a thousand other people, as opposed to you against the artist. In my opinion, if you’re motivated to cover a song, you’re in awe of what you’ve heard originally. I think it was still good to do it live in front of people instead of having it be a recording.

What was it like to return to the stage by performing “Simply Beautiful” during the 2008 BET Awards tribute for Al Green? I have to admit something—I never watch myself. The biggest fear I have is to sit there and see myself on TV or see myself performing or in pictures, or magazines or even on the Internet. I feel like I’m seeing a ghost. I have to say, just being on stage since I’ve never watched the performance, it was scary. I’m always nervous.

What? We couldn’t tell you were nervous at all! You seemed totally in your element. I appreciate you saying that. I’m a good faker! I was just like, yo, I haven’t done this in a long time and it was at an awards show, and at times they can be very sterile. Everybody’s in the audience, it’s lit very brightly for camera. So it doesn’t have the same sort of setting as if you’re performing and the lights are low. It was very scary for me to look into the audience and see all these celebrities and people I admired, especially over the time I had been away, all these careers began. I watched the rise of so many new artists and there they were there. I was thankful that I got through it. I’m happy that I go to do something so special for artists as incredible as Al Green.

You’re half Haitan, and I see the top of your MySpace Music page puts out the message for people to donate to Haiti. Is there anything else we can do at this time to help the situation over there? I think people should definitely focus on giving to the Red Cross because they pull it together. I’m doing so much more with regards to my tour [with Jill Scott]. We definitely will be raising a lot of money, I’m waiting to see how all that gets implemented, that’s my only concern. It’s a lifelong commitment for me. Haiti’s an amazing world, my ancestors are connected to it, but apart from my connection to it, it’s the first republic of free African-Americans at a point in time in history before Martin Luther King before any of those revolutionary symbols of civil right and human rights and equality. So it’ a lifelong thing, its not something that can happen the first month of an incident. The outpouring of love and concern was so great across the world, that it was almost shocking to me considering how quiet and how tiny and how people ignored all the major issues that concern Haiti [before the earthquake].  I want to thank all the many people who have already given so much or who have sent so much and have raised great awareness and great concern for Haiti.