Back By Popular Demand: R&B Singing Sensation Maxwell

Neo-Soul star Maxwell is back on the music scene with his new album, Blacksummer's Night. His return comes following a lengthy hiatus from the music scene. He made a huge splash in the music world with his 1996 debut album Urban Hang Suite, which drew both big sales and rave reviews. Maxwell talks about taking a break from making music — during which he discovered his inner-self and romance — and how he manages to balance fame with enjoying the simpler pleasures of life.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And now, Maxwell. For soul music fans, the name means classic, sensual ballads set off by surprising instrumental twists. His debut album, "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite," was a revelation when it came out in the spring of 1996. It garnered huge sales and rave reviews. Since then, he has continued to reinvent the soul and R&B genres, and to disappear from time to time. Now he is back with "Black Summer's Night," which came out this summer after an eight-year hiatus, and has been nominated for no less than six Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year for the track "Pretty Wings." Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, "Pretty Wings")

MAXWELL (Singer): (Singing) I turned day into night, sleep till I die a thousand times. I should have showed you better nights, better times, better days, and I miss you more and more.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) If I can't have you, let love set you free to fly your pretty wings around.

MAXWELL: (Singing) Your pretty wings, your pretty wings, your pretty wings, your pretty wings all around. Your pretty wings...

MARTIN: And we're pleased to welcome Maxwell. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MAXWELL: Thank you for having me. Hello, hello.

MARTIN: So where you been?

MAXWELL: Where have I been? I've been on a serious grind. I mean, it's been, like, 98 shows, I think, in 2009. So...

MARTIN: So where were you before that?

MAXWELL: Before that? I was in New York. I was traveling a bit. I was going to Europe. I was going to South America. I was falling in love and getting my heart broken and falling back in love, you know, and just kind of like finding me. And I need breaks. I need to go out there and do the whole thing and then go to Clark Kent a little bit and kind of absorb the world and go get my groceries and - because I love that stuff.

You know, I love people-watching. I love going into movies and sitting and standing on line and getting a ticket. You know, I mean, I really got into that, I have to say, like 2007 and 2006. I really got away with just being able to do that because I didn't look like how I was.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you. Speaking of Clark Kent, is that why you cut your hair? Because that big fro was the thing. I mean, that was, like, the thing.

MAXWELL: I know, I know.

MARTIN: Is that why you cut it, or what? You're just tired of what?

MAXWELL: I just wanted to change, you know, just, like, first I wanted to do it, and then I was, like, well, if I do it, what's going to - you know, there was all this, like, well, people like it. And then that became, like, oh, wow. So you only do what you want to do because people are going to like it, or do you do what you want to do because it's what you want to do?

So I battled with that for a minute, and then I just took the plunge. And I got a lot of criticism, and I got a lot of interesting opinions thrown at me. But what was great about it is that yet again, it proved that the music is a source and the reason why I do what I do. And in the end, that's what I want to be known for, you know, not as, like, a caricature or some, you know, stick. I want them to know it's music.

MARTIN: Yeah, that's interesting, because a lot of people, when they think about you as - not just as an artist, but as a public figure, they talk about not just what you do but what you don't do. You don't talk about your stuff. You know, you don't show off your house, your cars. You don't, you know, fill your album with a lot of big-name guests or collaborations. You don't grab, you know, the hot-name, glitzy producer to, you know, overdub your tracks.

And I'm wondering: Is that a conscious decision, where, you know, it's almost like fasting, where you're saying to yourself I will not eat that? Or is it something that you just fell into?

MAXWELL: You know, I just - I love everybody out there, and I'm so tempted sometimes to work with more people than I ever end up working with. But I feel like after all that time, if I would have came out with a record that just had everybody that was currently sort of paving a way, I felt like that would be a betrayal to all the people who waited to hear what we wanted to do and what we - we meaning, you know, Hod David and the musicians that we enlisted that are part of the band, actually. I wanted it to be pure like that, you know. And I was concerned. I'll be honest with you, I wasn't sure if a guy that didn't have a rapper on his song and a live drummer could make it happen...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAXWELL: ...in the contemporary world that we live in. I'm just grateful that people really, really took it. It makes me so happy when like nine-year-olds and 10-year-olds come screaming like "Pretty Wings," you know, and we'll be like, a 10-year-old, how could you know, you know, who I am?

MARTIN: Well, let's play a little a bit just so people know what we're talking about - the eight people who haven't heard it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Can we play a little bit of "Pretty Wings." So why don't we play the first track of "Black Summer's Night," Let's talk about "Bad Habits." Let's play a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Bad Habits")

MAXWELL: (Singing) This is the highest cost. Take you and make you off. Live you and leave you lost. Will you forgive me? Asked out all over town. Drags you and keeps you down. Two times and I take a round. Will you forgive me? Baby, to tell the truth when I'm sober I jonez for you. When it's over I'm overdue.

MARTIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who are we talking about here?

MAXWELL: We talking...

MARTIN: Who are we talking about?

MAXWELL: We talking about how crazy you can be when someone so fine just turns your mind around and I just - that's what's we're talking about. We're talking about that addictive sort of fatal attraction.

MARTIN: What's her name?

MAXWELL: You know, out of respect, out of respect to her and whoever she's with right now, I'd rather just let them live and be happy doing their thing, you know?

MAXWELL: And I don't want to just spoil it for all the people who want to make it about who they want to make it about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Good point.

MAXWELL: You know, it's kind of like the writer who comes in and goes, oh by the way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah, this really isn't orange.

MAXWELL: This whole fictional thing right here has to do with me, and me, and me, and more me. I fell like honestly, that's kind of what really bothers me a lot about music is how it's very, very self-centered sometimes, self-absorbed sort of approach to creativity and that no one ever really lends themselves to allowing the audience to sort of like come up with their own feelings and have their own experiences into it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Maxwell. He has garnered six Grammy nominations for his latest album "Black Summer's Night." Speaking of putting it out to the universe, we put out a note out on our Facebook page asking our listeners if there's anything they wanted to ask you.

MAXWELL: Oh, no.

MARTIN: And we have a number of offers of marriage, if you're interested or something. I don't know really if it's marriage they're offering.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But Chris(ph) wants to ask if you believe that singing in falsetto offers special emphasis in your ballads that otherwise would not have as much impact? What do you think?

MAXWELL: You know, I think so. I think it's interesting though, on this album I didn't use it as much as I've used it in the past. But yeah, I think there's a certain sensitivity that you can actually sort of like pull upon in people when a man takes his voice to such a feminine delicate place like that. I'm just happy I can do it, you know. Sometimes it happens sometimes it doesn't, but when it does I'm just grateful that songs like "This Woman's Work" and all the various songs that I've done in falsetto have worked.

(Soundbite of song, "This Woman's Work")

MAXWELL: (Singing) Pray God you can cope. I'll stand outside. This woman's work, this woman's worth. Ooh, it's hard on a man.

MAXWELL: But, you know, it such a classic soul thing, Eddie Kendricks and, you know, I'm just grateful to be, you know, holding up a tradition. That's really how I look at a lot of it sometimes. It's like look, all of this is like - is on loan basically. Just like basically everything is on loan for everyone. We get to borrow what we've inherited and what we've acquired, but we only have it as we live. And I'm just grateful that I get to pass this baton or that I can hold it for a moment before I have to relinquish it to someone else who's going to keep it going.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, another listener, Simy(ph) wants to know if there's anything special you do to take care of your voice?

MAXWELL: Yeah. I, basically, no lemon, nothing citrus, no menthol. It's such a boring life when I'm on the road, let me tell you. It's like there's no wine in my life. There's no, you know, anything that strips the throat in any way. It's like no heavy talking after the show. I mean it's really strange, you know. But it's all worth it in the end, because I want to give people the most that I can give them and I think they deserve it. Especially now with all this time, it's like I have to tell you, it's like I feel like I so owe it myself and the world, you know, to make good on the promise of "Urban Hang Suite," you know.

MARTIN: Why don't we play something from "Urban Hang Suite?" People aren't going to, you know, if I don't play something from it people will - why didn't you play all of it? So why don't we play "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)." Why don't we play a little bit of that just so we can get that vibe?

MAXWELL: Sure.

MARTIN: Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)")

MAXWELL: (Singing) Shouldn't I realize you're the highest of the high? And if you don't know then I'll say it, so don't ever wonder, wonder. Don't ever. Wonder. Shouldn't I realize?

MAXWELL: Wow.

MARTIN: Yeah, what do you hear when you hear that? I have to tell you, in my set we still play it.

MAXWELL: Oh my goodness.

MARTIN: All the time.

MAXWELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: All the time. So when you hear it, what are you hearing?

MAXWELL: Wow, I just hear someone who didn't know anything about what was going to happen. I just like, I remember being in the studio and just doing that and just, because it was another song. A lot of my songs sometimes start out with one way and then a whole other title and then I come to my senses and then I write what it was meant to be kind of. It's happened so many times that way and "Ascension" was one of those songs that sort of one day it was this way and then the next day it just sort of like�

(Soundbite of fingers snapping)

MAXWELL: �here we go. This is the way it's going to be. I just hear like a young guy just hopeful and happy that he's in a big old studio doing something...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAXWELL: ...you know, that he never thought he would be able to do. And it's funny, that's never left me. I still kind of always go into studios and I'm like wow, I mean this is what I do and people let me, so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What the most gratifying thing that's happened since the release of �Black Summer's Night?" I mean six Grammy nominations is nothing to sneeze at, but.

MAXWELL: Yeah. I mean it's, I mean apart from the Grammys, I mean just, you know, the NAACP Award nominations, wow, "Soul Train," winning an award with them. Just being acknowledged, just having your peers, having people in this present day who I respect musically knowing you and appreciating what you do as much as you appreciate them.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I did want to ask about that devastating earthquake in Haiti.

MAXWELL: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: And I understand that you're working with Wyclef Jean and his organization. He has an NGO, apparently a very effective one...

MAXWELL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...in working with him to try to be helpful there. And I was curious because I know Wyclef, of course, is from Haiti. He has family, he has roots there.

MAXWELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I was just curious about why you are interested. Obviously, it's a terrible situation there.

MAXWELL: It's a terrible situation. I'm half Haitian. My mother was born in Haiti and everyone that we know, that she knows is here in either America, New York, Florida, the capital of Haiti, as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAXWELL: But it's just, you know, it's just my roots, my heritage, my people and I just, whatever I can do. I mean from the last that I've heard of it, they can't get anybody in there because they're not sure about the airports and the stability and how to land and get people in and...

MARTIN: Well, it's a fast moving situation so we'll, you know, we'll keep everybody up to date on this. So let me let you go.

MAXWELL: Wow.

MARTIN: You've been very generous with your time.

MAXWELL: It's been great talking to you, Michel.

MARTIN: I would like to ask, what song would you like to go out on?

MAXWELL: You know what? In light of the situation in Haiti, "Phoenix Rise."

MARTIN: Maxwell's new album is titled "Black Summer's Night." It has been nominated for six Grammy Awards. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Maxwell, thank you so much for speaking to us. Best of luck to you. Thank you for coming in.

MAXWELL: Thanks for having me and I hope that you enjoy the second and the third part of the trilogy and, you know, I hope you like my next hairstyle.

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