Q&A With Maxwell, Playing American Airlines Arena With Jill Scott Tonight
Eight years. That's how long Maxwell spent between LPs. And that's about eight times the general shelf life of the average pop star. But as we make clear in this week's feature , Maxwell is not, and has never been, your average pop-star. In fact, he's come off as something enduring and timeless from the get-go.
New Times caught up with R&B's smoothest singer by phone on the eve of his current tour, which finds him and Jill Scott holding forth at the American Airlines Arena tonight. Read the full Q&A after the jump.
New Times: You've never been caught up in trends. In fact you take a more classicist's approach to song. If you could name one cat from the past whose career is worth looking up to, who would it be?
Maxwell: Gosh, so many. Marvin Gaye. Sade has a pretty completely unbreakable career, in that regard. She's just so scenic. It's like going to Paris and every building is like working with a theme. People like that really make me excited about sticking around for a while. (laughing)
Did you grow up listening to Gaye and (Al) Green and people like that?
Yeah. Sade, for me, not only was she like smoking fine, I mean the music was great. She was who she was. She was her own person. She wasn't a part of anything. And she also takes time to live. And not look like a weirdly desperate celebrity person. I always admired that. And that's always what I like about a lot of people -- people who kept consistent with music and work that they've done over the years, yet still give you the impression that what matters most to them is living. Not just being famous and making money, or being number one or whatever. That literally living is fun to them. That to me is exciting.
It's almost like a throwback from another time. I mean, she wasn't caught up in any trends, nor have you been. Do you sometimes feel like you're out of another time?
There's a part of me that wishes that I could fall into pop culture and do those things. But I know that for me it's a lot harder work. It seems like it's harder to put material to and be as derivative as you possibly could be. In terms of it's a little bit harder to do that. You can just work with that artist who has the number one record on all the charts right now. It's like boom, instant in some ways. It's not guaranteed but it's a lot easier to believe that through association you could actually fall into that zone, which is where everybody goes.
To really answer your question: I feel like it's the only way that I know how to do things. I'm a control freak. I'm a perfectionist. When you send it out, it's forever. I keep that in mind usually when I'm working on anything or creating something
It's been a year since BLACKsummers'night, but eight years between LPs. Why the long time between albums?
I don't know. It wasn't planned really. I thought maybe I'd take four years, five years tops. Then I kept watching the music industry deteriorate and people that I knew were getting fired, and at the same time I was very happy to not have the responsibility of scrutiny of the world. It was nice to be considered a "remember him?" or a "what happened to him?" sort of person. (laughing)
Yeah, there was something fun about being the guy that used to be 'that guy.' Especially, when I would go out and be in clubs and people would have sorrow or compassion or pity on some levels. "Oh, I remember you." Especially when I cut my hair it was like, "Oh, you cut your hair. I guess it's over then."
Like that was your magic, the hair?
Right. I'm looking at them and just laughing because I'm like, 'I'm not like a marathon racer. I'm not a basketball team. I make music.' Which means I can go away hopefully, and maybe come back.
That's a rare luxury to be able to have.
Exactly. That's what I was about to touch on. It's not lost on me how precious and rare that gift is, to be able to step away and come back. It's given me a great sense of confidence in knowing that what I did in the nineties in the beginning towards 2000, it wasn't all just flukey type stuff, that there was something real to it, and that makes me feel great. For the people who overlook what we do -- I say we because there are other people involved, musicians and co-producers and co-writers that have been with me forever -- it gives us a lot of joy. We're not just a trend. It's not just a neo-soul thing. Or that I'm a certain age and this is what people in their 20's are doing. I can't describe how gratifying it felt to see that kind of response and that kind of acceptance again. With no need to look or be like how I was.
The title to me seems to allude to not one but many black summers. It also conveys a sense of owning the night, at least with the apostrophe where it is. What's the origin of that title anyway?
It was something I was working with around 2002. I was very much over the whole music industry thing. I was being ripped off by all kinds of people from the touring world going in. A complete racket. And I was like 'this is not what I bargained for.' Then I sort of stepped away. I'm always making music though and I will always have to make music and write songs. But it was the first time that I decided to make it for myself and make it at my leisure. Make it for my own enjoyment for a minute before I make it into some sort of product that needs a serial number and all that.
To get into the title, it's a trilogy. Black represents the first part. Summers represents the second. Night represents the third. Black being more of a despondent, heartbreak kind of thing, because that's what happened to me really at a certain point in the writing process when I broke up with my girlfriend. It brought so much truth to what I was trying to say in the first part of the trilogy. The second part, which is Summer was much more of a gospel, Fela, rock and roll, blues. It's a big mish-mosh of stuff. It doesn't go all the way to like 'Who's this?' Hopefully, you'll know it's what we've always put out. The Night is the last installment, it's a record of slow songs. That's what we have there.
You recorded for the ten piece band. Are they going to be on the stage with you at the Triple A?
Yes, they are as they have been since the summer of 2009. The same band pretty much, pretty much everybody that we've always been with. They've been in the band and on the record. That's another reason why I can't believe this is my life sometimes. When do you get the guy who actually plays on your record to actually have time? They are all big time musicians with deals and albums that they want to put out and things they want to do; they're in high demand. So it's amazing for me to be able to have kept that team together and bring it to the people. They get the record live.
You've got Jill Scott on the bill. How did you and Jill Scott become connected and what made you decide to tour together?
I did something in 2008 with her and Al Green. It was a tribute that BET was setting up. It was like a no brainer. C'mon, I mean, you're asking me to do something for Al Green. It's Al Green. She was part of the ensemble. She did a song before me and then I stepped out and then the wheels starting turning from there.
Are there any other singers out there right now whose sound you're digging?
Well, I love Alicia Keys' new album. I think it's probably her best. I also love Melanie Fiona who is also going to be a part of the show. And Erykah Badu's doing a few shows with us during part of this tour. It's Jill Scott and then she's got 20 dates and Erykah's got 2, and Fione has about 15. Estelle will be a part of the team as well for about three dates. So it's like the ultimate black singing "sanging" sexy women of all time.
We love Estelle. She's great. In fact we interviewed her last year too. You've covered everybody from Kate Bush to Nine Inch Nails to Al Green when you did that tribute. What is it about a song that makes you want to sing it?
As long as it's something that people don't expect, or an arrangement that is unlike what people would think that the original song would be. That's usually what draws me in. I love to convey music to people that would have never seen or heard it. How many people in my genre or in my world would have known Kate Bush? I know a few who would, but after we did the cover so many people were aware of how great she was. That's why you do it. Covers should have a two-prong purpose. They should not only be a vehicle for you, but they should also open up the masses and your audiences to newer realms of music. It's kind of great. That song is like -- My God, I can never not do a show without doing it.
Are we going to hear those songs when you play Miami?
"This Woman's Worth" could never not be a part of the set list. People would just be waiting for me and going, "Um, hello. You know you missed something." There would be protests, I think.
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