Maxwell / Photo by Christian Hansen, courtesy of Maxwell
“Every seven years I step away for the population reason,” Maxwell quipped onstage last month during a show at New York's Barclay's Center, in his native borough of Brooklyn. He was joking, but only kind of.
It was Valentine's Day, and Maxwell was quite literally back in the spotlight, wearing the most sharply tailored coral-colored double-breasted suit imaginable. He held forth with classic soul panache, gyrating his hips as he held the mic and even hitting the splits at one point (seriously, the tailoring for that suit was incredible) in front of his tightly assembled band. But there was also a casual humility and palpable joy to the whole thing, complete with goofy monologues that included at least one mention of bodily fluids and an audience Kiss Cam that brought Maxwell close to tears laughing jovially onstage.
“[The stakes] got really high, to the point that I wonder where it's going to end up at the end of the tour,” he remembered enthusiastically to me over the phone yesterday. “Will people like actually have full-blown sex on the cam, even if it says 'kiss'? Will they do something else? I don't know.” When Maxwell says these kinds of things, they suddenly don't seem that ridiculous. All I can say is that given the general tone of encouragement that night—there was also a sung freestyle that included the suggestion to draw a bath and fill it with rose petals after the show—it would be a national shame if at least a few babies weren't conceived later in the evening.
It's been almost seven years since Maxwell's last album, BLACKsummers'night, which included breathtaking single “Pretty Wings,” perhaps the most sublime song of the singer's career and certainly one of the best pieces of music released in the last decade. In that time, a lot has changed: Sexting technology has improved, for starters, which is convenient. Also, Maxwell's sensual, ethereal brand of neo soul has become massively influential, even if Maxwell isn't always the first name that gets dropped by a new generation of artists. Floating, structurally languid R&B and soaring falsetto have become de rigeur for cool kids, blog darlings, and massive pop stars alike: Consider Zayn Malik's high-budget rebranding post-One Direction as a solo artist steeped in Sade and 90s R&B. There is nothing more sought after in music right now than sounding like Maxwell.
Fortunately, Maxwell has that part down: One thing that hasn't changed is that he still sounds as timeless—and ahead of his time—as he did when his debut Urban Hang Suite first came out 20 years ago. And while he'd be totally entitled to coast on that reputation, he's instead giving the young guns something new to envy. Yes, Maxwell is back, with a new song called “Lake by the Ocean,” a new album on the way July 1, and plans for a summer tour, the dates of which will be released next week. The album is called blackSUMMERS’night, the second part of an intended trilogy. I'm already stressed about where things are going if we haven't gotten to the “NIGHT” portion in terms of sensuality yet, but the “summer” part sounds enticing.
“It's definitely forward,” Maxwell told me. “It's live, but there are electronic elements. It has a lot of dancing kind of songs that you wouldn't quite expect. Kind of in the vein of Urban Hang Suite a little bit, with like 'Dancewitme' and 'Sumthin'' and 'Ascension.' We really picked up the tempo on this. You're going to be like 'ah OK, it's not all slow joints.'”
We should take him at his word if the first single, “Lake by the Ocean,” released last night at midnight, is any indication. Taut and intimate, it both settles into a swirling groove and explodes into dazzling highs. Its tender evocation of “just me / and you” practically conjures a romantic sunset over the water out of thin air. It feels like an instant classic, a reminder of what all that cool, hyped new music is trying to be. Maxwell does a good job of letting the music speak for itself, but, as his affable onstage personality suggests, it's not for a lack of being fun to talk to. Eager to learn more about the upcoming project and his plans for the 20-year anniversary of Urban Hang Suite, I gave him a call. With a honeyed voice that had the calming effect of a hot cup of herbal tea, he, as usual, dazzled.
Noisey: So it's been seven years. I assume the birthrate wasn't the only reason you've been away. What have you been doing in the interim, and why did it take so long to put together an album?
Maxwell: I feel like what I wanted to say, I couldn't say it exactly the way that I can say it now, a little bit. At the same time there was life, just getting older and losing family members and trying to process that.
Tell me about that. Your grandmother died? And your cousin?
Yeah. My grandmother, that made sense because she was much older. She was very special to me. My cousin was kind of a surprise. We didn't expect him—he was 33 years old. So it was pretty shocking for me. It really shifted my consciousness in many ways: just like what's special and how precious it all is, really. It changed the way that a lot of the songs were being written.
But I'm really just always trying to perfect the album because I'm not just putting records out because I can put records out. I'm not really interested in being famous. My driving point is not to stay in the public eye and be remembered. I don't want to be forgotten! But I'm not interested in inundating you to the point of no return, where it's like “enough, we get it.” I think there's something about that that makes when you release something kind of mean something more. And plus it's like the same people who worked on my first album, so it's not like I've got the hottest new producer who's got 300 hits on radio right now. It's the same guys that met me when I was 17 and thought and believed something good can happen with me, even though I'm a busboy right now, that one day I may not be a busboy. So that's kind of what really takes the time, is perfecting things.
And sometimes I just want a break from the whole thing, to be honest with you. I hope that doesn't upset anybody. Because the whole thing is so narcissistic, and it's just all about you talking about you and pictures of you in the news, and sometimes it's like I can't take it, you know? I love making music, and actually I want to be a songwriter and a producer more, but I got kind of coaxed into being the frontman, kind of. And I couldn't get anybody else to do the songs that I wanted to do, so I just had to do them myself [laughs].
Since your last album, your type of music has become very trendy. You have Zayn Malik of One Direction or Nick Jonas making R&B albums. It's like the next move after being in a boy band is to become an R&B singer. Have you felt any difference in the way this music is perceived or received?
Ha! I just feel like it's a cyclical thing, and I feel like the 90s are back. I was listening to the amazing Kendrick Lamar album, and you can hear like the influences of like Dre and that whole time. It cycles, you know? It's the same thing like with me, what we were doing when we were creating these like Marvin Gaye-ish type ballads and Roy Ayers type things. When I was 19, I was obsessed with P-funk. So I understand it on a cyclical level.
I know Nick, and I love Nick, and he actually played me “Push” when he was about to release his last album. I know all of them. I don't know Zayn, but I like his song. I mean, I'm 42 years old, I can't have any beef [laughs]. You know what I mean? How am I gonna have beef with someone who's half my age, who probably listened to the stuff I did the same way I look at someone like Harry Belafonte—who I had the pleasure of sitting down with and going to his house and talking to him about some of the projects that he's working on. It's kind of like a celebration of a legacy of music, and it's great that these people are doing that and opening up the ears and the eyes of the people that would follow them. It actually benefits me in the end because if I can step out again, and I know that these people are being inspired by the same types of artists that I've been inspired by, it can probably produce some good things.
Let's talk a bit about your new song, “Lake by the Ocean.” It's really tender and sweet. What does that mean, “lake by the ocean”? Where does that come from? What's the story behind the song?
It's funny because I haven't really ever had to think about it—it's just like whatever it feels like—and in the recent days I've had to think like “well, what the hell does that mean?” It's sort of like being able to say that we are all that matters. Even if there's this big sea next to this little body of water, that will be just enough for us because it's OK. We're with each other.
When you look at the beginning, the initial verse, this person has been through so much and has finally found something that can change everything from the past, and that's why they don't need that much anymore. They can take this pond, as long as they're with this wonderful girl—or whoever's listening to it is into. Plus water to me is so fascinating—not to mention I'm kind of involved with some philanthropic efforts to bring clean water to places where there isn't any. I didn't think about that part until after I wrote the song because I've had the song for about five years.
Lyrically I've had it for about maybe eight months, like full-on lyrically. But the title was the title that it was like five years ago. My friends were like “yo, that's the one that you need to release.” I always played people things from the record—because I have so many songs that are like halfway done or rough ideas, and I play them for my friends—and they were always like “that's the one,” and it just ended up being the one. We played it for the label, and they were like “this is the one!'”And we went to iHeartRadio, we went to all these stations, and everyone was just pointing right at that. Now I'm shooting a video in the Caribbean for it. It's kind of crazy, though. It was just like some slow jam record at first, and here we are like seven years later.
Was there a specific catalyst or story behind how you wrote it?
I think after being so disappointed in situations, life situations and personal choices that you make, losing people, finding joy in the simple things is what kind of keeps me going. And I think recently it became real, where I could perform.
It's like I have these songs, but I'm always looking for the spark of experience that breathes life into the performance later on. I have the songs, but it's just I don't feel like I have the real life motivation to really make an impact on the performance. Sometimes I'll have them, and I just won't do them yet because I'll be like ehhhh, I'm not really ready. I'm not mature enough to perform this. You would be able to tell that I'm bullshitting. And I don't want to be that way because I could just do other people's songs or something instead of writing my own if I just wanted to have stuff out. I make it way more complex than it is sometimes, though, I have to admit.
No, that's super real and great! I hope there's like a vault of songs where when you're like 70 you'll be like “ah finally, this one makes sense now!”
[Laughs] It's so funny, though. But that's kind of how it is! That's how it works. I had “Pretty Wings” as a rough idea, and then I met this girl and then lost her, and then I played the song, and it was, like, effortless. The words happened like nothing.
There's another song I did on the album, two songs with Stuart Matthewman—who's formerly of Sweetback and Twin Danger and of course has written a great number of songs with Sade because he's part of the band, the four-person group that they are. I didn't even write the lyrics. I didn't even know what we were going to do. It just written right then and there. No change, no words, everything rhymed. That was just kind of an out-of-body experience for me. And we just kind of looked at each other like “OK, um, that seems to be done.” It's kind of messed up because with Hod (David, longtime collaborator) those other songs took forever because of whatever reason, but with Stuart it just can be any which. There's a song called “All the Ways That Love Can Feel” that just happened like it was taking a dump or something. [Laughs] I hate using that metaphor because it's not so cool, but it was just like nature, straight up.
It's funny because of the way people do hear the emotion. There was this meme I saw on Twitter that was like “these are the lyrics to 'Pretty Wings': stop playing this at your weddings!”
That's hilarious! That's a meme? Are you serious? I've seen the meme with the guy and the Milk Duds and the guy's head, it says “wait for it.” I get sent so many things now, especially with the 20th anniversary. And honestly I so don't take myself seriously, as you probably could tell when you were at the Barclay's show. I just have a cheeky good, fun time about it. It's not so serious to me. But it's just so weird when you get these videos of people performing your songs—like this kid in Melbourne who's like, I don't know, 16, and he's playing “Ascension,” and it's like he could not have been alive when this was released. Never in a million years would I have thought, wow, this is going to be around for a while. Even the unborn will know. Like, fuck!
It's just nuts, man. It's such an incredible ride, and I take no credit for it. I honestly look at the audience, and I'm like “you're the reason.” And that's why sometimes it takes so long to do these records because you have to make these choices that now affect generations of people who are aware of what you do. And I feel like I'm this little secret people have because I can like walk around, and I'm not like Justin Bieber or anything. It's bizarre. I know these guys I pass in the street, like, know my stuff. There's something cool about it. I like this. Sometimes people are like “you need to be bigger, you could be all over the place,” and it's like I'm good with this. This is cool. I get to walk around New York City, and all of the sudden I've got like four shows at Madison Square Garden, and then I go back to that same old guy that can just walk around because it's just like only a certain few know.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey, and he's getting sensual. Follow him on Twitter.