R&B crooner Maxwell was one of the breakthrough artists in the early-'90s genre known as neo-soul. His 1996 debut, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, helped make him a heartthrob. His 2001 album, Now, helped make him a platinum-selling chart topper.
He was riding the success of that album when he decided to take a little break from music — time off that lasted nearly a decade — and then, last summer, he came back in a big way.
Maxwell released the album BLACKsummers'night — the first installment in a planned trilogy — and it's earned six nominations at Sunday night's Grammy Awards.
When Maxwell sat down at NPR's New York bureau, Weekend Edition Saturday guest host Audie Cornish asked him what he'd learned in his eight years out of the spotlight.
"More than anything, I learned that ... I was more than just the image that had been created in the music. I didn't have to be perfect," Maxwell says. "Hearing this new record, I feel like there's growth. I'm not trying to prove to you I can make a record."
When recording BLACKsummers'night, Maxwell says he was concerned that his sound wouldn't fit into the changing landscape of R&B. While he was recording the album, artists were increasingly AutoTuning their vocals, something Maxwell says he didn't intend to do. The decision seems to have paid off.
"It's incredible that something so organic can still mean something to people," he says.
The inspiration for that organic sound came from some unexpected sources. Though Maxwell cited soul legends such as Marvin Gaye as inspiration, he says that alternative rock played a large role in helping him craft the album's sound.
"As I was getting inspired, I was more into the alternative rock scene," Maxwell says. "MGMT, Grizzly Bear, things that were more live-sounding, because a lot of the music that's in my genre wasn't as live-sounding as I wanted it to be."
That live sound has gained the album a lot of attention: Its single, "Pretty Wings," is up for Song of the Year. While being nominated for a Grammy is exciting, Maxwell says, winning one would be a great accomplishment. Nevertheless, he says he's only making music for one reason.
"My responsibility is to my own individuality," he says. "I'm supposed to love what I do, I'm supposed to have meaning behind it, [and] I think success will come from that only."
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