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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(Soundbite of song, "Sumthin' Sumthin')
MAXWELL (Singer): (Singing) All I wanna know is, if it's cool, we can do a little sumthin' sumthin'. Do a little sumthin'...
AUDIE CORNISH, host:
Crooner Maxwell was one of the breakthrough artists of the early '90s genre dubbed neo-soul. Songs like "Sumthin' Sumthin'" from his debut album, "Urban Hang Suite," back in 1996 made him a heartthrob. His 2001 album titled "Now" made his a platinum-selling chart topper. And he was riding the success of that album when he decided to take a little break from music - a break that lasted nearly a decade.
And then last summer he came back in a big way.
(Soundbite of song, "Help Somebody")
CORNISH: Maxwell released the album "BLACKsummers'night," the first of a trilogy, and it's earned six nominations at tomorrow night's Grammy Awards. Maxwell joins me now from our New York bureau. Maxwell, welcome.
MAXWELL: Hello, how are you?
CORNISH: It's great to hear you. Nice smooth voice.
MAXWELL: Oh, thank you so much.
CORNISH: I remember the BET Music Awards, I think it was 2008...
MAXWELL: Right, yeah.
CORNISH: ...and there was a tribute to Al Green. And out of nowhere, a gentleman took the stage, sans afro, still with the sunglasses. And there was a moment where, you know, it took us all a minute to say, is that Maxwell?
(Soundbite of BET broadcast)
(Soundbite of song)
MAXWELL: (Singing) If I gave you my love, tell you what I do. I'd expect a whole lot of love by you. You want to give me some love, BET?
CORNISH: It was an Al Green tribute - I mean, I think an artist, a quintessential soul artist.
CORNISH: Who are the other, I guess, influences in your music?
MAXWELL: I could definitely say for sure, you know, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, Prince, I love David Bowie, of course Sade, you know. But then interestingly enough, as I was getting inspired, you know, I was kind of really into more of the alternative rock scene - MGMT, Grizzly Bear - just things that were more live sounding. Because a lot of the music that is in my genre wasn't as live sounding as I wanted it to be. So I grabbed onto that a lot.
CORNISH: So some unexpected sounds had you dancing in your living room.
CORNISH: It's not just you and Prince.
CORNISH: Or you and Marvin Gaye. That's what I imagine. Maxwell dancing to Marvin Gaye in his living room.
MAXWELL: Well, with Marvin Gaye you do other things. You don't just dance by yourself.
CORNISH: All right. All right.
MAXWELL: They were really, really great experiences of just listening to other music and having other music sort of, like, play a part in getting a certain sound. I'm pleased. I mean, I wish I could listen to a lot of what I do more. But because I always can hear what I could make better, I sort of - it's tough to listen to myself. It's funny but it is.
CORNISH: In that time you're away, what did you learn about Maxwell, regular guy?
MAXWELL: I think more than anything, I learned that I could cultivate a relationship that, you know, that I was more than just the image that had been created and that had happened through the music. I didn't have to be perfect or a picture or a video or a song or something. I could be a guy, you know?
CORNISH: What did that time away do for your writing but also your music style?
MAXWELL: You know, actually I got grittier, I think. When I listen to, you know, "Urban Hang Suite" and then I listen to "BLACKsummers'night" - the first part of it...
CORNISH: And "Urban Hang Suite" is your first album from 1996.
MAXWELL: Yes, from 1996 - way back when in those golden years of mine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MAXWELL: Yeah, and when I listen to those two records, I hear...the first record, I mean, come on, you know, you only get to make your first record once, so it's always going to feel really sweet to me to know that I got through that and that it actually worked out a little bit. But apart from that, hearing this new record, I feel like there's growth. The way it's recorded, it's not so precious. I'm not trying to prove to you that I can make a record 'cause I've never made one, kind of.
MAXWELL: I feel a bit courageous in how it all worked out. You know, there are no real features. I'm not teaming up with another person who can help record sales. Not that I'm like faulting anybody else for doing that.
CORNISH: No, but I was about to ask: in returning to the business and looking at the state of R&B, what pressures did you feel to, you know, start dancing, start doing some of the things that are expected of an artist?
MAXWELL: Yeah. I mean, I got to tell you, I'd be lying if I told you that it didn't cross my mind every time I went into the studio: is this going to work, is this a disaster, do I fit in? I mean, I was stepping into a world that was virtually auto-tuned all the way up. Everybody was kind of doing that initially around last year. So, it's, I dont know, it's just kind of incredible that something so organic can still mean something to people.
CORNISH: Another song I want to listen to is called "Cold," and gives us that sort of ride throughout the album.
MAXWELL: Right, right, yeah.
(Soundbite of song, "Cold")
MAXWELL: (Singing) (Unintelligible)
CORNISH: I love that beat and I love the trumpets. And it just gives you that -that pow. And it sounded - I was reading - it was pretty complicated getting the sound together for what that is.
MAXWELL: Right, yeah.
CORNISH: It isn't just a drum beat. I was hearing a story about dropping a microphone outside a window?
MAXWELL: Yeah. We recorded at Chung King, which is in New York. Actually, I think we may have been on the 12th floor, so we were way up on the top. It was raining that night. I was in a car driving over to meet a friend and then I heard the windshield go back and forth a certain way and then I was like, yo, this sounds kind of cool.
So Jesse Gladstone was our assistant engineer and he kind of got a mic down. And Glen Markese(ph), who's the engineer and the mixing engineer on the song, actually recorded this windshield wiper going back and forth.
CORNISH: So you've got a microphone connected to what must be, I guess, 11 stories of cabling going all the way down to a vehicle in the rain.
MAXWELL: In the rain, so there was a lot of...
CORNISH: Just to get this sound in the back of this album.
MAXWELL: Just to get the sound. You know, anything for the sound, you know, anything for the sound - even possible death.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORNISH: Or electrocution.
MAXWELL: Electro - right.
(Soundbite of song, "Cold")
MAXWELL: (Singing) Tell me, baby, why I can't believe...
CORNISH: That's such a strong soul sound, and I know that once upon a time you said by hook or by crook you're going to break free of the label of neo-soul. And I got to say, you know, why? A lot of the artists who also were marketed in that same way as neo-soul have all shown staying power. I mean, what do you feel about that label today and what that music is today?
MAXWELL: I love where I came from. I love what neo-soul is and what it did for my career and all the other people who have brought great music to the world because of it. But you know, my responsibility is to my own individuality, you know, in the end. And I think that's just, you know, that's just my new challenge, my new hurdle, to ultimately in the end not surpass the people who have, you know, I came up with but to just individualize myself and not be lumped into one.
CORNISH: Into one market.
MAXWELL: Into one market.
CORNISH: One marketing label.
MAXWELL: Yeah, because I...
CORNISH: That's fair.
MAXWELL: Yeah. I think that's really what I'm striving for...
CORNISH: Is longevity, it sounds like, and...
CORNISH: Well, after all this time, here you are - six Grammy nominations. What would winning mean to you, especially in a year where we've got country music, pop stars and Beyonce - that sort of very glittering pop. And to have your name in that list as well, what are you feeling?
MAXWELL: It's great to win. You know, I've been nominated in the past and I've always felt a great joy just from that alone. I'm supposed to love what I do. I'm supposed to have meaning behind it. I'm grateful that that's what gets me up in the morning. But it would be nice to kind of put something on that mantle - for sure, you know?
CORNISH: Yes. Maxwell, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MAXWELL: I'm really happy to have spoken to you. Thank you so much for knowing the music.
CORNISH: Maxwell, he joined us from our New York bureau. His latest album is the Grammy-nominated "BLACKsummers'night," and this song, "Pretty Wings," is up for Song of the Year.
(Soundbite of song, "Pretty Wings")
MAXWELL: (Singing) Time will bring the real end of our trial, one day they'll be no remnants, no trace, no residual feelings within ya, one day you won't remember me.
CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.