“I’ve never really had a marketing plan ever in my career,” says veteran R&B singer Maxwell. Though he acknowledges “I’m sure someone was doing one in the building somewhere,” the reason why a more concerted effort wasn’t made may be because the singer, songwriter and producer seemed to arrive fully-formed upon the release of “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” his lush, libidinous 1996 debut album. As one of the stars of the then-nascent “neo soul” movement, he immediately — and consistently — delivered an organic, mature, seductive sound that simultaneously defined him and tapped into a romanticism that reached back to the days of his quiet-storm forebears.
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Over the next 27 years, four albums and 12 concert tours followed, keeping him just busy enough to not be fully branded “reclusive,” like contemporaries Sade, D’Angelo or the late Prince. Yet after the many disruptions to life and livelihood caused by the pandemic, Maxwell seems readier than ever to engage with the world: Following a relentless touring schedule that includes three-night engagements at venues like San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall and Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, he’ll be headlining the four-night Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite Cruise Feb. 10-14, from Miami to Stirrup Cay and Nassau, Bahamas. There’s also a possible concert film, not to mention “Night,” the overdue final installment of his “Blacksummers’night” album trilogy.
Ahead of “The Trilogy Show,” his three-night run at the Hollywood Bowl that marks the venue’s fireworks finale to end the season, Maxwell spoke with Variety about the entertainment, joy and, yes, pleasure he wants to give audiences — and that he receives in return when he steps on stage. Additionally offering updates on “Night,” he drew back the curtain a bit on his carefully-cultivated persona, discussing the challenges artists face in a rapidly-changing musical landscape, and reflecting on a musical journey he admits “probably isn’t sustainable” but he’s grateful to nevertheless still be on. “There’s a series of things that connect my music into different spaces,” he says. “And it’s truly driven by just creating as much joy as we can possibly create in people’s lives, because it’s such a drag out here lately.”
When you’re doing three consecutive nights in concert in the same location, do you approach your set list differently than if you’re performing only one night per city?
We call it the Trilogy Show because it’s three back-to-backs, and it’s the season finale of the Hollywood Bowl season, so there’s a whole fireworks display that we have planned for everyone. But we’re working out some things to make each show special. I’ve been on the road off and on just dealing with 2020, and how we all were circumvented on some level and couldn’t really do what we wanted, so I’ve been making up for lost time in that regard. But we’re trying to put together something that will be interesting if you came to all three.
It’s been seven years since you released an album. How do you decide upon what songs you want to perform?
I just want all killer, no filler. From the parking to trying to get a babysitter to all the things that people have to go through, I don’t think anyone wants to go through all that trouble just to have to sit through songs they don’t really know. So literally the first five or six songs, you will know them. It has been so many years, and I’m not necessarily the artist that you’ll hear on pop stations at any given time, so when I look out into the audience and I see that inclusivity and diversity out there, I’m just so amazed by it. So I just want to make sure that I make everyone feel seen, respected, loved, and bring the joy to them as much as they brought it to me with the incredible amount of patience that they have when it comes to me and my release schedule, which isn’t usual — and probably isn’t sustainable. I’m surprised that shows are sold out after seven years of absence! So when it’s time to get on that stage, I want to show my full gratitude.
How much is touring and performing live a creative outlet for you, and how much does it fuel you getting back in the studio?
When I’m able to be on stage, I get reminded of who the audience is, and trying to find the commonality between what connects me and everyone out there as opposed to the silos that we are all in now. I’m 50 years old. So when people were huge stars [back in the day], we all knew them because there were four or five radio stations and that was it. Now it’s all splintered out into different spaces and places. And so by being in front of people, I can see the people that I am trying to connect with, or that I’m trying to continue the relationship that we’ve had for all those years.
You say you don’t necessarily get played on the radio as often as other artists. At this point in your career are you happy to deliver what you know people love, or do you still want to push the boundaries to do things that may not be exactly what they expect?
There’s a part of me that definitely wants to make you know where you’re at and know who you’re dealing with, but I also want to give the listener another layer of evolution within the music. “Embrya” was definitely one of those head scratchers that made me feel like I’m a bit of a rebel, but I had some hard years there having to hear harsh criticism — sometimes criticism that had nothing to do with the album but about me as a human being. But those were the times we were living in, and definitely they weren’t as horrible as the 2000s and what most of the young women were experiencing like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan just for being young women running around. But “Night” will definitely be familiar, but it’ll definitely be a unique and new feeling in terms of just how it expresses intimacy and connection. It’s not this oversexualized thing that makes sense when you’re 23, 24 because you have hormones jumping all around you. “Night” will definitely be a different type of seduction because obviously I’m more evolved, and there are more nuances to eroticism… it will definitely play into a much more deeper connection when it comes to intimacy and love and all those slow-jammy type of things that I try to play with.
Was there a moment for you after the pandemic when you felt a resumed sense of normalcy?
In 2022 we started the tour, and I found new strength and new connection with the people who were risking their own lives, and their own sense of security, and safety, and health just to come to a show because in the end, people need people. And that gave me a lot of courage, and it also began a new spin on what I was trying to do creatively, because it’s nice to know that people still care. I think this is probably what makes it a little bit harder to let go of an album because you really want to make sure that you’ve covered all your bases. I can only take aim at your heart, or bear witness to something that you can’t express within yourself about something highly emotional and highly personal. That’s my shock and awe. And that’s hard to get to all the time.
You were compared to Prince and Marvin Gaye earlier in your career, and you certainly cultivated that pedigree by working with folks like Leon Ware. What have you learned about composition or songwriting that you’ve carried throughout your career?
I love people like Christopher Nolan. He’s one of my favorite directors, and so is Stanley Kubrick. And these are not people that when you see their movies initially, you get them. I’m not saying this in disrespect to the Marvel Universe, because I’m a comic book fan. But I’m not necessarily trying to be popular. I just want to hit the nerve — the nerve that people like Leon Ware did hit, and of course people like Sade and Prince. Even when Prince wasn’t at his height, there’s a song called “Better With Time,” on the “Lotusflower” album. It’s just one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Was it on the radio every day? No. But it still made an impact. So hopefully people will find what I’m trying to do now.
What does the contemporary landscape of R&B, much less music in general look like to you?
I think if you’re someone who’s writing your work and you’re heavily invested in the craft in that way, there’s the part of you that wants to satisfy that higher power — that thing that comes from the universe, I don’t know what. You want to be tapped into that. But that thing doesn’t always necessarily keep the lights on. And because of the pressure that most artists go through from the labels who are funding them and promoting them to make sure you get these streams, sometimes your career can go in a direction that you didn’t really want it to go. And I think that my great battle is to always to feel not a sense of pride in an ego type way, but there’s something to be said about always leaving room for the multifaceted aspects that can encompass what soul music is. Pop has never been a thing that I wanted to do. I respect pop artists because it’s a lot of work, and people want a lot more from pop artists than just the music. And I’ve been lucky enough to put the music first.
You mentioned collecting comic books. I don’t think of you as mysterious necessarily as somebody like Prince, but are you happy to cultivate a kind of mystique about yourself?
I think the infrequency with which I release records has played a major role in I guess that “mystique” that you’re talking about. But I think you set the tone and people follow your lead. Even in my twenties, I wasn’t really out in the world, or in the scene, or at clubs. But I work with the same people, and they’re all grown folks, and I want to make sure that I am living an example that my godson can look at and not cringe out. But in the end, I just want the music to be the thing that draws people. There’s no greater exposure than how you touched people’s lives. It’s about the good feelings that your work connect with the community that listens and appreciates what you do — so that’s the blueprint, really.