Maxwell may have ostensibly disappeared over the last eight or so years, but suddenly, the sultry soul singer is a very difficult man to pin down. Amidst a whirlwind schedule to promote his forthcoming trilogy of albums, BlackSummer'sNight, he has embarked on a rigorous tour that doesn't cease until well into 2010, and possibly beyond. Every second of his time is on a schedule, particularly since the first installment in his collection, BLACK, dropped yesterday. But Maxwell found the time to call us between appearances on Hot 97's Angie Martinez show and BET's 106 & Park so we could finally pose the question, "Max, where you been?!" He was more than happy to answer. —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
SUITE903: Hello Maxwell. Happy album release day.
MAXWELL: It’s like who knew, you know? It’s kind of surreal because number one, we had an eclipse today that was so bizarre to look at. and then of course Michael Jackson memorial is happening so it’s one of those bittersweet, warm weird days.
I want to know how you’re feeling today about your record. This has been a long time coming.
I know, right, it’s been a long time…It’s like you know, we worked on three of these albums and this is the first one to come out and after all this time, to have something be in the world again.
So, burning question: What have you been doing for the past eight years?
I was trying to catch up on living, trying to catch up on trying to be a day-to-day person, not the kind of person that what they do is so ridiculous, so fantastic and so big. You’re on the radio, you’re on television and in magazines, and its just so hard to be a real person when things are like that. So with the time passing the way that it did, I didn’t even know if I had a career waiting for me, really, you know. When I say that people are like, Oh Shut up, but—I’m not even fishing, I’m just being really honest, you know? In this day and age you can’t take anything for granted. I didn’t know what was gonna be waiting for me. But I hoped that the album I was putting together would be felt. To be honest I really grew, went through some stuff. I went away and did some homework on life a little bit.
What do you mean by that? Being normal? Cleaning your house and whatnot?
So many people know me from having a certain kind of hairstyle, looking the way I look, and to not even look that way anymore, people just sort of treated me like regular. No one knew who I was for a minute, or they had to take a double take, like, “Oh, shit didn’t you used to be Maxwell?” But I gotta be honest with you, I really enjoyed it. You know I’m not one of these people that’s like, “Oh my god I’ve got to be famous for the rest of my life or my life means nothing.” I actually found a lot of meaning in my life without any of that. What’s happening now with the album is a cool thing. Maybe people are just being polite, but people have been so gracious when it comes to this album. I want to do my best. I want people to feel like, “Wow this guy put his heart into making this.”
How long did it take you to write these albums?
I’m not gonna say to you that I was like everyday in the studio. The cool thing was that I didn’t feel like I had to go to work and make something for a release date, which was so freeing. As a journalist and as a writer I’m sure you can understand how powerful that is, to get up in the morning its almost like when you’re a kid again, when the love of writing was all you had, there were no due dates. It was like, whatever your imagination calls for you just go there and you don’t do it because there’s some deadline that you have to meet. It was just like yo, I feel good when I make this kind of music.
Is that why, on BLACK, you say you “live first and create after”? What does that mean?
It’s hard when you’re in celebrity reality with what you’ve dealt with and [then] people start looking at you like your star has fallen a little bit or that you’re not in the game anymore, or “Who are you? Didn’t you used to stuff?” People deal with you a lot differently than when they think you’re at the top of your game and that you’re some star or something. But you get real shit then, you get real good material for the art.
Bob Marley used to go way into the countryside. He would leave his wife and leave everyone he knew, and would make music from the sheer solitude. Through his sadness and loneliness he would make all these beautiful records. In no way am I that way, but I can kind of understand that monk thing, where you go away, change your appearance and then come back.
I can’t imagine there’s a lot to write about if your life is about just being a star.
Your ego gets out of control. When you start seeing your face all huge and big and your name up in lights and you’re on the radio a lot, people screaming for you, doing shows and people come there and come for you… After a while I just needed to not believe all that.
What about your performances? You could call them generous. Does your ego come into play?
It’s like a fucking game kind of… in some ways it’s like karaoke. Get up there and I’m like yo, I’m gonna sing this song. Getting up there, and knowing that so many people have lived so many experiences with these records—like, hey you walked down the aisle to this song, or you just had a baby or created a baby. It’s like a celebration of that, because to be honest with you, I never listen to my own music. I mean when I’m making it and kind of creating in and obviously when you’re rehearsing it for a tour and when you have to get onstage and do it, then yeah. But apart from that its like, I’m not even on my own iPod. I don’t want to have the shuffle accidentally fuck me up.
Are you self-critical then? Or you just don’t want to listen to your own voice?
I can’t stop those wheels from turning—where it could have been, how much better it could have been if I had done this or that. Ultimately, I don’t even watch my performances. I don’t want to know myself that well. Like, honestly? I’m sick of me already. I’d rather sit there and find out about something else or look into someone else’s world.