After 7 Years, Maxwell Is Back At It With 'blackSUMMERS'night'

Jul 5, 2016
Originally published on August 26, 2016 3:09 pm

Maxwell does things on his own schedule. The 43-year-old R&B singer just celebrated the 20th anniversary of his first album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, which helped inaugurate the neo-soul movement. Now, he's releasing his fifth studio album, blackSUMMERS'night.

To say that people have been eagerly awaiting this record is an understatement. It's been seven years since his last project, the Grammy-winning album BLACKsummers'night. His new release is the sequel to that album and the second in a proposed trilogy.

Maxwell says that he recorded two songs on blackSUMMERS'night, "Listen Hear" and "Lost," totally off the cuff. Without having heard the instrumental tracks beforehand — and even without having written lyrics — Maxwell came up with melodies and recorded each song in one take. He spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about that process; hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited version.

Ari Shapiro: So if that's how you work, why does an album take seven years? That's like 10 minutes per track. Done.

Maxwell: Well, because you gotta live something to be able to have something like that happen. I do like living a normal life. I think celebrity is stupid. It's stressful. I hate the idea that I can't be how I wanna be, so there are moments in "Listen Hear" where it's just straight-up honesty. You wouldn't get that if you had the media police on your back. Because everyone's trying to be so perfect, but sometimes the vulnerability aspect of who they truly are is what the media has to kick out of them. And so I get to cut to the chase and just put that on the song.

You said "Listen Hear" is one of two songs you recorded in one take, on the fly, not having written lyrics, with no preparation. What's the other one?

The other one is "Lost." I didn't know what I was going to do. It just happened. It's funny because it ties into "Pretty Wings" pretty well.

"Pretty Wings" is the big hit from your earlier album, BLACKsummers'night.

Yeah, because it's a woman growing up, you know. I'm not going to blow her up because we're actually really good friends, and I love the husband. And I'm so happy for her because she's got a stable person that can be cool and is not living this crazy life where he has to be kind of screwed up to make good music. But it is kind of like a continuation of it.

And yet as you're singing "I know you're happy, and your children are growing up and your husband is loving you," you're also kind of asking her not to leave you.

It's weird, you know. But not in the way where I want to break somebody up, it's just so that you know that I never really didn't not love you, it's just I never felt good enough for you.

Has she heard the track?

I don't know, you know? I'm very respectful of relationships, so I just disappear. But you bump into each other, you're cordial, and you're grateful that they're happy, and then you cross your fingers and you hope that you're not going to be so screwed up anymore — that you can actually create the same thing down the road.

And even if you are screwed up, at least you get an amazing song out of it.

Yeah, you get to bleed as they drink.

Well, Maxwell, it's good to have you back, and congratulations on the new album.

Thank you so much for calling me, bro. And I won't be 50 years old when the third installment comes out.

I'll believe it when I see it.

Okay. You know what? I deserve that.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been 20 years since Maxwell first entered the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASCENSION")

MAXWELL: (Singing) Shouldn't I realize you're the highest of the high?

SHAPIRO: His debut album "Urban Hang Suite" was a critical and commercial hit. It helped kick off a new movement in R and B music called neo soul, and it made Maxwell into a sex symbol. Now he's 43, and a new album, like the cicadas emerging or Halley's Comet passing by, is a rare but spectacular phenomenon. His last album came after an eight year hiatus, and he kept fans waiting another seven years for this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISTEN HERE")

MAXWELL: (Vocalizing).

SHAPIRO: It's called "blackSUMMERS'night," with summers capitalized. It's the second album in a trilogy, and it has been so long in the making that I was shocked when Maxwell told me a couple of the vocal tracks were recorded off the cuff in one take over music from his collaborator Stuart Matthewman, like this song called "Listen Here."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISTEN HERE")

MAXWELL: (Singing) Listen here, Baby. Listen close, yeah 'cause nothing here is gone. The thing is still strong.

SHAPIRO: This was one take.

MAXWELL: Yeah, I had honestly had never heard any of it. And so I was like, just put something up, you know? And he did, and then it was just like (snaps finger). And I think we were, like, done in, like, 10 minutes - not even, maybe five minutes.

SHAPIRO: Wait. So had you written the lyric, or were you just...

MAXWELL: I never - yeah, I never wrote anything before I got there. I didn't even know what it was going to be or what was going to be said or...

SHAPIRO: Hold on, are you saying that what we are hearing is you hearing the instrumental track for the first time...

MAXWELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Making up words on the fly, composing a melody as you're singing it, and that was one take, and that's what we're hearing?

MAXWELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: That is crazy.

MAXWELL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISTEN HERE")

MAXWELL: (Singing) There's a hole inside, something in me that tries to destroy it, tries to deny the destiny that I've been given.

MAXWELL: And that's the one of the two songs that we did like that.

SHAPIRO: Wait; wait; wait; so if that's how you work, why does an album take seven years? That's like 10 minutes per track, done.

MAXWELL: (Laughter) Well, I mean because you got to live something to kind of be able to have something like that happen. I do like living a normal life. I think celebrity is stupid. It's stressful. I hate the idea that I can't be how I want to be. So there are moments in "Listen Here" where it's, like, just straight-up honesty, you know? And you wouldn't get that if you have the media police on your back because everyone's trying to be so perfect that sometimes the vulnerability aspect of who they truly are is what the media has to kick out of them. And so I get to sort of like, you know, well, you know, cut to the chase and just put that on the song.

SHAPIRO: So you said this is one of two songs that you recorded one take on the fly not having written lyrics, no preparation. What's the other one?

MAXWELL: The other one is "Lost."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST")

MAXWELL: (Singing) I want to love you baby.

MAXWELL: I mean, I didn't know what I was going to do. It just happened, and it's funny because it ties into "Pretty Wings" pretty well.

SHAPIRO: "Pretty Wings" is the big hit from your earlier album, yeah.

MAXWELL: Yeah, because it's the woman growing up, and you know, I'm not going to blow her up because we're actually really good friends. And I love the husband, and I'm so happy for her because she's got, like, a stable person that can, like, be cool and is not living this crazy life where he has to be kind of screwed up to make good music. But you know, it's kind of, like - it is, like, a continuation of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST")

MAXWELL: (Singing) When I see you from a distance, when I see how you ignore me with resistance and I know you're happy and your children are growing up and your husband is lovin' you...

SHAPIRO: And yet as you're singing, I know you're happy, your children are growing up, and your husband is loving you, you're also kind of asking her not to leave you.

MAXWELL: It's weird, you know, but not in the way where I want to break somebody up. It's just so that you know that I never really didn't not love you. It's just I never felt, like, good enough for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST")

MAXWELL: (Singing) I see you in my eyes. I see you, and it haunt me, yeah, and you taunt me, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Did you have any idea that's what this song was going to be about when you started to open your mouth at the beginning of the track?

MAXWELL: No.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MAXWELL: I had no idea.

SHAPIRO: Has she heard the track?

MAXWELL: I don't know, you know? I'm very respectful of relationships, so I just disappear. But, you know, you bump into each other. You're cordial, and you're grateful that they're happy. And then you cross your fingers, and you hope that you're not going to be so screwed up anymore that you can actually create the same thing down the road.

SHAPIRO: And look; even if you are screwed up, at least you get an amazing song out of it, right.

MAXWELL: Right, yeah. I get to bleed as they drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST")

MAXWELL: (Singing) So lost.

SHAPIRO: Well, Maxwell, it's good to have you back, and congratulations on the new album.

MAXWELL: Thank you so much for calling me, Bro. And I'm not - it will not - I won't be 50 years old when the third installment comes out.

SHAPIRO: I'll believe it when I see it.

MAXWELL: OK.

SHAPIRO: OK (laughter).

MAXWELL: You know what? You know what? I deserve that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASCENSION")

MAXWELL: (Singing) You've got to give me...

SHAPIRO: Maxwell's new album is "blackSUMMERS'night." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.