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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Maxwell Takes His Time

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Just as quickly as the ’90s ushered in a new soul-music renaissance, the ’00s put that renaissance on hold, as some of neo-soul’s brightest talents retreated from the spotlight. Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo spent much of that decade off the grid, sidelined by either personal issues or creative roadblock, and for a time it seemed as if Maxwell had joined them in permanent retreat. Yet while Hill and D’Angelo are still no closer to following up their masterpieces than they were a decade ago, Maxwell emerged revitalized after a nearly eight year hiatus with his finest album yet, 2009’s BLACKsummers’night, the first in a promised trilogy.

Five years later, there’s still no release date set for the second installment of that trilogy, though Maxwell believes it’ll come out by the end of the year. Save for some finishing touches, the singer says, it’s pretty much complete, but he’s enjoying sitting on it, savoring it, keeping it his before anybody else gets to hear it. “It’s kind of like a newborn baby, you know?” he says. “Just because you had it doesn’t mean you need People magazine to put you on the cover. Some people like to see the baby and just enjoy it for what it is before it’s judged, and before everybody weighs in with all their opinions about it, good or bad.”

In another era, Maxwell’s unhurried creative process might have made it easy to confuse him for a troubled artist or a recluse, but thanks to social media we know that’s not the case. In truth Maxwell is something far less romanticized: a normal person. He fills his Twitter and Instagram accounts with evidence of a life well lived, posting photos of world travels and of days spent luxuriating on beautiful beaches, surrounded by beautiful people. To fans hungry for new music it can almost seem cruel—his Instagram is essentially a running document of all the things he’s doing instead of finishing that new album—but for Maxwell, leading a full, happy life is essential to his art.

“I don’t like to make music a chore or some job where I’ve got to write a song in two days,” he says. “I think when you get old enough and you’ve done this long enough, you should be able to have your process be more natural, more organic. So when I get writer’s block, I don’t force it. I walk away. I let my life tell me what to write instead of treating creativity like it’s a midterm exam or SAT. That’s how the world works: We look at everything like it’s a test, a result. ‘Learn this, retain that information, do this test and pass it.’ But art, it’s what it is. It’s what it wants to be. Sometimes you want to take a break and be a human being.”

That downtime is a luxury many musicians with label contracts simply don’t have, but it’s a luxury that Maxwell has earned. While eight years might have seemed like a long wait for just 37 minutes of new music, BLACKsummers’night made every moment of its all-too-scarce runtime count. It’s a patient, unusually intricate soul album that doesn’t just evoke the individualistic masterworks of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but proudly stands alongside them. It was also a commercial triumph, topping the Billboard charts and netting a pair of Grammys, ensuring Maxwell the standing with Columbia Records to continue working at his own unhurried pace.

He’s confident that extra time has paid off. He feels it in his stomach that the upcoming album will be better than BLACKsummers’night. The songwriting is stronger, he says, the sonics even more fine-tuned. “We have a band that we actually toured with as opposed to just recorded with, so there’s a chemistry that was never there before,” he says. In the past, he’s regretted rushing some records instead of sitting on them for a few extra months and returning to them with fresh ears. He won’t make that mistake again.

“I feel a lot of what I do is boutique,” he says. “It’s not like I can claim a hundred number-one hits—forgettable number-one hits that are here today gone tomorrow. I work for something that’s going to be more timeless, you know? And you can’t make timeless music if you don’t put time into it.”

Maxwell kicks off a 40-city tour at the Riverside Theater on Saturday, June 14. The show starts at 8 p.m.