In April 2019, Maxwell the musician was trilling on a piano to illustrate a point about human physiology and music. He was explaining that, when singing, he needs to feel as if he has access to an instrument in order to channel music out of himself. For the Grammy Award–winning singer, who already possesses a widely acclaimed instrument—his voice—this was an incredibly humble, though totally him, thing to say. That humility speaks to Maxwell’s personality and artistry. On the one hand, he is low-key, eschewing his own celebrity; on the other, he is adamant about his place in furthering soul music, and speaks boldly and forcefully about the musical tradition he comes from. Throughout our conversation, he frequently nodded to forebears like Prince, Marvin Gaye, P-Funk, and Sade. (A note about Maxwell’s name: if you haven’t already noticed, he uses a mononym.) As Maxwell demonstrates over the phone, expressing a certain kind of energy in one’s body and conveying it in feeling have historically and thematically been at the core of soul music, the genre he champions and practices within.
In “Talk to Me,” Joni Mitchell refers to Ingmar Bergman’s “Nordic blues”; the Brooklyn-born Maxwell, forty-six, makes music with shades of Nuyorican gray, brown, green, and pink—music that’s filled with nuance and the oft-surprising compromises of cohabitation: the kind made by lovers and by immigrants, and the sort creators forge when they fuse genres, sensibilities, and artistic impulses. The singer’s discography of slinky, sophisticated R&B has the arc of an oeuvre crafted by an eclectic maker, a person with an eye for the literary, the cinematic, and the sonic all at once. On the 2009 single “Bad Habits,” the repeating lyric “I can’t control the feeling” belies Maxwell’s project, which is about controlling a feeling such that you can write and then sing about it.
His first album, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), is a noirish, first-person detective story about a lover and his lady and the eponymous apartment they share. Released in 1997, the MTV Unplugged EP cemented his place in the falsetto singers’ pantheon, adding a new layer of meaning—from a man’s point of view—to Kate Bush’s hit “This Woman’s Work.” His sophomore studio record, the frequently misunderstood Embrya (1998), is an experimental album that charts an artist coming into his own, adding Trent Reznor–style vocal filters to Urban Hang Suite’s fat bass lines. Now (2001) was a mainstream hit underscored by ecstatic, progressive grooves. His next two full-length records, BLACKsummers’night (2009) and blackSUMMERS’night (2016), are full of mellifluous, emotionally murky funk and quiet storm blues, their titles seemingly crafted by Finnegans Wake–era James Joyce. The third album in the series, the forthcoming Night, is set to complete the trilogy.
His latest efforts—a series of EPs that remix past work, including Shame 508 Rmx—are the revisions of someone with more than two decades in the music industry, circling back to central themes in his body of work, like shame and desire. In fall 2019, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the arts from the Congressional Black Caucus, and headlined a sold-out, four-night engagement at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra. But in spring 2019, we discussed his career, the machinations of streaming, numerology, what it’s like to write “baby-making music,” Beyoncé, and the many ways of being Black.
I. “I AM A SONGWRITER THAT WRITES LOVE SONGS BECAUSE THAT’S KIND OF WHAT I’M SUPPOSED TO DO.”
THE BELIEVER: The Washington Post called you “the Marvin Gaye of the ’90s,” and you also were deemed “the next Prince” in Vibe. What was it like, psychologically, to be associated with those legends at the very beginning of your career?
MAXWELL: Real tough, ’cause their fans were not too pleased about it. I bow to the altar of Prince to this day; I have notes and encouragement he sent me throughout my career. I obviously never got a chance to meet Mr. Marvin Gaye, but I know every ad lib, every musical thing that he did on I Want You, all the way down to Here, My Dear, to the obvious songs. But it’s always his most uncelebrated music that I gravitate to the most, because for me, that’s when he’s being an artist. And sad to say, I struggle with that. I struggle with the people who are looking for an Urban Hang Suite part two when there’s no way that can happen. I’ll never be twenty again, I’ll never be seventeen or nineteen, fantasizing about: If I ever made a first record, what would it be like? I had seventeen years to make that record. I don’t believe I’m the next Prince. I mean, that’s probably a nice thing for someone to write, to kinda get people to read it, just as nice as it was to encapsulate what we were doing at the time as “neo-soul.” But I listen to a lot of new music now, and it can pretty much be categorized as neo-soul. These are just labels, you know? It’s soul music with a message, with a meaning, and where there’s meaning, there’s merit and legacy. And that’s all I’m trying to reach for. That said, I just work humbly to make the best possible version of the moment I’m living in. And sometimes that moment has been written years before you ever get to hear it. I’m grateful to be able to hold on to songs a little bit longer than most people get to, so I can appreciate them and see if they’ll stand the test of time. I don’t want you to feel like you hear a song and remember, Oh, that was that time. I don’t feel like there’s a time stamp on “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” which came out in 1996, or “Lifetime,” which dropped in 2001. My goal is to take my time and make something as timeless as possible. And it’s not been great for me, because in some instances I lose momentum.
I feel like we’re all just representing a tradition and passing the baton over. I’m so grateful to artists like H.E.R., Musiq Soulchild, and D’Angelo. I’m not in competition. I don’t believe in that; we’re all contributing to soul music. And when we’re gone, hopefully we’ve left a lasting impression that allows others to feel like it’s OK to make music like this again, to represent the real things that matter, not financial status. I am a songwriter that writes love songs because that’s kind of what I’m supposed to do. I’m not a rapper, you know? And I love hip-hop: don’t get it twisted. I love Jay-Z and Nas and a lot of the guys out there, Kendrick, Rakim. They were giving encouragement and self-esteem to Black culture at a time when we were not meant to feel like we could have business platforms, or that we could go further than the block. People like Biggie and Tupac were giving us something to be about in their own specific ways. There are ways that soul musicians can say the same things in different ways.
BLVR: It always seems to me that you’re venturing into new territory in each of your projects, but there are some consistent themes that you return to in your work. I’ve noticed that as far back as “’Til the Cops Come Knockin’,” you were dealing with shame in your music. There’s a line that goes, “Were you embarrassed about the way you freaked?” You have a new single, “Shame,” and a remix EP that’s titled around the concept. How does shame operate in your body of work, and what makes it such a potent theme for you?
M: I’m not trying to take a dig at Christianity, Pentecostalism, Catholicism, or any religion whatsoever, but we’re taught to feel bad about everything we are and that we have to repent. Now, to some degree, we do. In some instances, religion is a guideline to a moral code. But it can be used to restrict people. I’m obsessed with history and soul music, so I watched Remastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke. Back in Cooke’s time, leaving the church to go and make “secular music” was the biggest taboo. You would never be able to go back to that church. And hopefully you’d be successful, but if you weren’t, you were done. So in some ways, shame plays a major role in that regard, not only in terms of how we view our spirituality or belief systems. We’re born to feel like we’ve done something wrong by being human. And women are born to feel that they’re wrong to explore their sexuality. That’s why people like Beyoncé and Madonna and even Josephine Baker—we can go way back—are just unapologetically who they are. I think people should feel no shame. There are things to be shameful about, but obviously we’re human, we’re flawed, we make mistakes.
In the incredibly annoying digital world we live in, one word will destroy you, and even if you didn’t actually write it or say it, you’re crucified. And that’s it for you, even though you have a body of work that represents the antithesis of what someone has said you are expressing. It’s tough. And you see the wave of kids lately who are committing suicide because of this constant need to compare themselves to other people, to want to look like other people, body shaming; it just goes on and on. That’s why “Shame” was so important for me to write: because I wanted to make people feel like they are beyond this robotic world of opinion that perceives itself to be fact.
People don’t know what to believe anymore. I feel like you need a buffer from the public, because that love is amazing when it’s there, but the mob is mad thicker if you can’t detach yourself in some way and be who you are, apart from a persona you are presenting to the world. Look, I’m not running the country; I’m not trying to be president. I just make songs. That’s all I do. I don’t run into burning buildings and save children. I’m not a teacher. They are the big heroes. I know music does something to make people feel better about their lives, but ultimately, it ain’t that deep.
II. BABY-MAKING MUSIC
BLVR: Adoration is a fickle subject for public artists of any kind, but your legacy has left some lasting markers. For instance, on VH1 Storytellers, you tell a funny anecdote about a fireman who came to your concert at Madison Square Garden and then had twins nine months later. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be a maestro of what’s called “baby-making music.” What’s it like to have a cosmic hand in the creation of thousands of people? Do you feel like an existential godfather to the kids who were conceived to your music? It’s a funny question, I know.
M: [Laughing] I’ve never been asked this before. We all come from the love songs that our parents played at the time we were conceived. It’s a pay-it-forward feeling. That said, I have no connection to it. I connect nothing about me to anything that’s happened in my career or that is a response to the music I’ve made. I think that’s what keeps me humble and keeps me exploring, because the minute you get to a place where you start feeling yourself, that’s when it’s over. And also when you react to people’s opinions of you. It’s been twenty-three years since my debut, but not everybody was checking for me in the beginning. A lot of people thought I was going to fail. People outright walked up to me and asked: “What are you doing?” I had to believe what I was trying to convey, which ultimately was: I’m not trying to be the next Prince, nor do I believe I’m the next Marvin Gaye. I’m just another new person doing something to celebrate all of them and to also usher in as much as I can for those who are like-minded that might want to take this road, which is not a fun road, because there’s no fast money. As a person of color, you can clearly see the novelty that you can be as a pop star. ’Cause we come and go, don’t we? Have you noticed?
BLVR: Oh, yeah.
M: We come and we go. The one thing that is absolutely solid, without a doubt, is that when you have people that love soul music—whatever their color is, but particularly Black people, African Americans—when they’re with you, they’re with you. And when you stay true to that and you experiment and you grow at the same time, they’ll give you a pass. Embrya was not the most well-received record. Later on it became, like, Oh, wow, we didn’t get it. I had a few journalists walk up to me and literally apologize to me for what they said about that album when it came out, in 1998.
BLVR: What did people get wrong about that album?
M: I don’t know; I loved making it. I made what I made. [Laughing] I’m not here to create formulas for people so that I can, like, “add water and stir.” He’s gonna do the same pony trick thing. Like, that’s not my style. But the music business is a business; don’t get it twisted. Whoever’s got the biggest bank account will be on the radio, period. It’s sad to say, but the same thing is happening with streaming. You can get one hundred bots to play one song over and over again, and guess what: you have a billion spins. And now you’re on the cover of that magazine, and now you have that Pepsi ad, and now you’re doing the Super Bowl, and that’s what it is. I’ve never adhered to any of that. I don’t buy followers; I don’t do any of that. I just go on tour, I write my songs, I live very modestly. I don’t need to have, like, fifteen cars and sixteen homes. If I have a nice piano and a great studio and I’m able to take care of my friends and family if they need something, I’m good. I didn’t get into this at all to be famous. In fact, it’s the most distracting, annoying point of it. Everyone’s always, like, on your ass about every little thing: “Where did you go?” or “Did you gain weight?” or “Why’d you cut your hair?” or “You’re looking good” or “You’re looking old.” It’s just like, Wait, I just came to make music, and the last time I checked, you can’t actually see or touch music. So that’s why I’ve always steered clear of this whole ideology about being famous and gaining a bigger audience that could most likely leave you in two seconds when the new, hot, fresh, whatever person comes through. The greatest bit of advice I received a long time ago from a friend is “You’re only new once.” So if what you’re doing is based on being the new person, beware, because it can’t be done. There’ll be another new one and another new one. But if you’re rooted in a philosophy of what your grand, great message is, you can probably go a little longer than you thought.
BLVR: You stated earlier that music is about what you can’t see, and that reminded me of something you said in an interview with Lauryn Hill back in 1998. You said you wanted to duet with her, and she asked what y’all would sing about. You replied, “We’ll sing about what we have inside.” What’s inside of you now?
M: Wisdom. I have a really thick skin, but I’m extremely sensitive. I never in my life thought would I put myself on the front lines for opinions, ’cause I so want to be liked by people—I guess I’m a Gemini—but there’s also a part of me that gives no fucks. If I care too much, then I can’t do what I’m intending to do. But if I don’t care enough, then I can’t write what I’m supposed to convey to those who need those sentiments expressed to them. In the time that I’ve done these small tours, I’ve met a lot of people who were deployed to Iraq; some of them got married to each other. I met a beautiful couple that was in the army and they were fighting that war that we were fighting at the time. And when they were over there, they would play “Lifetime.” And they got married. So for me, there are no awards in the world that matter. There is no good review or bad review that could ever fuck with me when it comes to that. I’ve done that in someone’s life. I did it. I’m good.
Where I struggle is: How do I push further? How do I make the next step? How do I evolve? How do I make the message even deeper and deeper? But the message is already the same. And as simple as love is, it’s so complex. It’s so complex. You can write about it in so many different ways, and that’s really what my goal is as a songwriter and I guess as a personality in the world. I’m here to be the music. I walk down the street, and there are people who recognize me and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they think I’m Trevor Noah. [Laughter] Sometimes they think I’m The Weeknd; sometimes they think I’m Lenny Kravitz. And I just smile because I think, Well, they’re great-looking guys, so, I mean, that’s a compliment. I don’t trip about stuff like that, I really don’t. We don’t all look alike, but you know…[Laughter]
BLVR: On social media, you post a lot in patterns of three. I know that BLACKsummers’night and blackSUMMERS’night are the first two parts of a trilogy. What’s the significance of the number three for you?
M: Well, I am a number three in numerology, just so you know.
BLVR: What does that mean?
M: In numerology the number three is a creative number. I don’t wanna get into the whole spiritual part of it, because people will think I’m comparing myself to something I’m truly not. Clearly on the internet there’s no nuance. But, yeah, I post in threes a lot because it’s sort of me leading up to the final album. I’m a lot ahead of myself, and I take more time than I should. Urban Hang Suite was something I developed in my mind at eighteen years old. I had the name, I had the songs, I just didn’t have the story until I was of age and in the city. It was almost like I was predicting what I was going to go through. In some ways, I think we all do that, don’t we? Time is a weird thing, because you just never know, you truly never know. Urban Hang Suite was finished in late ’94. All the songs you hear from that album are as they were when I turned them in. The whole thing was at Columbia in late 1994. So I waited a whole year for it to come out, and I almost lost my mind, to be honest with you. Like, am I that bad? Was it too avant-garde or something?
Then there are people like Beyoncé. She was signed to Columbia Records. I knew her from Destiny’s Child. I watched her; I ain’t never seen nobody work so hard. It’s almost like Game of Thrones to me. They shot that last episode for fifty-five weeks. I think in this fast-food creative culture we’re living in now where people just get thrown out, every week, every week, every week, you look at her and she’s someone who prevailed because she just kept trying to perfect herself. And look at her now. She’s one of the most beloved artists of our generation because she is a hardworking person, and that’s all I ever aspired to be in some ways. Look at someone like Prince, who at thirteen, fifteen was locked up in a garage, just trying to learn every instrument he could, reaching for his greatness. It’s when the business comes into it that it taints it. And I say this because I feel like the business world needs to be accountable to us artists, finally. I hope we are moving into a time where ultimately there will be some kind of restitution for songs like “You Send Me” that are now worth a two-billion-dollar copyright. What do you think Sam Cooke got paid for it when he wrote it? Prince had been talking about this forever.
I’m here to be an artist. I could have done a lot of things to make a lot of money. I chose the path I chose because I have faith and I believe that justice will always prevail. It’s very important to reward those who put in the work, because if you don’t, you’re just gonna have a bunch of average, mediocre music that all sounds the same. I think you know what I mean.
BLVR: I think so.
M: I’m not throwing any shots at anybody or looking to be a hater. If people are winning, God bless them, that’s their path. Nothing happens by accident. But I want to rectify the injustices. Art has become an accessory, but I do have a lot of faith that it will become an essential, thriving force, and that the two roads will meet and become whole.
IV. “THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO BE BLACK AND STILL BE BLACK.”
BLVR: I’m really interested in the physiology of your singing. I’ve noticed that when you perform, you use your right hand like a conductor’s baton. It seems almost like you’re using your hand to usher the music forth from your body. I’m curious to know what the physical experience of singing is for you, how it feels in your body when you’re singing falsetto, and how that sensation changes as you sing in other vocal registers.
M: It’s just one of those things that happens. If I was in front of [Maxwell plays a jaunty melody on the piano], I wouldn’t need that. When I’m singing with nothing around me, then I need to feel I have an instrument. In some ways, my hand is an instrument for the voice, and the thing I’m trying to express. It’s just a tic I guess I have. I’ve seen Mariah [Carey] do the same thing. I think I got it from her. [Laughs]
BLVR: She does it, and Anita Baker sways her body while singing. It seems as if the swaying is sort of helping the music come out of her.
M: With the voice, you have to hold your head and neck a certain way to get a note, so there’s that.
BLVR: In 1997 you said, “Everything out there musically was inspired or influenced by something from the past. It’s not about creating some super-fresh new thing. If it doesn’t lend itself to your history, how is it going to extend to your future?” So I’m wondering how that approach to the creative process extends to your new projects. How do the past and future work together in your music? What’s it like going back into your catalog and remixing and revising with these new EPs?
M: The “S508 Cassady” mix of “Shame” is definitely me saying, Hi. Remember Urban Hang Suite? [Laughs] The “W508” version of the remix brings in my cultural background—I was born in Brooklyn, but obviously I’m from two different islands1—and so that was my way of bridging those gaps. The “W508” is really reminiscent of Embrya, and is kind of Afrobeaty, which all of a sudden is now a thing, have you noticed? But at the time, people were like: What is he doing? What’s going on? Why is he using Trent Reznor [vocal filters]? Especially in the song “Gravity,” there are moments when we used a lot of the things that Trent Reznor was using on his voice. So it didn’t fall in line with the Urban Hang Suite jazz sound. I wasn’t gonna do that. And of course, people knew those other songs like “Merge” and “Matrimony,” which felt very Urban Hang Suite to people. I think people were looking for me to do the same thing. And that probably would have been safer and nicer, but I don’t know, I think my first record was a risk, and that’s kind of the only way I feel like it makes sense. When we did “Get to Know Ya,” we had a combination of live and electronic stuff and BLACKsummers’night was just full-on band. I have to give Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson and, of course, the great, late Amy Winehouse a lot of credit. We were writing this, and we were really on that speed already, but when Amy came out with Back to Black, it was like, OK, I can put out a record again, because the world understands; there’s an audience for this.
I read Marvin Gaye’s biography Divided Soul by David Ritz when I was sixteen years old, and I remember something Marvin said that really resonated with me, and it’s all about timing. You don’t always have to be out all the time; it’s about the impact you have when you release your music. All in all, I’ve had a great time. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to make stuff. I’m just famous enough, you know? I can go to the IPIC theater and run into people and it’s easy; it’s not pandemonium. My encounters with the public could’ve been chaotic if I’d made records that sounded like the last record, and did a bunch of features with people who would broaden my audience and blah, blah, blah. But I love the idea that I can walk around Brooklyn and have a car roll up playing “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” and the driver says, “Yo, bro, do you know how knockin’ this is?” And it’s like we’re fam, you know? It’s not someone thinking I’m a deity. They know I’m them, and I’m part of them.
BLVR: Your and Prince’s song and album titles were some of my first encounters with typographic playfulness in album packaging and titling. Your titles, which quirkily incorporate slashes, colons, and all-caps, are very aesthetically cool.
M: I learned from Prince. P-Funk was really good like that too. How can I put this? We are so multifaceted, and we’re not ever truly allowed to be. I think that in some instances the “minority,” which is truly the majority, in my opinion, is always pigeonholed to be a certain way. And I’m always very excited and happy when I see artists who, like OutKast did, say, You know what, I’m Black, but I’m Black like this. You know what I mean? Or I’m of color, or whatever you wanna call it—I’m Latino, but I’m like this too, and there are different ways we can be what we are and still be from Africa. A good portion of the world is from Africa. I don’t mean that in a superior way. I mean that at the end of the day, there are many ways to be Black and still be Black: Sam Cooke, Harry Belafonte, Charlie Pride…
BLVR: Lil Nas X!
M: Yeah, exactly. Fishbone! There are so many ways we can be what we are and still be Black. I just hope we can celebrate that