One of the most ambitious arena tours of the past few years never actually happened. In 2012, the soul singer Maxwell was set to hit Los Angeles, Atlanta and Newark, New Jersey, to perform his entire discography over the course of back-to-back nights — his first two the initial night, his latter two the second night. But a month before the first date, he announced he was having surgery to repair a ruptured vocal cord, a procedure that took him off the road and slowed the recording of his fifth album.
But roughly two years later, he's managed to circle back: This time, Maxwell is about to embark on a nearly 40-date summer tour in order to road test new material with that new record — he swears — on the way. We talked to him over the phone about the fragility of his career, following up a Number One album, his "cyborg-y" new sound and, naturally, EDM.
Going back to your surgery, was there ever a point where you were scared of your career ending? Did you think about the mortality of your career at that point?
You know, you always think about it. I thought to myself, "Damn." But luckily my doctor, Dr. Jimmy Morales, who works with so many people — from rappers to public speakers, it's insane who he's involved with — he assured me that it was not major, that it was something you must deal with now. It's better to deal with it now and cancel these dates, which, you know, even when I canceled the dates, I paid my entire staff — the musicians, the crew, everything. Literally out of my own pocket because everyone has families, so I didn't want them to be restricted because of the experience I was going through. So, I took care of them, and I think it was good karma in itself. [It] kind of helped with the healing process, so, you know, I was back in motion.
I think the thing that I did soon after that whole experience was "Fire We Make" with Alicia Keys. So, that was nice because I went to the studio and it took me about 20 minutes to get through it. She was in the studio with me, in the control room, and I just did what I had to do. When I heard the song, it was like, "OK, we're good. We're OK, we can do some shows now." And that's what we ended up doing.
Let's focus on the upcoming tour. On the dates that you canceled, you were going to do this thing where you sing two albums one night and two albums the next night. What can we expect from this upcoming tour? What's it going to look like?
Well, I can tell you that it's a secondary-market tour, and I like to get those out of the way first because I never get to really go to these beautiful, rare places like Albuquerque, New Mexico and Grand Rapids, which is the home of DeBarge, whom I love. I love DeBarge, the falsetto, the family, the songs — everything they've ever done, I'm obsessed with. So, you know, you get to go to these places in America that most people don't usually get to. They usually do the big city. So, I get to build a show, test out some of the songs, and then gear up for a much more expansive production down the road. The album is going to come out.
Since you brought it up, how far along are you with the record? Did you record it all, is it written?
Yeah, absolutely. We were in Miami for three months earlier this year. We've been working over the course of the last three years.
I kind of lost my cousin about a month and a half ago — probably my best friend in the world. He was like my little brother, really. We grew up together. I remember when he moved into the house when he was just a baby. I was about six years old. So you can imagine, a six-year difference — I'm 13 and he's six — so you're just kind of helping someone fend for himself. So that's the relationship and he passed away suddenly. He had an enlarged heart and had a heart attack.
So when that happened, it totally changed everything about the album on some level because there's a certain amount of counting your blessings, forgiving things that you thought were unforgivable. Being an artist, it's like, "Damn, why do I need to have fucked up things happen for things to sound so nice for people?" It's weird. It's so weird, bro. I don't even get it. I take it as it comes and I go, "This is what you're here to do. You're here to take on your life and what you go through — mostly the worst part of it — and make it into something nice so people feel that they can relate and they can overcome certain experiences." So that's what I'm doing now.
Your last record was really successful. You had huge singles on the radio, next to people like Trey Songz. Do you think about that? Do you ever worry that one day you're going to release an album and it's not going to go number one?
You know, yeah. I'd be lying to you if I said I wouldn't want it to be Number One again. Even the last album, those are all live instruments at a time when Auto-Tune and EDM were really emerging, which, I love by the way. I love all kinds of music. If we ever sat down and went through the catalog of what I listen to, you might be appalled and slightly shocked. Like, "What? Why are you listening to this?"
But for me, I still work with the same people. Stuart Matthewman, Hod David, my manager I've known since I was 19. So it's the same group. I feel like the Rolling Stones, you know. We're like this band. I don't deviate from working with them. I stay true and loyal. And I think because they knew me before things happened, they know where I need to be for the next progression.
You've talked about the summers'night trilogy. How does the new record fit into that and relate to the first record?
You know, the best way to say it without giving too much away is that you'll find the titles… there's a flipside to the titles in the first and the second. A run-on sentence, maybe? If there was "Pretty Wings" then there'd be something else, you know what I mean? But it would tie in somehow.
Sonically, it's a lot more hi-fi. I wouldn't say electronic because it's still pretty soulful and we have strings and we have all the live instruments going on, but it's just a little bit more trippier than the first album. Because the first part was BLACK, and I associate that with soul. I really wanted it to be really traditional. Obviously the way it ended up being, it's just a classic, sonic band sound. This one has the same elements, but there's something a little bit more… I would say cyborg-ish about it.
I was looking at your Twitter feed today and you linked to a mix by Cyril Hahn. You were talking about Dev Hynes a few weeks ago. How do you keep up with new music?
Well, my friends, you know. But I do have to say that — oh, man, I hope I get an honorary membership or stock in the company, but it's called Hype Machine. It's this new app that aggregates any music from any blog onto the actual app. So, I'm obsessed with Hype Machine because, for example, there's, like, this Lido remix of Bill Withers, "Ain't No Sunshine." So I don't know if you heard it, but it's amazing. If we can follow on Twitter and you can follow my Hype Machine via Twitter, if you want, or you can go to the "Known Unknown," that's kind of my handle, at Hype Machine. It's there, it's saved under my favorites.
Have you ever been to an EDM show?
I've been to EDM shows. I love them. Big fan of so many of those guys. I do believe there's a new wave of a certain sound, you know a Chris Malinchak and Cyril Hahn. Disclosure. Things are getting more soulful, and I'm excited about that. I think that that's a good look. But I love all that stuff.