Maxwell's Waiting Game: R&B Hitmaker Talks Loyalty, Longevity - Rolling Stone
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Maxwell’s Waiting Game: R&B Hitmaker Talks Loyalty, Longevity

Singer-songwriter on how he sifted through hundreds of songs to assemble first LP in seven years

blackSUMMERS'night, Maxwell, interview, Feature, Rolling Stone, DavidblackSUMMERS'night, Maxwell, interview, Feature, Rolling Stone, David

Maxwell discusses his slow-and-steady working method, and why he's more loyal in art than in life.

Eric Johnson

Maxwell believes in biding his time. “People do too much,” the R&B singer explained to Rolling Stone over the phone earlier this month. “Fame is a very precarious thing. I’m not a corporation where things get funneled through me, and my name’s so big that it’s gonna be a hit. I better really live something and write something.” The latest results of this method can be heard on blackSUMMERS’night, out July 1st.

When the artist debuted two decades ago with Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, his priorities were clear – sifting through R&B’s history to recombine potent elements from various unimpeachable sources. That album included input from Leon Ware, who helped write all of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 erotic tour de force, I Want You, and Stuart Matthewman, who has played on every Sade album. “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” Maxwell’s first Top 40 hit, added more reference points: the bass suggested Keni Burke’s 1982 single “Risin’ to the Top,” while the audacious falsetto opening nodded to Prince’s “Adore.”

In the interim years, Maxwell made small tweaks to his aesthetic. The first was sonic: After a pair of sinuous, breathy albums, the singer adopted a crisper style more aligned with mid-to-late-Seventies Isley Brothers – “Fortunate,” a non-album single penned by R. Kelly, signaled the switch. The other change was in his artistic process: After releasing three albums between 1996 and 2001, it took Maxwell eight years to deliver BLACKsummers’night, which he advertised as the first installment in a trilogy. He was marginally quicker in delivering the second part.

For much of his career, Maxwell has maintained a small inner circle of collaborators, and he wrote almost every song on blackSUMMERS’night with guitarist Hod David – the two met in the Nineties, when Maxwell was a busboy, and David was a waiter. Matthewman returned to co-write one song as well, and Mike Pela handles mixing duties, just as he did on Urban Hang Suite. “I’m pretty loyal to the people I work with,” Maxwell observes. “I like to keep them around. I may not be so great at relationships, but when it comes to the music, I’m pretty loyal.”

“I may not be so great at relationships, but when it comes to the music, I’m pretty loyal.”

Despite the long gap in between albums, Maxwell claims the work flow was steady. “It kind of blows my mind that I have 300 to 500 songs based on the BLACKsummers’night thing,” he says. “I was doing so much, while not doing that much.”

“Some things are more thought out than others,” David clarifies in a separates conversation. “Some of it is just a groove and a little bit of a vocal – I wouldn’t say they’re all songs you could press play on.”

David describes his process with Maxwell in casual terms: “I’ll just start playing him ideas. He grabs a mic and starts singing. Things happen or don’t. Even the ones that happen, you’re like, ‘That’s OK, not our best.’ Other things you thought weren’t that great turn out great. It’s always morphing. We maybe write a few albums, work at stuff, sit on it and watch the wind blow.”

But at some point, this constant state of flux comes up against hard economic realities. “I can wait for a baby to be made – or a song, metaphorically speaking – and not be seen by the world,” Maxwell asserts. “But I got taxes. So I need to put some stuff out. Generate some cash flow.”

blackSUMMERS'night, Maxwell, interview, Feature, Rolling Stone, David

The new album continues in the vein of its predecessor, though there are fewer shifts in tone, and no equivalent to “Pretty Wings,” BLACKsummers’night‘s highlight – an alluring, unusually structured ballad built around a dissonant metallic chiming. Most of the friction on blackSUMMERS’night stems from the interplay between rhythm section and voice. Maxwell, known for chic falsetto, reaches into the haggard part of his range on several tunes, wringing raspy feeling from “III” and “Hostage.” Every tune seems addressed to a lover; according to the singer, some are also about the subject of “Pretty Wings.” He draws parallels between this record and the previous one – new song “Fingers Crossed,” for example, reaches back to “Fistfuloftears.”

Surprisingly, Maxwell already appears to have his eyes set on the next release. “At the end of the day, I still gotta make another record that’s just as good,” he notes. “It’s back to anxiety land.” He refers to the final installment of his trilogy, which will be titled blacksummers’NIGHT, as “the end of the saga,” and suggests that it “could very well make its presence felt in February right after the Grammys.” “Then I’ll be free!” he jokes, with mock triumph in his tone. “I can have PURPLEwinterafternoon.”

That would be a stunningly quick turnaround for the singer, and listeners might not want the music that soon anyway – both Maxwell and David believe that the long period between releases helps with quality control. “You really get to see which [songs] hold up and which ones don’t,” David says. “You can write a song and be super excited about it, but it doesn’t carry the weight. You know it’s a good song when it’s been a year and you press play, and you’re like, ‘This is still hot.’ Trends come and go; this still feels great.”

“If it’s good enough now,” Maxwell declares, “it should be good enough in five years.”

This strategy proved to be successful with the first part of the trilogy: BLACKsummers’night spawned three Number One singles on the Adult R&B Songs chart. The first offering from blackSUMMERS’night, “Lake by the Ocean,” followed suit, climbing to Number One after nine weeks.

Maxwell’s release schedule already marks him as an anomaly in a frenetic digital age, but the fact that listeners seem to reward his long-game approach with hits is even more rare. When D’Angelo returned after 14 years, he barely dented a singles chart. In 2015, Janet Jackson put out her first album in seven years; though “No Sleeep” climbed to Number One on the Adult R&B chart, the next two songs failed to match its success.

According to Maxwell, the reception of “Lake by the Ocean” on the charts relieved some of the angst he felt about stepping back into the pop arena. “Those are real drums!” he says with enthusiasm. “It’s on the radio! It was just a song I wrote four or five years ago.”

“I could’ve been going through all this then,” he theorizes. But then he reasserts the value of holding back. “Maybe people would’ve been like, ‘Eh,'” he decides. “Sometimes waiting gives people a chance to digest. I think they’re like, ‘OK, it’s time for some Maxwell now.'”

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