Maxwell isn’t trying to be a tease. While his fan base has been clamoring for the soul singer’s long-promised sequel to his last album BLACKsummers’night — part of a promised trilogy of LP’s — he’s been content to take his time.
“It’s been so difficult to pull away from the life I’m enjoying right now. That’s the truest thing I could ever say,” he says, calling from a small charter plane that will take him to a magnificent beachfront hotel on the island of Capri in Italy.
“Once the album comes out, every move is measured, every day is planned,” he says. “I go to so many beautiful places when I’m touring, and I never see them. I’m so focused on sounding good and performing and being ready for the people who are spending their time and money. I sacrifice all of it for them.”
His patient followers will soon be rewarded with a tour that will stop Wednesday at the Landers Center in Southaven, and a follow-up LP, blackSUMMERS’night, which is in the final mixing stage. The record will be out possibly as early as September.
“I feel like with each album there’s these new lessons in life that I get to learn,” says Maxwell. “I’m always being introduced to new ways of making music, or parts of my life that I’ve never dealt with.”
Last month, Maxwell passed an important mile marker: his 40th birthday. “When you’re looking at life at 40, you’re often led to believe the greatest thing you should feel is fear. Especially in the music business, where being young and fresh is supposed to be the only way. But for me, it’s totally been the opposite.”
For Maxwell, it’s almost as if he’s grown to inhabit the role he created for himself two decades ago — the knowing old-school soul man. “I want to go back in time and kiss my 22-year-old self for making this kind of music,” he says, laughing, “because it’s almost like the age that I’m at right now is the most appropriate age for what I’ve been doing since my early 20s.”
“I’m so happy I didn’t choose to go down the pop route. I’m so happy I chose a much more soulful movement because as I mature into this age and time of my life, it feels like it’s a perfect fit. I don’t feel corny about the songs I sing, even the old ones from the first couple albums. They seem to fit like a glove for a guy who’s where I’m at.”
The Brooklyn native, born Maxwell Rivera, has always had an easy feel to his work. Signed as a 21-year-old, his debut, Urban Hang Suite, marked the first of three platinum and multiplatinum albums, which earned him loads of critical praise and a position as one of the leaders of the neo-soul movement.
After nearly a decade of constant work, Maxwell pulled away from his career. For someone riding the crest of commercial success, stepping back so suddenly and dramatically was a calculated risk.
Out of the public spotlight for nearly six years, he returned in 2008 — first to the stage, and then with a triumphant comeback album, BLACKsummers’night, and a new look, having shorn his signature kinky locks. “I was told by somebody that cutting my hair was the worst thing I had done for my career, and it ended up not being true,” he says. “In the end, the last album was the biggest for me, my highest chart position, all that.”
Like his hiatus, Maxwell says the forthcoming album, blackSUMMERS’night, is another risk — this time a musical one that will see him stretching stylistically. “It’s like an electronic hi-fi meets soul, meets sludge-metal type of thing,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it. I felt I needed to get more into the future, and not be so throwback. That can sometimes be a little bit boring or kitschy. If I did that, it would feel like I’m resting on my laurels. I want the music to be more challenging, to feel like it came out of this time.”
He adds that the record also boasts an island feel, which traces his Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage. “I’m trying to touch my roots, go back to my roots and rock with the blood that I come from.”
Maxwell says he’s been reluctant to rush the record, in part because he worries about the audience reaction. “Once you put it out into the world, it belongs to everyone. And I got to be honest: It gets to me when people want me to remake records I’ve made already. It’s like asking someone to regress. Sometimes I feel like people want me to stay in a zone.
“If you think about it, most people listen to new music from their teens to their mid-30s. After that, they stick with who they like. And they don’t want you to go past that point or change. But when you’re a musician and writing songs, if you’re not always keeping your ear to the ground, you’re never going to survive and thrive musically. I’m always listening to new music, whether it’s rap and hip-hop to pop to soul, merengue to tropical. I’ve always got my ear tuned to something fresh that influences me.”
Those looking to glimpse Maxwell’s latest direction can check his recent steamy duet with Alicia Keys, “Fire We Make,” or listen to the handful of the new songs he’ll be previewing on his upcoming tour.
Whatever trepidation he feels about starting the next phase of his career, Maxwell seems more than content with his place in the world. “I can’t even B.S. you. It’s the most beautiful time in my life right now. The only thing that would top it is meeting the greatest girl in the world, having some kids. That’s where my brain is at.”
Until he settles down to start a family, Maxwell will continue making music and creative plans; he admits he’s already written a post-trilogy follow-up album.
“There’s still so much to do,” he says. “At age 40, I finally understand how precious time is. And I need to get in the last word musically, whatever that word is.”
8 p.m. Wednesday at the Landers Center, Southaven. Tickets: $38.50 to $149. Available at the box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000.