Maxwell on “Shame” and being an “enthusiastic participant”

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Maxwell
Maxwell
Shame has been added to Maxwell’s music catalog

Maxwell is one of those voices that you simply cannot get out of your head. From his smooth vocals on tracks like “Lifetime” and his newest offering “Shame” to his legendary falsetto on “This Woman’s Work.” His voice is cemented not just in the neb-soul movement that he helped usher in, but in the musical lexicon. As he prepares to take the stage at The Wellmont Theater in Montclair tonight, he sat down with me to talk about his career trajectory, how things have changed, as audiences have changed, and why he continues to be beyond grateful to be able to be continuously creative.

Michael Cook: Your new music is absolutely amazing and your new single “Shame” is quintessential Maxwell!

Maxwell
Maxwell

Maxwell: Thank you so much! After all this time, it is nice to get people that can appreciate the music. Especially in this world of where music can almost be an accessory to the crime so to speak (laughs)!

Your tour is called “50 Intimate Nights Live” and it has showcased both newer music, as well as classic Maxwell that we love. What has it been like getting back out on the road? 

M: We started earlier this fall and it has been rigorous. It was a lot of dates, but it has been great to get to these places and get warmed up, prepping myself for 2019. I wanted to see the core audience. I wanted to see who was paying attention, and who would come. You can go out with an album and a media blitz, but sometimes it is not as rewarding as when you are about to begin the next chapter in your career. It has been interesting to watch. It’s also been interesting to see so many generations in the audience in each town we have been in. I am excited, invigorated, and very blessed and happy that all these years later there is still an opportunity to see each other in this way.

You were always very socially conscious, but “The Glass House” is absolutely remarkable and a great commentary on our society today.

M: Well the Bush + Renz guys are pretty much are geniuses. I was actually asked by Harry Belafonte per his Sankofa Organization to write something, and then they were involved on some level; they wanted to get involved and get started on it. We developed a relationship, and they are curious about the first single off of Night and I played it for them. They let me know that they had a movie they were doing, but wanted to get the visuals done for me as soon as possible, and we did it. There was no fanfare, and we just threw it out there, and we will circle back at the top of the year and go a little bit deeper.

Taking it back, you helped shape the neo-soul movement which launched so many artists, like D’Angelo and Angie Stone, which not only introduced people to new artists, but helped people look back on the soul and R&B music as a whole. What is it like looking back at a movement that you essentially helped usher in?

Maxwell has a new release called "Shame."
Maxwell has a new release called “Shame.”

M: You know, I really feel so grateful to be in that company of people. It was a special time of music in the 1990s. We were really paying homage to the soul legends of yesteryear. We were all in our twenties and fully supported by the media in a very different way than it is now. It was a classic time before the experts that are not experts. And it’s a time that I cherish. Not to say that I don’t look at the current status of the way that music works and appreciate it, because I do. I feel like there is something really cool about any artist, being able to put out a record and rise into superstardom without any existence of the way that record companies did in the past.

When I look back, and I am pretty nostalgic, I had no idea whatsoever; I was hoping I would not be forgotten. And was hopping that I would not just be a song or a look or a genre. I think that group of people; we were pushing for genre-less type of movement. They did give us a label, I leave something that was open to everything and I am so grateful that I was a part of it. I am hoping it is still forging ahead with today’s artists.

Speaking of amazing artists, you have toured with artists that that span generations, from Fantasia to Mary J Blige. What is it like touring with artists that have both inspired you, and that you have been an inspiration to? 

Maxwell has a new release called "Shame."
Maxwell has a new release called “Shame.”

M: Well, with Mary it is different because she started before me. She was the first version of this neo-soul hybrid, and was part of the hip hop-soul movement. She was sampling these amazing beats that gave you this classic feeling. Working with her was a dream. She is so legendary and her work ethic is not to be played with. Co-headlining a tour with her two years ago was kind of a dream come true. I had been wanting to do it about two years prior to that, but with anything that you want to do it takes time. People like Fantasia, I have great respect for, watching her though the gauntlet of American Idol. I cannot imagine doing that because of how hard it looks, so I have a great deal of respect for those artists or those musicians who go to American Idol or any of those types of shows where they have to compete to the end so to speak. I have a lot of respect for her and it’s great getting to see her flourish.

So how does it feel to have been in the game this long? You sound like you have learned a great deal. 

 M: I feel like I am an enthusiastic participant to the accidents that happen along the way in my career. Nothing planned. I guess my code is be soulful, have a POV, have a personality, have a sense if identity, and be a risk taker. At the heart of everything that I have tried to do and what I have been associated with are people that did music, and did not care about the charts. Because the charts and media caught up to them. It was not them trying to catch up to the charts. That changes who you are creatively in my opinion when you cater to pop culture. We were not doing that. That opened up a bunch of avenues to people, which is great. To see people look at people how I looked at Prince, and Marvin Gaye, and Sade, those are the artists that when I would think that if I had a career, I would want it to be like.

I am just grateful it is still going on and I get to push the boundaries and express the ideas that I feel are most important to the current status of not only my own interests, but what I feel the world needs, and what the audiences needs. I am never so sure of how it will move or how the results will be because I don’t have the same understanding of the current environment that they have. Plus, I have been in it so long I can’t be married to the result as I used to be. There is so much music that I have had; I mean, how many number ones can you have? It doesn’t mean what it meant as a kid. For me, being able to just be creative and have my voice heard and my statement understood, to me that is almost like having my record played for the first time. I appreciate it that simply.

In your latest music there is a growth and an attention to what is going on around us. “Shame” is incredible, and there is a consciousness about what is going on in the world. Is that something that has come with time? 

M: I think I am pretty conscious about it in a way, because I am an adult; I am a 45 year old man. I don’t have the naiveté of a kid ready to sign his life away of the chance I think the arc of my life has pushed me to this place. When you look at the different types of shame that plague our culture, colorism, weight, job and the opinions of social media and how they can distort someone’s identity, and how they feel about themselves, how they can feel validated because of how many people follow them, or have commented or liked them or whatever. We live in an era where people need to take stock of their individuality without needing to please any of their peer groups. The rise in social media has shifted peoples understanding of that a bit. People feel that they need to live a certain way, look a certain way, be a certain way, and a lot of people are afraid to have their own opinion because they have to check to see what the trend of that opinion is before they can have it. They are afraid to say anything, what if someone comes at them. It is almost like locusts at some point, it’s all consuming to be a positive or a negative.

At some level, the pendulum swings in every direction when you put stock in what people think of you. As soon as you own the positive you must accept the negative. If you somewhat detach yourself, live and go on pretending like you don’t know what you are doing, you are a little bit more happy. I think, not to be disrespectful to anyone who is in their 20s, we understand that a little more because we lived a bit blindly. Any concept of how it would affect everyone there is an immediate understanding. Now though, people don’t give things the time to grow like they used to. The way I write, I don’t write for instant gratification. I hope people go back to it and find new things. In this day and age, in this instant gratification age, there is a homogenized feeling to things, since everyone is doing what they think the world wants instead of going with their own movement. I am just grateful. I always top all this stuff off with the fact that I am just so grateful that I am able to be creative. Just before getting signed, I made a promise to myself that I would stay true to doing what felt right and not what would work on a business level and keep me relevant. My greatest sense in all of it is to not try.

What keeps inspiring you to keep making fresh and new music, and continue to have your voice heard? 

M: You know what really does it for me? Finding the commonality. When people come to me with their perceptions of what they think they are hearing. I write things with a multi layered approach; it’s specific, but then it’s broad and open enough that people can offer their opinions to it. Not their digital opinions so to speak, but their emotional opinion, and how it affected their lives. When I get back people’s take on something, the video, songs written from a specific lyrical intent, and then the directors have a different intent that they could add, to me that is the fun. When your small idea becomes a combined idea that connects in different ways with other people.

The song has been out a little over a month and when we started performing it people were checking it out, and now people know the song and the lyrics; they are aware of it. To watch that process take place in the public is a joy. It’s the same thing with “Pretty Wings”. We did that in 2008, I went on the road and performed “Pretty Wings” and “Bad Habits”, and now when I perform it, they know it because it was what it was. To see “Shame” in its infancy in front of an audience is more powerful to me than having this immediate business reaction to it. It is with the people first.

You hear certain artists performing certain songs, and it can completely throttle you back to a certain time. Any time you are heard performing “A Woman’s Work” that is the case for so many people.

M: Oh yeah, Kate Bush is Kate Bush. I thought that if I can hit these notes, this could be life changing. To see people who did not know her, who generally listen to R&B and connect with it was great. I always have to tell people that it’s a Kate Bush song, because credit is due. To see it connect with all audiences of all colors, it’s amazing.

So you still get the same charge performing and sharing your craft as you ever did it seems? What do you think keeps you so passionate about your craft? 

M: We just left Toronto and Kentucky, and Cleveland, and to see the faces in the audiences is a beautifully thing to me. It says to me, in the current state in the divisive world we live in where everyone is categorized, music does not see any of that. It goes into the ear of whoever it goes into blindly, and it is received as its received without any discrimination. That is the joy I get; regardless of the differences of opinions with policy and politics, as a creative, I can break down those walls and hopefully on a frequency level get people to concentrate on what is really crucial. That is love at the end of the day; being positive, encouraging each other, empathizing with each others pain, these are the things I try to promote as much as I can with each performance and each song I get to do. Reacquainting everybody with the humanity we all struggle with every single day. Everyone has a burden; everyone is trying to figure it out.

wellmonttheater.com for tickets and information