Once upon a time, Maxwell’s hair would have walked into a room five minutes before he did.
When he first hit the big time in 1996, he rocked the biggest, fluffiest Afro this side of the ’70s and evoked a distinctly bohemian vibe. Now, the neo-soul superstar is back after an eight-year self-imposed hiatus, and he looks like a new man, with close-cropped hair and a wardrobe of elegantly tailored suits.
“Sometimes I just get sick of myself,” he confided, alluding to his time away from the spotlight. “That’s kind of what happened in 2001. I didn’t want to see another photo; I didn’t want to hear me. I just sort of needed a coffee bean in the perfume shop of who I was, you know what I mean?”
But the deluge of media attention is starting to happen all over again. We’re backstage at “The Jay Leno Show” in Burbank, California, where the mood is jubilant. The night before, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter earned six Grammy nominations for “BLACKsummer’s Night,” the first in a trilogy of albums rolling out over the next couple of years. It’s the comeback story of 2009, especially since Whitney Houston’s much-publicized CD failed to garner a single nod from Grammy voters.
Interview requests are pouring in. This time, Maxwell insists that he won’t lose focus.
“I think I was just more afraid. Fear of failing, fear of having something sort of stop. For me, I was like, ‘I don’t want to love this too much, because what if this goes away?’ I kind of went through that because I’m kind of insecure in that way. But for the hiatus to have occurred, to then come back and to have this — I feel a lot more settled and a lot more confident.”
Maxwell spoke with CNN about his return.
CNN: When you were on your hiatus, was there ever a point where you thought, “I’m not sure I’m coming back?”
Maxwell: I didn’t know. I didn’t know what people would want of me, if they wanted me back at all. I was always working on some songs. But was there an industry that was ready for me?
CNN: Back then, it was all about hip-hop excess and bling.
Maxwell: It was so different three years ago, when you think about how hip-hop had completely devoured soul music or R&B. It’s all cyclical. The pendulum swings this way, and it swings that way, and I was waiting. I was biding my time because I was like, “Why swim upstream?”
CNN: Do you think your career would be where it is now had you not gone away for seven or eight years?
Maxwell: I don’t think so. I think that the person that always shows up to the party is the person that always shows up to the party.
I love Sade. She’s lived a very interesting code with regards to how she deals with her career.
She’s been gone for 10 years, and it’s a good feeling when you can walk back into it after not seeing a friend for so long, and then you sit down to have lunch or coffee or whatever, and it’s almost like time did not freeze.
That is what I would love to have with the public — is to be able to kind of go away and to come back, and it’s as if no time had passed between us.