Maxwell knows it has been a while since you’ve heard from him.
The soul singer, who hit it big in the the ’90s with hits including “Fortunate” and covers like the Kate Bush-penned “This Woman’s Work,” has stayed largely out of the limelight since his last release five years ago, “BLACKsummers’night.” The album always was meant to be part of a trilogy, which will continue with the second release later this year. But before the Grammy-winning performer does that, he will embark on a 35-plus-city tour across North America.
So, why did the 41-year-old New York native make us wait?
“I work the way I work,” he said in a phone interview from New York with The Bee days before his tour was to kick off last weekend. “My life is more important than releasing albums that have no meaning behind them. Why just release for the sake of being on time? I like to live and have an experience, and I’m not so into being in the spotlight all the time. Something I don’t want to feel like is that I’m a machine for music. I am not interested in being a machine. There’s no real end goal. You can release two records a year, you can try to do some Guinness Book thing if you want. I am just trying to achieve the highest I can and take it from that point.”
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Once dubbed “the Marvin Gaye of the ’90s” by The Washington Post, Maxwell gained acclaim and ardent followers for his silken voice and neo-soul sound. After he sprang onto the scene in 1996 with his debut album, “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” the singer-songwriter was cranking out music at a constant pace. In 1997, he released his live “MTV Unplugged” album, followed in 1998 by his sophomore studio album, “Embrya,” and then his 2001 Billboard chart-topping record, “Now.”
But then there was an eight-year gap before he returned, with 2009’s “BLACKsummers’night.” The release proved worth the wait as it hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, spawned three No. 1 singles on the Billboard Adult R&B song chart and earned him two Grammy Awards.
The record brought not only new music but a new look for the singer, who previously was largely known for his trademark Afro and sideburns. His self-described “cleaned-up” look featured cropped hair and sharp suits.
“It’s personal evolution. It’s great because I love the idea of being a person who changes,” Maxwell said. “I don’t want to be a caricature, where you’re locked in time for other people. The world changes, we’re not some superhero caricatures of ourselves.”
That buttoned-down look continues as Maxwell steps back into the spotlight to helm his new Summer Soulstice tour and the pending release of the second installment of his trilogy of albums. Titled simply “Summers,” the new album will be a progression of “BLACKsummers’night.” He looks at the three-part project like a sentence.
“It builds off of ‘BLACKsummers’night,’ ” he said. “The first part of the trilogy was the sentence. The second part is a middle part of the sentence. Like, ‘The girl went across the street.’ So ‘The girl ...’ would be ‘BLACKsummers’night,’ and ‘... went across ...’ would be ‘Summers.’ And the third one will be ‘... the street.’ It’s a sentence that has continued.”
Despite the long delay, Maxwell said he doesn’t plan to have much fanfare around the release of “Summers.” While it won’t be a “Beyoncé-esque” release, (referring to her surprise self-titled album last December), he said he wants it to “come out of nowhere” and build its own groundswell of support.
Fans can expect its release around the second leg of his tour, which stops by the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto on Tuesday. Maxwell is hitting the road with a seven-piece backing band. In past tours, critics have lauded his onstage style. The Chicago Tribune wrote that Maxwell “worked his band like Cab Calloway or James Brown, the horns slicing and dicing with Ginsu-knife precision, a Hammond organ taking us to church, the drums peppering everything with syncopated beats.”
Maxwell said rehearsals for the show, which kicked off last Sunday in Milwaukee, have gone well. Audiences can expect rearrangements of familiar songs, as well as new material. The tour will swing him through the Midwest, Canada, the Pacific Northwest, the South and more.
“I am trying to freshen up the set list,” he said. “I like to stop in the places I never get to go to as much. They can call some of these places secondary markets, vs. primary markets like New York City. But those places have fans that are like no other fans. NYC gets everything, but not as many people go through, say, Rochester as much. I get inspired by them at the end of the day. I am excited and it’s fun. I just love making music – that hasn’t changed.”
That love extends past making his own music, and into serving as executive producer on other projects. Maxwell said he has enjoyed working behind the scenes to help others shine, as well.
“There are some really good people who I love. I like to promote these bands, with sounds I love,” he said. “It’s not about my ego or being in the center. I like to help people, support and guide people with the exposure I have to help them do what they do. I love all of that. I promote the music of other people so much more than I talk about my own stuff. I am very anti-myself. At the end of the day, music is what I am here for and what represents me.”