It’s hardly unusual for a singer to drop off the musical map. Declining album sales, drug habits, legal woes and other dramas have landed a multitude of chart-toppers on the “Whatever Happened To ...” list.
Yet it is unusual to find someone who voluntarily takes a break from the business — and happily so, with no tabloid fodder behind it. So Maxwell — one of the key voices from R&B’s neosoul era, with a sensual voice that made hearts melt and knees buckle — understands why people were so puzzled when he disappeared from the spotlight after releasing his last album, “Now,” in 2001.
“The world is so caught up in the ‘American Idol’ idealistic sort of tendency in regards to just thinking that this whole thing is what everybody wants, but it doesn’t help you make a better record,” the platinum-selling singer says. “I just wanted to kind of be a regular person for a minute, and not have to live up to anything from before.”
Maxwell still doesn’t have a new album: His fourth CD, “Black Summers’ Night,” isn’t due out until at least February 2009. But he is returning with a new tour, during which he will play to crowds hungry to hear his voice after his long absence. (Numerous dates are sold out.)
“I’m amazed. I just did not expect after all this time that people would even care,” says the 35-year-old singer, looking more mature and refined than he did in his bohemian heyday, sporting a conservative dapper look with black shirt, vest and pants.
“It so humbling ... that something that was done, that started in 1996, could even have any weight or any consideration in 2008,” he says. “It means more to me than I can tell you. It’s such a validating experience — it’s validation at its highest, you know.”
Taking time to become a man
But one of the reasons why Maxwell decided to take a break from the business was so that he could find his validation from somewhere other than the record charts. Looking there would have given his ego a boost: From the time the New York native made his debut in 1996, he was a sensation with hits like “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” “Fortunate,” “Lifetime” and “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).” His three studio albums — “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” “Embrya” and “Now” — each sold more than 1 million copies. He had a strong fan base, and his poster-boy looks didn’t hurt his popularity either, with his then-freeflowing Afro part of his signature look.
But personally, Maxwell felt stunted from the constant media glare.
“People failed to realize that when you’re living such a hyper, super reality of a life, where you’re just doing shows and you’re on TV and you’re talking to this magazine, that doesn’t bode well for trying to talk about everyday stuff that hopefully you’ll connect with people on,” he says. “So a lot of my absence was based on just going out to get life experience, you know. Becoming a guy, becoming a man. I’m 35 years old now. In your 20s you’re just a sketch of what you think you’re trying to be.”
So he grew up. He traveled, he hung out with friends, had a couple of long-term romantic relationships, and just enjoyed life.
“He took the time he needed to warm his soul,” says singer-songwriter Leon Ware, who wrote “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” and worked with Maxwell on the new CD. “The process of growing is very serious to him and he’s very analytical.”
But in an industry where “enjoying life” is often a euphemism for “can’t get arrested,” many wondered what was truly behind Maxwell’s extended break.
“Everyone always stereotypes any kind of artist ... that if they go away, something’s wrong,” says Lisa Ellis, the executive vice president of Sony Music Label Group.
“He just decided that he wanted to be a regular person until he felt it was time for him to be Maxwell again ... he found himself. He’s more relaxed now. It’s very stressful to take on that kind of notoriety and pressure to perform and be perfect when you’re young,” she adds. “He doesn’t feel pressured by what people think.”
The best example of that may be the way he’s decided to reintroduce himself to audiences, by a concert tour instead of through a new album, song or flashy video.
“I’m confident in my intentions and why I’m making music,” he says. “I’m not making music because I want to be on your TV screen or the cover of your magazine. I want you to make a baby to something I wrote. I want you to clean your kitchen on Sunday to this, ride in your car, go to work. ... That’s my goal.”