Concert preview: Maxwell takes it slow and steady

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From the July 17, 2014 edition

Maxwell likes to take his time.

This is true both on record — the silky soul man tends toward sensual ballads that move with ballerina grace — and in the studio. The singer has released just two albums since his sophomore effort Embrya surfaced in 1998: 2001’s Now and 2009’s BLACKsummers’night. At the time, Maxwell conceived BLACK as the first in a trilogy, and initial plans called for parts two and three to follow in 2010 and 2011, respectively, though neither has materialized as of yet.

“It was so pompous of me to say, ‘I’ll work on this trilogy and put out one album each year because I … won’t have anything new happen in my life. My life is a grid. I’m a robot, basically, and I live in a robotic world of no emotion,’” the singer said by phone from an early July tour stop in Pittsburgh. “I learned that’s not how it works. You can’t plan art.”

Instead, he’s taken the additional time away to let life seep more gradually into his music. He entered into a romantic relationship, and struggled with the deaths of a family member and a close friend — experiences that drastically altered the direction of recording sessions. He also turned 40, a milestone that inspired a period of deep introspection.

“You start to see life differently. You see all the things you’ve done and the people that you’ve loved, the people you should have loved more, and the people you never should have loved at all. All that starts to come into perspective, and there’s a great sense of self that comes over you,” said Maxwell, now 41. “My motivations were never financial — it’s not why I make music — but it’s become more important to be a real person that cuts his hair and gets a couple wrinkles and changes. It’s important to appear like I live.”

Maxwell’s desire to immerse himself more fully in this day-to-day existence further explains his tendency to shy from the public eye. He described life as a touring musician as completely detached from reality, and worried too much time spent in this hermetically sealed world would lend his songs a degree of emotional disconnect.

“Being in the public eye and releasing records is so bizarre. You’re living this life, and it’s totally unreal, like, ‘What?’” he said. “For so many artists, something changes about the exuberance of what they do, and it loses a luster because a certain part of their life has been sacrificed being in front of people. It’s like, ‘Am I ready to go out into the gauntlet of people’s opinions and people’s judgments and have people size me up now compared to what I was before?’ It can be emotionally taxing to be critiqued all the time.”

There have even been times where the singer contemplated leaving the industry altogether — a threat he nearly followed through on in the mid-2000s when labels and artists struggled to come to grips with the financial realities brought on by internet piracy. “Overnight you could steal everyone’s album if you wanted to, and that really threw me,” he said.

At the same time, the musician referred to his ability to carve out a career as an artist “a blessing,” and admitted there’s little chance he’d ever walk away on his own accord, saying, “I think about [quitting] all the time, but I know it’s a hollow thought because I love making music.”

Indeed, even in those years when Maxwell kept a low public profile, he recorded prolifically. In addition to parts two and three of his BLACKsummers’night trilogy — the second volume of which will be out by year’s end (“I can guarantee it,” he said, briefly channeling an infomercial pitchman) — the singer said he’s already finished off the bulk of a third to-be-released album.

“I have thousands of songs, so it’s not for a lack of material,” he said. “I’m just always waiting for the song to mature and for it to take on its own life. It’s like a soufflé or something. You just know when it’s ready.”

Maxwell’s measured hand and willingness to give his music both the time and space necessary to develop lend his recordings a timeless feel, and songs like “Stop the World” and “This Woman’s Work” sound as though they could comfortably belong to virtually any era.

“In my youth I really wanted to be on MTV, but in hindsight I look back and I’m so happy I made the musical decisions I made because I can do all of my songs now at my age and it doesn’t feel weird,” Maxwell said. “I can’t imagine if I had one of those pop hits that come-and-go and then 20 years later you get an offer to do a show in Vegas and you’re a middle-aged man singing something a 21-year-old should be singing. With these songs, it feels like I could be Frank Sinatra if I wanted to be.”