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1996 Interview | Discography

A reluctant star on the rise

Anyone who's heard Sony/Columbia recording artist Maxwell's debut CD, "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite", would agree that it's everything but an ordinary contemporary r & b album. Unlike much of today's sometimes insipid commercial Soul (which relies heavily on samples for the groove and over-explicit promises of sex for lyrics) Maxwell's creation is arguably different but nevertheless sensuous and funky. Built around his own true-life love story, "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" is an album with a concept. Backed with live instrumentation and a sound which is hard to define, but easy to love, Maxwell's the merger, the link between the sounds of the nineties and the finest of the '70's and early '80's. As fresh as it is fadeless.

The album's eleven songs reveal true appreciation and understanding of that era and it's obvious that what we have here is a bona fide artist at work. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if in a few years time, Maxwell will be one of the most celebrated stars on the Soul scene. That is, if he wants to and I'm not so sure he does. As I found out (during a forty-minute phone interview with the man himself , two months before the record was released) words like ordinary and predictable are just as ill-fitting when it comes to describing Maxwell's personality as his music. Introvert, bohemian and shy are just a few of the things that have been said about him in the press. Sure, Maxwell's not the type of guy to flaunt or brag, (in fact, not even his mother knew about his record deal for a long time), but my female intuition was right when it told me that any man daring to share his innermost feelings, desires and pains with the listeners, simply couldn't be afraid to interpret the message and the music, especially not with a freelance R & B journalist from Sweden. Friendly, humble and very fascinating is how I perceived him. So what if he didn't answer the first question completely truthfully.

Maxwell-I would prefer not to tell you my full name. I have many, many names.. Since I'm half Puerto Rican, half West Indian, everyone wants to name you, so Maxwell's like the best way to consolidate. For me to tell you my full name would take such a long time. Honestly, that's what it is, Maxwell vowed with a laughter, at first half-heartedly attempting to convince me (by picking up on my joke about his driver's license carrying tons of initials) then stating 
-I'm sure someone will dove into some archive one day and find out what they need to find out.

 Maxwell was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn, a place described as one of the roughest neighborhoods in that area. Even though he's moved and now lives in downtown Manhattan, he speaks fondly of his old home territories and doesn't like the way they are portrayed in the media.
-Well, South Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn are nice places to me, I guess it's all in where you're coming from and how you think about it. I learned and gained a lot from growing up and living in those areas. There's so much joy and love and compassion there. It's not all they say it is. I know there are some things that go on there every day that are unfortunate, as far as violent kinds of things. I believe your surroundings are not you , it's how you think that makes you the person you are. I loved living up there and I would never have changed it. I didn't run out and tried to get into some big, plush place. I moved out and went to a more eclectic version, but it's definitely just about the same thing. I get so much inspiration from the city and all the different kinds of people struggling and trying to survive.

MaxwellMaxwell's the first to say he's nowhere near the stereotype one might expect coming from that background. He claims to never have had a drink or a puff and depreciates the so called ghetto macho's oversized ego as much as their compulsory degrading view on women.
-I really honor women for what they are and for what they represent as people. I honestly believe that they teach (men) a lot just by their ways of living, as far as the emotional sense that they have. And their lack of ego is so intriguing to me! I'm amazed at how a woman can have a child and just know what to do. It's just so instinctive to them. I strive for that..To have as little ego as possible.

Buying his first keyboard at sixteen or seventeen ("an old wack thing"), he became obsessed with music and began working with a basic four track studio set up. To support himself he waitered tables at a restaurant but never actively pursued a career in the music business. As it turned out, a friend who knew a friend at a record company, eventually had Maxwell recording demos in a 24 track studio and soon thereafter, several labels showed interest.
-I chose Sony because, unlike some of the other record companies, they didn't ask me to conform or tried to change me which I wasn' t willing to do, he explained
-When I first started working with Sony, they were obviously a bit nervous about me going in and producing myself, so they went and got a guy from Chicago called P.M. who was engineering, mixing and programming that could help me out. But no one from the label checked on me. Other people involved were Stuart Matthewman who's worked with Sade, he's in my live band as well and Bashiri Johnson played percussion. Maxwell On the album, I programmed, played synthesizer, piano, moog and guitars and then I used different people on different tracks, whoever I'd get a feel for might suit the track. It wasn't about me being the almighty. I just wanted to have good sounding music. I'm not Beethoven or anything, I just do what I can do to get the music out of me. There are a lot of people on this record. It was like they gravitated towards it and it was great because usually I end up doing it all myself. I was in a situation once where no one was around, musicians would be late, so I ended up putting the tracks together myself. But it was such an honor to have these people wanna be a part of this story, that I couldn't be selfish with it. Not with this album. Maybe in the future I might go into my little cave and do the whole thing, but all of this was just such a blessing, all these things were sent down from heaven. Everyone has their own heartbroken story to tell and it was nice to have to have all these people put their emotions and experiences inside this little story that I felt that I was all alone with. Some people just came in and played, they had no idea what I was trying to do.. So, I can't say everyone knew, but with those who did, it was nice.

Leon Ware (1978)So how did legendary producer, songwriter, arranger and singer Leon Ware, co-responsible for one of the best concept-albums of all times; Marvin Gaye's "I Want You", become part of the project and what was it like working with him?
-I think he had heard of me or seen me perform. He was in town and we ended up having dinner. We hit it off and wrote "Sumthin Sumthin" together. It was interesting working with him and it was an amazing honor, of course. It's funny, the song ended up changing. It was something else when we wrote it and later on when Leon was back in town, he came to the studio while I was working on the new version, lyrics and all that. He said "man, you've changed the whole song up!" He wasn't bothered or anything, but he was kinda taken aback that it could evolve into something else that way. He was pleased, I'm happy he was.

Wah Wah WatsonThose who study the musicians credits will find Wah Wah Watson (a.k.a. Melvin Ragin) on guitar and as co-composer of "The Urban Theme" and "The Suite Theme". Two exquisite atmospheric instrumentals, one opens, the other closes the album. Not having seen his name on anything recently, Wah Wah's return was a happy surprise to me. Wah Wah was The top session guitarist during the '70's and '80' and his name appears on numerous records . He's also equipped with one of the most distinctive styles in the business.
-Wah Wah and I are very, very good friends now. He calls me his little brother!, Maxwell said, without any false attempts to hide how proud that made him feel.
-We've been on tour together and he's helped me out, he really has my back. We just got together through a writing situation that came up from another label a long time ago. We walked away from it, really getting along and really getting a sense of where we were coming from. He was just always there to the very end, so I would fly him out to New York and he played on some of the tracks. I'm such a big fan of what he did with Barry White and all that Motown stuff.

MaxwellMaxwell seemed as astounded as I about the collaboration.
-Yeah, how often do you get a chance to work with one of your heroes? When the opportunity to work with Watson came up, I was completely nerve-wrecked! I couldn't believe this was happening to me. Even now when I look at the things that have come from just putting these songs together, I can't even believe it. He taught me so much about being a musician and about structure, just a lot of the subtle little things that you kinda lose out from hearing what's around today. He made me feel cool about where I was coming from, because I was a little out.

Asking Maxwell to explain what he meant by out he unveiled the circumstances under which the album had been done.
-This record was finished a year ago and in the process of making it, I don't quite think everyone understood what I was trying to accomplish. I was getting tons of support from the one person I was working with at Sony but.. It was the kind of thing that you had to hear it after the story was finished. When we were in the stages of three or four songs, I don't think anyone knew what it was about.

Judging by the warm, vibrant feel of his album, it sounds as if the early '80's post-disco blend of Soul and Funk was his major influence for the album. (Just listen to the slap bass groove in "Sumthin Sumthin", if you need convincing). In the biography sent out by Sony to the press, Maxwell is quoted stating "the early '80's had the perfect combination of computerized instrumentation with a live feel. Later the music got all into hip-hop and some of the dynamics were lost". He confirmed:
-Yes, that was my inspiration for the album. That's my old school. I was born in 1973 and my understanding of music happened maybe six years after my birth, so in the '80's that's when I knew music. I didn't know I was gonna be a musician , but that's my time, the time of S.O.S Band and Loose Ends. That vibe was where I was and what I was living. When going through puberty, falling in love and getting crushes and stuff, it was on that music. That is why I identify with it the most. I also like to listen to a lot of classical music. I really get into symphonies that have themes and reason. Where you can find more meaning as you listen to it.

MaxwellThe hype surrounding "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" has been massive and now that the record's out, many well-deserved words of praise have been written about it. So what's Maxwell's biggest fear?
-Success. I must say it is a big fear of mine. I've always told my friends and it freaks them out when I say that success is the biggest fear that I have, in reference to my career, whatever's gonna happen in the future. The thing that kills me is honestly that I believe success is something you have to maintain. It requires so much maintenance to remain where you're at, on that level, and to try and keep the level of work that you like to do. Failure's not really the hardest thing to do, it's very easy to fail. It's very easy to just not try and go for it and that kind of thing. My whole take on that is that the best thing you can do as an artist is try to be and express yourself. If you get caught up in your hits and what's happening on the radio you will fall prey to that and I don't need that kind of monkey on my back. If you can strive to create your own niche and your own world and your own genre, then at the end of the day whatever happens is good, because you would have done what you wanted to do and you would have expressed your spiritual soul. No one can knock you for that, even if only one person bought it.

The bashful Maxwell is very well aware of how the media can build an artist to destroy and admitted not feeling comfortable in dealing with the press. With a critically acclaimed debut such as "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite", my next question was if it wouldn't be tremendously pressuring to work under the high expectations that inevitably will precede the follow-up?
Maxwell-No, because I've already recorded it. When the record was finished in March last year (1995), I had to do something. I'm not one for twiddling my thumbs. Over the summer I worked on the next thing. They're not fully recorded tracks, but they're fully demo'ed versions of themselves, so that when the recording situation brings itself to me, I'll be able to have a fresh outlook as well.

Pointing out the comparisons that will be made between Maxwell and D'Angelo (both are young multi-instrumentalists who have gone against the grain) Maxwell's response "They will?" perhaps suggests that he hadn't even thought of himself playing in the same league as D'Angelo. It's certainly not a sign of low self-esteem, but of his lack of an ego, plus displeasure with the competitive side of the business. Maxwell continued in his smooth, cool tone of voice
-Why would I feel any other way than complimented by being compared to D'Angelo? To me, that's a complete honor. He's great! I just wanna make it clear that I don't look at the music business like the Olympics. I know that the industry can do that sometimes and it's unfortunate because it puts us artists in a hard position. I respect everyone that's expressing themselves a hundred percent, based upon their own experiences. They should get applauded for it because not many artists are doing that. My whole take on everyone else is even if it's something that I'm not personally down with, I always respect their expression. At least as long as it's not about the dollar.

MaxwellFinally turning the attention over to the thread that runs all through "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" I wondered just what the title meant and if he saw it as a celebration to love in a universal sense or to the love of the woman of his fantasies, the lady he met in the flesh for one day, who not only broke his heart but gave him the concept for the album. He paused for a while, took a deep breath and said
-Uhh, there are three or four meanings to the title for me. I guess what it would mean..It's kinda hard to say. It's kinda like the merger between the sophisticated and the urban, like a combination..You know? Layin' back with whatever this collection of music is I would think.. Maybe.. slightly, sorta, kinda.. (laughs). What does it mean to you from hearing the record?
Turning back the questions to me was a re-occurring theme while talking to Maxwell. He explained his curiosity:
-I mean this from the bottom of my heart.. I'm so interested in how people are affected by it, be it good or bad. I get so much from hearing what you might feel. What I get from it, is what I get from it. I never like to dictate any particular way of looking at the record, because so many people view it differently. I don't like to impose my view. I feel that the only imposition I need to make, is to make the music.

Would it be fair to say that the whole album evolves around the short encounter you had with what we all secretly dream of; the divine combination of spiritual and sexual love, the union of mind body and soul?, I asked. It almost seemed as if Maxwell mused aloud as he talked, exposing his spiritual side.
Maxwell-To me a lot of this record is not about the physical, earthly situation that it was but in many ways it's about a spiritual thing for me. As well as she is a physical being , I can see it on the other side, which is my pursuit for something higher, my relationship with the higher forces. This album represents that as well for me. As time went on, it became more so. It was weird how I almost felt tricked, I felt like God gave me this situation. And then three or four or five months later, I could see that he or she was trying to explain what our relationship is. I mean spiritually, of course. This path was chosen for me, I didn't choose this.

So how does he look at this bitter-sweet love affair today?
-My philosophy is that all things happen for the ultimate good of you. What you make of the situation is what the situation is, ultimately. That's what I did with my heartbreak. Hopefully some people will be able to identify, because I honestly feel that I'm not the only one in search of the this person or thing that is gonna complete you.
Maxwell corrected himself by adding -Not complete you, but just make you feel whole.
  

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Maria Granditsky April 1996.
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