Talking with Maxwell about waves of soul and touring with Mary J. Blige

Maxwell and Mary J. Blige play T-Mobile Arena on December 9.
Photo: Eric Johnson

Timeless soul singer Maxwell was welcomed with open arms upon the arrival of his “comeback” album BLACKsummers’night in 2009. But the enigmatic Brooklyn native always goes his own way, and he took his time releasing this year’s follow-up, the second in a planned trilogy. Currently performing all around the country with “queen of hip-hop soul” Mary J. Blige on the King and Queen of Hearts Tour—which stops at T-Mobile Arena on December 9—Maxwell is entering the busiest stage of his acclaimed R&B career.

I have to ask you about Lucas Holliday, a cashier at a Dollar General store in Lansing, Michigan, who you brought onstage to sing “Ascension” with you. How did that happen? It was completely real and organic. He’s a singer. I never knew him, but a friend sent me a video of this guy singing, and I was just so blown away. I posted it on Facebook and [asked] everybody if they knew him, since I was heading to Michigan [for the tour]. And Good Morning America found him. He showed up and got onstage. It was amazing to see someone so happy getting his moment … apart from the fact this was all tied to a song I wrote 20 years ago (laughs). You know, back in the ’90s, you wouldn’t play that song unless it was one of those parties. But I guess if you look at all the new music coming out, it sounds so reminiscent of the time I was just starting on my career. There’s some comfort and security knowing R&B is kinda coming back.

Do you feel the so-called neo soul movement you were attached to in those early days of your career is seeing some of that ’90s surge right now? Everything is cyclical. It will be interesting to see in four or five years, to watch what’s going on with these new stars of what I call progressive soul. There’s trap soul, there’s hip-hop soul, there are ways we are moving past what this music was in its original place in order to attach itself to other eras. Every generation has got their take on soul, and it’s nice to see Anderson .Paak and Ro James and Luke James and some of the new guys coming out and doing that. It makes me happy, and I like to have something nice to listen to. I feel like I’m well-grounded now in my place in music, so for me to extend my hand to assist and celebrate others moving forward in a practical way that allows them to have a career and not just a hit single, that’s the greatest joy.

How has the tour with Mary J. Blige been going so far? Have you been doing any duets? It’s amazing. It’s definitely grueling, you gotta get your rest and be very focused, but yeah, better than a real job. It takes its toll, but I signed up for it. Working with Mary is a dream. She couldn’t be more cool and laidback, it’s all love and support. [Opener] Ro James has been incredible, just singing his face off, which is kind of annoying sometimes (laughs). With Mary, we haven’t done [any duets] yet but we’re going to plan something special for a couple dates here and there. This is a tour experience we plan to do again down the road, a partnership we could do for other special occasions, because it’s working and people appreciate it. Mary is like every woman in the audience that I’ve always sung to, and it’s a great honor to wake up and know she’s there for the show. I watch her every night.

You did a Prince tribute at the BET awards this year, and he reportedly had asked why you were taking so long with your new record, BlackSUMMERS’night. What’s it like to have that kind of association with an artist who has had such an influential impact on you and on everyone? He pretty much is the architect for it. Prince is at the core of all that for everybody; there’s no denying it. It’s insane thinking about it, to know his mind was at all on what I was doing. I didn’t know that he had some concern about what I do, so it meant a lot to me that he was out there thinking about it.

Do you think you’ll continue to take your time in releasing the third part of your current album trilogy? I don’t think I can. I don’t think I’m allowed to at this point. I can tell you where I’ll be in 2019 at this point, that’s how much I’m working. It’s not only on this last installment but a new album past that, new concepts, new sonic moves and so many philanthropic things I’m involved with. It’s like life walked up to me and said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ I had a nice seven years or so to mull over things, turn 40 and assess the last couple decades of my life and I’ve been able to figure out what’s working for me and how I can contribute to the world more. I’m truly very busy, more than I could ever imagine. Somehow in light of current events and all the things that are going on, I somehow found a good year.

Do you think those current events will influence the music you’re working on now? I think I’m going to infuse my work with a lot of it, which is kinda what I’ve always done. There’s so much going on in the world, and I have enough years behind me that I can look back with clarity at all the things that have gotten me to this place in music and create as much as I can for new artists out there who genuinely deserve a chance in the world. And it’s not just [current events and politics] … the Internet is not only destroying music but film, journalism, publishing, the whole thing is kind of exploding on us and we’re not doing anything about it. Sometimes I think the only way we can do it, thank God, is the live show, because you can’t duplicate it. You can film it and put it on your phone, but there’s nothing like being in the room. Until you swim in it, you don’t really know the ocean.

Maxwell & Mary J. Blige December 9, 7:30 p.m., $70-$130. T-Mobile Arena, 702-692-1600.

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