Maxwell Talks New 'SUMMERS' Album & Upcoming Duets EP With Alicia Keys

Columbia Records

Best Bets Albums 2013, Maxwell

It's been nearly four years to the day that Maxwell released "BLACKsummers'night" on July 7, 2009, the first in a planned trilogy of albums that, in custom Maxwell fashion, has taken some time to follow up. But in an interview with Billboard before his headlining set at the Essence Festival in New Orleans Friday (July 5), the singer said "SUMMERS’" (or "blackSUMMERS'night" as it will likely be titled) is being prepped for a late summer/early fall release — finally.

"The album's pretty much about the last day of summer, so I felt like it was a good idea to release it at the end of the summer," says Maxwell, who turned 40 in May. "It has that bittersweet feel to it. I don’t like things to be too happy. It's when you go back to school, summer’s over then you kind of have that wonderful week where you get crazy. That's what the essence of the record is."

Maxwell previewed the album in January when he teased a 73-second preview of a new song, "Gods," which he confirmed would be included on "SUMMERS'" and was expected to play in full during his Friday night set at Essence fest. But that’s not the only new music he has on the way — a duets EP with his "Fire We Make" collaborator (and former tour mate) Alicia Keys is also in the works.

Billboard chatted with Maxwell about the new tunes, why he takes so long between albums, his current musical obsessions and his latest venture, an app called Upfront.

This is your third time performing at Essence, and your first in support of your upcoming album "SUMMERS.'" Will you perform any new material?
Just "Gods," that was the only thing I had the time to rehearse just because of logistics. But it makes sense – it’s a huge festival and it’s the first day, right? And we're starting it and it’s amazing. It s unbelievable to be a headliner and it’s a shock to me that it even still happens. I'm amazed by it because I don’t necessarily go out of my way to make records for people, for radio and all that. I've been working with Alicia [Keys], we toured together and she was an opening act for me, and she was a labelmate. Thank God she ended where she wound up going.

And you've recently indicated that "Fire We Make" might not be the last duet between you two. What else might we expect?
We're definitely working on an EP that’s sort of Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrrell. We got a thing musically. That’s like my little sister. What’s funny is Swizz [Beatz, Keys' husband] is the champion of all of it. He's like, "You guys have a thing when you make music together. We had s really successful tour together when she first came on the scene and she's like family. She's someone that I trust. I'm like that, by the way. Most of the people you see me working for me are actually with me. And I’m proud to say that I’ve known them for 20 years almost. I've written songs with, produced songs with them a lot of times. I don’t deviate form my comfort zone. I feel like when God brings people to you it’s good to keep ‘em around. Not to say I haven't cut a few fools off [laughs], but for the essential I keep it close.

"SUMMERS'" was initially planned for release late last year, after you took some time off when you cut your discography tour short. Why has it taken so long for you between albums?
I don't know, I just have so much fun living. It's like, I just turned 40 and I look at so many performers and so many people who are actually always on time and always have an album out. They don't have actual lives, in my opinion. I feel like I'm so much more than being famous and meeting a musical quota. And I don't know, just the weight of the scrutiny and attention is too weird for me. So many times people want you to stay the way you were, be as you were before because they want to encapsulate you in a time so they can remember their youth. But you're here to continually push forward and move forward. That's where I'm at — I just want to always surprise people.

So that does that mean this next album is going in a different music direction?
There are definitely some differences, but within the whole context of what I do, which is soul music really at its pure core. But you know, it's gonna be more hi-fi. Do you know Sam Smith? That "Latch" song, man. Not that we’re doing full Disclosure, but for me one of the ways God has been so good is I work with the people who are the best on some level. I know a lot of people weren't expecting "BLACKSummers’Night" to be what it was, just like a lot of people weren't expecting "Embrya" to be what it was. People will listen to what I've been a part of and see what I've done. And even though some people go, "oh yeah I wish you'd done another 'Urban Hang Suite,' I'd rather that than, "oh you did another 'Urban Hang Suite.' It sounds like it, feels just like it." To me that’s boring and that’s career suicide. So if you lose a few and you gain some new, it's better than just doing what other people wanted you to do... Wow, "lose a few and gain some new." I actually rhymed that. I should write songs, right? [laughs]

You're a big fan of music platforms like SoundCloud, Hype Machine and Spotify. Did that inspire you to get involved with your latest venture, Upfront?
Yeah, Shaun King's the guy who sort of started it. He was the CTO and designed the platform. The CEO and quote-unquote founder is Ray Lee. I'm a founding partner, I have equity and all that stuff, so it’s part of my company as well. It's great, I get so many ideas from this. New ideas, campaigns, charities, you can follow what your charity is doing and because you're a member you can sign up through all the devices we now use today. And we can actually change the trajectory of how income is created for artists. I think it's amazing. I'm just so happy to be a part of it. The fact they asked me to do it first and gave me this idea. A lot of people want to be a part of creating exclusive online communities, the way they designed this platform and how it works is pretty sick to me.