Call me Doctor Love
Where are records for dancing, records for driving, records for ironing and whooping it up to. And there are records for sex.
When New York soul singer Maxwell first shot to stardom with his sleekly funky 1996 debut album Urban Hang Suite, no one was in any doubt what he was singing about.
His romantic LP told the story of an intensely sexual affair that takes place in a hotel. Romantic, passionate and resonating with the conviction of a young Marvin Gaye, it sold more than two million copies and, along with electrifying stage shows, turned Maxwell into a star and sex symbol.
Maxwell has been trying to live it down ever since. “I’m always trying to see the negative,” he says. “It’s positive, positive, positive.” Maxwell was in London to promote his third album, Now, a more exuberant, looser affair. If Urban Hang Suite saw him as an urban male Sade, sleek and considered, Now sees him as Prince, relaxed, confident, in the groove.
It’s an album that glides from the shining guitars, disco bass and sassy horns of Get To Know Ya, through the choppy funk of No One to the folksy lullaby of Symptom Unknown. “I wanted something that was more straightforward, more relaxed, something I could play around with more,” says Maxwell.
The look for the photo-shoot, consequently, is “organic”, according to the stylist. There are loose trousers and tops in beiges and browns. Five pairs of trainers, two pairs of Timberlands and one pair of groovy slippers are lined against the radiator. Soul Brother Number One—as the United States’s Vibe magazine called him—clearly needs photo-shoot footwear flexibility.
The room is white, the bed is at an angle, there is an oil painting on the ceiling and two weird shiny sculptures that look like sexual implements of some sort. It looks like exactly the right kind of place for a Maxwell love affair.
He grins charmingly. “Maybe a little warmer probably, it’s kind of sterile,” he says. “This is a nice place though. Good food.” Putting “maybe” and “probably” into the same sentence is very Maxwell. He’s deliberately distant. As soon as you get near, he slips away, his whisper dropping to inaudible levels. “It’s hard to detail it,” he says, more than once.
“I wish people would get themselves in what I do,” he says. “That’s kind of really what it’s about for me. ‘How are you coming off? What are you about here with this?’ I’m not that important to it. I don’t think that any song that was important to me, that changed my life, was ever about the artist who made it.” Stardom doesn’t interest him so much, he says. If soul singers were items of furniture, Maxwell would rather be a mirror than a chandelier.
He might have thought he could pull this trick off with Urban Hang Suite—but the album’s success ran away from him. At the time, with black music dominated by the gangsta posturing of rappers like Notorious BIG, Maxwell looked like an alien with his Afro and big suit. He was dubbed part of a movement—a forward-looking return to real R&B dubbed “nu classic soul”.
This wasn’t a rerun of 1980s suburban crooners like Luther Vandross. Maxwell was cool and his album connected; his heartfelt falsetto gliding over sleek soul grooves, his music digging into classic 1970s styles but simultaneously playing with hip-hop rhythms.
“The whole thing can look like a marketing ploy. People can be so sceptical. They don’t know that it comes from a truthful desire to actually reach that kind of situation yourself,” he says. “I’m here, trying to work out love.” People could feel Urban Hang Suite was real, says Maxwell. And it was—loosely based on a wild affair Maxwell had with a woman he met in New York’s Soul Kitchen, an experience he calls “sacred”. What the album doesn’t tell you is that she was no mysterious stranger—the pair went to high school together.
“But she never paid me any attention,” he says. Back in high school, Maxwell didn’t have quite the pulling power he has now. “I went through this puberty stage around 20—and just changed. I was really different, that’s all I can say. You need to see my high-school photos.”
So you meet her years later? “Before the record, before any deal, which is significant.” And she sees a guy who’s slimmer, different? “Or else she had a couple of drinks, who knows? The lighting was right, the right song, you know.” And does she know? “I told her recently. I don’t think she could believe it.”
Embrya, album number two, couldn’t just repeat that seduction-guaranteed formula. “It ain’t the kind of record where, you know, get out the champagne, get out the incense, call your favourite whoever and it’s gonna work. It wasn’t about that,” he says. The title was a female version of “embryo”. The album exchanged the straight-ahead sentiments, rich melodies and vibrant soul of Urban Hang Suite with loose, esoteric grooves, introspective vocals and nonsensical titles like I’m You: You are Me and We are You (Pt Me & You), and Luxury: Cococure. “Trying to get a break from Maxwell,” he says. “I just had to take a minute. I like to change, I like to become someone else.”
The critics hated it; his audience were, initially at least, dubious. But when Maxwell took to the road, he found the fans were still out there. “There was a lot of enlightenment that came from it as well. It was a mixed blessing.”
More importantly, the more people have lived with Embrya, the more they’ve grown to love it. The album has gone on to sell 1,5-million copies. He proved his point.
Today’s gentle, yet stern-faced sex symbol is, he says, an “average kind of boy. A quiet kid.” Maxwell started making music in his bedroom, where he spent a lot of time. “I got a keyboard and messed around with that. Got a guitar—just messing around. Learn, learn, learn. Frustration, frustration.”
He bought basic music-making computer equipment and started constructing rough tracks. “Before you learn any language, you learn the curse words,” he says. “That kind of happened with me and then I got into a flow about what I was supposed to do and how to do it.”
At one point Maxwell and long-time collaborator Hod David worked in an old apartment on the Bowery in Manhattan, so cold that the singer sang his demos wrapped in a blanket. After a development deal with Warners, a tape of Maxwell songs ended up on the desk of a New York A&R man at Sony Records in 1993. It took another three years for Urban Hang Suite to be completed.
His approach to the love song is still less about objectifying women and more about understanding them. “I’m OK with who I am as a man,” explains Maxwell—he doesn’t feel it softens him to be gentle. A number of his songs make marriage proposals. On Get To Know Ya, from the new album, he sings: “Others would try and get into your trousers/ I was just trying to get into you.”
You imagine that the kind of women Maxwell dates—smart, Vogue-reading career girls maybe—tend to wear trousers. With elegant suits, perhaps. If you had a girlfriend problem, Maxwell would sort it. He is the sort of guy that stays friends with all his ex-girlfriends.
There are three fairly recent former lovers around at the moment, but he’s typically vague on the detail. One might have been famous. One might have been too beautiful to work in an office. One might have been a little thrown by his star status.
But then, after Urban Hang Suite took off, so was Maxwell. “I really freaked on that,” he says. Now he’s trying, he says, to approach relationships on an equal basis. “Somewhere there’s a part of me that likes saving someone. I just like to give them advice. If I know something, I’ll try to help them.”
Victoria Beckham is also in London and popped by to say hello. It’s the third time they’ve met. “She’s cool, y’know, she’s cool people. If I looked at her life, I’m like, ‘Wow, to have everyone kind of in your biz.’” Typically, for Maxwell, it’s not Posh Spice that’s interesting, it’s what she reflects about the people who idolise or despise her.
“People like to create royalty however they can. I think it’s a class thing, because it’s about money and position. It’s interesting to see what people see when they look. Because really, you’re seeing something that’s deep in themselves. They show themselves in what they say.”
Sony Music and Friday are giving away 20 copies of Maxwell’s new CD, Now. To stand a chance to win simply name one of the songs on Now and send the answer on a postcard to Sony Music Maxwell Competition, PO Box 411463, Craighall, 2025, by October 8.