Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Soul man Maxwell mines indie-rock for inspiration

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Maxwell's about to polish off his next record -- a "sequel" to last year's "BLACKsummers'night," more on that in a moment -- and you might be surprised to know from what other bands and musicians the neosoul R&B pioneer has been drawing his inspiration.

"These days I'm all about the xx, the Temper Trap, Fleet Foxes," he says, rattling off some of indie-rock's hottest bands. "I mean, I love Al Green, of course, but this is how the world is. There's more soul out there than what we call soul music."

59471858.jpgMaxwell took the time to chat during a break in rehearsals last week at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. He used the Chicago-area arena to prep for his double-billed tour launching this week with fellow soul singer and now acclaimed actress Jill Scott.

The new album reunites Maxwell with collaborator Hod David, apparently the source of Maxwell's hip new playlists. David, Maxwell says, is "a huge rock guy" who's been feeding Maxwell, about to turn 37, the latest rock and hip-hop. But this doesn't mean Maxwell's new tunes will earn him a slot at Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival in July.

"What I hear in this stuff that inspires me is the live-band element," he says. "You just don't get that so much in a lot of R&B. There's nothing wrong with that, really. I mean, I don't believe that there are wrongs or rights in the heart. Me, I just gravitate toward the live element, maybe away from the programmed beats so much. That's what I feel in a band like the Animal Collective. The stuff pulses, lives, it's alive. It's not an eight-bar loop."

His inspiration stops at the recorded effort, though. He hasn't seen many of these bands live. ("I heard the xx at Coachella was unbelieveable! Man, I was in rehearsals.") So the new album, possibly due later this year, will continue the earthy vibe set by "BLACKsummers'night," and it will be titled "blackSUMMERS'night." Maxwell spent eight years recording the album that hit last year -- in fact, recording three albums. "BlackSUMMERS'night" is the second part, and the third will be, yes, "blacksummers'NIGHT."

The long delay, he says, was due to simple fatigue, running on the hampster's wheel at a pace set by the popularity of the new soul sound he and other powerful singers, such as D'Angelo and Erykah Badu, dished out in the late '90s. Maxwell set himself apart with an approach to soul connected to Al Green, and not just because Green's name is easily and eagerly dropped. Maxwell, like Green, sings like an adult, rarely boastful and often about issues of monogamy. After 2001's "Now," only his third album, Maxwell said he needed a break.

"I just needed to remember what it felt like to be human, not touring all the time, and get back to living the things I sing about, you know," he says.

Maxwell was nominated last week for two BET music awards. Another nominee for the traditionally African-American honors: white teen phenom Justin Bieber. ("He's got a great little voice, no denying," Maxwell says of Bieber.) Watching a young star like Bieber getting thrown into the celebrity media machine makes Maxwell reflect on his original humble aspirations.

"At his age, I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but looking at how celebrities get treated and what can happen to you -- it's a big turnoff for me, and I can't imagine how that kid's going to handle it," he says. "I didn't want to be a singer, at first. I thought I wanted to do songwriter and session work. I don't know if that's the most I could accept or what. I got signed trying to write songs for other people. I sang a demo for a song for someone else, and the guy who got the demo said, 'Wait, who's actually singing this?' He called me for a meeeting, and I thought he wanted to talk about someone else's album. He said, 'No, I want to sign you.' And so it began. ..."

But back to the future.

"All three albums are done now. That's why it's taken me eight years. I might overdub things and upgrade things so they sound OK when the other two come out in 2010 or 2011, whenever. The first part of the trilogy has gotten more single requests than expected, so we've pushed the second part back a little. Hey, when people say they want to hear my music, I ain't gonna complain."

MAXWELL, JILL SCOTT

• 7 tonight

• United Center, 1901 W. Madison

• $22-$177

• (800) 745-3000

• ticketmaster.com

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on May 25, 2010 1:00 AM.

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