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Singer Maxwell finds his way back

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Maxwell on his comeback
  • Maxwell's return to the music industry has brought Grammy nominations
  • He made it big 1996 but went on an eight-year hiatus in 2001
  • He returned with a new look and a new CD, the first in a scheduled trilogy

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Once upon a time, Maxwell's hair would have walked into a room five minutes before he did.

When he first hit the big time in 1996, he rocked the biggest, fluffiest Afro this side of the '70s and evoked a distinctly bohemian vibe.

Now, the neo-soul superstar is back after an eight-year self-imposed hiatus, and he looks like a new man, with close-cropped hair and a wardrobe of elegantly tailored suits.

"Sometimes I just get sick of myself," he confided, alluding to his time away from the spotlight. "That's kind of what happened in 2001. I didn't want to see another photo; I didn't want to hear me. I just sort of needed a coffee bean in the perfume shop of who I was, you know what I mean?"

But the deluge of media attention is starting to happen all over again.

We're backstage at "The Jay Leno Show" in Burbank, California, where the mood is jubilant. The night before, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter earned six Grammy nominations for "BLACKsummer's Night," the first in a trilogy of albums rolling out over the next couple of years.

It's the comeback story of 2009, especially since Whitney Houston's much-publicized CD failed to garner a single nod from Grammy voters.

Interview requests are pouring in. This time, Maxwell insists that he won't lose focus.

"I think I was just more afraid. Fear of failing, fear of having something sort of stop. For me, I was like, 'I don't want to love this too much, because what if this goes away?' I kind of went through that because I'm kind of insecure in that way. But for the hiatus to have occurred, to then come back and to have this -- I feel a lot more settled and a lot more confident."

Maxwell spoke with CNN about his return.

CNN: When you were on your hiatus, was there ever a point where you thought, "I'm not sure I'm coming back?"

Maxwell: I didn't know. I didn't know what people would want of me, if they wanted me back at all. I was always working on some songs. But was there an industry that was ready for me?

CNN: Back then, it was all about hip-hop excess and bling.

Maxwell: It was so different three years ago, when you think about how hip-hop had completely devoured soul music or R&B. It's all cyclical. The pendulum swings this way, and it swings that way, and I was waiting. I was biding my time because I was like, "Why swim upstream?"

CNN: Do you think your career would be where it is now had you not gone away for seven or eight years?

Maxwell: I don't think so. I think that the person that always shows up to the party is the person that always shows up to the party.

I love Sade. She's lived a very interesting code with regards to how she deals with her career.

She's been gone for 10 years, and it's a good feeling when you can walk back into it after not seeing a friend for so long, and then you sit down to have lunch or coffee or whatever, and it's almost like time did not freeze.

That is what I would love to have with the public -- is to be able to kind of go away and to come back, and it's as if no time had passed between us.

CNN: While you were away, it was easy to think you were gone because of something troublesome.

Maxwell: When there's no information, people create whatever they want.

CNN: You're very mysterious.

Maxwell: Am I?

CNN: People don't know a whole lot about your life, except for what you write in lyrics.

Maxwell: I feel like there's a healthy separation, and I think that it really helps me to have something to say and to not make a spectacle of my day-to-day.

I'm not big on reality shows, when they know what toothbrush you use and what soap; all those things that are commonplace now in terms of how people sort of see celebrities. I feel like I'm real old-school that way. I love mystique.

I love people like Harrison Ford. He'll make his movies, and then he'll go do his thing, and I think people just leave him to himself. I've seen celebrities -- and I'm talking about big-time people -- literally get off a plane, grab their own luggage, rent a car and drive themselves home.

I love the fact that I don't always have to be "on" for my friends. And then when it's time to get on stage, it's that other person that kind of comes into the formation. I like those two distinctive worlds.

CNN: Sounds like kind of a "Sasha Fierce" mentality, where you have your alter ego.

Maxwell: I was thinking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde more -- just on a gender level. I don't think I could rock those heels Beyonce rocks. (Laughs)

CNN: Are you ever going to grow your hair back?

Maxwell: You never know. I might do that. I might do something else. I just go with the flow. I definitely don't want to be a haircut, definitely don't want to be a gimmick.

CNN: But the new haircut kind of signified a new Maxwell.

Maxwell: It was just easier to deal with life in the morning, to be honest with you. You probably would have been waiting here like two, three more hours if it was the old strand and bead -- no, I'm just playing.

I feel like it's also a rite of passage. You get older and grow, and you should change, you know? If you're frozen in a time capsule, that's something you should be worried about. There are people who do what they do -- they have their superhero outfit, and they keep it on for 20, 30 years. For me, it's about transformation.