Maxi Priest is one of few reggae artists that have had a monster hit and succeeded in transcending musical borders. He reached international success in 1990 with Billboard chart-topper Close to You, and has kept a low profile in recent years, but dropped his first album in seven years only a few months ago. Reggaemani caught up with Maxi Priest on the phone to talk about the new album and the recipe behind a great love song.
British singer Maxi Priest started his musical journey in church and later on the UK sound system circuit singing with Saxon Studio International, Negus Negast and the legendary Jah Shaka. Early on he embraced Rastafari and cut mostly conscious and culturally themed material, but later shifted towards a more lovers oriented approach. Soon he introduced his R&B-tinged lovers rock to a global audience.
“First and foremost, I’m from a church background. My mother, a missionary, is where I would hear the beautiful sound of gospel, mixed in with reggae music that my older brothers played around the house. My sisters were into the Jackson Five, The Beatles, Al Green, etc. From an early age my family always encouraged me and I listened to all kinds of vocalists, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Dennis Brown, and without realizing it, I was developing my craft. I was taught never to limit myself – that’s why you’ll always find different styles of music on my albums, and a range of producers to bring out different aspects of my creativity,” says Maxi Priest in a press release.
Few artists have explored the possibilities of pop/R&B/reggae fusion as successfully as Maxi Priest. His smooth voice and his comfort with soul and hip-hop have rendered him a massive following around the world, particularly in the U.S. and his native Britain.
His new album Easy to Love is a fine representation of reggae and lovers rock according to Maxi Priest – sophisticated, stylish and slick. And Maxi Priest himself seems to be enjoying the album and is pleased with how it sounds.
“It’s fabulous. I feel on top of the world and like I have pushed over a mountain,” says Maxi Priest over the phone from London where he is doing promotion for the new album, and adds:
“The support has been fantastic and I feel so good. I want to thank everybody for their support and the reggae community as a whole. Without you there is no us.”
On Easy to Love Maxi Priest is joined by drum and bass duo Sly & Robbie, who played on several of his early hit songs, including Close to You, Wild World, Some Guys Have All the Luck and the Shabba Ranks combination Housecall. Maxi Priest has together with them, and with Clive Hunt, Colin “Bulby” York and Steven “Lenky” Marsden, created a lovers rock album with one or two diversities.
“It’s an album that I can play from the top to the bottom. An album to play in a moment in time. Play in the car or play it with your girlfriend,” he explains.
Maxi Priest has used a different way of working compared to in the previous sets. This time he allowed himself to take a step back and let the experts do what they do best. He focused on what he does best – writing and vocalizing.
“I would normally be very hands on, but I was comfortable in my relationship with the producers. I have felt at home and been relaxed. We have been pushing the envelope and experimenting. You need to take chances and experiment. That’s the beauty of creativity,” explains Maxi Priest.
Back to basics
Seven years have gone by since he dropped his previous album Refused. The years have been spent touring the world.
“It’s a massive world out there and it takes time to get around it,” laughs Maxi Priest, and continues:
“But there have also been one or two singles.”
Maxi Priest says that the music business is confusing, another reason why he has kept a rather low profile and not released much material.
“I wanted to see some changes and wanted everything to calm down. I also needed to figure out where I was and my place in the business,” he says, and continues:
“Then I wanted to bring it back to foundation and start the wheels turning again. And it feels really good. Everybody’s been showing love for this thing I’m doing. I feel like I haven’t been away and that I have a massive army. And I’m leading this army with this album.”
Over the years Maxi Priest has dabbled in several genres, even though he has never lost focus. Smooth reggae has always provided the foundation, but it has been flavoured with lots of dancehall and hip-hop. Easy to Love is however back to basics.
“Every direction is different and a brand new experience for me. This album has been a direction chosen by myself and the producers involved in it. We have been walking in unison, like an arrow straight through the eye of an apple. That has given me strength and encouragement to push and move forward to the highest peak I could reach,” he says.
A recipe for love
Easy to Love is a telling title for two reasons. The music is easy to like and it contains loads of love and romance. Something that Maxi Priest is known for. So what’s his recipe for writing a great love song?
“Knowing how to love and how to be loved,” he says after thinking for a while, and continues:
“I think so, and that’s why the album is called Easy to Love. I’m easy to love. I was brought up in a large family with nine brothers and sisters. I was thought how to appreciate people and share. All that is love, and yes, I do think I know how to love.”
When writing his love songs Maxi Priest finds inspiration in experiences – his own, his friends’, their relationships, ups and downs and everything in between.
Just put your mind to it
The lead single off the album was released in mid-2013 and was another chart-topper for Maxi Priest since it reached number one in the reggae charts. But the success of Easy to Love is nothing compared to Close to You; a single that turned his life and career upside down. And Maxi Priest says that he today feels like he did when he had success with Close to You – on top of the world.
“They called me when I was in the U.S. and said ‘we are number one’. I was rushing to call everyone I knew in London. I had goose pimples and froze for a while. I was only a young kid from southeast London and now I had the opportunity to meet all these people from pop, hip-hop and R&B,” he says, and continues:
“In many ways it made me feel like we can achieve anything if we just put our minds to it. With power of decision there’s a way to achieve anything. So, friends and family – don’t give up. There’s always opportunity.”