By Shelah Moody
Photos By Lee Abel
It’s about 3 p.m. in New York City, and Maxi Priest feels like he’s on top of the world. The Grammy nominated British reggae/soul singer has dropped into 21st Century Artists headquarters for a series of interviews in promotion of his tenth studio album, “Easy to Love” (VP Records). He’s excited about the accolades he’s been receiving for his “Easy to Love,” and his upcoming shows, and he is ecstatic about celebrating 30 years in the music industry. It’s the happiest I’ve seen him since I first interviewed him in 1991, on the Reggae Sunsplash tour with one of his mentors, the late great Dennis Brown.
And the honors keep coming for the versatile, romantic tenor who recorded crossover hits such as “Wild World,” “Close to You,” “House Call” (with Shabba Ranks) “Set the Night to Music” (with Roberta Flack) and “That Girl” (with Shaggy).
On June 2, 2014, Shona Arts and Music Promotions put together a record release party for “Easy to Love” hosted by singer/guitarist D’Wayne Wiggins of the neo-soul group Tony! Toni! Tone!, at Jeffrey’s Inner Circle nightclub in Oakland, CA. That day, Max Alfred Elliot received a proclamation and a key to the City of Oakland for his contribution to the arts, charitable works and upstanding character.
The Q&A session between Wiggins and Priest segued into a beautifully improvised unplugged version of Priest’s 1991 chart topper “Close to You” featuring Priest on vocals and Wiggins on acoustic guitar.
Wiggins admitted to being a longtime Maxi Priest fan.
“We spoke on the phone a week and a half before when Maxi was in London,” said Wiggins. “We met on the day of the event and I told him that his song ‘Close to You’ was dope to me because it crossed the reggae and the R&B vibe perfectly. We got into a good conversation but once I started jamming with him, I thought, oh, he’s for real. We are from two different nations, but we were speaking through music. Maxi started out the key and I just followed him on guitar. I know how the song goes and I played it the way I felt.”
Here is a snippet of our conversation.
Moody: How did it feel to receive the key to the city and a proclamation from the City of Oakland, CA?
Maxi Priest: Oh my gosh—overwhelmed, and thankful for the appreciation. I’m a worldly person. I received the key to the city from Atlanta as well. Whatever appreciation comes my way, from where I started from to where I am now, I give thanks and praises. I have an abundance of appreciation for every little good thing that has come my way.
Moody: Having performed a lot in Oakland, do you see it as a musical mecca, with so many artists, like Tony! Toni! Tone!, and Keyshia Cole coming out of the city?
Maxi Priest: Yes, there have been so many artists who have come out from that side of the world. Regardless of the performing artists, there are so may historical things, such as the Black Power movement, that have happened on that side of the world that have helped to mold and shape the world that we live in today.
Moody: You definitely brought together many races and cultures at your “Easy to Love” listening party in downtown Oakland.
Maxi Priest: You know, that was one of the things that I was really glad about. Oakland is very cosmopolitan, very mixed. They try to make an effort for equality.
Moody: What was it like working with D’wayne Wiggins, in conversation and an unplugged set?
Maxi Priest: He’s a fabulous human being; not that I expected anything different. We got to hang out for the day and he was very cool—very much like the music that Tony! Toni! Tone!, brought to the table. I’ve been a massive admirer of Tony! Toni! Tone!, for many years. They brought something into the music world that will never be forgotten.
Maxi Priest: I’ve always been a lover of soul and R&B. I’ve always been a lover of different genres of music, and have tried to show my appreciation through my vocals and the songs that I’ve put out there. My first appearance on “Soul Train” back in the day set the foundation for me to be able to do the Soul Train Cruise. I see myself as an artist, period, but I was probably one of few reggae artists, as they may call me, to appear on “Soul Train.” I’ve appeared on “Soul Train” a few times. From where I come from, to be able to say that I did “Soul Train” means a lot. Some may like to think it’s minor but I think it’s major because Don Cornelius, with that program, moved mountains. He also broke down racial stigmas. When I go home to England I can say that I did “Soul Train.” I’m traveling through the airport and I’ve got a tag on my bag that says “Soul Train”, and people go, ‘Wow! You were on ‘Soul Train?’ That’s what it means to a lot of the world. We sat down and watched so many episodes of “Soul Train” and how it changed, and how it grew. When you look at some of the episodes with Marvin Gaye and Smoky Robinson playing basketball, it’s like wow! “Soul Train” was a pioneer program.
Moody: Ok, let’s talk about “Easy to Love…”
Maxi Priest: I’m easy to love! I am; I honestly believe that.
Moody: You are easy to love; you are very cordial, very classy. Is that how the title of the album came about, because you are easy to love?
Maxi Priest: I think so, indirectly. The title track is about a woman of understanding; somebody who is confident in herself, who has an understanding for a relationship that is probably not of the norm and is able to allow the other person to find it easy to love them.
Moody: As a longtime admirer of your music, I can say that you do beautiful cover versions of songs that are often more provoking than the original versions. What inspired you to cover John Mayer’s “Gravity” on this album?
Maxi Priest: Oh my gosh, because it’s such a beautiful song. The song came to me from Colin “Bulby York,” who started the production of this album. He brought that song to me and I was like, blown away! Bulby wanted me to cover it and I was like, you don’t have to ask me, this is
happening; I love this song. When I cover a song, I like to take the time to digest it and make it mine. You know, it’s almost like taking the clothing off of someone else’s back and wearing it myself. That’s how I feel about this song.
Moody: Do you have a favorite track on “Easy to Love?”
Maxi Priest: I see the album as one beautiful piece of cake, and everybody is taking home a piece. I really feel good about it. I thoroughly enjoyed recording every song on the album in one way or another.
Moody: Are you hoping for Grammy recognition with this album?
Maxi Priest: That’s exactly what I hope to achieve. As I said before, everybody has to support the album; we have to physically support the business–whether it is my album or Beres Hammonds’ album or anybody else’s album, in order for the music to make the leaps and bounds
and to be nominated. We have to buy the music, download it and get it from all of the legal sources where we can make noise.
Moody: You started your career building speaker boxes for Saxon International Sound system in London. Do you still practice carpentry, and if so, will you build me a birdhouse?
Maxi Priest: (Laughs). I’ve never been asked that question before! Honestly, I barely get a chance to practice carpentry nowadays. When the occasion arises when I can use my hands to sculpt or something like that, I jump at it and I’ll get lost in it. But right now, with this album, I’m floating; I’m walking without moving my legs. I’m gonna take this as far as I can go. Honestly, I am so confident; and I walk with my head high. I feel like I’m the leader of an army.
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