In February, Severn native Toni Braxton said she was ready to retire from music to focus on acting. Even though the 45-year-old singer has sold more than 60 million records worldwide and has six Grammy Awards on her shelf, Braxton was "a little depressed" at the time, she says now.
It took a pep talk from an old friend — Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, the songwriter who helped launch the singer's career — to uplift and reinvigorate Braxton.
"He understood what I was going through. I had my illness," said Braxton, who suffers from the autoimmune disease lupus. "He said, 'Your story isn't always going to be smiley faces, Toni. You have to get up and do it, even when you don't want to sometimes.'"
Babyface, who wrote and co-wrote many of Braxton's early hits including "Breathe Again" and "Another Sad Love Song," spoke and Braxton listened. The result is a forthcoming collaborative album between the two R&B; veterans. There's no release date yet, but Braxton, who headlines Pier Six Pavilion on Wednesday, says a single is on the way. She hasn't released new music since March 2012 ("I Heart You") or a full album since 2010's underachieving "Pulse," so naturally, Braxton is nervous.
"I'm still a little bit unsure, but it's OK to be scared," she said. "Babyface told me, 'You just have to think about doing music. The goal is to not reinvent yourself but to discover who you are. You forgot who you are, and it's time to rediscover yourself.'"
In the days since going back on the road, Braxton has also rediscovered the challenges of live performance. At a concert Wednesday in New Jersey, part of her dress broke off, exposing her behind. But, as the video TMZ posted shows, she handled it with aplomb, humor — and a fan's sport coat.
Braxton talks like a former champion prizefighter eager to find her winning ways again. Her last few years have been rough — besides contending with lupus, she has raised two sons (Denim and Diezel, the latter of whom has autism) and filed for bankruptcy for a second time. Last month, her 12-year marriage to Keri Lewis officially ended in divorce.
Throw in a reality TV show (WE TV's "Braxton Family Values," which focuses on the singer and her four sisters, completed its third season in June), and it's easy to see why Braxton's head was spinning. Reconnecting with Babyface allowed her to stop worrying about her image and what it will take to jump-start her career again. He told her to stop chasing the next big hit and to concentrate on creating music she naturally connects with.
"This is the first time in my career I'm not thinking about a hit single. It's weird not to think about that. It's an adjustment," she said. "Taking that business aspect away is refreshing. It can be about making music and enjoying yourself. I haven't enjoyed myself in a long time."
Her battle with lupus has taken its toll. She is frequently fatigued, and news media reported a lupus-related hospitalization last December. But Braxton seems determined to test her limits with what she considers one of her most important tours ever. If she can handle the 14-date trek, she says, then she'll feel confident in entering the next phase of her music career.
"I haven't toured in five years. Doctors said [I'd] never be able to perform again. This is my test run," Braxton said. "Three to four shows a week — can I do it? I feel good about it."
Her optimism is a new development. Throughout the conversation, Braxton does not sugarcoat the fact she hadn't been happy in recent years.
"For the past five years, I've been so down. I've been worried about getting things so right," she said. "I need to be happy now. ... I deserve to be happy. Why am I so sad about stuff? I have lupus, but it doesn't have to take over my life."
One way to make Braxton happy is to mention Baltimore. She says she doesn't get home as often as she once did, but when she returns, the routine stays the same.
"The first thing I need to do is get a crabcake from Phillips," she said before getting diplomatic on the topic. "Everyone has the best one so you're never wrong."
While Braxton can't confidently say exactly when her album with Babyface will be released (she says it's coming this fall), the singer is confident in the material. When asked to describe how it sounds, her old hit-making swagger appeared for the first time in the conversation.
"When you hear it, it will be refreshing," she said. "How do I say this without sounding arrogant? It's kind of nice. It's art and the art is good. I feel great about this, period."
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