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Toni Braxton is getting deep. Real deep.
“I have a bit of a cold,” she says, her voice doing that sexy-low thing it does when she sings, “so yeah, it’s very Bea Arthur from ‘The Golden Girls.'”
A little cold can’t stop Braxton, who’s already faced bankruptcy, is managing lupus and then, before friend/producer Babyface intervened, almost retired from the music business altogether. Luckily, he changed her mind, and hearts everywhere were unbroken.
“Love, Marriage & Divorce” (out Feb. 4), her first album since 2010’s “Pulse,” brings Braxton back together with Babyface. The two most notably collaborated on her self-titled debut, the singer’s mega-selling caper that scored her a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1994.
Braxton was candid as ever in our recent chat, talking about why she told Babyface that she’s a grown woman (“I have breasts now”), her desire to have a lesbian experience and how short hair put her back in touch with her roots.
First of all, thank god for Babyface. I am so glad he wasn’t about to let you throw in the towel. What were you smoking when you said you were gonna give up on music?
Obviously not weed, because I would’ve still stayed in the business! (Laughs) You know what, I was just in a sad space in my life. I think everybody goes through that, but I didn’t realize, I guess, just how sad I was at that time – and friends like Babyface, Missy Elliott, Fantasia and Anita Baker helped talk me out of that state. Sometimes you just need friends and family to rally around you and let you know it’s gonna be OK.
And now you’re in it for good?
I’ll never retire. I’ll be 85 years old singing at the Cafe Carlyle like Eartha Kitt.
How do you make a love album with an attractive, talented man like Babyface and not fall in love?
I’ve been in love with him since he was in (’80s R&B group) The Deele. I was a huge fan. Very quickly he became my big brother when we started working together. I was the girl who was like, “I’ll never have a chance with him,” and from there we just became brother and sister. Our relationship was really weird. I will always, always love him. But it’s like having a crush on your cousin and you realize, “Maybe I shouldn’t have a crush on my cousin. That’s not hot.” (Laughs)
So then with “Sweat,” a song off the new album, is it weird to sing about makeup sex with your “brother”?
(Laughs) Well, we really aren’t brother and sister, so it wouldn’t be incest! But I call him my “musical husband” and we are married, but just musically. We’re kind of like Elliot Stabler (and Olivia Benson) on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” You want them to get together, there’s a bit of attraction, but we’ve never crossed the line. That’s kind of where it is with us.
How does “Love, Marriage & Divorce” compare to the work you and Babyface did in the ’90s?
It’s similar. Kenny Babyface helped make my dreams come true. He helped develop my sound, and so I’m more comfortable with him than any other producer I’ve worked with. And he’s given me great songs in my career but not the biggest songs in my career, which is really odd. He didn’t write “Un-Break My Heart,” he didn’t write or produce “He Wasn’t Man Enough,” but I was still on his label so he still fostered my career. But whenever we’re together, he is the one I’m most comfortable and creative with, and I feel home.
So these recording sessions must have felt nostalgic for you and him.
Working together was actually tough at first. The first couple of months we struggled because I’m his artist and he kind of developed me, so his artist grew up and I have my own opinions, my own thoughts, my own philosophies, my own judgments and my own career. We talked about it and it took a second for him to understand. We argued a bit – not bad-argued, but we just had creative differences. Later on he said, “You know, Toni, I have to give you credit. You’re an artist now and it’s sometimes hard for a brother to accept that his sister is growing up.” I said, “I know, Kenny. I have breasts now and everything.” (Laughs)
Looking back at some of the songs you did with Babyface, which stand out most to you?
“Breathe Again” is my favorite song to sing. It makes me happy. It’s a beautiful, sad love song. I love “Another Sad Love Song.” But of all the songs that I ever recorded with him, I love them all except for “Seven Whole Days.” Hated it. Didn’t understand it. Why am I singing it? And it turned out to be a big urban song for me.
You’ve been very passionate about wanting a lesbian role on “Orange is the New Black.” Where’s that at?
My agent is working on that for me as we speak. I got a call (recently) that said, “We’re working on it.” We believe they’re taping in March, so we’ll see. I’m excited about it.
Why the interest in playing a lesbian character?
I just want something out of character. When people see me, Toni, as a performer, they see something completely different. If I were to play a lesbian, they could see me as an actress: “Oh, maybe the bitch can act!” And every girl has her lesbian crush. My lesbian crush would be Ellen (DeGeneres). I love how she dances. I like her haircut. Love everything about her. So this would be a way for me to channel my inner Ellen.
And you already have the short hair.
I’m halfway there!
There’s some intense lesbian sex on that show. Would you be up for getting it on with another woman? Would you go as far as they’d ask you to?
If the role called for it, I would be willing to do it. It would be a great endeavor, and I think I would be comfortable in that role. I don’t think it would be a stretch for me.
It wouldn’t be a stretch? Are you saying you’ve had a lesbian experience?
I’ve never had one in my life! Ever! This would be my first lesbian experience if I did “Orange is the New Black,” because I’ve never had one. There are a lot of things I haven’t experienced that I need to start experiencing. I need to start living. Like Aunt Mame said, I need to live! I would like to say, “I lived.”
How do you feel about gay people having the right to love and marriage and divorce?
We’re all people, so I don’t even like to get into those conversations. As an African-American woman, we were told we couldn’t vote, we were told we couldn’t have interracial marriages – and my dad’s biracial. So I hate that people put labels on how you should love and whom you should love. I think that’s ridiculous. Everyone should be able to love.
How would you say this album looks at relationships differently than the love songs you sang a couple decades ago?
You’re aging me! (Laughs) Twenty years ago I was just singing about having my heart broken, and now I’m dealing with my heart being broken – and possibly having to start over and look for love again. Kenny and I both went through divorces. For me it was more therapeutic than for Kenny, and we decided to put words and music to what I went through recently and what he went through in the past. It definitely helped me a lot. I wanted to call the album “Love, Marriage & Divorce” and Babyface wanted to call it “Love, Marriage & the D Word” and I’m like, “Kenny, we’re grown, let’s just say it. Put it out there. It’s divorce.”
Is it different singing from a personal perspective?
Yes! It’s really different because you’re telling your story and you’re exposing yourself, but at the same time you’re using it as a healing tool. Every song on the album isn’t about something I’ve experienced solely. There’s a song on the album called “I Wish,” and it’s my mother’s story of my mom and dad’s divorce. It’s a really beautiful song that she inspired me to write.
How about “Sweat”? Was that inspired by your own life?
I think everyone’s experienced “Sweat” and I-hate-you sex. I haven’t had that in a while because I really haven’t been dating since my divorce, so I long to experience “Sweat” again. That would be lovely.
Why does the androgynous mystique interest you? Is it a conscious decision?
No, no. It just fits my face. When I first came out, I had short hair on the first album. By the time I got to the second album I put some extensions in my hair, but I’m always comfortable with my short hair. My short hair gives me my strength. I know that sounds weird, the lack of hair, but I feel more powerful. I feel more indigenous of the artist I was when I initially came out. It makes me feel more at the center of my roots again.
And it also could be your ticket to “Orange is the New Black.”
I’m hoping so. They may make me take the little wave out, and I may have to have a little afro, but we’ll see!
If anyone can make an afro look hot, it’s you.
(Laughs) What a beautiful lie, but I appreciate it.