Music

Toni Braxton on fighting back from career-ending illness and still making albums after 25 years


FOR someone who announced their retirement from music in 2013, Toni Braxton is still very much in the game.

The R&B queen of heartache songs has just released her tenth album, Spell My Name, and is still a diva to be reckoned with.

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Toni Braxton, the R&B queen of heartache songs, is still a diva to be reckoned with

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Toni Braxton, the R&B queen of heartache songs, is still a diva to be reckoned with

“I’ve been blessed with all the accolades,” she tells me down the phone from her home in LA in that famous husky voice.

“I’ve been here more than 25 years. I could be singing on a cruise ship but I’m not.

“I look at the greats like Aretha Franklin who did this for 60 years. That’s who I aspire to be.”

Spell My Name is classic Braxton, with her trademark sad songs and sultry tones.

The 52-year-old says: “I always try to have strength even in the midst of being sad.

While Braxton’s career has been illustrious, her personal life has seen troubled times, including divorce, splits with managers and labels, and bankruptcy twice

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While Braxton’s career has been illustrious, her personal life has seen troubled times, including divorce, splits with managers and labels, and bankruptcy twice

“I like for my listeners to feel like we’re in it together.”

The album title acknowledges her legendary status, as evidenced by seven Grammy Awards and 67million records sold.

“I have been in the music business a long time,” she says. “So I think it’s OK for me to be confident in myself and the album title refers to that, like ‘Spell my name, I’m Toni Braxton — T.O.N.I B.R.A.X.T.O.N’.”

Making the record, she worked with long-time collaborator and iconic R&B producer Babyface (Kenny Edmonds), who has recently recovered from Covid-19.

She says: “He’s doing great. I saw him yesterday when we were in the studio. Of course, we were social distancing but he’s doing really good.

Toni has just released her tenth album, Spell My Name

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Toni has just released her tenth album, Spell My Name

“The record was 85 per cent completed before Covid. So I had to complete some songs in the closet but they came out wonderfully. Babyface is my musical husband, we always work great together.”

Another friendship central to the album is with rapper Missy Elliott, who collaborated on track Do It, Braxton’s best single in years. You can hear her scream Braxton’s name at the start of the tune.

Braxton says: 'Prince was my fairy godfather, my big brother. He taught me so many things'

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Braxton says: ‘Prince was my fairy godfather, my big brother. He taught me so many things’Credit: Getty Images – Getty

Braxton says: “I’ve always wanted to work with Missy. We’ve always loved each other from afar.

“And we would talk sporadically but we’d never worked together and we’ve always wanted to do it.

“She’s done an incredible job with the track. And in the pandemic. She was awesome. So now we talk all the time. We are buddies.”

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While Braxton’s career has been illustrious, her personal life has seen troubled times, including divorce, splits with managers and labels, and bankruptcy twice (in 1998 and 2010).

But she has no regrets — or maybe just a few when it comes to dating.

Braxton was diagnosed with lupus, which led to her announcing her retirement in 2013

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Braxton was diagnosed with lupus, which led to her announcing her retirement in 2013Credit: AP:Associated Press

She says: “I wish I had dated more in my 20s. I was so fixed on my career that I didn’t date.

“I wish I had dated what’s his name, Paul Farrell? I can’t think of his name. The Irish guy. Yes, Colin Farrell. I wished I had dated him. Or Matthew McConaughey or someone like that. That would have been yummy.

“I saw Matthew out one day and he was like, ‘Toni Braxton. I love you. I love your songs. He Wasn’t Man Enough is a great song’.

“He was flirting with me but it just went over my head. I have that on my resume.

“I should have celebrated those moments but I didn’t know how to celebrate them. I just took it for granted.

Braxton is truly enjoying life now, saying that making this album was the most fun she has had in years.

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Braxton is truly enjoying life now, saying that making this album was the most fun she has had in years.Credit: AP:Associated Press

“I wish I had enjoyed it a little bit more. I wish I’d sometimes had a few more cocktails.”

At least Braxton is truly enjoying life now, saying that making this album was the most fun she has had in years.

“I’m comfortable being a performer and an artist,” she says. “I’m more comfortable in my skin now. I never want to be 20 again. In my 20s I had no idea what I was dealing with.

“I like to say ageing, instead of saying older. I feel like I am ageing and I’m comfortable with my age.

‘The man upstairs had a whole other plan’

“And I realise now it’s OK to appreciate things a little more, although it’s challenging to find something that keeps you current without trying to be a youngster. That can be tough.”

Doctors told the singer that she would need a heart transplant due to her illness - luckily it wasn't required in the end

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Doctors told the singer that she would need a heart transplant due to her illness – luckily it wasn’t required in the end

Braxton was diagnosed with lupus, which causes inflammation to the joints, skin and other organs. It was her illness that led to her announcing her retirement in 2013.

She says: “I think I was just really sad. I just found out my diagnosis and they told me I needed a heart transplant. I was lucky and I didn’t need it. But they originally thought I did.

“The doctor said I would never be able to perform again.

“Luckily, the man upstairs had a whole other plan for me. But at that time, I was very sad. And I just thought the best way to go on with life is to retire.

“I was so fortunate that it wasn’t final. Babyface lifted me out of it. We were neighbours at the time and he said, ‘What’s that thing about you retiring? You are sad, that’s all, it will pass, everybody goes through this’.

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A doctor told Braxton that she 'would never be able to perform again'

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A doctor told Braxton that she ‘would never be able to perform again’

“I always try to be positive. Although some days it gets the best of me and I’m down for that day. But I try to say ‘OK, I’m going to relish today. And then tomorrow’.

“And I’ve always had good friends. Prince was my fairy godfather, my big brother. He taught me so many things. With my first bankruptcy, Prince called me up immediately and I told him we were all slaves.

“We had dinner and talked and he put me in touch with my attorney to get me out of it all. I miss him all the time.”

Another star Braxton misses is Whitney Houston, who died in 2012. She says: “She was like my big sister in the music business because she’s the one that we all wanted to be when we were growing up, even though she was only four years older than me.

“She transcended and changed the game. She changed it for a young girl like me that you didn’t see colour when you heard her music. She was such a talent.

Another star Braxton, above, misses is Whitney Houston, who died in 2012, saying she was like a 'big sister'

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Another star Braxton, above, misses is Whitney Houston, who died in 2012, saying she was like a ‘big sister’

“She told me that dating would always be challenging for us because we’re alpha women. She gave me great advice all the time.”

Along with good friends, Braxton is close to her family, with whom she appeared in reality show Braxton Family Values, which followed her life along with those of her four sisters and mum Evelyn.

Evelyn has been staying with her during lockdown, and Braxton says: “It’s been good quality time with my family and my boys, because they are about to go off to college.

‘I am getting ready for Christmas’

“I love my mom so much. My parents did such a great job raising six kids. Six kids with the same mom and dad. Then they get divorced after 34 years which I still don’t get.

“But they did a phenomenal job raising us and my mom is so involved. She’s the matriarch of our family. Even doing the show has not changed our family. My mom keeps it all together.”

The singer is close to her family, with whom she appeared in reality show Braxton Family Values

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The singer is close to her family, with whom she appeared in reality show Braxton Family ValuesCredit: Rex Features

However, the family suffered a blow in July when youngest sister Tamar had to stay in hospital following an attempt to take her own life.

Braxton says: “My family has been challenged. Sadness is not a joke. If someone in your family is sad, listen to them.

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“With my sister it’s a mental illness and it’s not my story to tell her story.

“We love each other and life is all about family and having someone there for you.”

Braxton does a lot of work for autism charities. It is a cause close to her heart as Diezel, the youngest of her two sons, was diagnosed with the condition aged three.

However, the family suffered a blow in July when youngest sister Tamar had to stay in hospital following an attempt to take her own life

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However, the family suffered a blow in July when youngest sister Tamar had to stay in hospital following an attempt to take her own life

She says: “Diezel is a model now and acting. He was on the spectrum when he was three years old.

“I think early diagnosis can change everything or greatly improve it. He’s doing great. I’m proud of both my boys.”

Braxton is also proud of the youngsters who have marched for the Black Lives Matter cause. “But I am also scared,” she says. “We worry all the time as the world is different for African-American boys.

“My two sons went out last night for dinner and I was worried the whole time. I felt like I was holding my breath the entire time.

“Are they being hunted? Women, too, like Breonna Taylor (fatally shot by police in Kentucky). But this generation are strong, not afraid, and I love that about them. We’re afraid but this generation is fearless and I am proud.”

Braxton says she is already planning for Christmas

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Braxton says she is already planning for ChristmasCredit: Getty Images – Getty

Characteristically, Braxton also has a lot to say about the political landscape in America as the countdown to the presidential election enters the final couple of months.

She says: “OK, I’m gonna say the silver lining of this is our country is more involved in politics like it’s never been before. We are learning about politics. We are learning about government. And so that’s the silver lining of Mr Trump being our president.

“I’m not really a political person. But I am an advocate of voting. You have to get out and vote. And it’s not just about voting for the president.

“It’s about voting for the people who make the rules and make the laws. So for me, it’s about educating my kids on the whole system of government.” So politics aside, what is in store for Braxton for the rest of 2020? The answer is a surprise.

She says: “OK, this is gonna sound crazy. The rest of the year after this album comes out, I am getting ready for Christmas because Christmas is my favourite holiday.

TONI BRAXTON: SPELL MY NAME

  1. Dance
  2. Do It (ft Missy Elliott)
  3. Gotta Move On (ft H.E.R.)
  4. Fallin’
  5. Spell My Name
  6. O.V.E.Rr
  7. Happy Without Me
  8. Saturday Night
  9. Do It (original version)
  10. Nothin’ (bonus track)

★★★★☆

“I am already online putting things in my folder that I am going to order on Black Friday.

“I’m hoping we’ll have a Black Friday before Black Friday so I can get even more discount. I love discount shopping for Christmas, it is my favourite thing to do.

“Every year I do new ornaments. Last year I had a white tree, the year before that was a red tree. I’m making a gold tree this year.

“So yes, I am looking forward to Christmas. Already!”

  • Album Spell My Name is out now.
Toni Braxton reveals secret to her flawless skin is a VIBRATOR as she holds device to her face in bizarre video

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