Toni Toni Braxton candidly talks to Jemima Cousins about her illness, separation, autistic son and not having short hair
To hear these words come from a three times Grammy award winner and an artist who in her heyday reportedly sold 15 million records worldwide, comes in one respect, as an alarming overstatement, but Toni Braxton who is sat adjacent to me in her new record label's (Atlantic Records) London offices, is all seriousness. 'I think when you have an illness such as what I've got it knocks you sideways and you lose sight of the positive things you have in your life.'
In 2008 Braxton was diagnosed with microvascular angina, a condition where there is insufficient blood flow to the heart, causing chronic chest pains. Rather than keeping it a secret, Braxton went public about her illness before her stint on the popular US show, Dancing With the Stars. Despite lasting a commendable five weeks out of a 10 week show, for some bizarre reason she thought her dancing was 'terrible' and openly admits: 'I did it to get me out of the dump I was going through at the time.' But in the case of many celebrities who have dwindled out of the limelight, the show was a good ploy to reinstate Braxton back into the minds, and possibly hearts, of the American audience.
It is the Nineties where Braxton made an impact. She had a string of hits, but made her indelible mark with the ballad Unbreak My Heart. Before speaking to her, I hear a playback of her new album Pulse that has her current single called Yesterday featuring the US' latest male heart-throb, Trey Songz. It's interesting to hear her velvety voice brought up-to-date, as the identity of RnB has changed from classic love songs to raunchy, pop flavoured ballads. However, it must be added that Braxton retains that quality we all know her for. 'I've developed a style because I've been in the business for a while, so I know my voice. I try to write songs that fit my alto sound. I can't sing everything because my voice is quite heavy, so I'm really comfortable with finding songs that specifically fit my voice and style as an artist.'
On this album, Braxton also sings about her recent experiences involving her illness and recent separation from her husband. 'My husband and I are no longer together and when I was co-writing the song Yesterday we had some issues. But despite everything, we're still close friends.' She says that the father is still involved with their sons, one being six year-old Diezel who is autistic. Unbeknownst to many, Braxton is a spokeswoman for the foundation Autism Speaks. 'When I first found out about Diezel, I blamed myself. I didn't know what to do. I knew something was different with him but I didn't know it was autism. He was three when they diagnosed him, so for three and a half years I've been completely devoted to him. I found out more about it when I spoke to people, for instance someone recommended an ABA specialist, which is a specialist nanny that helped me understand what he was going through more. So, once someone told me about that, I passed it on. After a while people kept saying "talk to Toni Braxton, she knows what she's talking about" and that's how I became a spokesperson.'
Unlike today's recording artists who change their image at a blink of an eye, Braxton has been in the industry long enough to develop a healthy relationship with image and style. 'My hair is in a weave now,' which she invites me to touch. 'It's dyed and I've added some tracks to my own hair. I think you should try any and everything. Hair is like fashion to me, it's like trying new make-up. I don't look at hair as a statement, it's just fashion.'
Her openness to wearing a weave is refreshing, as it's still the case that female artists won't admit to wearing extensions. Perhaps what contributes to her honesty is her unshakable confidence. 'I have natural beauty,' says Braxton, 'just because I decide to wear a weave, cut my hair or colour it, it doesn't take away from my beauty.'
With Rihanna and Keri Hilson revamping fashionable crops, I ask Braxton if she felt like going back to short hair? 'I was going to go back to short hair, but I thought I'm just going to look like everyone else, so I'll wait and remind people that I did short hair a long time ago.'
The conversation takes a turn onto Rihanna who Braxton markedly points out: 'She's my favourite with the hair. She's not a songstress but she's my favourite when it comes to fashion and style,' raising the point, has fashion overtaken the music? 'This is not the decade of the songstress, but I do think this is the return of the original divas. Whitney Houston, Mary J Blige, Janet Jackson -- we were all out in the Nineties.'
In her appearance there is nothing to suggest Braxton is latching onto a trend or is trying to stay 'down' with the youngsters. Her make-up is neutral comprising of nude shades and her outfit is a polo neck jumper, leggings and Christian Louboutin heels all coordinated to a deep plum colour. For a distinguished singer making a comeback she looks fresh and ready to take on the world.
'I thought I would never do music again. I kind of lost my heartbeat for it. I was going to do a Jay-Z and retire.'