Despite the crackly transatlantic phone line, Toni Braxton's regal disposition comes through loud and clear.
"I'm like that classic black dress that never goes out of style," she pronounces in lofty tones. "You may have to change a few accessories here and there, but that's OK."
There's nothing off-putting about this – she is funny and self-aware rather than obliviously entitled, and gracious to a fault – but her way with a metaphor and habit of slipping into the third person when talking about herself is a reminder that Braxton is an R&B diva of two decades' standing who came of age during the 90s, when aloof hauteur was more valued than approachability. It's also a disposition that's been hard-won – or rather, hard-regained. Over the past decade, Braxton has been known more for sundry travails – legal disputes with no fewer than three record labels, multiple bankruptcies, health issues, personal turbulence – than her songs. Last February, with her 12-year marriage in the process of collapsing, she found herself at her lowest ebb, and announced her retirement from the music industry with immediate effect: "I felt like I had nothing left to offer myself, let alone any fans or listeners."
Just a year on, though, Braxton is making the kind of easily assured comeback that's eluded her for so long. In the wake of that spontaneous decision, friends rallied round to change her mind – among them Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, the R&B pioneer from under whose wing she emerged in 1992. "He helped me work on getting my mojo back," she explains. "He said: 'You've stopped believing in yourself. Why have you stopped playing the piano on your albums? Stop thinking like a record company – I need you to remember that you're an artist.'"
After years of being told she was dated, that "the old Toni Braxton way is played out", she had to be coaxed back into the studio at all, let alone to write songs: "At first, I was just venting, not making music." But eventually, a new project began to take shape. The scars from her recent divorce were still fresh; Edmonds's own marriage had ended after 13 years in 2005. Braxton, still reeling from self-doubt, felt she wasn't ready to make a solo album. For 20 years, the two had occasionally mooted the idea of a collaborative album, but there had never been a pressing reason to make it. Now, there was. The result is Love, Marriage & Divorce, a multifaceted look at the arc of a relationship (the emphasis, unsurprisingly, is on the D of the title) that's by turns wry, confused, lustful and vindictive. It sounds more 90s than any amount of current 90s revivalism, but less due to nostalgia than a "rebirth" after years of trying to chase trends for Braxton.
"From the moment she sang, it was kind of like going home," muses Babyface – who is enjoying something of a renaissance himself, having produced much of last year's best pop-R&B album, Ariana Grande's effervescent Yours Truly. "And not just going home, but if you've been away from your hometown for a while and you open the door and your mom is cooking one of your favourite dishes – whether it's chilli or soul food or rice and peas, which always used to be my favourite – and your dad's on the couch watching your favourite TV show. It's like coming home, smelling and tasting – hearing Toni was exactly that."
Reading on mobile? Click to view Hurt You videoThe pair also blend so well vocally that it's hard to believe how few times they've sung on record together until now. "My voice is a thick chocolate milkshake, and Kenny's the straw that comes in and helps you drink it a lil bit," declares Braxton. She now describes her former mentor as her "musical husband" – though in the context of this album, marriage isn't exactly a smooth path. Babyface praises the strength Braxton has displayed to survive life's vicissitudes, before sighing wryly. "And it certainly gave her strong opinions."
Braxton explains: "When I first came to Kenny, I was a brand new artist. I had no opinions and no say – I just wanted to sing. I still want to sing no, but I come with my own ideas. I told him: 'Kenny, when you first came in the business, someone helped you and you became Babyface. Well, you helped me get in the business and I became Toni Braxton. You created this.'" Babyface sighs again. "We had to fight to get through to the compromise. Yes, like a marriage in that sense …"
One of those fights concerned the album's most arresting track, I Wish. Braxton is so proud of it she recites its lyrics: "I hope she gives you a disease … but not enough to make you die, only make you cry. I pray your new baby is a boy – please don't have a girl, 'cause you'll give that woman the world". It's a raw snapshot of every undignified, vengeful thought Braxton has had, and was almost too much for her collaborator. "Kenny said, 'That's too abrupt. You can't sing that.' I said, 'Kenny, but that's really what women feel.'" Braxton pauses and then, with just a trace of smugness, says: "He ended up loving it."
It's this kind of experience, Braxton says, that is helping to rebuild her confidence; one gets the impression she needs to talk herself into it, to an extent. She speaks of her intense sadness that people know her for her financial issues rather than her artistry; her embarrassment at becoming a tabloid punch line; her frustration that, as a child of a broken marriage, she feels her divorce has made her a "walking cliche". A few months earlier, I'd interviewed Braxton's younger sister, Tamar, who had used the success of the family's reality-TV show, Braxton Family Values, to relaunch her own singing career. Tamar described her older sibling as a "mentor"; today, Toni says her main advice was to "not be like me, not be so rigid". She says that if she could talk to the girl who sang her first global smash in 1993, the lovelorn Breathe Again, she would "smack her and say, 'Snap out of it!'"
But Braxton is, at heart, a trouper. It was hard for someone from her era, who says she lives by the maxim, "I don't want company and I don't want to be company", to agree to a reality show. Braxton claims she has no regrets about it now, although when she admits, "I have to be a little more open to the new wave of entertaining," it's in the pained tones of one who knows the struggle is real. It's partly because of this that Braxton is keen to lavish praise on younger singers, singling Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus out, as well as JoJo, the former teen prodigy who was finally freed last month from a contract with the same label Braxton repeatedly clashed with in the mid-noughties. "I'm so excited for her! Good for her! She's so talented, and I hated that her talent wasn't being heard. I think a lot of artists have had differences with that label."
And then there's a flash of the old hauteur Braxton says the stars of her generation – Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Mary J Blige – were taught to cultivate. "And I'm so excited to be an icon that they look up to. They say, 'Oh, when I heard you it made me sing the song that way; I borrowed a Toni Braxton run here and there.' I've heard that a lot of times." She laughs, revelling in the role she's playing. "I feel like I've been given a third chance – I have to enjoy it! Not like before! I have to make myself enjoy it. At this phase of life, I have to remember that I'm a singin' bitch, how 'bout that?"
• Love, Marriage & Divorce is out now on Virgin
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image: © M. Keefe