More than 20 years have passed since Toni Braxton gave a voice to a new generation of heartache with her first solo single, "Another Sad Love Song." But it was more than a sultry sound and a soul-filled track list that made the singer's self-titled debut album an instant classic. Her down-to-earth, easygoing personality, coupled with live performances that proved Braxton could slay with the ferocity of a lioness on stage, turned the siren into an instant R&B icon. That killer combination also endeared Braxton to a legion of loyal LGBT fans who not only gravitated toward the artist's strong sense of self, but made us feel like she was the type of girl we could hang out with and gab about dating drama over a couple of cocktails after a show.
Six Grammy awards and seven albums later, the 46-year-old is still the same approachable artist who stole hearts in 1993 - one who isn't afraid to forgo the usual fluff and speak her mind.
"I have a very androgynous look," she says when asked about her longtime LGBT appeal. "Don't get me wrong, I think of myself as an attractive woman, but it's in a boyish way. However, I'm very comfortable with it and that makes it very easy to emulate Toni Braxton on both sides. Over the years I think that might be one of the reasons my gay and lesbian fans have connected with me. I am who I am. I'm an androgynous artist and I'm comfortable in my own skin."
Nevertheless, Braxton admits she hasn't always felt like the powerful personality she projects in her performances. Before she began work on her upcoming eighth studio album - an album comprised solely of duets with Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds titled Love, Marriage & Divorce - the commercial disappointment of her previous two efforts, being diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, and a failed marriage had all left the singer feeling her music career was coming to an end.
"I was in a really dark space and was thinking about retiring," Braxton says. "I wasn't feeling great about myself. From being diagnosed with lupus and thinking I wouldn't be able to work anymore to problems in my relationship - I was just falling prey to the negativity I had around me and in my life at that time."
That's when Braxton says a phone call from one of the men who helped shape her career pulled her out of her downward spiral. "Babyface called me up one day and said, 'What's this I hear about you retiring? You can't do it. I'm coming over.' So we talked and after a few therapy sessions with him he finally told me, 'You can't retire. Everyone has been there, but your problem is you forgot to be an artist. You've gotten caught up in the music business and it's suppressing you from the reason you originally set out to do what you do. You're an artist. You need to put it to music.'"
What followed is what Braxton calls "one of the greatest collaborations of her career." But one the artist says also took some time before it found its creative footing. "Babyface and I had a difference of opinion on relationships at first," she says. "He had gone through a divorce before and I was going through one at the time. I remember he would say things in our sessions like, 'The man works to take care of his family and the wife doesn't appreciate it,' and I was like, 'No, what about the girls that work to take care of the family? It's not just one side. There are so many different types of relationships.' And finally, he said, 'You know, you're right.' So once we opened that window up we became a lot more creative with the album."
Above: Toni Braxton and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds. Photo: Marc Baptiste.
Braxton's desire to champion the diversity of relationships is apparent when asked about her views on marriage equality. "We'd have to sit down and have a martini or champagne or some chicken wings to properly talk about this because I could go on all day," she playfully says before adopting a more serious tone. "I really don't understand why some people are so afraid, and I have an issue with those who are working so hard to battle marriage equality. Get over it. It's going to happen and we've been through the battle for civil rights before, so why are you fighting it? What's there to fight? Just 50 years ago it was illegal for blacks and whites to be married. My dad is biracial, so I have a different opinion than some other people in the black community because I believe love is love. But unfortunately it takes the rest of the word some time to understand that their minds are closed."
Having experienced an emotional catharsis after finishing her latest effort with Babyface, Braxton is now setting her sites on flexing her acting talent in the near future and hopes the opportunity will help her increase LGBT visibility at the same time. "I'd really like to play a lesbian role in a TV series. I think it's a role I'd be comfortable playing and it would make people stand up and take notice," she says, admitting that while the idea of portraying a queer character has long appealed to her, it was viewing the Netflix drama Orange is the New Black that renewed her desire. "I really connect with that show," she says. "I love the writing, the characters, and the way the women come together. It's a show that makes me feel like in a past life I was a lesbian."
However, Braxton is clear that her desire to shine as a thespian doesn't mean she's hanging up her microphone anytime soon and hopes to collaborate with several LGBT artists in the future, including RuPaul and Elton John. "I'd love to work with Elton John," she says, adding, "You know, when I came out with my first album, Elton told [LaFace Records co-founder] L.A. Reid after he heard my song, 'I love your new artist. I love his voice.' And L.A. said 'I will tell her that you love her voice.'" She laughs, adding, "Elton said my voice was so androgynous that he couldn't tell, and I took that as a compliment. So working with him would be a real full circle moment for me."
Watch the music video "Hurt You" from Love, Marriage & Divorce (due Feb. 4), starring Toni Braxton and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, below.