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Los Angeles, California (CNN) — Once upon a time, Maxwell’s hair would have walked into a room five minutes before he did.

When he first hit the big time in 1996, he rocked the biggest, fluffiest Afro this side of the ’70s and evoked a distinctly bohemian vibe.

Now, the neo-soul superstar is back after an eight-year self-imposed hiatus, and he looks like a new man, with close-cropped hair and a wardrobe of elegantly tailored suits.

“Sometimes I just get sick of myself,” he confided, alluding to his time away from the spotlight. “That’s kind of what happened in 2001. I didn’t want to see another photo; I didn’t want to hear me. I just sort of needed a coffee bean in the perfume shop of who I was, you know what I mean?”

But the deluge of media attention is starting to happen all over again.

We’re backstage at “The Jay Leno Show” in Burbank, California, where the mood is jubilant. The night before, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter earned six Grammy nominations for “BLACKsummer’s Night,” the first in a trilogy of albums rolling out over the next couple of years.

It’s the comeback story of 2009, especially since Whitney Houston’s much-publicized CD failed to garner a single nod from Grammy voters.

Interview requests are pouring in. This time, Maxwell insists that he won’t lose focus.

“I think I was just more afraid. Fear of failing, fear of having something sort of stop. For me, I was like, ‘I don’t want to love this too much, because what if this goes away?’ I kind of went through that because I’m kind of insecure in that way. But for the hiatus to have occurred, to then come back and to have this — I feel a lot more settled and a lot more confident.”

Maxwell spoke with CNN about his return.