What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas when you’re talking about pleasure seeking bachelors and party girls, but not so when it comes to R&B songstress Toni Braxton. The Atlanta-based singer, who spent two years performing her show “Revealed” at the Strip’s Flamingo Hotel & Casino, is back in Atlanta with a new album in stores Tuesday…and she’s telling everything.
“Vegas was a huge learning experience for me,” the singer said last week in a phone conversation. “I got more comfortable with my audience and being a performer. You never knew what was going to happen. My improv was incredible.”
Despite some harsh reviews from critics and fans who said Braxton’s voice sounded weak, the show ran from May 2006 until it was canceled in April 2008, just after Braxton began experiencing heart trouble. But she’ll get back to that in a minute.
Braxton’s stint in Vegas came with several epiphanies. One was the moment she learned that her youngest son, Diesel, now 7, was autistic. “I remember being relieved and anxious and angry at the same time,” said Braxton who had suspected for many years that her son was developing differently. A lack of eye contact and not answering when she called him were her clues, but doctors thought the problem was his hearing.
Back on stage, Braxton had a breakdown one night and told the audience all about her son.
“I used the stage as my couch that day,” she said. A representative from Autism Speaks reached out to her and Braxton said she was happy to return the good deed later by becoming a spokesperson for the organization. “For me, it was paying it forward. I figured telling my story would help,” Braxton said. Later, folks in the industry rallied around her and began talking about their autistic children as well, she said.
But any joy from the new-found camaraderie and understanding of her son’s condition was soon overshadowed by Braxton’s own health scare. In April, she began having chest pains and was hospitalized. It happened again in June. Braxton wasn’t sure what was going on. “I couldn’t walk through my bedroom or to the front door,” she said. “For a while it was very scary.”
Braxton was ultimately diagnosed with coronary microvascular angina.
Her recovery, both physical and emotional, began with a turn on “Dancing With the Stars” as Braxton followed the recent crop of urban songbirds from the ’90s appearing on reality TV.
“It was a great avenue to get over my fear of performing,” she said. “It helped me find my pulse.” Audiences saw Braxton for five rounds before she was eliminated. What they didn’t see were the doctors backstage checking her vital signs before and after each performance. “If I’m going to be honest, I probably did it too soon. It was hard on my body, but great emotionally,” she said.
The experience gave her the courage to begin recording her sixth studio album, her first album in five years, aptly named “Pulse.” For the project, Braxton recruited well-known producers and songwriters including David Foster and Simon Franglen.
In a sense, she said, “Pulse” signals a return to what she does best, using the full range of her voice including the lower octaves that characterized hits such as “You’re Making Me High” and “Unbreak My Heart.”
“I just went back to what makes me feel comfortable. I just wanted to go back to basics,” she said.
One thing Braxton can’t return to are the days when she was a bit more green about the inner workings of the industry. “Now I am thinking about things like the bottom line. You just want to create, but I know if I don’t sell, I’m not going to be able to make another album,” she said.
She’s also learning to let go of the things that hold her back – which, in the midst of a separation from husband Keri Lewis, is something she has to keep practicing. “You have to let it go or it will beat you up,” Braxton said. “It is taxing on you and suppresses you from getting future things.