NEW YORK – Inside the offices of her new record label, Anita Baker (search) is getting the full VIP treatment. A celebrity makeup artist works delicately on her face, a photo shoot awaits and staff members attend to her every need -- including that crucial designer dress.
Ah, the benefits of celebrity life. But after spending the past decade toiling away as a doting housewife, attentive mother and dutiful daughter, the R&B (search) chanteuse is finding that getting reacclimated to the spotlight isn't all that easy.
"I've never kind of been one to hang in the light too long. It burns my eyes. I need some shade," says Baker, who released her first album in 10 years, "My Everything," (search) on Tuesday.
"I'm used to getting up at 7, getting breakfast, getting the kids off to school, and doing the mommy thing and the wife thing and the daughter thing," says Baker. "This is pretty self-absorbed and I've gotta kinda turn that faucet back on because that's been turned off for quite a while."
Unlike other artists who fade into the background after disappointing sales or lack of fan interest, the veteran multiplatinum artist -- known for late '80s and early '90s hits such as "Sweet Love," "Been So Long," and "No One in the World" -- turned off the faucet herself when her career was still thriving.
Her 1994 Grammy-winning album, "Rhythm of Love," sold almost two million copies and included hits such as "I Apologize," and in 1995 she wrapped up a successful tour.
"After 'Rhythm of Love,' I went home to recharge, and life just started happening," says Baker, dressed in a black top and pants, hair shorn in her trademark short cut and looking almost the same as a decade ago.
With two infant sons and a husband, Baker was more than happy to relinquish stardom to focus on being a wife and mother.
"My kids started growing up. I tried to leave and go cut the record, and I was like, 'Dang, I can't leave ... I can't leave these babies,' " she says. "I didn't want to be in a situation where other people were raising my sons. We just settled into a very normal, suburban lifestyle, with two kids, a cat and a bird and a mommy and a daddy."
But in time, she would also have to attend to two ailing parents -- first her father, who would die of bone cancer, and her mother, who succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. Taking care of them -- not singing -- became her top priority.
"I put my family over my career for the last 10 years, and I didn't intend to, but it just happened that way, and as it started to happen, it was like, this feels right," she says.
Her feelings were confirmed by a failed attempt to record an album during the height of her family difficulties. Atlantic Records executives were pushing her, but her heart wasn't really in it, she says.
"It's impossible to write and produce a record when your parents are dying. I really tried, I really really tried, but it just wouldn't come," she said. "So I got dropped from the label. And again, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
"This was the very first time that I found myself in a position that I could not juggle all the plates in the air, where I could not multitask," she says. "When I was trying to be a songwriter and a record producer and a doctor and a nurse and a daughter and a mommy, my gifts weren't coming. Once I made the decision that I'm going to be here with my mother, the waters parted and the sky cleared."
It wasn't until Baker's mother died in 2002 that she decided to pick up the microphone again. She wasn't looking to record an album -- she just wanted to perform, to prevent grief from absorbing her.
Her longtime agent, Jody Wenig, remembers when she decided to return to the stage. "She called me, I didn't call her. I didn't believe her," laughs Wenig, who had tried to lure Baker back to the concert arena for years.
Baker's first concert was a low-key affair at Westbury Music Fair in Long Island, N.Y. A nervous Baker didn't know quite what to expect. She had put on a few pounds and didn't have a glamorous look or any new material.
"I was not ready. I was right out of my living room and on to the stage," she says. "But the thing that I found out in doing that first show, even having 15 extra pounds and having mommy hair, was that with my audience, it ain't about my body, and it wasn't about my hair. It was about my music, and that's what I learned that night, and I'll take that with me for the rest of my career."
The one-night gig became a nationwide tour, which Baker likened to "a family reunion." Once she knew she had an audience, she began plotting her return to the recording studio.
"We came back into the business via our fan base. Our fan base showed the industry that we're still a marketable commodity, and that's all the industry cares about," Baker says.
She decided to sign with the esteemed jazz label Blue Note in part because they agreed to let her own her master recordings, a rarity for artists. They were also receptive to her recording a jazz album, but only after she delivered a "classic Anita Baker" disc first.
Baker admits she conceived of a jazz album comeback at first because she worried there was no place for her in today's music scene, where artists approaching 30 are considered over the hill.
"I felt that there were would be no audience for me in the pop world or in the new urban world, so I was going to go to one of my other strengths," she says.
Baker has been pleasantly surprised to find out she was wrong. The title track and first single from the album is already a top 30 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B-Hip-Hop singles chart.
Like her past albums, "My Everything" contains her signature elegant R&B ballads. But longtime producer and collaborator Barry Eastmond says there's a new side as well.
"She's singing differently -- the songs are going to have a different point of view," he says. "It's always going to be love songs, but it can be love in a different way, now that she's older and she's a mom now."
And for Baker, one of the biggest lessons of her time off has been discovering different sides of herself -- and learning that they are just as enriching, or perhaps more so, than singing.
"For years I thought that (singing) was all I could do, and it's like 'God, if I'm not singing, I'm worthless. I attached my self-worth to that,' " she says. "But I've come to find in the time that I spent way from the business I am valid outside of the business. I'm a good mother, I'm a good wife, I'm a good daughter ... I'm a whole person."