Break Time Is Over : Anita Baker’s last album was in 1990. Then everyone thought she was lost to motherhood. Guess everybody forgot to ask the important person: Baker

<i> Dennis Hunt is a Times staff writer</i>

Anita Baker has seemed to have it all for years: hit albums, Grammys, successful concerts, critical acclaim.

Yet something was missing in Baker’s life: children. Their eventual arrival has kept her out of the spotlight for most of the last four years.

Since her last album, 1990’s jazzy “Compositions,” her career has taken a back seat to motherhood. After her second miscarriage, Baker gave birth to two sons: Walter, 19 months, and Eddie, 4 months.

Knowing how important her family is to her, some associates wondered whether Baker--who is married to Detroit real-estate developer Walter Bridgforth--would ever return full time to the music business.

There were periodic reports in recent years that Baker, now 36, had returned to the studio, but there was no new release--and the speculation increased about her willingness to devote time to a career. Her only appearance on record since “Compositions” was on Frank Sinatra’s “Duets” album last year, singing “Witchcraft.”


But Baker does want a career after all--and the singer returns from the hiatus in peak form in the new “Rhythm of Love,” which features more of the sophisticated, jazz-inflected R&B; ballad style that Baker helped popularize in the ‘80s. (See review on Page 71.)

With the album just in the stores, Baker spoke about the long hiatus, family life and her music.


Question: Did you intend to take such a long break from the music business?

Answer: Not really--it just happened. I had to work around my pregnancies. There was a surgical procedure they were using on me for the first time and they didn’t know if it would work. The doctor put a lot of restrictions on me, so hard work was out, which meant I couldn’t work on the album. Then Eddie--who was an accident--came along, but that was a relatively easy pregnancy, but I wasn’t physically able to concentrate on the album for much of those years.


Q: Some people were guessing that you’d quit singing to become a full-time mother. Could you ever imagine doing that?

A: No. If I had to be a mother all the time and couldn’t work, I wouldn’t be a good mother. I need my career. That’s what validates me. Also, I want my boys to see women are capable of more than just dealing with dirty diapers.


Q: So there was never any doubt that you’d make another album?

A: Not as far as I was concerned, but others did doubt it. I know for a fact some people thought I’d never finish it. People (at the record company) were calling my engineer and asking, “Is she ever going to finish this record?” There was a lot of second-guessing going on.


Q: How did you feel about that?

A: On the one hand, I couldn’t blame them. I was pregnant . . . three deadlines behind and at least a half-million dollars over budget. But I told them I’d pay for anything extra out of my own pocket. When you ask them for more money, you risk losing creative control of your project because they have this huge investment to protect. I never want to lose that control.

But on the other hand, being second-guessed stinks. If I were a man and I was the executive producer of albums that had sold in excess of 13 million copies (worldwide), nobody would be second-guessing me. But I was this little pregnant black woman, and they were second-guessing me every step of the way. It got real stressful at times.


Q: How would you characterize your new album?

A: It’s not as jazz-oriented or melancholy as the last one. There are some contemporary pop things on it, but it’s mainly ballads with an R&B;, jazz and gospel feel to them. In terms of content or style, I wasn’t going for anything different.

What I did do was strive for a different sound--on the technical side. In the studio you can adjust the knobs and buttons to compress the sound to get it technically perfect, but you lose some of the emotion. That’s what I’ve done on past albums but not on this one. You get a stronger emotional feeling from the songs on this album.


Q: Were you at all concerned that your fans would forget about you during the hiatus? After all, people are often fickle.

A: You always worry about that, even if you’re recording a new album every year. Most artists are notoriously insecure and I fall into that category. When you’re away for a long time, tastes change, fans move on. You hate to think about it, but it’s an ugly fact of life.


Q: Given all that you’ve accomplished, why don’t you feel more secure about your place in the music business?

A: I just don’t. What drives me is the feeling that if I make a mistake, it’ll all be over . . . that if I’m not perfect it’ll all be over. In a way, I’m this mass of insecurities. If I fail, I know there will be footprints on my back from these “friends” and executives walking over me to get to some hot newcomer. Maybe that’s why I’m sort of a control freak. I like the feeling I can control my own destiny.


Q: You’ve always had creative control over your albums. How important is that to you?

A: It’s critical. Without it, I wouldn’t want to make an album. I wouldn’t sound like I sound. If I let other people do that, I might be out of this business now.


Q: You have a reputation for being a difficult diva. Is that warranted?

A: When you hear that a woman in this business is called difficult, you have to consider the source. This business is run by men, and often when men say a woman is difficult, it just means she’s independent and she’s got guts. But part of that reputation may be warranted. I’m a perfectionist and I’m very demanding. I want things done just right. I’m not mean or nasty, just demanding, but sometimes demanding is interpreted by people as being difficult.


Q: Do you think that being a black woman has made it more difficult for you to become a success in music world?

A: No question. I’ve had to fight harder and work harder and longer hours. I don’t think being black has held me back at all. Being black makes you strong.

It’s tough being a black woman, but the tough part is just being a woman. People look at you and think you’re successful and figure you can have everything your own way. But this is a male-dominated business. You see it in a thousand little ways that many men don’t treat you as equals. It’s not always obvious, but it’s noticeable to a woman. Men might not even be aware they’re offending you--but they are.


Q: Some critics credit you with opening the door in pop music for a whole new wave of singers, like Toni Braxton, for instance. What do you believe you’ve contributed to the business?

A: I think I’ve helped make it easier for female singers with deeper voices to get signed by record companies. Also, ballads are more popular than ever in the music business. The success of my albums may have helped that happen. I feel very good about that.


Q: Has being a mother changed your approach to your career?

A: It’s changed my priorities. I’ve always been a workaholic, but I can’t do that anymore. I just naturally want to be with my kids. When I go on a promotional trip for a few days without them, I miss them so much. So I won’t stay on the road too long. When I go on tour, I’ll take them with me, and I’ll make sure the schedule isn’t too grueling. That’s the major difference.


Q: Would you say, then, that motherhood has mellowed you?

A: Not really. I’m as intense as I always was. People have this notion that you turn all soft when you become a mother but it hasn’t happened to me. That world out there is just as tough as it always was. If anything, being a mother makes you tougher. You fight harder to earn a living because you have these kids depending on you.*