Interview: Alicia Keys
"I think I just always have been the type of person who wants to be able to try new things with every creative thing I do. I want to do something new. I don't ever want to feel I'm boxed in, in any way.
"So that's definitely one of the reasons I called the album The Element of Freedom," she says. "I just really felt like that came through very clearly on all the songs."
Keys' freedom, and her individuality, have been well documented in the nine years since her first album, the multi-million-selling Songs in A Minor (2001), but they have been her modus operandi since long before the world knew or cared.
Born Alicia Augello-Cook in New York and raised by her mother in Hell's Kitchen, Keys has been playing piano since she was seven, and graduated from the Professional Performing Arts School at 16, as top of the class, no less. She briefly studied music at Columbia University, but left for stints at two other record companies – both proved frustrating – before she signed with J Records and began her recording career in earnest.
"I learned a lot," Keys says, "and I've never taken those lessons for granted. It was a lot of persistence and never letting go of my dreams."
Her patience paid off. Songs in A Minor sold more than 12 million copies and snared five Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year for Fallin'. Since then Keys has won seven more Grammys, while each of her subsequent albums – The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003), Unplugged (2005) and As I Am (2007) – joined Songs in A Minor in debuting at the top of the Billboard 200 chart.
The Element of Freedom broke that string – blame Susan Boyle – but still bowed at number two, with healthy first-week sales of 417,000 copies.
All told, Keys has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and notched up 11 Top 10 hits, including Empire State of Mind (2009), her chart-topping collaboration with Jay-Z. She has also launched an acting career with roles in Smokin' Aces (2006), The Nanny Diaries (2007) and The Secret Life of Bees (2008).
The key to her success, Keys speculates, is a connection that is as much emotional as sonic.
"For me, writing songs was about being able to connect with some kind of true emotion in some way ... that resonates," she says. "If it's something personal to me, or if it's something I witnessed someone who's very important to me going through, or if it's something that's going on in the world ... Just to find that place of understanding is what makes it honest and truthful.
"I can't say that's harder or easier now than it was before," she says. "I think it's the same. It's just what I do."
Keys didn't have one specific theme that she wanted to explore on The Element of Freedom, however. The songstress, who executive produced the album with longtime collaborator and former paramour Kerry "Krucial" Brothers and co-wrote with producers Jeff Bhasker, Noah "40" Shebib and reported current squeeze Swizz Beatz, was after a more eclectic feel.
"I just wanted to let every song take its own direction," she says. "I definitely left it very open and spontaneous and, really, anything is possible. I didn't turn anything away or any thoughts or any creative ideas before I just allowed it to go as far as it could go."
The creative process took a while. In fact Keys, who experiments with an array of piano and keyboard sounds throughout the album, twice pushed back the album's release date in order to go back and record more material.
"As it got closer we decided that there were just so many new songs I was still creating," she recalls "It seemed unfair to have to rush these songs that were still coming and not allow them to be the best songs they could be. It was just two weeks' difference, but it made for an even better record."
Among those latecomers were How It Feels to Fly, Un-Thinkable (I'm Ready), which features a guest appearance by Canadian singer/rapper Drake, and Put It in a Love Song, a collaboration with Beyonc Knowles that Beatz co-wrote and produced.
Knowles and Keys go back to the latter's days at Columbia Records, which is still Knowles' home label, and the two also have toured together. That they would eventually do a duet, Keys says, was inevitable.
"We've become friends," she says, "and there's always been a mention of 'When would we be able to do a song together?' It was all about timing. This particular song started coming together, and it just felt so good, just electric and exciting, and so we wanted her to hear it."
Keys played the song over the telephone to Knowles, who was in Europe at the time, and they arranged to record it on the one day that both performers were going to be in New York at the same time.
"We met up in the studio and the vibe was so incredible," Keys recalls. "To be there at the same time is so rare now – with technology you can do it anywhere. But it was amazing. The energy was incredible and the vibe was unbelievable.
"Our friendship is just really, really cool and great, so it was, like, the perfect zone. And the record just took on the perfect energy, and there it is."
The Element of Freedom also continues Keys' relationship with Empire State of Mind in the form of Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down, which she recorded as a sung musical piece, without Jay-Z's rapping, for a decidedly different kind of song.
"I love, love, love that record, the original, and to be able to be part of what people are calling the new New York anthem is unbelievable," says Keys, who performed the song with Jay-Z before the second game of the 2009 World Series at Yankee Stadium and also during the American Music Awards. "And then to be able to see the way that it affects the world everywhere I go is just insane. It's beautiful.
"So I definitely wanted to give my version of it and my vision of how I see New York and how it feels to me," she continues. "I wanted to do it for my style – more broken down, more on piano, more voice and intimacy – so that's what I did. I imagined, 'If I was able to sing this whole song, how would I do it?' So I just sat down at my piano and I kind of broke it down and started singing about New York as I see it, and it turned out great."
In March, Keys plans to start touring to support The Element of Freedom, and she promises a show that will play both arenas and theatres and be "visual, but in a sense that it doesn't overshadow the musical side of it. I think freedom comes from spontaneity and freedom comes from musicality and from really being able to express in every way."
She has no acting commitments at the moment, but is producing a "music-based" TV show for America's NBC and a film about a female disc jockey. Keys is also "developing some Broadway concepts and ideas," but will say only that she hopes "to bring a new style to the mix".
The singer/songwriter is also launching a new company, AK Worldwide, with the slogan "The Business of Inspiration". It will be an umbrella for everything from charitable initiatives, including Keys' Keep a Child Alive foundation, to a new "inspirational" website called Iamasuperwoman.com and a jewellery line called the Barber's Daughters.
"I've learned a lot from Oprah Winfrey," Keys says, "just by seeing the way she can affect the world in such a beautiful way, no matter what she does. That's definitely what I want to do. The music does it, in some ways, but I think there can be so much more."
The Element of Freedom is on sale now. Alicia Keys is playing the SECC, Glasgow, on 23 May. Tickets from 39.50. Visit www.secc.co.uk New York Times
This article was first published in The Scotsman, Saturday January 30, 2010