With the release of a new album, the singer picks favourite tracks from her back catalogue and talks about the magic of working with Kanye West, surviving the tough streets of New York and her struggles with self-worth. By Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Musicians can be prone to false modesty or putting their achievements down to whatever spiritual energy is currently in fashion. There is none of that with Alicia Keys. “If you put me in a room, I will close the deal,” she says, filling her hotel room with infectious CEO energy, all emphatic statements and eye contact. “But at the time I was bringing my music into the world, it was not on trend, at all. All the radio stations thought I was a 40-year-old jazz crooner. Meanwhile I was 19 with cornrows from Harlem.”
Nevertheless, in 2001 Keys closed the deal in living rooms across America with a career-making performance of her song Fallin on Oprah, a song that “was nothing like anything ever, not yesterday, today or tomorrow”, says Keys. She has since won 15 Grammys across six albums, with a seventh, Alicia, out this week, having been postponed (like the publication of this interview) from a spring release by coronavirus. Almost 20 years ago, she risked upsetting purists by bringing modern drum programming into classic soul and jazz; by embracing a relatively demure image, she risked seeming old-fashioned. “None of my songs should have ever worked, to be honest,” she says. These are some of her favourites that did anyway.
You Don’t Know My Name (2003)
Produced by Kanye West and featuring a then-unknown John Legend on backing vocals, this song came as Keys wanted to keep the “mixture between vintage and future” that had sent her debut to No 1 feeling fresh for her second album. It was part of an extraordinary burst of creativity from West in the wake of a car accident that left him with his jaw temporarily wired shut.
After bouncing ideas off one another and working up the song, “we really loved what was happening, it felt magic,” Keys says. “And it was about seven minutes long, which is rare, unless you’re Isaac Hayes.” West had an idea to maintain interest throughout: “He was like: ‘You know how on those old-school records, they would just talk for a minute?’” The extended middle eight was duly given over to a spoken-word scene where Keys, playing a waitress, asks out the guy who orders the special every Wednesday. When the chorus comes back in, it’s a fluttering heart turned into song. “We chose it to be the first single – that was pretty bold,” she says. “And record labels don’t tend to be bold.”
If I Ain’t Got You (2004)
In August 2001, the R&B singer Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash. Keys says she “felt really kindred to her, and I was so devastated that she died – it felt so unfair and abrupt”. This song, about the pointlessness of material goods if you don’t have the one you love, “poured out of me” on a plane after hearing the news.
She nearly ended up giving it to Christina Aguilera until a baffled intervention from her record company, but Keys still needed to record it. “It took me 300 different ways to get to what it sounds like today,” she remembers. “It just wasn’t alive. This song was so good, but we couldn’t land it.” The solution was to record it live, then painstakingly replace each drum sound with programming. “Nobody wants to hear live drums on a record, not since the 70s,” Keys reasons. “Maybe the 80s.”
I’ve met plenty of billionaires and they are miserable.
The result is simply one of the greatest ballads of all time. Keys uses a triple negative – “I don’t want nothing at all, if it ain’t you, baby” – to brilliantly capture that feeling of never being able to tell someone you love them enough. Was its message of rejecting diamond rings a reaction to her sudden wealth? “I’ve definitely never been somebody where money defined me,” she says. “No one wants to not be able to get food, or decent opportunities for your kids, but I’ve met plenty of billionaires and they are fucking miserable.”
Like You’ll Never See Me Again (2007)
Keys is very good at being earnest. She convincingly sells love as the difference between life and death on this heartrending ballad, pleading with her partner: “Every time you hold me / Hold me like this is the last time.” It was written as her grandmother was dying. Keys still talks about her in the present tense. “We look and act a lot alike; people say I’m the most close to her personality.” Keys’ father was absent from her childhood, but his mother wasn’t, and so to return the favour Keys moved her into her house. “It was my first experience of putting somebody before myself, and that was really beautiful. But this idea of loss, and a limit to time we have with each other … I just felt overwhelmed.”
She was also overwhelmed at now being one of the most famous musicians in the US. “I didn’t know how to say no; I didn’t know how to create private personal space for myself. I felt like I belonged to everybody, and I didn’t know how to handle that. Even financially, there were a lot of things I was learning, and people definitely tried to take advantage. I was very delicate, very fragile. Life seemed fragile.” She reached “a breaking point” and took herself off to Egypt, “a very powerful experience for me, a renewal. It was a metaphor in so many ways. I remember looking at temples, and the great pyramids, all of these magnificent structures, and I realised: there’s nothing I can’t build.”
Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down (2010)
Keys’ solo version of her hit with Jay-Z lifts a lyric from New York, New York, and Empire State of Mind is that song’s natural successor: a civic anthem charged with the city’s mythic potential, the euphoric sound of looking upward when things are looking up.
“The record exploded,” she remembers of the original. “Jay and I couldn’t put out any new records – Empire was a monster beast and it was taking up all the room. We just had to wait. But then I was like, man, I have to perform this song, and Jay can’t come out every time. What are we going to do?” She created a soaring piano take that sketches out New York as mean, impoverished, but full of promise. “The New York that I came from was very dark, very desolate,” she says. The Hell’s Kitchen district of her childhood “had what looked like movie theatres, but it was all porno places, with hookers on every corner. I had to always wear something very baggy, very dark, always had my hair back; I felt like if people saw me, they might try to touch me. That’s why I’ve always been such a tomboy – I’ve never been the one in pretty dresses and nails, because I could not have nails and hair. And for a lot of girls it still is a safety risk to walk the streets.”
But a few blocks away, “you walk towards Broadway, and you start to see these iconic theatres … it was this weird dynamic of the have-nots and the maybe-possiblies”. She adds: “It feels unbelievable – we have this modern-day anthem of New York City. But I remember that the first time I performed it in France, I didn’t have to sing one word. Listening to the crowd sing it to me, I realised it has nothing to do with New York, it has to do with hope. That you could have a dream and it could maybe come true.”
Kill Your Mama (2016)
Appearing without makeup and with her hair natural, the cover of her 2016 album Here announced that this was Keys uncut. Her least commercially successful album, she calls it “one of the best pieces of work that I’ve done. That was the first time in my life that I didn’t compromise. I wanted to challenge the status quo, and challenge my own self to be truthful. You work so hard at being digestible, at being something that people are not offended by. It becomes a habit – especially for women – and it really starts in childhood. For our whole life we’re trying to figure out how to be the good girl, when really, the bad girl is not bad, they’re just expressing another side, or in touch with anger or frustration. Finally, I turned around, like: I just want to talk about the shit that makes me mad.”
I wanted to challenge the status quo, and challenge my own self to be truthful
What made her mad? “I was sick of, if [her son] Egypt wants to play with a doll, everyone’s up in arms. And I was so sick of this idea that we decide as a country that we have to go to war, when really it’s just a big money play. The whole list of shit that I was sick of is on the Here album.”
Kill Your Mama, co-written with Emeli Sandé, rages at the climate crisis. “We’re literally killing our mother,” Keys says. What it’s like to live in the US where climate denial is still rife? “Real people do know that something’s going on. People who are totally fucking out of their mind and don’t even have a single bit of common sense in their body and do not care at all about the human race in any way? They are extremely in denial. It’s likely all money-driven anyway, so for them, who gives a shit? The whole world can explode because they’re going to be rich.” She accuses “certain American leaders” of acting unconsciously. “So many other countries are aware and are really taking proper steps to try to reverse it.”
Illusion of Bliss (2016)
Another cut from Here that tells of the “bottomless kiss” of addiction. “There are so many things you can get addicted to in order to try and find comfort. You can be addicted to fame; you can be addicted to negative love, to people who want to hurt you, because you don’t have self worth.” Has she faced those issues herself? “I’ve definitely been addicted to pleasing people,” she says. “It’s very damaging. It has to do with a certain feeling that you don’t deserve certain things that other people do.” Even now, she struggles with self-worth. “It’s a habit. I actually have to be like: stop, you’re doing that thing where you’re not valuing yourself.”
This single from new album Alicia, co-written by Ed Sheeran, goes back to those people dreaming of a better life: “The hustlers trading at the bus stop / Single mothers waiting on a cheque to come.”
“I am that person,” she says. “The one that wasn’t supposed to make it out of Hell’s Kitchen, who was supposed to end up being a prostitute, a young mother at 16 years old, or addicted to drugs. I am the one who was supposed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got injured or killed. And what the fuck is a dream? A dream is a luxury, if you have to pay all these bills and put food on the table for your kids. That is why I understand so much about what it means to have the strength to follow your own path. All the songs I’ve ever written that have been considered empowering or uplifting, I’ve written them at my lowest point. Because I needed to remind myself: don’t forget that.”
Gramercy Park (2020)
Not only is people-pleasing harmful to yourself, this song from the new album suggests that it’s harmful to the other person, too. “You find yourself doing everything you think the person you love wants you to do. You find yourself changing because you’re trying to anticipate their needs, and then you realise that the person that they fell in love with is not even you.” She says her marriage to producer Swizz Beatz, her husband of 10 years, is different. “We’re so connected and honest with each other we’re able to be completely ourselves. But that’s a new experience.”