As the impossibly zen singer gears up to release her sixth album, we talk family, topless shoots, when she shocked Prince and how this is her most defining era
In an age of hyper-celebrity, where fame propels individuals to almost god-like status, you’d imagine it would be hard to stay normal, especially if you were as successful as Alicia Keys. But there, reclining on a chaise longue with her wealth of curls tumbling forth from her earthy head wrap, sits Keys. Cool as a cucumber, eating a green apple, greeting me with the demeanour of a yoga class instructor.
Described several times by her publicist as ‘totally zen’, Keys is indeed so laidback you forget she has won 15 Grammys and has sold over 30 million albums worldwide. She muses about everything from her inspirations: Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Mary J Blige, Stevie Wonder ("I would totally steal his hands") and her love for her new Betty Davis vinyl, to family life and how being a mother has changed her (“I used to ponder shit a lot but I have better judgement now, I just don't have time to play around”).
After a four year hiatus the 35-year-old singer, and her magnificent lungs, have begun working on a sixth studio album. Helped by her dream team (which includes husband Swizz Beatz) this album is, in her own words, “damn good”. Fresh from an intimate performance at Village Underground, Keys called on UK artists “with a street vibe” to support her (i.e. Lady Leshurr, Wretch 32 and the “extra adorable” Nadia Rose) and reflect her new album’s sound.
She’s keeping quiet about which musicians she’s collaborated with on the currently untitled record, but judging from past behemoth tracks with the likes of Usher, Jay-Z and a music video with Beyonce which we will “never see”, it’s likely she can take her pick of whoever is hot right now. Although she did express that her and Chance the Rapper would be a “dope collabo”, the jury is still out on who will actually feature on the long-awaited album.
What is clear is that this is a woman who has autonomy over her own image and artistic direction. Having escaped the perils of over-sexualisation in the music industry – she readily admits that “everyone is pressured to do a topless photoshoot at one point in life”. However, the songstress recently announced a #NoMakeup movement to further distance herself from the expectations put on women. In an essay, she wrote: “I don't want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”
We sat and talked about that emotional growth, and what she has learnt over the past 15 years.
Your new album stays true to your New York roots and reflects a hometown nostalgia. Why did you decide to take it in this direction?
Alicia Keys: The majority of the beginning of the album was created by four different people, and three out of the four from New York – myself, Mark (Batson) and Swizz (Beatz) – and one of the guys is from Virginia, so there's definitely a lot of New York influence just running through our veins. I guess that's why it naturally came out there
You and Swizz have been married now for six years. Do you and Swizz work well together?
Alicia Keys: We actually work very well together. We're so compatible because we're very different, and that works for us because he has his thing, and I have my thing, and they're not in the same lane. I find when you're with someone, even if you're just friends when you have too many similarities it clashes. Plus we have great communication, so we talk it all out. It took maybe eight months or something to create, so it wasn’t every day – we both did other things throughout.
“An album has to be amazing, it has to be great, it has to be worth it. I can’t be putting out some bullshit” – Alicia Keys
Do you think you could make it a family affair? You could involve your kids eventually...
Alicia Keys: Egypt actually has a really good voice. He also has great rhythm. He plays the piano. He's starting to do a little production here and there (notably on Kendrick Lamar’s track Untitled 07 2014-2016). He's five, but he puts ideas and melodies together.
To be fair, that's the age Michael Jackson started. Now, for most people children slow them down, but let's not forget that famous Prince tribute performance at the 2010 BET awards when you were pregnant. Can you tell me a little bit about what was going through your mind?
Alicia Keys: I got up and started rolling around on the piano because I was doing a tribute to honour Prince, singing one of my favourite songs ever that he wrote, one of the greatest songs of all time, in front of him. I just felt like I had to bring it. You can't be contained when you're performing, you've got to be outrageous. I was like ‘I'm getting up there’, I didn't tell anybody I was going to do it because I knew they would tell me not to and be like ‘what if you fall – blah blah blah’.
Or what if it wasn’t a steady piano?
Alicia Keys: I checked. That's why I had my shoes off, because I knew at least don't have shoes on, take those balls of the feet so I could really get a hold on the piano. I actually watched that recently too after he died and I was like ‘man, what a day!’
Why has it been so long since Girl on Fire?
Alicia Keys: Life happens to you when you don't realise. An album has to be amazing, it has to be great, it has to be worth it. I can't be putting out some bullshit.
It’s been 15 years since your first album, thinking back to your first album how have you changed?
First of all, it’s ridiculous – outrageous – how fast time has gone. I was coming face-to-face with this brand new world trying to figure out which part of me I can show. What part of me was I not supposed to show? I was always concerned with people taking advantage of me, and trying to use me, I felt like I had to be very cautious of people.
Is your next album one that reflects your own personal growth?
Alicia Keys: The album is a mixture. Some of it is personal, but some is what I’ve observed. It started out as wanting to be this dialogue about who we are as people and what separates us. What are the stereotypes the world imposes on us that we end up embodying? How is it to be a girl? How do we look at ourselves? What's it like being a young man figuring out he's gay? What is it like to feel under appreciated? Or like when your parents don't accept you for who you are? All these specific situations happen to people and we don’t necessarily hear them in songs, so lyrically you can really dig in, and musically you can vibe to it.
“A lot of times, with this industry you feel like you need to get dressed up, every day. But every day is not the fricking princess ball. Let's take it easy sometimes” – Alicia Keys
As a seasoned singer-songwriter/producer, do you just know when you’ve created a hit?
Alicia Keys: I have to say there is definitely a feeling. You can never know 100%, but you have an inkling. You can judge by how people are responding. I remember that same feeling for like all the songs that have gone on to be successful, I go home and think ‘something happened tonight, something happened for real’.
Your new look for this album has caused a bit of a stir in the media as you have decided to embrace the #NoMakeup movement. Why is that?
Alicia Keys: This is 1000% me. I've always been pretty low-key, chill, laid-back. I'm not very highly strung person. I know people that are, like my mother is so I think because of that I'm always just calm, which has served me well in some ways but not in others. But, at this point, I just think it's about comfort and being who you are.
A lot of times, with this industry you feel like you need to get dressed up, every day. But every day is not the fricking princess ball. Let's take it easy sometimes. Yes, if you’re going to an event, jazz it up a little bit, but recently it has been really nice because this is my true, genuine energy. I've been able to not be so concerned with things I felt I was supposed to do as a woman.
Have you ever felt pressured to sex up your image?
Alicia Keys: Everyone is pressured to do a topless photoshoot at one point in life, unfortunately. It's hard to say no because you feel crazy uncomfortable – that's not really what I'm in this for. They say: ‘What if you kind of pulled over your shirt? Like, pull it up?’ And you're like ‘okay…’ and then next thing you know you’re like ‘how did I get like that?’
What would you say has been the most defining moment of your career?
Alicia Keys: The most defining moment of my career so far is really the evolution that I'm on now, because I think every time you release music you get more connected to who you are and what you want and what you don't want. I feel the clearest about that now. I feel like that's defining and special this time. It just feels cool, easy, bright and natural. It feels really good.
Alicia Keys ‘In Common’ will be released on June 24