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June 01, 2005

Alicia Keys - A Legend Grows

Nine-time Grammy winner ALICIA KEYS talks about her musical journey, some important lessons learned so far and what it means to be a songwriter

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By Erik Philbrook


Alicia Keys calls me from her cell phone. She’s riding in a car heading somewhere. As our interview gets underway, she excuses herself and graciously suggests to her driver an alternate route to their destination. She seems to know the lay the land, the traffic conditions and what highway to avoid. It strikes me, even in this brief pause in our conversation, that this musical superstar is very focused on her direction; she knows where she’s going and the best road to take to get there.

Keys "journey," as she likes to call it, began in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, where she grew up in the middle of the world’s musical melting pot. While soaking in everyone from the Notorious B.I.G. to Stevie Wonder to Oscar Peterson, she discovered her own powerful voice early on and became a classically trained pianist. Those two talents alone could have been enough to propel Keys into the limelight. But she also began to write her own songs and that pushed her into a whole new realm.

When longtime Arista head Clive Davis started up his own label, J Records, Alicia Keys became his first signing. And even with Davis’ backing, no one could have predicted what happened next. Keys' June 26, 2001, release of Songs in A Minor debuted at Number One on the charts and sold over seven mllion copies worldwide. Her very first single, "Fallin’" ended the year at Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart after spending weeks at Number One. Then, at the age of 21, Alicia Keys won five Grammys in one year.



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KEYS TO SUCCESS:
ALICIA’S NINE GRAMMYS
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2005 GRAMMY Awards


Category: Best Female R&B Vocal Performance
Genre: R&B
Title: If I Ain’t Got You
Artist: Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winner: Alicia Keys, artist.

Category: Best R&B Performance By A Duo or Group With Vocals
Genre: R&B
Title: My Boo
Artists: Usher and Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winners: Alicia Keys and Usher, artists.

Category: Best R&B Song
Genre: R&B
Title: You Don’t Know My Name
Artist: Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winners: Alicia Keys, Harold Lilly, & Kanye West, songwriters

Category: Best R&B Album
Genre: R&B
Title: The Diary of Alicia Keys
Artist: Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winners: Alicia Keys, artist. Alicia Keys, producer. Ann Mincieli, Anthony Duino, Manny Marroquin, engineers/mixers.

2001 GRAMMY Awards              



Category: Song of the Year
Genre: General
Title: Fallin’
Artist: Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winner: Alicia Keys, songwriter.

Category: Best New Artist
Genre: General
Artist: Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winner: Alicia Keys, artist.

Category: Best Female R&B Vocal Performance
Genre: R&B
Title: Fallin’
Artist: Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winner: Alicia Keys, artist.

Category: Best R&B Song
Genre: R&B
Title: Fallin’
Artist: Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winner: Alicia Keys, songwriter.

Category: Best R&B Album
Genre: R&B
Title: Songs in A Minor
Artist: Alicia Keys
*GRAMMY Winners: Alicia Keys, artist. Alicia Keys, producer. Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, engineer.

To follow up such a smash debut would be daunting for any artist. Alicia Keys, however, was just hitting her stride. She had the musical chops and she was gaining even greater confidence as a songwriter. Her sophomore release, 2003’s The Diary of Alica Keys, featuring such powerful R&B hits as "If I Ain’t Got You," "My Boo" performed with Usher and "You Don’t Know My Name," showed Keys to be in the league with many of her musical idols.

Earlier this year, Alicia Keys won four Grammys for music from The Diary of Alicia Keys. On June 9, at its annual dinner, the Songwriters Hall of Fame presented Keys with its Starlight Award and several musical legends, including Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, sang her praises. Then, on June 27, at ASCAP’s Rhythm & Soul Music Awards, Keys was presented with the Society’s Songwriter of the Year Award.

For all of her incredible success, the accolades, the slick music videos and the magazine covers, Alicia Keys remains humbled and grounded, well aware of the fact that, as a songwriter, her journey is far from over.


A lot of songwriters and musicians move to New York City to pursue their music. But you grew up here. What influence did the city have in forming your tastes and pointing you in the direction you wanted to go with your own music?
Oh, man, the city had a huge influence on me because it's such a diverse place. As hard as it is, because growing up in the city is not an easy life, I always felt very blessed about being able to recognize different cultures and styles and people and places. I feel like the concrete alone just gave me a certain drive. I really saw everything: every negative I could possibly see from the time I could walk until now; and also every positive, every bright future, every dream that I could possibly see. So growing up around this big dichotomy definitely influenced my music.


Did you come from a musical family?
My grandmother played piano. My mother was very much into musical theater and she has always been a singer.


When did you discover that you had a gift for music?
Well I discovered that I was attracted to music at a really young age, about four years old. That was when I first discovered that I had a voice and I remember it really surprised me. From then on, I always had a close connection with music. When I was about 6 or 7, I got a certain passion for the piano. And that's what made me start wanting to play and study and that kind of thing. So I did know very early on that I loved music. I think God was kind of preparing me.


The piano is a serious instrument, so you must have been very committed to learning how to play.
I studied privately when I was young, and I did study classical. I studied with the whole Suzuki method. It was a very rigorous, rigid Japanese method. And I think that obviously it was definitely hard for me sometimes to like some of the great composers.

Were there any classical composers that you did enjoy over others?
I definitely noticed right away that I loved what I call the blue composers. The ones that are very deep and kind of dark. I was immediately drawn to Chopin. I never really loved playing Beethoven until I got older. I enjoyed Mozart for his talent of the counterpoint, but I didn't love him like I loved Chopin. I really had a deep connection with Chopin. I felt like he was really a passionate person. He has those slow romantic, blue songs that I just love.


And at this time, were you starting to write your own songs? Did you have this serious studious side and then another other side in which you loved pop and R&B and wanted to write your own music?
I wrote my first song when I was 11. And it was actually inspired by the movie Philadelphia. It was about a year after my grandfather had passed away and I was very close to him. I had never showed my emotion very well. So when I saw that movie, I remember being very affected by this one scene where Tom Hanks was listening to opera on the record player. I remember being on the verge of tears. It struck me so deeply. I went home that night and I had this brown upright piano that used to be a player piano. I wrote my first song on it and that was kind of the beginning of songwriting for me.

Did you start listening to the music of your idols and focusing on the craft of their songwriting?
Well, at first I was just mimicking. I loved Mary J. Blige and I loved her song, "Remind Me of Our Love." You know, I would kind of mimic her. That was in the beginning, I remember that. That was definitely my style. But those songs never really came out that well because I was just trying to be somebody else. Or trying to mimic what I loved myself, you know. But it wasn't until I really started getting into different kinds of composers and songwriters who composed their own music like Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye and that kind of flow, that I really started recognizing the intricacies of layers of music and the way that you could speak about your own life.

You didn't have to try to mimic somebody else's life so much as play the tape of your own life. So that was kind of my introduction to that.

Then when I first got signed, I was 15 at the time, they were all looking to me to be this kind of wonder kid producer. And I remember that I felt really overwhelmed and I felt like I couldn't do it. I started getting together with all these different producers and that made it even worse. Because I totally couldn't find my own voice and my own sound and my own anything. That's when I really started listening to different music that I loved. Like I remember listening to Babyface and listening to the layers of his music and what made the chords so great and what made the music crescendo and what was it about it that made me like it?

So I started dissecting songs like that. As opposed to trying to mimic them, I started to dissect them. That's when I really started coming up with my own flow and style and got inspired like that. So it was kind of a journey.

In what way did your classical music studies help you in the pop world?
Classical piano totally helped me to be a better songwriter and a better musician. You know, I understood music. I knew the fundamentals of music. And I understood how to put things together and pull it together and change it. The dedication that it took to study classical music is a big reason why I have anything in this life I think.

So, yeah, classical music was a big influence on me. It opened a lot of doors because it separated me from the rest. It gave me a certain foundation where I could sit down and play for the head of some label, you know, a Fats Waller song or a Satie song and they would be like, "Wow, that's different."

And it did help me structure my songs. A lot of people tell me that they feel like "Fallin’" has a classical feel to it, and although I don't exactly feel that, I definitely see how the broken arpeggio chords have that classical feel. So I guess it could, in a way, be like "Moonlight Sonata" or something that has those kind of broken chords. I love that and I'm really happy that it is part of my foundation.



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"There is something so amazing about the language and the way that it can just paint pictures and express a moment in time with such genuine honesty. It's not easy to do that, but when it happens, it's definitely a spiritual thing for me."
— Alicia Keys

Now when your first album came out, it just blew up and you became a household name very quickly. I think a lot of people's impression is that you released your first record and it was this masterpiece and you were this fully formed maestro because you were also credited with being the album�s producer and arranger. What had you done before Keys in A Minor?
Well I definitely had a lot of recordings. I mean I have a whole two albums' worth of songs that nobody has really ever heard. And then I had a falling out with my label and had to find another place to go. So I had all of that.

I had also created a lot of songs for different soundtracks and things like that. So I definitely had plenty of chances to mess up.


Now when your first album came out, it just blew up and you became a household name very quickly. I think a lot of people's impression is that you released your first record and it was this masterpiece and you were this fully formed maestro because you were also credited with being the album’s producer and arranger. What had you done before Keys in A Minor?
Well I definitely had a lot of recordings. I mean I have a whole two albums' worth of songs that nobody has really ever heard. And then I had a falling out with my label and had to find another place to go. So I had all of that.

I had also created a lot of songs for different soundtracks and things like that. So I definitely had plenty of chances to mess up.


Tell me a bit about your work with Kerry "Krucial" Brothers. You have a partnership with him. How did that originate and what does that relationship mean to you?
Absolutely. Kerry Brothers is the other half of me, musically, and we totally connected from the beginning. And together we formed a company called KrucialKeys.

We first met down in the Village on a hot summer night when everybody was out on every corner and there was music everywhere coming from cars, people were beat boxing and people were freestyling. It was just so alive down there during that time. And that's where we met and that's how we realized we had this mutual love for music. And he's always been really into hip hop and the underground and emceeing and arranging and just really putting things together. And I obviously had this whole classical background and definitely an R&B and soul background, and that was my kind of flow. So, we started talking.

This was during the time when I was trying to find my sound and my flow. I was with all these different producers - I mean they just totally didn't get me and didn't get the fact of how much I brought to the table. It was just a wrong thing for that time. But Kerry and I really connected in an even greater way and just kind of created things for the love of creating, you know? So we developed a really great friendship and a good connection. To this day, musically speaking, he has been a huge influence on my music and the way that it sounds, the way that it feels and that fusion that allows so many different people, thank God, to respond to the songs and the music. We have magic as partners. It’s such an amazing thing. Because it's so hard a find a perfect fit like that. There's not very many of them and we definitely plan to be the next "Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis," the "L.A. and Babyface," those kind of classic partners, that will forever go down in history.





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In June, Rob Thomas presented Alicia Keys with the Songwriters Hall of Fame Starlight Award

Now you've done a fair amount of co-writing. What do you get out of the collaborative process when it works?
When I was working on my first album, before the one that actually came out, I cowrote with Van Hunt. We had a really great connection. And he's the one that told me that all you need for a great song is three chords and the truth. I never really got that at that moment. I wasn't ready to see that. But I understand that now. So I find that, for me, different songs come to me in different ways.

Sometimes it's a very personal song and a very private way of creation and it's just my own world and my own moment that comes out and there it is and it exists and it's beautiful. And sometimes there’s a certain type of song that I want to accomplish. And I know that with my co-writer and with different people that I connect with, that this would be a great time for us to collaborate. So when we get together and I say here's my idea and here's what I have, the magic is there because I know their style and their flow and what they offer. It’s a very comforting feeling to write with somebody that you trust and that you've developed a relationship with. It can be inspiring when you are bouncing ideas off each other, and it broadens your horizons. Writing with other people sometimes takes you in a direction you may not have gone. It just opens doors and I think it's great when it's the right collaboration.


You've been honored with so many awards this year, including ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year Award…
Yeah, baby.


Congratulations on that. You were also honored with the Songwriters Hall of Fame Starlight Award. What does it mean to you to be honored as a songwriter?
To be honored as a songwriter is a really special thing for me. I definitely believe that the song is something that lasts forever. It's the words in a song that make a person identify with it. There is something so amazing about the language and the way that it can just paint pictures and express a moment in time with such genuine honesty. It's not easy to do that, but when it happens, it's definitely a spiritual thing for me. So I really honor the songwriting process and I really appreciate being able to express my feelings or the feelings of many, even though it first starts with my feelings and what I have been through or what I need to express for myself. To be someone that people appreciate and can identify with is an honor. It's the thing that feels the most satisfying.


You’ve described your career as a journey. In terms of growing as a songwriter from the songs you wrote on your first record to the songs on your latest, to the songs you're writing now, what’s an important lesson that you've learned? Or rather, what works for you now?
Well, what works for me is writing about what I know, about what I've lived and experienced, or writing about something that affects me in a real way.

I find that that's when it's definitely the most pure. That's when it gives me the most goosebumps. That's when it just feels right inside, you know? But even when I'm writing for other people, I like to get into their life. I like to know what's making me cry. What's making me feel something that strong, so that I can try to explain that. That's the thing that I relate to. I don't want to hear something that kind of sounds like the person doesn't even mean it. It's when I try to write that it's wrong. But when I just write, it's right.

What's a piece of advice you could give to not just a young songwriter, but anyone who has talent who is pursuing their dream of creating music?
Well, I definitely feel like it's important to always, always, always just keep doing what you love. Keep doing what you do. I think that in the business of music, there are times when you feel forced to fit into a certain style that's popular at the time. I know, especially for people who really love to write great songs, that it's so frustrating, as if good songs and real true songs are not always in style. But I really believe that when you have something special and unique and something that will set you apart from the rest, that it's really valuable. Instead of trying to be like everyone else, I think it's really important to continue to have that unique style about you that will eventually be discovered and truly appreciated.