Grammy winner Alicia Keys looks back on nearly 10 years in the music business

by Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

5 March 2010


DETROIT — Alicia Keys isn’t taking anything for granted.

The 29-year-old pianist-songwriter has enjoyed ample blessings since arriving on the scene nine years ago, most recently with her platinum fourth album, “The Element of Freedom.” Keys’ elegant, eloquent R&B has proved enduring since she emerged as a precocious talent with a Grammy-winning punch. And it’s given her the luxury of branching out: In the fall, she launched AK Worldwide, a philanthropic enterprise with the slogan “The Business of Inspiration.”

“I feel so blessed to be able to say that it’s approaching a decade. It’s like, how did that even happen? When did that even happen?” she says with a laugh. “But I feel so much better than ever before — there’s been so much growth, such an empowerment, such an understanding of what the business is, and my place in it, how I want to grow and expand.”

Keys’ new tour kicked off Wednesday in Chicago. In a show she describes as “grand and intimate at the same time,” Keys embraces her album’s reflective theme.

“It’s a lot about that journey of finding freedom,” she says. “The stage constantly evolves in interesting ways, and each act has a different feeling. The music pushes the story line, pushes the whole journey along. So it’s going to be really beautiful, but also emotional — it’s something where I hope people leave with a lot of thoughts in their minds about themselves.”

Q: I remember (in 2001) you were this 20-year-old who already seemed like a veteran star. But what do you see when you look back? Was there an uncertainty there that we just couldn’t make out?

A: I was totally trying to figure it out as I went. I remember telling Erika Rose, my managing director and one of my oldest friends — I remember looking at her and saying, “OK, I’m going to go in there, pretend I know exactly what I’m doing, and hope they believe me.” (Laughs) That was it. I’d go into places and pretend I knew exactly how I was supposed to be, how it all works, and they believed me. I just sold it. But I had no clue. I was totally confused, didn’t know one thing from another, and was just flying by the seat of my pants in a lot of ways. But obviously, I learned a lot from the experience.

Q: Where do those lessons show up in your work?

A: When you do things enough, you start getting a handle on what works and what doesn’t. Like with touring: I understand at this point there’s a certain number of shows I’m able to do per week, and anything more just becomes miserable. So let’s avoid the misery, let’s have a good time, and it’s OK that we might do four shows a week as opposed to six.

Creatively, I find that when I’m in the studio creating music, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I’ll never know exactly how it’s going to work. Sure, I have a fundamental idea of what makes a song great — I understand that more than before — but I still don’t know exactly how it’s going to come together, where the inspiration is going to come from, what will be that main sound that sets it off, what exactly will be the melody. And so every time is an incredible, new, awe-inspiring experience.

I’ve learned not to figure that part out too much, because the minute I think I know it — “Oh, I know how to make the perfect song and it sounds like this” — then it’s not going to be as exciting or as fresh. I don’t want to feel like I know it all.

Q: You seemed to get a little restless onstage a few years ago, and moved away from the piano for more of a front-woman role. What’s the balance on this tour?

A: Well, I didn’t want people to be able to peg me for one thing. The minute I feel like they’re pegging me as only one thing, I have to break that mold. I think that’s where you saw that restlessness coming through.

This time, it’s going to be interesting. There’s still a large segment at the piano that’s going to be really special, which I always love to do. But on the new record there’s been a lot of experimenting with new keyboard sounds and synthesizers and vintage organs, so there’s going to be a lot of ways to include that as well.

I always want to mix it up, and if it’s interesting to me, hopefully it’ll be interesting to you. So I’m pushing myself, going somewhere else with it, seeing where that brings it. It’s gonna be ill.


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