When Alanis Morissette needed to clear her head, she went to India. When Mariah Carey couldn’t handle the pressure anymore, she went to a sanitarium. When Alicia Keys faced a near-breakdown, she went to Egypt. By herself. For three weeks.
“That trip was definitely the most crucial thing I’ve ever done for myself in my life to date,’ said the Grammy-winning superstar, 27. “It was a very difficult time that I was dealing with, and it just came to the point where I really needed to - basically, I just needed to run away, honestly. And I needed to get as far away as possible.”
About a year and a half ago, the pace and pressure of her workaholic lifestyle were mounting. She was having trouble sleeping. She wasn’t happy with the new music she was making. Then her much-loved grandmother died, and her family leaned heavily on her. She had to get out of New York. Fast.
Keys didn’t know why she chose Egypt. The destination “just came out of nowhere” when she was on the phone with her travel agent. Said Keys: “I was like, `I want to sail down the Nile, I want to see the temples, the tombs and the pyramids. I want to be moved, I want to see something I’ve never seen before.’ And it turned out to be the best choice that I’ve ever made.”
She also traveled to Tuscany in Italy as part of what she called a “personal pilgrimage” because “I’m half black, and much of my mother’s heritage is Italian.”
These three weeks of “self-discovery” in late 2006 were the longest break she’d taken since rising to the top with her debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” in 2001. Confronting the history, timelessness, strength, fortitude and longevity of the pyramids and temples “gave me a whole new perspective’ on possibilities for her life and music.”
“It did make me a better artist, because I came back and I was just freer,” said the singer-pianist. “I just took all these restrictions off myself and all of these kind of rules and regulations and ways that I was used to creating and all this crap, and threw it out the window. I just allowed myself to be vulnerable and free and open. And it created some of the best music I’ve ever created.”
She started anew on material for “As I Am,” which soared to No. 1 in November. It has sold more than 3 million copies, making it the runaway best-seller of the past six months.
The new album is stripped-down and vulnerable. But, for someone known for turning her diaries into hits, her songs are still short on details though long on emotion.
She was similarly circumspect in an interview. Long the subject of romantic rumors - ranging from: she’s a lesbian to she’s involved with her musical collaborator Kerry (Krucial) Brothers - Keys declined to comment about anything personal. That makes her a rarity in the tell-all culture of celebrity journalism.
“I will never come clean on my private life,” she said in a recent hourlong conference call from Paris. “I don’t think anybody deserves to know, except myself and the person that I love and the people that I love. I think one of the most important things that Oprah ever told me was that if she could, she would take it back. So I think that it just becomes messy. I would prefer people to speculate and get it right or get it wrong, that’s fine. But I would rather not make it an issue.”
She even declined to specify the person in her life who died. However, she’d mentioned in a February interview with the Sunday Times of London that it was her paternal grandmother.
Keys didn’t hesitate to talk about two Minnesota men in her life. Bob Dylan enigmatically mentioned her in “Thunder on the Mountain,” the opening song on his 2006 “Modern Times” album: “I was thinkin’ `bout Alicia Keys, I couldn’t keep from crying/While she was born in Hell’s Kitchen I was living down the line/I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be/I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee.’
Being name-checked in a Dylan ditty was “definitely a bit of a shock,” she said. “I didn’t quite believe it, honestly. My friend John Mayer was the first person that told me about it. And I was like, `Stop it, John. Why?’ I didn’t understand why. And so obviously after I found it was definitely the truth, it was just a great honor. For me to live in his songbook is pretty damn cool.”
While she doesn’t know Dylan, Keys does know Prince, whom she inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
“When they asked me to do that, of course I was like, `Absolutely. When and where do I have to be?’” she said. “And they were like, `Do you want us to write something for you?’ And I was like, `Absolutely not, I have to say what I feel about him.’ I just wrote from my heart, just like I do with my songs and anything else that I write. Honestly, I wrote that probably in just one sitting, like just writing what I felt and then I went back and edited it to keep it tight, because I probably went on and on too much.”
Keys grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, on the west side of midtown Manhattan, raised by her mother Terri Augello, an actress and legal secretary. Her father, Craig Cook, then a flight attendant, left the picture when his daughter was 2.
At 4, Alicia acted on “The Cosby Show” and three years later began studying classical piano. At 16, she graduated as valedictorian of her class at the Professional Performing Arts School. Set to attend Columbia University, she instead signed a demo deal and landed a song on the “Men in Black” soundtrack.
Her debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” sold more than 10 million copies and led to five Grammys. The ensuing Grammy-winning “Diary of Alicia Keys” and “Unplugged” both went to No. 1.
After acting cameos on a few TV programs, Keys appeared in the 2007 films “Smokin’ Aces” and “The Nanny Diaries.” She has shot “The Secret Life of Bees,” a girlfriend movie with Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning, due later this year. Her next project could be a bio-pic about Lena Horne, the singer, actress and civil-rights activist, to whom Keys bears a striking resemblance.
“I’m not officially supposed to confirm anything at this present moment, but things have been confirmed by other people,” she said. “So I will answer that by saying that that would be one of my dream projects. I think that in many ways I was born to play Lena Horne; I would be so honored to be able to represent her life.
“It is a very interesting, complex, diverse, historic life, legendary life. And I think that it’s such a wonderful story to learn about, because you realize how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t come. And you realize the boldness and the vulnerability and the braveness of people that maybe they don’t even realize.”
Sounds a bit like her life story as well.