When she emerged on the music scene in summer 2001, it was clear Alicia Keys had all the makings for stardom.
Lovely, fashionable and gifted, she ably straddled the worlds of classic soul and modern pop, a classically trained pianist who gracefully infused her hook-laden songs with a cosmopolitan air.
Seven years and 11 Grammy Awards later, Keys resides securely in popular music’s upper tier. Her fall release, “As I Am,” spent four weeks atop Billboard’s album chart and became the fourth-bestselling record of 2007.
Keys has grown leaps and bounds since her early shows, where her sets were as notable for their limited material as for her sweet-hearted performances. Now she’s on her first full-fledged arena tour with a set list that’s certainly no longer lacking for hits.
“I’ve just come more into my own,” she says. “And really, with experience comes confidence, and a little bit more awareness of how I would like to do it, having learned from the past.”
Keys held a recent teleconference to talk with reporters about her tour, a recent controversy and plans to segue into acting. Here’s a walk through the world of Alicia Keys:
Keys has steadily climbed the tour ladder, from the small venues to the big-stage spectacle of this latest outing. She says there’s a “feminine strength that resonates throughout the whole show,” as she embraces lessons learned on the road since her days opening for R&B star Maxwell.
“Every time is a learning process. Honestly, I mean, I bet you can ask the Rolling Stones and they would say every time is a learning process. You definitely get more confident and more clear as time goes on. For me, at least, I always try something different and that’s just part of who I am and what I like to do, not only musically but as a performer as well.
“Each time I push myself to another level and this time, because of `As I Am,’ I chose to tell the story of kind of my journey from the beginning to where I am now through this show and through the music, through the arrangements and that kind of thing. And so it has so many styles to it, so much versatility to it. There are very big large moments and there’s very intimate personal private moments where no one’s on the stage but me. ...
“I think I get closer and closer to perfecting the performer in me.”
“As I Am” was a natural progression for Keys : a mature album with its eye on pop-crossover success - via collaborations with John Mayer and songwriting titan Linda Perry - but still enamored of the old-school sounds that made Keys a late entrant in the neo-soul revival at the turn of the decade.
“I’ve grown a whole lot musically, definitely, because I’ve just started to discover for me what feels good in regards to creating the ... kind of tapestry that is the music and found different ways to express that and make it very complete. I think this is definitely the most complete album that I’ve done yet and I definitely know there will be even better ones coming. ... Musically it’s just a journey, and it’s so lush. ... I experimented a lot using my keyboards and a whole lot of effects like ... pedals, like we do these crazy Echoplexes on Wurlitzers and Rolands, and I’d even use harpsichords and amp them up. And it was a lot of fun like that, experimenting and playing with organs ... making them dirty and dusty, dingy sounding.
“I think I’ve grown vocally - to be able to just express myself even more clearly, not only with my tone but with my words too. And working with some great people just brought out new sides to me. That was a great experience too. I’ve definitely grown a ton. And also in life I’ve grown as a woman, and I’m learning a lot, so I think you hear it in there.”
Keys was trained in the classical touchstones before landing a scholarship to New York’s prestigious Professional Performing Arts School. Even as her performances branch out - her shows are now choreographed affairs, with Keys often out front alone with a microphone - Keys says she’ll never entirely abandon her first love.
“There’s a certain (group) of people, mostly critics, that tend to just want to see me behind the piano. And I can respect that. Believe me, I love being behind the piano as well, and I love the way it feels. And that’s why a large portion of my show is me behind the piano.
“But I’m also young, and I’ve also been raised on a ton of styles of music, and I discover new music every day, and it’s really important for me to try new things all the time. So I think as a performer it’s exciting and it’s fun to do things that challenge me and even push myself to a new level, a new place, and give it a shot.
“I mean, when I come to see a show, I want to see somebody who’s totally into what they do and I’m into every aspect of every portion of it - be it in front of the piano, on top of the piano, behind the piano, underneath the piano. You’re getting 175 percent of me on that stage every night. When I do that last number and I come down backstage, I am hands on my knees panting as if I ran a marathon because that’s how much I put into it.”
Keys encountered the most controversial moment of her career when she was quoted in the May issue of Blender magazine as saying that gangster rap “was a ploy to convince black people to kill each other” and that the feud between late rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls was stoked by the government and the media.
Though she quickly released a statement stressing that “I am not a conspiracy theorist,” Keys has continued to face questions about remarks she says made her look “too radical.” Nonetheless, she says pop artists hold back too much in speaking about issues.
“I saw firsthand that even as positive of a person as I am, there’s so many times when you have conversations or you’ll explain a thought that you’re having and it totally gets misinterpreted and then sensationalized and it’s totally inaccurate. And so I think that does discourage people from being more verbal about what’s going on when it totally gets turned around incorrectly, or the whole thought isn’t portrayed properly. ...
“In such a tumultuous world there’s so many things going on. There is so much to talk about. But I think it’s definitely important to talk about things that are positive - that’s why it is important for me to represent Keep A Child Alive and my other organizations. ... And that’s why it’s exciting to talk about this year’s election and the way that I think there will be such major changes made and strides made in how it’s so important for us all to get involved and really make sure that we’re aware of what’s going on and making sure that we can help to implement the best person who can really make the greatest impact on our country.”
Two decades after an appearance on “The Cosby Show,” Keys appeared in last year’s crime thriller “Smokin’ Aces,” the first in a series of feature-film appearances that included an even higher profile role in the comedy “The Nanny Diaries.”
Next up is “The Secret Life of Bees,” in which she’ll appear with Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah. The film is set to premiere in late `08. She says the focus required in acting is similar to the one she’s accustomed to adopting in her music.
“You definitely have to want to give your best performance, and have to have a certain amount of abandonment when giving it. And it’s the same with music and on stage. When I go up there I’m not like thinking about how to perform - I’m giving it for better for worse. However it happens I just give it, and it’s the same kind of approach I take with acting. I think that for me it’s definitely about capturing an honest emotion that I can understand and giving it the truth as I know it so that it comes off that way to the people that see it. ...
“The differences, I would say, are like when I am doing the music things it’s really my vision, it’s my music, it’s my lyrics, it’s my life, it’s my thoughts, it’s my pains and my joys and all of that. And with film you’re definitely portraying another life. And it has traces of me in it but it’s not 100% me. And also, there’s so many other people that go along with making it good so ... I do my part and I do it the best I can possibly do it, and then kind of let it be what it’s meant to be because there’s so many pieces that make it what it is.
“And the other big difference is the time. Music is always so late. Everything is late and you’re working holidays, weekends, New Year’s, Christmas, you work any day. And film is totally different. Everything is super early. You’ve got to be there at 4 in the morning. You’re off on the weekends - like, everyone takes off for Christmas. It’s totally, totally more regimented. So it’s interesting, when I do films I’m like, `Wow, I’ve got it good!’”
For all her success - and globetrotting life - Keys has largely managed to remain out of the paparazzi glare, scrupulously maintaining her privacy while retaining strict controls on media access.
“I definitely pray for that because I don’t want that kind of life, ever. That’s not really my style and that’s not my thing. I’ve never been the one that kind of goes to the `it’ places and does the `it’ things and goes to the `it’ restaurant and the `it’ club.
“I travel very, very low-key and I like it like that. I’m not going to pull up in like a Rolls-Royce and have like 17 people hop out of the car with me and necklaces dripping and I just ... that’s not really my thing. Since I roll kind of quiet, it stays kind of quiet, and I like it.”