Singer-songwriter Alicia Keys

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The talented singer, songwriter and producer talks about the project for which she won her 15th Grammy this year (best R&B album), “Girl on Fire.”

Since her 2001 debut CD rocketed Alicia Keys to stardom, she's won 15 Grammys and sold more than 30 million albums. The New York-born singer-songwriter-producer began playing piano at age 7, wrote her first song at 14 and attended Manhattan's prestigious performing arts high school, graduating as valedictorian at 16. She was the first artist to sign with music mogul Clive Davis' J Records and, with her fusion of classical, R&B and jazz, began her rise to fame. Keys also finds time to act, as well as support various charities, including the Keep a Child Alive organization. Her fifth studio album, "Girl on Fire," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.


Tavis: Please welcome Alicia Keys to this program. The 14-time Grammy winner is out with her first album in three years now, and it’s the first since the birth of her two-year-old son, Egypt.

The project is called, as if you didn’t know, “Girl on Fire,” (laughter) as I mentioned at the top. It features a great lineup of guest artists. From the new disc, here is some of the video for the title track, “Girl on Fire.”

[Clip from “Girl on Fire”]

Tavis: So even when you have a legitimate reason for being gone for three years – a baby – you’ve earned that right to take a few years off.

Alicia Keys: Thank you.

Tavis: But even when you have a legitimate reason for doing that, three years in this business is so long.

So what fear, what trepidation, what angst, if any, does one have when they’re trying to put together a project that’s three years in the making?

Keys: Well, I personally, this whole project, this whole time in my life, this whole album really represents a really important time for me, where I’ve actually – it’s funny you bring up that word – where I’ve actually been in the process of removing fear from my vocabulary, from my essence.

Because I feel like we can do so much greatness when we’re not afraid. It’s when we become afraid of everything and worried about everything that you are never going to reach your highest potential.

So that’s actually been a really big driving force to this record, and even to the way that I’ve wanted to put this whole album together. This is about my journey. This is about a story.

This is about a woman, a girl becoming a woman, and all of those tests and trials and tribulations that that takes for someone to go through, and we all go through it – a boy becoming a man.

So in actuality, that’s why this album has been so important to me. Because it’s not about like, okay, quick, how many singles can we sell, and quick, how many – it’s not about “quick” anything.

It’s about, like, a real artistic statement and really being able to have something to say and bring the audience with me, and say we’re all going through this life together. How are you feeling? Here’s how I’m feeling.

So fear is not a part of my vocabulary, actually, and I think that it’s really made me a much smarter, braver for sure, person.

Tavis: A friend of mine sent me a note the other day, and I love – I’m trying to phrase it right. He said we have to give our fears an expiration date.

We have to give our fears an expiration date. If I were a songwriter I’d write that into a song somewhere, but I’m not. (Laughter)

Keys: All right, let me handle that for you. (Laughter)

Tavis: You handle that, yeah, yeah. But I love the line, “give our fears an expiration date.” Since you talked about this part of your life being about moving beyond fear, to the extent that you are willing, what are you afraid of? What were you trying to move beyond?

Keys: Yeah, I think that what I discovered was the amount of fear that you hold on from others. I feel like the majority of the fear that I had, or that we have, we hold from other people.

They’re like people that we trust, they’re their fears, so all of a sudden we think that they’re our fears, or people that we love, they’re their fears. So all of a sudden we think that they’re our fears.

When so many of the things that we’re holding on to are not even ours in the first place, they’re somebody else’s that’s been kind of given to us or that we’ve adopted, you know?

So I think there’s been a cleansing-out process for me about really removing people, things, thoughts, old, that have just kind of like hung around, and to really start to think about things in a really brand-new, out-of-the-box, fearless way.

Tavis: I’m you’ve been asked this question by others, but not by me. So here’s my chance to ask it for the umpteenth time. So the difference writing, producing, recording a record post-baby for you is what, has been what?

Keys: The difference. The difference in making this album has been everything. There’s not been one thing that’s –

Tavis: (Laughter) Well for starters, he’s on the record, so that’s one difference.

Keys: So that’s one difference, yes. (Laughter) There hasn’t been one thing that’s the same, not one thing. Even with just starting simply like with the process of recording the record when I first started.

Like, it was so different. I was, like, in a different time zone, I was in a different time frame. Whereas before I would be in the studio until like 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, I’d roll out of there when I felt like it, come back in there, at 12:00 literally, I gave myself a time, at 12:00.

Because he was about four months when I started, three, four months. So at 12:00, if there wasn’t magic happening in the studio, I was like okay, today’s not the day, I’ll come back tomorrow. Let’s pick it up tomorrow.

That was really cool, actually. That gave me a whole new perspective. I started a little bit earlier. I started to understand that there’s a – I can trust that I understand where things are unfolding to.

You don’t have to just kind of beat your head against the wall, which is what I kind of used to do. Also, I think there’s more of a freedom in me too. So now I’ve experienced more life, I’ve experienced love to a new capacity, a new depth.

I’ve also really stepped into my womanhood, so I think that the creation process was just more, like, open, and that’s why I actually combined with so many different people.

Because I wanted to do things that I’d never done before. It was like I needed to do things I never did before, and that was just the feeling that I had from the beginning.

Tavis: I ran into Aisha the other day, Stevie Wonder’s daughter.

Keys: Aw.

Tavis: Every time I see Aisha we find ourselves in some conversation about how many people to this day still walk up to her when they discover that she’s Stevie’s baby, and that she’s the one on the –

Keys: And be like, (singing) Isn’t she lovely –

Tavis: You got it. (Laughter)

Keys: They go in.

Tavis: That’s it. They go in when they hear that. So I’m wondering what you have now done to Egypt.

Keys: I know.

Tavis: What’s going to happen 20 years from now?

Keys: I know. He’s going to be like, “Say ‘Mom,'” and he’s going to be like, “Leave me alone.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Keys: “Just leave me alone.”

Tavis: Poor Egypt is going to be getting it like Aisha is all these years later.

Keys: Oh, man, that’s amazing.

Tavis: For those who don’t know why you named him Egypt, there’s a reason behind this.

Keys: Yes.

Tavis: So share.

Keys: Well, I guess it was about 2007 or so. It was right before I did my “As I Am” album. I went through a really tough time. I think I grew up really fast, I grew up in this really fast-paced business, and I never understood what it meant to take a break or take time off or recover.

I paid for it. I got really kind of out of it and down, and I guess even depressed in some senses. I just remember I found myself in a place where all I was doing was crying, and it was like not me, because I’m a very bright, bubbly kind of person who sees the world as a half-full place.

So a good friend of mine told me, “You should take a break and you should go see the world, go somewhere.” That is when I chose to go to Egypt. So I took this beautiful trip to Egypt.

It was the first time ever in my whole life I took three weeks off. I sailed down the Nile and I saw the tombs and the temples, and I experienced a place that was just so magical and so incredibly powerful and intelligent and inspiring.

I think I found, by seeing all of that power and that beauty in those structures, I think I found a way to rebuild myself. When I came back I definitely had a stronger sense of who I was and what I wanted to change.

It was definitely the beginning of where I am now, and so Egypt really did that to me. So when I was pregnant and we were talking about names and everything, my husband, he was like, “Well, Egypt is, like, such a big, important part of your life, why don’t we name the baby Egypt? Whether it’s boy or a girl, Egypt would be beautiful.”

When he said Egypt, I was like, “That’s it.” (Laughter) That’s it. He was Egypt in the embryo stage for so long, so he’s been Egypt.

Tavis: That’s cool. That’s a great story.

Keys: I don’t need to name names here, because you know what I’m talking about. But to your point of growing up so fast in this business, you’ve been around a lot of people who have burned out.

Those artists who were once great who are no longer here, because along the way they had trouble navigating a certain aspect of their life. What have you taken from those persons who you’ve had access to when you talk of your own challenges and your own fears and your own troubles and travails?

How are you managing it? Because to those on the outside, even though we know you’re human and you have ups and downs, you are managing this, it seems, pretty well.

You’re still putting out good music, you’re married now and you got a baby now, you seem in a good space.

Keys: Thank you.

Tavis: You’re transparent with all that in your lyrical content. So you seem to us to be well-adjusted –

Keys: Thank you.

Tavis: – to all of this success. How are you navigating that?

Keys: I first – it’s definitely a navigation, and I think most incredibly what I’ve discovered is that it’s all mental, which I guess life is all mental. It is your state of mind as to how your life becomes and is.

So I guess that seems obvious, but I think that what happens in this world, somehow we get caught up in this place where things that don’t really matter start to matter, and it starts to get confusing as to like what your, what you hold true to yourself.

So for me, I think a lot of that comes from being raised by a really incredible woman. I was raised by my mother, and she is no-nonsense and she’s phenomenal and she’s incredible, and she’s always kept me in line.

I think part of that has been really good for me, you know what I mean, so I have a really strong, grounded sense, just from beginning. I think another big part of how I’ve navigated is where I grew up.

I grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood, I grew up around drugs, alcohol, prostitution, I grew up around everything. I think part of seeing that from really young has made me really steer very far away from it in all of its forms.

So I think that’s kind of been a big help for me. I think being really connected to a higher power, of having a spirituality to me, has been really good for me. I pray all the time.

I also think that I’ve been fortunate to be able to – like just last night I was saying the most important thing is to be proud of the work that you put into something, and put the ego aside.

I think it’s the ego in us that screws us up. So I think about that a lot, and I really want to stay grounded to the real things in life. I really don’t want to get caught up in the things that don’t mean anything.

Because at the end of the day, so many things that we hold so much value with, it just doesn’t even mean anything. So why take yourself on that trip. I really try to stay focused on being really positive.

I read this thing on my tea the other day. It said, “Be happy every day you have breath.” Yeah, right?

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Last modified: March 5, 2014 at 12:21 am