Singer-songwriter Alicia Keys

Originally aired on December 5, 2012

The multiple Grammy winner talks about her new CD, “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.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Alicia Keys to this program. The 14-time Grammy winner is out with her first album in three years now, and this is the first since the birth of her 2-year-old son, Egypt. The project is called, as if you didn’t know, “Girl on Fire.” 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.”

[Video clip of "Girl on Fire"]

Tavis: So even though you have a legitimate reason for being gone for three years – a baby; you’ve earned that right -

Alicia Keys: thank you.

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

Keys: Mm, mm.

Tavis: 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 – we all go through it.

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 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.

Tavis: You handle that, yeah. (Laughter) But I love the line, “give our fears an expiration date.”

Keys: Mm.

Tavis: Since you talked about this part of your life being about moving beyond fear, to the extent that you are willing, what were 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. 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 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, and 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, like, start to think about things in a really brand-new, out of the box, fearless way.

Tavis: I’m sure 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 of making this album has been everything. There’s not been one thing that’s (laughter) -

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

Keys: So that’s one.

Tavis: Yes.

Keys: 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, 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 would 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.

And also I think that there was more of a freedom in me too, so now I’ve experienced more like, I’ve experienced love to a new capacity and new depth, and 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: Aww.

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,” he’s going to be like, “Leave me alone.” (Laughter) “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, a 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, and 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 is 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, and so I took this beautiful trip to Egypt. It was the first time ever in my whole life I took three weeks off, and I sailed down the Nile and I saw the tombs and the temples, and I experienced a place that was 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, and it was definitely the beginning of where I am now.

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 a boy or a girl? Egypt would be beautiful.

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

Tavis: That’s cool. That’s a great story. 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’ve got a baby now, you seem at 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: 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 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 that 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, and 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, and I think being really connected to a higher power, of having a spirituality to me, has been really good for me and 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?

So I really try to stay focused on being really positive about – I read this thing on my tea the other day. It said be happy every day you have breath. Yeah, right?

Tavis: Pretty basic, but that’s what it’s about, thought.

Keys: So, it sounds simple but it’s kind of true.

Tavis: Yup.

Keys: So it helps me just stay, like, focused.

Tavis: You said stay focused twice now. When you were a child, tell me how you did that. I ask this, Alicia, in part because I believe that every child, every one of us is gifted and talented in our own unique ways.

Keys: Me too. Me too.

Tavis: Most of us have, if not two parents, at least a parent in the house, and so many kids like you have grown up or are growing up right now in difficult neighborhoods.

Keys: Right.

Tavis: So what separates you from so many of the others, that you were able to stay focused and find your way to your gift and then to enhance that gift and now to exploit that gift in a very beautiful way? So how did you in that neighborhood, in those surroundings, with a single mom, how did you stay focused?

Keys: That’s 50/50, because a lot of that, sometimes I feel – I’ve asked myself that question too, and there are so many things where I realize, like, simple circumstance, like the simple choice that I made one night to not do that and to do this, one night could have changed everything.

I don’t really know why I didn’t make that choice, but I’m hoping that I followed some type of instinct that was somewhere deep down in there that was shouting at me real loud, and I was like, mm, and so I went the other way.

But it’s as simple as that, and sometimes I think about that so much. So I think following my instinct has proven to lead me in the right direction, and it’s hard to hear sometimes, because it’s a noisy world and there’s a lot of people talking to you.

But I think that that’s a big part of it. Again, I think there was something about being in a tough environment that gave me a certain drive. Like I knew what I didn’t want really early, really early, I knew what I didn’t want. I knew who I didn’t want to, what I didn’t want to have to do, or who I didn’t want to emulate.

I think definitely, fortunately for me I did have a really strong mother, and I think even if your family – I tell people who I speak to a lot even if your family – just because they’re blood doesn’t mean that they necessarily give you the best advice.

Even if your family isn’t quite there for you, find the people that support you and hang on to those people and try to let go of those that try to take you down. So I think because I had someone who was supportive to me, that helped me have just that other big of confidence, to try to, like, keep going.

Tavis: Since you obviously know when magic is happening, what does that mean for you? Just take me inside your studio. On any given night, the clock strikes midnight and you know that magic is happening, so you’re going to stick around a little longer. What’s that actually mean? How does that feel on the inside? What’s that like?

Keys: Well, it feels really good, and you notice instantly that your energy is reverberating, is the way I can describe it, and there’s, like, something that you could feel it but you can’t see it.

So there’s things that are unfolding, so maybe if it’s something lyrical, say like I’m in the middle of writing something, or I’m with a collaborator and we’re working on something, working on some ideas and we’re kind of, and you can feel that there’s an energy that’s going back and forth and it’s going back and forth.

Then that leads you to the next thing, like okay, well, when this is done we have to go in there and make sure that we put, like let me put this piano down so I can put the next thing. And wait, could you put some, do you hear some – and it’s just like an energy that’s happening that -

Tavis: So it’s clicking, yeah.

Keys: – everything starts leading to the next thing, and basically what happens is you don’t pay attention to the time anymore.

Tavis: I got it. (Laughter) And then it’s 5:00.

Keys: And then whatever time it is, it is, but you know, like, you’re in it and you’re not forcing it. It’s, like, natural. It’s natural. It’s just happening. It’s natural. And then there it is.

Tavis: You mentioned collaborating. This, to my mind, and you might – you know your stuff better than I do. I know it fairly well. But to my mind, this is one of the most collaborative projects that you’ve done.

Keys: It is.

Tavis: Yeah.

Keys: It is, I’ve never done a collaborative -

Tavis: Yeah, not this stuff.

Keys: I’ve never done a – no, I haven’t, and like I said, there was something that I wanted to start to see what would happen when I would combine with people that were from totally different spaces than me. It was just something, it was an experiment, I guess, and also a practice of just kind of like being free, not being contained. I think sometimes we get so comfortable, like, being, or doing whatever we do.

This is how we do it, and then we come home at this time and then we do this thing, and then I only do that, and then I kind of go here. So we’re so comfortable.

Tavis: But they say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and your stuff ain’t been broke.

Keys: It’s true, and I -

Tavis: I just hacked up the English language, didn’t I? “Yo’ stuff ain’t been broke.” (Laughter) So why do you go try to fix it with some – it worked, but it seems to me there’s some risk involved. When you know your stuff is clicking, then why collaborate?

Keys: Because it feels like I needed to.

Tavis: Right.

Keys: And it feels like I wanted to. I wanted to see what happened. Like, here’s as far as I can take it. Now where can you take it? I don’t know you, so what would happen when you take it? Now, do I like it? I love what happens when we just – that’s crazy, I would have never been able to think of that had we not done that together.

So I think there’s an energy about just remaining excited. Like, you can’t be excited when you’re not doing something new. You’re at your most purest, most innocent, pure state when you’re doing something you’ve never done before. You’re scared a little, you’re a little vulnerable, you’re kind of trying, and then you’re also better, because you’re trying harder than you maybe would try.

Trying hard in the sense not like, not to say that in an incorrect way, where it’s like you’re manufacturing or trying, but like you’re giving your best energy to it. So I think it was really important for me to do this, because I think I learned a lot and I found myself in places I’d never been before. I found myself in sonic zones I’d never been before.

I found myself in lyrical depths and oceans that I’d never swam before. I was like, whoa. There’s something really exciting about that. So if I can remain excited about the music that I’m giving you, then you’re damn sure going to be excited about it. So I’m very excited. Can you feel it?

Tavis: I feel it.

Keys: Okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: I feel it, and so does everybody in this room, and through the television, for that matter. One of the things that I have always – and I said this about you; I remember you came out on the scene and India.Arie came out on the scene, and there were others around that time. But just specifically for this part remember the two of you years ago, and it seems like a long time now, because you guys have been doing it so well for so long.

Keys: Thank you.

Tavis: But when you first came out I remember saying that the thing that I liked about you and again, India, as an example, is that both of you were writing your stuff, you were playing instruments.

Keys: Yes.

Tavis: That to me spoke to a certain kind of control that you had over your career that another artist might not have if they’re not writing stuff, if they’re not playing instruments. That’s not to say you can’t’ be a great artist, but there’s something that turned me on about the fact that here was an artist who was in control of her own content, and as a result, I thought had a good chance of being able to, with some good help, manage her brand into the future.

Keys: Right, yes.

Tavis: That’s the way I felt about it. How have you processed the success of your career, and at the epicenter of that you being able to dictate, because you are not just a voice, you’re all the other stuff as well.

Keys: It’s part of what I find is my greatest pride, and also I find that I’m so grateful that I can play and that I can execute what I hear in my head, because that’s the tricky part. You hear this thing, but how do you get it out? Like, how do you bring it forth?

I think of it almost like a child, like we were talking about my son the other day, and some kids were going outside and he wanted to go outside, and he was like, he really just wanted to say “Don’t leave me,” but he didn’t quite know how to put it together, so it came out more just like a cry.

So that’s kind of how it is with music. How do you make it real? There’s this thing in some other area and in another stratosphere, but how do you make it real? So I’m really grateful that I’m able to play and I’m able to write so that I can execute what it is that I’m thinking and feeling and hearing, and make it come to life.

So I definitely, I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of India for that too. I just saw her at this incredible show called Black Girls Rock, and not only did she have the guitar and this amazing song that was like, I was like, “I love this girl,” but she pulled out the flute, you know what I mean? And so -

Tavis: Flute?

Keys: – my point is is she’s learning and she’s growing and she’s orchestrating her sound and her emotions and her feeling and it’s her, and I think there is something really inspiring about that, you’re right, and I’m glad that I can do that as well.

Tavis: I mentioned the word “brand” a moment ago, and you are – not are; you have become that now. Tennis shoes – tell me all the stuff you got out there now? You’ve got shoes.

Keys: Well, okay, well, you asked me to tell you, right?

Tavis: I’m asking you.

Keys: Okay.

Tavis: I’m giving you the space to just riff.

Keys: Well -

Tavis: So you got Reebok shoes.

Keys: I do. I’ve done a collaboration with Reebok, which has been incredible designing. I just developed a children’s application that’s called the “Journals of Mama Mae and LeeLee.” It’s really incredible. It’s a digital book that also is almost like a movie with a gaming experience as well, where each time a new book comes out it updates your application in the bookshelf.

So the whole epicenter is this girl LeeLee, her bedroom. You’re able to play her piano, write in her journals, download music from the apps that I’ve also written and done a part of the score, and so it’s a whole world, and it’s unlike anything else, and I’m really proud of it.

I’ve also gotten heavy into production as well, not only with my music but with film and television, so I produced -

Tavis: And Broadway plays.

Keys: – my first Broadway play called “Stick Fly.”

Tavis: I saw that. I went to see it.

Keys: Which I loved -

Tavis: And paid.

Keys: Thank you.

Tavis: You’re welcome.

Keys: And also producing film and television. We did a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime called “Firelight,” and we just finished our first independent film directed by George Tillman, starting Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Mackey and Jeffrey Wright that just got into Sundance, called “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” that I’ll also be scoring, which I’m really excited for too, because I’ve never fully scored a film.

So this is my first time accessing that place, and I think it’s really I’m for me to, like, do that.

Tavis: You can stop now.

Keys: And then – no. (Laughter)

Tavis: She is a very, very busy artist and wife and mother.

Keys: Thank you.

Tavis: Fortunately for us, she’s still doing the music thing.

Keys: (Laughs) I love the music more than everything.

Tavis: Her new project -

Keys: Sorry.

Tavis: – is called “Girl on Fire” from Alicia Keys. I am so happy for you.

Keys: Thank you.

Tavis: And I’m glad you came to see us.

Keys: I’m so glad to be here.

Tavis: And congratulations.

Keys: I appreciate it.

Tavis: Come back again.

Keys: I will.

Tavis: All right. You got enough stuff to talk about, so come back when you want. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here -

Keys: And mine.

Tavis: – next time on – and hers too, yeah. She’s learned this promotion thing. (Laughter) Until next time, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

[Video clip of "Girl on Fire."]

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • iggy662000@yahoo.com

    This was a terrific show – do enjoy All PBS shows including a try to never miss Tavis Smiley

  • Bobie

    Alicia Keys ……… My woman, and I’m a woman, NOT gay! The Lady is truly AWESOME! Her BEAUTY oozes, inside and out; so real and down to earth, and Lord have Mercy, GIFTED in so many area’s! When I Grow up, I want to be just like her, and I am 64, soon to be 65 yrs old! THANK YOU Tavis for another wonderful show! Bobie Tulsa OK

    PS: Is it possible you can get Oprah on your show????? PLEASEEEEEEEEEEE

  • Sharon

    Thank you for this interview. I shared her growth with other family members. Keep up the good work. We are a fan of both you and Alicia. You keep on growing and sharing your learning “Professor”.

  • Sandra

    Tavis as always you are the consumate professional. Your interview with Alicia was wonderful. I love Alicia because she’s beautiful inside and out. The positive attitude she has speaks volumes about the woman that she must be……….Keep up the good work Tavis. I met you once and you were very nice.

  • Hafeezah

    Dear Brother,
    Just catching this interview w/Alicia Keys tonight on the repeat. . .So warming to listen to the growing depth of wisdom of this talented young woman, as her musical genius and spiritual being unfolds and develops in beautiful new directions. Her journey in motherhood has mellowed and reshaped her heart and soul, and the masterful environment you create as a host allows your guests authentic vulnerability and self-discovery. Keep being you!

    Hugs and blessings,
    Hafeezah/A CIRCLE OF SISTERS

  • Tradina DeMary

    Wow, I enjoyed that interview lessons learned from AK follow your instincts and stay focused.

Last modified: January 26, 2014 at 12:18 am