Seven years after her Grammywinning debut, Alicia Keys has no illusions about the job she’s here to do.
“When you think about it, I’m in the business of pleasing people,” explains the 27-year-old singer, songwriter and pianist. “I please their ears. I please them to listen to what’s going on, to say, hopefully, what they feel in their heart, to really allow them some type of sense of relief, ‘cause that’s what music does to me — the good stuff, it gives me a feeling of relief, an understanding of some body listening to me.
“That’s my job. And I do it with all my heart, ‘cause I love it.”
There’s no question that Keys does it well, too. Since “Songs in A Minor” arrived in 2001 and snagged five Grammys, including Best New Artist, Keys has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide and grabbed another six Grammys. She also embraced acting with roles in “Smokin’ Aces” and “The Nanny Diaries,” and in a pair of forthcoming films — an adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel “The Secret Life of Bees” and “Black and White,” the Halle Berry-produced film about the biracial classical piano prodigy Philippa Schuyler.
Keys has kept the string going with “As I Am,” her third studio album. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in November, selling 742,000 copies and setting a new record for the top-selling first week by a female R&B artist (it’s since sold more than five million copies worldwide). The album’s first single, “No One,” logged long stays atop the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and it snagged two Grammys for Keys earlier this year.
A successful Keys wasn’t necessarily a content one, however. Though pleased and feeling “so incredibly blessed” with her achievements, she found herself in an odd state after coming off the road to support her sophomore album, 2003’s “The Diary of Alicia Keys.” She was tired, first of all. And she was also weary of the beck-and-call path she found herself on.
“You kinda get used to doing things at people’s request — ‘OK, they need me over here? I’ll be there. I need to do this? I’ll do that...’,” explains Keys, who was born Alicia Augello-Cook in New York and was raised by her mother in Hell’s Kitchen, taking piano lessons from the time she was seven.
“After awhile, it just became a bit confusing for me. Although I did it with my best intentions and I did it loving every minute of what I was doing and I didn’t want to stop, I kinda lost myself, my time to say, ‘Hold on, Alicia, what are you feeling? What’s happing to you in all this? What do you need at this point?’
“That kind of went on for a bit too long, and by the time I figured it out it was, like, already too late to retract.”
Keys was brought down to earth, however, in the summer of 2006, when she had to care for a seriously ill relative who she declines to identify. Nevertheless, it forced her to stop that constant track of career and focus on something she felt was even more profound.
“Nothing else mattered,” recalls Keys, who was writing and recording music at the time but was dissatisfied with the results. “To just be kind of hit like that and just stop was very powerful but was one of the best things that ever happened to me because it made me look around and see, ‘Whoa, whoa, Whoa ... what’s important here in the big scheme of things? What’s really important?
“It forced me to look at who I was and who I was becoming, and did I like that person so much and did I want to sacrifice my own spirit for this? I was just really going through a time when I was breaking down, and everybody around me could see ... that something was really, really wrong.”
At a friend’s suggestion, Keys decided to take a trip — “Totally by myself, for the first time ever,” she says — to Egypt and Tuscany. Keys “threw away my Blackberry” and floated down the Nile, sang atop pyramids, visited ancient temples and swam in the Red Sea.
“I think that was my personal pilgrimage to find myself, and I really did find myself out there,” she says now. “I just understood what I wanted for myself, and I just became renewed. I had a new vigor in me and a new confidence.”
Upon her return, Keys says she “felt rebellious. I felt strong. I felt selfdetermined. I felt liberated. I felt honest ... And I felt like I wasn’t going to let anybody else but myself guide me to where I know I want to be. And that’s when I started making the music.”
Keys wasted little time in following her new muse and “purposely put myself in very vulnerable, uncomfortable positions” — including songwriting collaborations with other artists, including hitmaker Linda Perry, John Mayer (on the track “Lesson Learned”), Floetry’s Marsha Ambrosius and Keys’ boyfriend Kerry Brothers. Continuing to refine her mix of R&B, jazz, blues and hip-hop flavors, Keys also began stretching her vocals, pushing the extremes of both polished and raw styles.
“A lot of people have said, ‘Wow, Alicia, you sound different,’” Keys acknowledges. “I think I sound different because I am different. After a lot of searching, I found the new sense of self-liberation and just was feeling really free to be the person that I’m meant to be.
“I wanted to let it happen the way it was meant to happen. I think that approach allowed me to come up with by far the best music I’ve done — so far, at least.”
The campaign for “As I Am” is continuing — a third single, “Teenage Love Affair,” is currently working its way up the charts — but Keys is already actively thinking about her next album, which she’d like to be “totally strippeddown, strippedback, totally piano-based, singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, Carole King type of vibe.”
The key for Keys, however, is finding a chance to make some new music amidst a tour schedule that has dates booked into 2009.
“At this point I’m trying to find the space to continue to record as I’m on tour,” she says. “That’s always a bit of a challenge for me, ‘cause it takes so much out of me to tour. But there’s always that urge to stay creative and write on that more personal side. So the main goal now is to continue to find that quiet space somewhere in the madness.”
Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo and Jordin Sparks perform at 8 p.m. Friday (June 6) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $39.50-100. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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