Multimedia domination, 4am emails and raising a prodigy. Step aside; Alicia Keys is taking care of business…
Words: Debbie McQuoid Photography: Rankin
It’s taken a while to get here. Months of negotiating. At first I would meet Alicia Keys in New York in July as she was finishing off her latest album, Girl On Fire. Then it was August; then Manchester in September. Now, we’re here in acclaimed photographer Rankin’s north London studio. Perhaps it’s this to-ing and fro-ing that means for a split second, waiting for Alicia to arrive, I’ve forgotten what a big deal she is. That whole ‘35 million albums sold worldwide, one of the best-selling artists of all time’ thing. My temporary amnesia disappears when a lot of people start to arrive.
Management, a UK PR, a US PR, creative director, a stylist, assistants, a seamstress, massive bodyguard. Alicia walks in last. Shades on, big bright easy smile; a total contradiction to the fuss being made around her. Or should I say the threat of a fuss, as nothing really kicks off. But if it did, there would be plenty of people to deal with it. Hair and make-up done, with the photos yet to be taken, Alicia breaks for lunch and a cup of tea so our interview can start. She’s fairly particular about ordering the soya milk and Rooibos tea but quickly follows it up with, “That might be asking a lot,” to the nervous looking studio waiter.
It’s pretty clear from Alicia’s back catalogue she’s something of a workaholic. Her first album Songs In A Minor, released in 2001, sold over 12 million copies worldwide and she picked up five Grammys the following year. A second album came just two years later, Diary Of Alicia Keys, selling eight million and picking up four more Grammys. Five studio albums in total; 14 Grammys. She has produced a Broadway play, Stick Fly, and several shows for US television, has co-directed a short film, Five, with Jennifer Aniston, acted in three films herself, and published a bestselling poetry book, Tears For Water.
“You’re right,” she says. “Passive waiting drives me nuts.” After 10 years at the top of her game, isn’t she exhausted? Or does it feel like yesterday?
“It feels weird because you don’t realise it until you start talking about it or celebrating it. Then you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, is it really 10 years?’ Believe me, I’m happy not to be back at the beginning, but I can remember it so distinctly and it feels very close.”
She asks the waiter to pass her some agave nectar (a natural sweetener). “Thank you so much,” she whispers in her almost ridiculously sultry voice. You know the one from the 2003 single You Don’t Know My Name? That wasn’t put on. She actually talks like that. “I like your shirt,” she tells him. I think he might faint.
For someone who seems to have worked as hard as she has, I tell her there hasn’t been a moment when she looked like she was about to lose the plot. “I was focused,” she agrees. “But I’m also one of the greatest pretenders you’ll ever meet. That’s [a skill] I know very well; all too well. But I’m actually learning to undo that. It’s not healthy.”
We all pretend at work to some degree, but when one’s job is so relentless – six world tours, countless promotional trips – I imagine things can get pretty fraught.
“I used to do things because it’s not [anyone else’s] fault I’m stressed or sad. And it’s true, it’s not. You shouldn’t be like, ‘I feel like f*cking sh*t, don’t bother me.’ That’s not right. And that’s professionalism. But I had gone so long hiding behind that mask that finally when it started to break down I was like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Alicia is quick to point out that nothing dramatic made her start standing up for herself. But with age came the confidence to be honest about her workload and how much she was willing to do.
“I had to start to honour the way I felt because when you keep covering it up, there’s a certain sadness it can give you. For a while, I wouldn’t even know where time went. If you asked me what I did for my birthday, I didn’t know because it was between this and that. I lost so many moments like that.”
For someone who has always been in control of her career, it seems the person Alicia had to push back against most was herself.
Born Alicia Cook in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen district, Alicia’s paralegal/ actress mother and her flight attendant father split when she was too young to remember. A childhood highlight was appearing on The Cosby Show as one of Rudy’s friends at a sleepover. If not a prodigy, Alicia was certainly a high achiever. She began piano lessons at seven, enrolled in a performing arts school at 12, began writing songs at 14, and graduated in just four years as valedictorian at the age of 16.
How does someone like that measure success? Do you keep on setting the bar higher for yourself?
“My husband was the first person who really said to me, ‘You’re not going to dinner after that big awards show? Why?’ It wasn’t even a part of my thinking to be like, ‘Wow, this is awesome. Look what we did.’ “That wasn’t the culture I was brought up in. I was working really hard and I don’t know if I expected anything. It was more like, ‘How much sleep can I get?’ Then when I began to know my husband, it would be little fun things he would do for me, or his friends. I never knew how he could know so many people. “He has a carefree spirit of how to take a moment and make it really fun and special. He opened my eyes to that. It started making my life so much more fun, enjoyable and… even.”
The husband she is so dearly crediting with changing her life is Kasseem Dean, aka hip-hop mega producer Swizz Beatz, whom she married in Corsica in July 2010.
“I feel so much more happy,” she gushes. “People are like, ‘You look amazing, you’re glowing,’ and I’m like, ‘YES, because I’m LIVING and I’ve gone out for DINNER.’ That’s beautiful.”
She talks so lovingly about Dean, almost glowing every time she mentions his name, I feel sorry for my own husband. Later, during the shoot, she puts him on Skype showing him shot by shot her day, not afraid to share a pretty private moment with quite a lot of onlookers. It’s really rather sweet. Along with marriage, the last couple of years has also seen Alicia become a mother to a baby boy, Egypt, in October 2010. The arrival of her son has clearly had a profound effect on Alicia. Less profound, but worth noting for a chronic multitasker, Alicia now manages to enjoy a facial for the first time in her life.
“It’s like [being] the mom, the wife, my career, everything can be put on hold,” she smiles. “Here is 30 minutes where I don’t have to do anything. No stylist, no phone, no emails. It’s so beautiful.”
New York is still home and if they move, it will be always ‘in the vicinity’. If anyone was in doubt of her love for her home city, Empire State Of Mind, her 2009 hit with Jay-Z, would have reassured them. Dean is also a born-and-bred New Yorker; another reason they connect. “Me and my husband are exactly the same. I love him so much.
"I fall in love with him more when I realise just how alike we are,” she says. “Growing up in New York is a different culture. You’re among so many people all the time, you’ve got to get into the flow. To take that away from people like us, me and my husband who grew up there, it would be crazy. “[When I first started out] I prayed to God, ‘Don’t make me have to run from people.’ I think that’s the most miserable existence; not to be able to integrate with people.”
A typical day sees Alicia get up at eight with Egypt. They eat breakfast. They meditate. He’s two. How does a toddler meditate? “Oh, he doesn’t. He goes everywhere else, shouting, ‘Mummy, mummy.’ Eventually he will sit in my lap. If I’m just meditating quietly and chanting, eventually he’ll start saying, ‘Ommm’,” she says. “We’ll watch Sesame Street, play piano, play some games. He loves basketball. He takes classes; swim class, Mandarin class.”
Excuse me? “He’s pretty advanced…” This statement doesn’t make Alicia deluded; just in love. Every parent I know has the most gifted child you’ll ever hear about. But Egypt’s development and future achievements are clearly a priority. So now, instead of starting work early, Alicia heads to her studio midafternoon and will stay there until two in the morning. When she gets home, she’s still working. “I’m a notorious 4am emailer.” Yikes. She admits that everyone she works with has commented on her ‘early emails’, I imagine through gritted teeth, but everyone
I’ve met who works with her seems happy. And the person who is clearly working most is Alicia.
“Yeah, it’s not easy. It’s hard as hell. You’re probably not going to sleep that much, if at all,” she says. “But at least you love it, and then you feel good about it, and it’s going to be good.”
The key word here is hard. Alicia is used to working hard. She’s worked hard all her life and isn’t about to stop now. When our conversation drifts briefly onto reality TV shows and their stars (who make a fortune in the US compared to their British equivalents), Alicia praises those who work and promote and make the most of the situation. But for those who want it fast and easy, she reserves harsh judgment.
“That’s what’s wrong with the whole world,” she says leaning forward. “It p*sses me off. Like, if you want to learn the f*cking piano, you’re going to have to practise. But that’s just the nature of our culture; you want it all now.”
Alicia’s city upbringing meant that, although she had a loving family, she also witnessed a lot of desperation and destitution. She now throws a ball every November calling on friends like Oprah Winfrey to help raise money for her Keep A Child Alive foundation, a non-profit organisation that provides medicine to families with HIV and Aids in Africa. This year’s ball was postponed due to ‘Frankenstorm’ Sandy.
“When I was young, I was exposed to so many things,” she says of Eighties Hell’s Kitchen, a far cry from the hipster haven it is today. “You realise how blessed we are. And it’s not just me, because people think, ‘She’s a celebrity, she has money, so of course she’s blessed.’ My friends who are in the projects of Harlem, they are still living a life of luxury compared to what other people are going through. To know you have some voice that people might actually listen to, it feels like you couldn’t not say anything.”
Speaking with Alicia, she’s equal parts mega-star and down-to-earth New Yorker. We finish by talking about the interactive storybook app for children she has just launched, The Journals Of Mama Mae & LeeLee. “Egypt co-wrote every song,” she explains. Something about my silence tells Alicia she needs to back this up. “He did. Every time I’m writing something, I’m like, ‘Come on, E.’ He wrote his first song at six months. When he’s there, the songs just come, and I’m like, ‘This works.’ He’s my partner.” OK. So, she is a mega-star. I definitely won’t forget it this time.
Alicia’s album Girl On Fire is released by RCA Records on 26 November