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Alicia Keys on creative breakthroughs and the meaning of home
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, Alex Robert Ross talks to Alicia Keys about her latest album, KEYS.
Alicia Keys on creative breakthroughs and the meaning of home RCA

The FADER Interview is a podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and subscribe to The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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There is something refreshing about hearing Alicia Keys — a singer-songwriter, actor, and activist now entering the third decade of a career that’s brought in 15 Grammy Awards and countless other accolades — say that she felt as uninspired over the past 18 months as anyone else. Keys says she had writer’s block, unable to access what she calls the “portal” to creativity — and so her eldest son, Egypt, spent more time on the piano practicing than Keys herself.

Still, the timing wasn’t so bad; Keys released a memoir, More Myself, just a couple of weeks after the world shut down, and her sixth studio album Alicia, eventually released last September, had already been mixed and mastered. That she managed to spend the rest of lockdown launching a wellness brand, releasing a YouTube docuseries on her life, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her debut album Songs in A Minor, and putting the finishing touches to her first graphic novel says a lot about what Keys considers a tricky creative period.

And then there’s KEYS, her seventh studio album, out tomorrow. It’s a double-album split into two parts. The first, Originals, is a stripped-down and bluesy collection of songs, mostly Keys and her piano. The second, Unlocked, mostly involves Keys and Mike Will Made-It breaking those tracks apart, sampling and reworking them, creating something fresh. The process and reasoning behind the album is one thing she discussed with me last week on a call from Art Basel in Miami, where she was preparing to perform an intimate live set mixing old songs, newer cuts, and a guided meditation for 600 guests.

But over the course of our conversation — which we’re splitting into two parts as well, with the second episode coming tomorrow — she also reflected on the past 20 years of her career, the expectations she had placed on her as a young artist, and her conscious decision to stop running from the spotlight.

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The FADER: Thank you so much for making time to talk to me, Alicia. Where are you right now?

Alicia Keys: Right now, I'm in Miami.

You're doing Art Basel?

We're doing Basel and we do these kind of one night only shows for the KEYS record and it's like, each one is completely different. And it's actually so interesting because every show I have to go in there and reimagine the setlist and how I want it to feel in that moment. So I love it. So it's going to be great.

How long have you been away from home this time?

Dang. How long have I been away? I was away for a minute and then I got back for a few bits and now I've been away again. But I've been doing a pretty good balance. When you got little ones, you have to make sure, especially as the mama, you can't just be gone. Mama just can't be gone. So it's been a little bit, but it's all right, because we've had a lot of time together too.

I was reading about your incredible home in Architectural Digest, and one thing that struck me from that, and from watching your YouTube series, was like how much it feels like a home — even though it's kind of an architectural marvel, you don't treat it like an art exhibit. And you've only been there for a couple of years now. Did you ever feel intimidated at all by the place when you first moved in or did you just immediately feel at home?

You know what? That's super deep because I have definitely felt intimidated by a lot of things like that in my life. Like I remember the first time I went to perform for like these record executives, like when I was a super kid. And at that time I hadn't been in these massive buildings and I remember they took me up to like the hundred-and-somethingth floor. And when I came out, it was all glass, the whole thing, all glass. And then they brought me into this room and there was like a white, grand piano and they were like, "play." And I remember I felt so intimidated by the space. The space was so new to me. My little apartment was one bedroom. I feel like throughout my life, I have been to places that I vividly remember feeling intimidated by, you know what I mean?

Like it just made me feel like I was supposed to do something. And I got to say, our home, it really is our home. And I think that's mostly because I definitely have grown a lot, of course. And I've traveled a lot. So I've been able to see places and understand that there's just different ways to live and vibe. But mostly because I have really made the choice to be able to be comfortable with good things. Like I think that a lot of times we push away. Me — I can't talk for you — I have pushed away good things for me because I feel like I don't deserve [them]. Or if I don't want too much, because if I have too much it's going to change me or it's going to make me a different person.

And I've realized over time that nothing changes you. You are who you are. Sure you grow and you evolve and things like that. But you are who you are. If you're a piece of shit, guess what? Broke or not broke, you going to be a piece of shit. Like if you are a kind person with whatever you have, that's who you are. If you're a jokester, you're going to be a jokester, like that's who you are. And of course not saying you can't change, but my main assessment is that if you're a piece of shit, you're always going to be a piece of shit. So, you can't kind of have this feeling that you are not supposed to have things or nice things because it's somehow it's going to change you. So, that's been ill. That's been my own personal journey of really like working on my own personal self-worth. Because I think we all have self-worth issues like major, major ones that we all are trying to figure out, like how we could love on ourselves.

So that's a really long-ass way to answer, that when I'm in my house, I feel very, very comfortable there. And if you were to come to my house, it is a beautiful, real spot. Like you going to eat and you going to have good conversation and the kids are going to be running around and they're going to be playing and they're going to be like, we're going to be doing all the really super normal shit because that's the person that I am. And it's really about connecting. I'm like really living.

So I feel really good there. My husband, he's a little bit more crazy. He wants everything to be a damn art statement. I'd be like, 'Babe, I love you so much and I really see your vision, but this is our house, and our kids, they got to be able to sit on the couch.' You can't be like, "Don't sit on the couch!" Stop. We have to sit on the couch. We have to eat at the table. Like, we got to. So I think we're an amazing balance for each other because I kind of help him do this and he helps me do that. And it's amazing.

It's also a place of creativity for you and for your husband. I assume that a lot of KEYS came together at that piano.

It was so weird because... by the way, that piano is my first piano. Like that piano is the piano that I told you that first time that I went up to that crazy, 110th floor, and I was intimidated by the space. That piano, IT was Columbia Records that I was performing for. They said, "If you sign with us, we going to give you that piano." And that piano that they promised to give me is that piano in my house today.

That's amazing.

Isn't that crazy? Actually, just kind of put that together.

I read about that piano just this morning, that it was your first deal. That's incredible, that you've kept it all this time. Is that your main piano?

That's my main piano. My son plays on that piano, he practices on that piano. I practice on that piano. There's something about that piano that holds a lot of special power. But interestingly enough, I actually didn't write a lot on that piano, through this kind of pandemic and just us experiencing life in this new way. I really found that I was very... I was like kind of writer's blocked. I couldn't access the portal. I felt so confused. You know, I didn't really know how I was supposed to create in this new space. So I really didn't write a lot there.

I actually wrote more in the studio, that's where I wrote a lot of this record because I guess I was away. And there was something about maybe not feeling worried about everything that was happening on the daily and making sure like the kids were on the Zooms and were they eating lunch. And like is he keeping up with it? Or is he actually playing Roblox when he is supposed to be in class?

Or wait, my five-year-old is running from the screen. He hates the screen and he's running around the house. By the time I had two seconds for myself, I was tired, so I just fell asleep and that was literally the pattern. So when I left there and kind of had my own space a bit, then I started to get really creative, like really creative, and then I found more of a well. And I had a little more time to process and just like be okay with everything.

You always have to work. You have to want it. You have to craft it... You got to ask yourself, “Is that good?” You got to say, “You know what? That’s what the moment was for me. I don’t care what anybody else thinks.” You have to be in it. You got to be a part of it.

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It must be scary though, for somebody who creates so much as you, and has done for 20 years, to be suddenly thrown into this situation — that everybody was thrown into an extent — where you have that block. Were you at all scared by that moment?

It was interesting. The timing was interesting because I had finished the Alicia record. And at that point, at the beginning of everything, when we were all kind of just figuring out who we even were or what life was anymore or whatever, I didn't have to write anything because I had already written everything. So I actually didn't have to write, but what had started happening was I started to get the revelation that these songs that I had written were divinely aligned with the moment that we were in. That's where I really started to recognize that there's so much you don't know.

And you see how it plays out, and you could never have imagined how it was going to play out. So it was really powerful because I had these songs that fit with the moment we were living in, that I had already written and I was able to kind of not stress out that I was actually, probably, having some major writer's block. Because I didn't have to write, I had written it already.

So that was kind of one of those like divine alignments that you just are grateful for, when it bumps up against you. I didn't feel that level of fear because I didn't have to. I already had created what I needed to create. You know what I mean? There was a few little moments at the end where I did need to tie up with this or finish up with that. And I did. What I found was that because I had been spending so much time alone, I actually realized that I hadn't been writing as much on my own, like I wanted to. Because my first record, I wrote everything on my own. I was too scared to write with other people, that felt so intrusive and uncomfortable. I just didn't want to share that personal space with people.

Then I started getting used to writing with people just because it's kind of fun. You get different energies, you get different elements, and it became fun. And then right at the end of Alicia, when I needed to kind of finish up, I was like, I'm just going to write by myself. Like I'm just going to be by myself. And there was something about going back to that beginning of just like nobody interrupting your vibe. That was really powerful. And that I think did lead me to KEYS because that was a lot what Keys was about. So that was fire.

Yeah. We talk a lot about inspiration. Even the word inspiration implies — you mentioned the divine there — the word inspiration implies like God is talking to you and working through you. But in reality this is work. It isn't just a case of being hit by inspiration at a moment's notice. I mean, you work on this. I've heard you refer to it in the past as though it's this is a wheel, and you need to grease it. How much of creating this record was about working on this, trying to will yourself back into that creative mode after a really strange time and sort of grafting at it, being gritty?

In my experience, you always have to work for it. That's just period. If anybody's delusional enough to think that you just going to sit down and just everything, all the time, is just the most easiest, flowingest thing, and you're just have happen to be hit with all this inspiration, and then it's just so simple and easy — that's bullshit. That's nobody ever. Now that doesn't mean that there are not moments where you are hit by inspiration and it comes fast and you're like, "Ooh, this is crazy." That's happened to me before. I've been in that room with myself and I've been like, "Oh my God. That was like a lightning bolt of divine inspiration." True. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it doesn't happen a lot.

Not with like something where it's amazing. You know what I mean? It happens with a bunch of bullshit that you kind of say, "Okay, it was a cute little thing that I just have fun with and it was cool." But those ones, those are very, very, very special. So I personally feel like you always have to work. You have to want it. You have to craft it. You have to think about it. You have to imagine it. You have to dream it. You have to walk away from it. You have to come back to it. You got to ask yourself, "Is that good?" You got to say, "You know what? That's what the moment was for me. I don't care what anybody else thinks." You have to be in it. You got to be a part of it.

I think that's my experience. That's how I feel. So that idea of working for something is not scary to me. I know I'm going to have to work for it. Every time I write a song, I don't know how I wrote a song. I'm grateful for the songs I've written. And every time I go in and write a song, I'm like, "How do I write a song? Am I going write a song? I don't even know what to do. How do I write the song?" I think it's almost a part of how it has to be. So yeah, so it definitely took some work, but I think what happened to me for KEYS, that I really did love, is I was very clear that I really wanted this to be about the keys.

I've been waiting for KEYS for about five years. I always had the title in my head and I always knew Alicia would come first and KEYS would be second. So I've been waiting for this moment. It's kind of been in my energy. And so since I knew I wanted it to be so focused around a piano and really just like, really into that piano zone, I was very clear about how I wanted to start, which helps. Because I think sometimes when you kind of just go in and you have fun, which is awesome, you find yourself going a thousand places and you're like, wait, where do I belong? But this one, I really, really knew what I wanted to do. So I just sat down at the piano and I did kind of release a lot of judgment on this record.

Whereas to your question before, I am a crafter of songs. I really believe in the art of songwriting. I like to make words make sense. And I like choruses that like take you to a place that they're very, they're easy, they're singable, but they also are emotional. Like, I pay attention to the style of writing and how I want that song to kind of unfold for me and the person that's going to listen to it.

This time I did feel like I let go of a lot of that judgment. I just allowed myself to write what I felt, how I felt, where I felt it. Explore these chords and play and find it. And this is what it made me feel. And this is what I wrote. And I didn't get so crazy about like some of the ways I have before, in regards to the crafting. I definitely crafted the song, but I looked at it from a different viewpoint. I just allowed it to be free. And I think that's the reason why it feels so like cohesive and almost like... it just feels like it has a connected energy, because it really all lived in this moment, in this place, with this mentality, and during this time.

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The other thing you released alongside Alicia was your book, More Myself, which is a quite unflinching and open sort of honest reflection on your journey so far. How much did that open you up? Did it purge you of something?

I think you're right. I think you are really a thousand percent right. Because like when would you ever go back to all these moments in your life and like really reckon with them? I had to reckon with those moments because I had to decide what I was trying to share, in writing the book More Myself. What I was trying to share was like this idea of how do you actually find who you are. How do you find your authentic voice? Not the one that everyone told you to say, and the politically correct one, that you're supposed to say. And the one that everybody said, "I like you when you are like this" or you know, all those things we pick up. Like we pick up all of this and we create ourselves to be other people's desired outcomes, I guess.

So yeah. To reckon with that and to look at all the ways that I did that, for a long time did give me a lot of like, 'Fuck. Jesus. You really, really bent backwards, forwards, sideways, left, and you changed because other people asked you or told you should change. And you trusted them more than you trusted yourself.' So, that's ultimately the point of what I was writing. And so to go back and to reckon with that definitely opened up a space, to your point, like a purging that I guess I could just get it out and see it for what it was and reflect on it, on my today self, and forgive myself. You know what I mean? For these things that you hold on to, and maybe you're angry that you did, or you wish you knew more or whatever the things are that we do. And then open it up and then just be like, okay, fuck it. There it is. Boom.

I remember before the book came out, I was like, "why did I say I wanted to do this? Why did I want to do this again?" I had a couple of moments [where] I was like, "What the hell made me say yes to this?" But I have to say that I'm glad I said yes, because saying yes made me say yes to myself. You know what I mean? It made me say yes to uncovering, and digging up in there and releasing a lot of things and forgiving and apologizing, and just being comfortable with who I am and why I am. So I think you're right. There was a purge there that then led to an openness because there was more space to put more things in or share more freely or just realize that that's it.

It's interesting hearing you say that because one moment that really stood out to me on this album — or albums, plural, depending on how you look at it — is "Old Memories." It's an interesting song because by the end, it seems to sort of be explicitly about romantic love, but really it's more open than that. It's about nostalgia and looking backwards and you seem... I wouldn't say that you seem afraid of that, but you say that it sneaks in the dark and creeps into your bed. Do you have to will yourself to exist in the present with this stuff? Because it sounds like the way that you conceive of the past is as not an entirely positive thing all the time.

Because shit, it's not positive all the time. That's the thing. I think that's part of what I'm grappling with. And I think a lot of people actually grapple with that with me a little bit, somehow. That I am a very glass-half-full person. I've chosen to be that person, because shit, life is hard and it's too hard to get swept up in all the drama and all the negative shit. It could take you under so fast. So I've definitely chosen to be a more optimistic individual just because... I'm actually willing it into existence. I might not believe that it's good, but I'm going to say it's good until it's good because that's what I believe. Like, I can will shit into existence.

But a lot of people, I think, look at me and they see my optimism and they see the way that I carry myself and they kind of figure, "Oh well that's great. Everything's great for Alicia. She's always happy and she's really zen and you know, stuff is great for her." And that's great. There's nothing wrong with that. Like I said, I'm not afraid of joy. I'm not afraid of happiness anymore. I'm not holding that. I'm not blocking my blessings. Period. But nothing is ever just always good. And nothing's ever just wonderful every minute, you know what I mean? It's just not real. It's not a realistic thing. So when I look at the past, it's not that I look at it with regret or disdain. I just can really see those parts that I fell into these traps. And as a more experienced person, I've lived in a way that I can really understand it.

And so when I look back it's actually from a place of knowledge, of awakening or consciousness or whatever, and to be able to say, "Man, I really fell into that trap". And I got stuck in it. Not only did I fall in it, I got stuck until I finally realized wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, what are you trying to do? So when I look at the past, honestly, I'm mostly in awe of the past. I truly look at the past and I'm like, "Jesus, this is crazy. The life that has passed and the life that I've lived and that I'm living." And so mostly I'm in reverence of it. I feel in awe of it, but I definitely know that there's a lot of things that I don't want to repeat.

And I feel like I happen to be a person that ... we all are, but I'm speaking for myself. There's a pattern that I can find myself getting stuck in. And then I find myself dropping back into it, after I already learned that I didn't want to be stuck in it. So I really, really, really work hard at not repeating and repeating things. So this "Old Memories" song that you bring up is one of my favorite songs. I personally feel like I was in my "Ain't Got You" bag. I was in my "Fallin'" bag. I was in my... that song to me is one of those songs. It's my favorite time signature. It's that three, four... that bounce that I just... something happens to me when I hear that bounce.

And what I love about it so much is it is this recognition, old memories, they don't fade away. They show up before you leave, and disappear when you wish they'd stay. How many times do you actually learn, what was that thing? What happened there? Remember we had that conversation, but what did we say? I remember he was mad at me, but why was he mad? And you're trying to remember these pieces. No heart is immune. No secret is kept. It only gets stronger with age, old memories. They don't fade away. So it's actually this beautiful recollection of old love songs. They trigger you. Here you hear this song and you are brought back to the exact moment where that breakup happened and you were crying, and it's a song. You're not living in that moment, but that memory is that powerful.

Old photographs. You look at them and you're like, "Man, they don't fade away. That's still there. It's been a hundred years since that picture was taken and I could still look at it." You know what I mean? So I love that song because it really is a reflection of the memories that we... the love or the people that have meant something to us and how impactful they are to us and holding on to the memories we're creating, because we're right now, living. Right today, you're living, and you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. So this idea of the memories we're creating and how to hold onto the people that you love while they're there. But it's not a love song. It's not a song about a lover. It's this song about a feeling of something that you can't exactly get back, but you know it's so special. You'll always be able to find it, even though you can't tactically hold it. It's just wild. I love that song.

That's the thing. Without meaning to sound corny, music can be a form of time travel. That's another emotionally, quite vulnerable song in some ways. And in the same way as more myself ... I was wondering, watching your YouTube series, and you open it by saying that making music for you is like exposing secrets. And you're usually very uncomfortable being exposed, but that that's changed over time. And you say, "I'm done giving my power away", which is a really fascinating way of contextualizing that. Have you reached a point now in your life and in your career where exposing yourself emotionally is actually a source of power?

Yes. I think you are right onto something with that, because it is. Because it's like ... I don't know. It's like we shapeshift so much because we want to fit in or because we want people to like us or because we want to nail that performance or because we want people to be accepting of this body of work that I'm presenting, or whatever, that we don't mean to do it, I don't think. I definitely didn't mean to do it. I always thought I was being so real and so honest and shit, and the next thing I know I'm looking at myself, I'm like "no, you're not even choosing things for yourself. You're choosing it because you made eye contact with your manager and your manager kind of gave you the 'you know you need to do this'. And then you were like, 'no, I probably need to do this'."

That's what happens. It's just you have these people in your life who are strong presences and you trust them, and you have to trust them because how else are you going to survive? You can't do it all by yourself. And then you find that they're the only voice that you trust because you've created that pattern as opposed to saying, "wait, now I know what you think. You're very clear about what you think, but what do I think?" And so I think that that's the power. Exposing what you think. A lot of times you don't even want to say what you think because you don't want somebody to think you're stupid. They might not agree with you. They might not like it. So you are like, "well, I'll hold back what I think, because I don't want them to think I'm" ... and I don't exactly know, but I feel it.

And so we're like, "no, but they probably know because they've done it". And then we give our power away. So that's what I mean about giving the power away. At some point you have to trust yourself and nobody knows you better than you. And the only way you're going to realize that nobody knows you better than you is if you actually exercise trying to get to know you. And you can't get to know you if you're constantly agreeing, or doing what everybody else suggest for you or wants for you, because you figure that they know better than you. So that's the part that I'm done with. And that's the part that does give me a big power, because I'm clear that I am smart enough, a visionary enough, experienced enough, powerful enough, dope enough. All the shit that many of us don't feel like we're enough of, I am that. And nobody's going to confuse me about that anymore. So there's definitely a power there.

That's been a theme of your career in a lot of ways. When you first started out, you had to fight for your independence. You had to be able to say no to people, and you did successfully. But one way of doing that ... I mean, it's been 20 years since your debut, almost in a month. People wanted to change you and market you in ways that made you feel quite rightly uncomfortable. One reaction to that for a lot of people would be retreating into themselves, especially with a huge audience. At what point, for you, did it change into a situation where you could say, "I'm just going to put myself out there. That's going to be the source of power. Rather than guarding myself and putting these barriers up, to go in the opposite direction." Was there a change, a moment of a pivot there?

I spent so long guarding myself. So long guarding it, and not wanting to even myself know that I was crumbling or falling apart or scared, or felt inadequate or whatever, and put on the good face and ... that face we were talking about earlier, where a lot of people say, "no, but Alicia's good, right? She's great. She's happy." All of that face. You know what I mean? And I put that on so long that finally I'm trying to figure out ... I think it was I just became sick of myself. It's like, I'm so sick of you, man. What are you doing? What are you guarding yourself from? And naturally, you get it, you go back and you realize all of the pieces. And you're right. There was a lot of fighting that I had to do.

And that's hard. It's hard to fight against massive machines and corporations and big things, that you're just wanting to be who you are. That's all, it's quite simple. I just want to be who I actually am. That's all. It's hard to be who you actually are. And that's not often encouraged. I think now it's more encouraged because of the state of ... music is such a more fluid experience now. We all own our own energy. We all curate our own magazine. We all have ... there's no limit to how you can express or how you put your music out or your art out, or whatever that you might be creating. Nobody can stop you from doing that anymore. You know what I mean?

So I feel like now it is a much more fluid ... almost desire to completely be an individual. In a lot of ways I think it goes back to the origins of hip-hop and the origins of a lot of the most exciting musics of our life. There was a rebelliousness because you didn't need anybody to tell you shit! "I'm going to do this because this is what I do." And so I feel like that's a little bit more of the energy that I think exists now.

But for me, I think I just finally... I'm not sure what turned the page, but I think it was just years of cracking away at the wall. The wall was there, and I just had to, slowly with a hammer and a nail, just like, "I'm going to break this fucking wall down if it's the last thing I do". And slowly but surely it would crack, and it would crack and it would crack and it would crack, and that part would fall and that part would fall. And then I'd be brave enough to push that part down. And so I think it was time that brought it there and really realizing many things as you go.

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Alicia Keys on creative breakthroughs and the meaning of home