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Alicia Keys on working with her kids, success, and Kanye’s advice
In part two of her appearance on The FADER Interview podcast, Alex Robert Ross talks to Alicia Keys about her latest album, KEYS.
Alicia Keys on hype, Kanye’s advice, and making music with her kids

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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Alicia Keys’s debut graphic novel, Girl On Fire, written with the comic book artist Brittney Williams and set for release in March 2022, tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who finds out that she has telekinetic powers after trying to protect her brother from a gun-wielding cop. Announcing the book this past summer, Keys said she was “writing it for that girl in the way-back row who needed someone to tell her there’s nothing you can’t do, that nothing is impossible.” And in some sense that’s Keys’s career in miniature. From the Songs In A Minor ballad “A Woman’s Worth” through “Girl On Fire” itself and the 2020 voter-drive single “A Beautiful Noise” with Brandi Carlile, Keys, as a songwriter, has always been looking out over her piano and towards the crowd.

In fact, even when answering a question about her intent Keys sounds like she’s trying to inspire her audience, saying that she’d purged the word “try” from her vocabulary before Kanye West encouraged her to double down. And whether or not she’s writing primarily to herself or others, it’s clear that empowerment ballads like “Dead End Road” — from her new album KEYS, out today — are written from first-hand experience. Having blown up in an industry that didn’t have her or any of her peers’ best interests at heart, she had to fight — still has to fight — with anxiety and doubt. Songs like “Dead End Road” are her ammo.

In the second part of our FADER Interview — the first was released yesterday, so go back and listen if you haven’t already — Keys also discusses Lil Wayne’s verse on the “Unlocked” version of “Nat King Cole,” her collaboration with her eldest son Egypt on a new cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and her first ever interview, which she gave to the FADER in 2001.

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The FADER: I think you may have given your first-ever feature interview to The FADER. And it was in 2001.

Alicia Keys: I feel like that's probably right.

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Yeah. It was Issue 7, I think.

See, homecoming. That's what KEYS is about, a homecoming. I really, really, really see that and feel that on every level. And this is an exact other moment for it.

There's a really interesting moment in that interview. And this is obviously a few months before Songs In A Minor comes out. You say, "Say my album is released and I do sell 12 million records. It's like, what can you do after that? Can you sell another 12 million records? That's creating an even bigger hype that you then must surpass." Which is kind of crazy, because as far as I know, Songs In A Minor sells almost exactly 12 million records worldwide. That's a little coincidence, but I think it's also a snapshot of a young artist with a world in front of her and all this potential for joy and misery. And you obviously end up with a lot of both. After that, and throughout those earlier years, did you end up feeling that you did have to create and surpass this bigger hype? And if so, how have you managed to get off that train lately in order to create an album like KEYS, where you feel a lot more at ease with yourself?

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That's crazy that I said, "What if I?" First of all, I definitely never expected it to be out the gate with that level of commercial success. You know what I mean? And critical success. Nobody knows that. And nobody ever imagines that. I mean, I'm sure there were people that at that time were working very hard to ensure that it would go that way. I've realized that now, there's also a lot of that in the mix. But I was definitely unaware of whatever would happen. And I think in a way it was your favorite ignorance is bliss type of vibe. Because the thing is, I just didn't know. I truly didn't. And even if it did sell however many records, at that moment I said that, I did not know what that would be like or feel like, you know what I mean? I could hypothesize what I thought it might, to my point of "how are you going to follow up after that?" But I didn't know what that would be like. And so I think in a lot of ways there was an ignorance there that just kept me driven. It just kept me driven, it just kept me hungry and excited and just wanting to create. Especially always being my own producer, always being my own writer. I always had to fight to be who I am because people never believed me. They never believed I was a producer. They thought I was just a little girl from Harlem, from Hell's Kitchen.

To this day, I go in a room, I'm making those records. I am producing those records. I'm dropping the beat on those records. I'm putting music on the records. I'm playing the mood on the records. I'm doing all the vocal arrangements. And if there's one guy standing in the room and the person walks in, they'll be like, "Oh, so you produced the record?" To that guy. It's just how it is.

But I think that in regards to keeping up with every entertainment industry and maybe it's every industry, if you think about it. But particularly the entertainment world is always about the last thing you did. And it's always about kind of these numbers. And I think about this a lot because I think maybe it's the way the world is set up a little bit. If you think about grades for kids, they're forever chasing an A. And if they get a C, they're made to feel like they didn't do good enough. But maybe the C was their best. And so therefore, maybe the C was a triumph because last time they didn't even take the class or last time they didn't even try or they got some... So there's this numbers hierarchy thing that everybody's always trying to obtain and it's fucking exhausting. It's like nobody's ever telling you how about you try to be yourself, how about you just try your best. And if you actually did your best, you won. And so I think that there's unfortunately a lot of incorrect information that's taught to us from the day that we're born. And we do think we're supposed to sell 12 million records or we won't be relevant. Or we feel like we're supposed to get five rings or we didn't whatever. Or we're supposed to get all A's or we can't get into any college that's going to get you a good job. Or whatever these things are, it's like torture.

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I have to say, I'm definitely grateful because things have happened that I never expected to happen. And that's why a lot of times I've said I spend time looking at the past in awe. Shit, how did that happen? How did that even go like that? What made that align that way? But I also definitely have recognized that you can't compare yourself. You can't even compare yourself to your yesterday. You can't chase these kinds of super fake accolades. You can't chase these fake accolades. You can't chase these fake numbers, these fake grades, whatever these things are that people somehow feel less than if they haven't superseded some record-breaking fucking thing. It's too much pressure. It's not real. And I don't think that you'll actually find your greatness doing that.

You're going to change. You're going to switch who you are. You're going to become a carbon copy. You're going to copy everybody else because you're trying to do whatever they're doing. You're going to be too afraid to take the leap, to skydive. You're going to be too afraid to actually do something that people won't like, which I personally feel likely have created the best things in the world, something that someone said wasn't going to happen. So I just feel like I've learned that you have to have a healthy dose of bravery and you also have to have a healthy dose of balance because, of course, you have to be able to see things from a few sides. But most important, you have to just make sure that you're listening to you. Because man, you're going to get lost and you're going to be sad. And it's hard to feel fulfilled if you can't hear yourself.

One song that sort of tackles of those ideas is one of my favorites on the record, is "Dead End Road." I think it's one of your most impressive vocal performances of your career. And it's also just a really graceful song. It hits some of these themes that I think you've tapped throughout your career. You've talked before about the importance of other people, particularly young people finding strength and empowerment in your music. When you write a song like "Dead End Road," are you writing with your audience in mind or are you writing it to yourself first and foremost?

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Most of the time I'm writing to myself because I'm reminding myself of something that I really need to hear. If it was a "Superwoman," it's not because I felt like a superwoman, it's because I didn't feel like a superwoman. If it was a "Girl on Fire," it's not because I felt so strong and so powerful, it's because I was thinking of all these women in my life, including myself, that sacrifice so much. And I feel like the world is taking them down and at some point it's like, fuck it. We're on fire. You know what I mean? And when it's like a "Dead End Road," it's because there's so many times when you just feel hopeless. Is it going to actually come together? Is it actually going to work? Or am I going to be stuck in this same thing that kind of keeps finding its way to me?

So when you feel like you're living on "Dead End Road," we still try. That idea of trying, that idea of still going. I was actually speaking to Kanye the other day and he said, "I don't know if I like that word try. I don't know if I like it in the song." He loves this. He loves "Dead End Road." And I was like, hmm. He's like, "I just feel like if you trying, you're not deciding to change it, to do it, to actually be it. You can't try, you know what I mean? You got to do it. And maybe the try of it is actually seeming like there's an option." It was so deep kind of how that landed on him. And I understood what he meant because I actually don't use the word try.

So it was so interesting that he brought that up because he kind of called me out on some shit that I actually feel. I won't say I'm going to try to go write a song today. That's not the words I use. I say, "I'm going to write a song today." I don't say I'm going to try to have a good performance. I say, "I am going to have a good performance today." And I've learned that when you use that word that strongly, it makes you have that type of outcome. So when you say, "I'm going to try to do good on this test..." So I felt him. I really, really, really felt him. And it was deep to me because I was like, shit. How did he call me out on something that I actually already believe in? But in this case of trying, it's like this idea of the fortitude to continue. You know what I mean? And I think that that's the reminder that I needed to give myself and the reminder that I do want the people that I listen to to feel. But again, it's because I needed it. I needed that reminder to keep going, to keep finding, to keep trying, to keep having the determination to bust through that "Dead End Road" wall. So, yeah. But I love that song, man. And thank you for acknowledging the vocal performance too. It was just one of those that was so spirited and so genuine. And a song hits in that part of the voice that almost is cracking. And I love that song.

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A lot of the things that you brought up there seem to be running through your upcoming graphic novel, which is also called Girl on Fire. I believe that a lot of the inspiration for that project came from reading along with Egypt and Genesis. Right?

Definitely. The Girl on Fire graphic novel, which is so sick. I'm so excited about it. First of all, it's been years. Eight years plus, you know what I mean? To put things together, again, back to it takes work. You know what I mean? It don't just come down from the sky and everything's just so perfect. No, it takes so much work and it takes so much time to bring to life the things that you're trying to bring to life. So I say that because I just want people to be encouraged that even when it takes a long time, it's totally possible. You know what I mean? It happens. So that's what I remind myself as well. And Girl on Fire is about this girl from Brooklyn named Lolo. She's really just recognizing that she literally has a superpower and she's freaked out about it. She's freaked out. She doesn't know what to do about it. She can't believe what just happened. She hurt somebody for real because she was so upset at what happened.

She didn't kill that person, but it was close. And so that was shocking to her. And so anyway, we follow her story and we follow how she's coming to terms with kind of harnessing this power and what does it mean and how brave she has to be in order to do it and who she's going to have to actually defeat and what she's going to have to sacrifice. And it's deep. It's so, so deep. And it's definitely a metaphor I feel to that within us. We all have these personal powers that are inside of us, but we don't know what to do with it. Or we don't even recognize it's there, or we don't know how to harness it, or we don't know how to use it. You know what I mean? And so it's definitely that kind of story. It's amazing. It's a graphic novel. And for sure, Egypt loves graphic novels.

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And I think it's such a beautiful way in for people to have their reading experience. Because not everybody loves the super traditional book that kind of has chapters, on chapters, on chapters and some people are so, so visual and it really just allows you to come in not only from an art perspective, but also from a story perspective. So I really love the graphic novels. They're so cool. And I'm excited about this one. This one is good.

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Are there any other ones that you were reading with Egypt that you loved and wanted to take with you into this project?

He reads crazy ass... He likes those wild ones that are... The one he likes that's good is called The New Kid. That's a good one. He likes Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Those ones that are super crazy. He likes the craziest... So his are a little bit over in that level. And it's definitely more of a mature perspective and aspect. This is for young adults. But he could completely read this one, completely. There was one that they did on Basquiat that's crazy. A graphic novel they did on Basquiat that was nuts. There's one called Akissi. And it's actually about these two African brothers and their experience. It's ill. So that's another really good one. There's so many good ones, there really are.

Back to KEYS. One thing we haven't addressed is huge, which is that this is a double-album in two parts with Unlocked referencing the originals and this really interesting relationship between these two sides. From a creative standpoint, we talked a lot about trust and vulnerability and opening up to your audience. But there must be a faith involved in basically taking your masters and sitting down with somebody and saying, right, let's change it. Let's do it in a completely different way. What was it about Mike Will that gave you that faith initially to say, yeah, he's going to be able to do this. We have this connection. We're going to do it.

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So first of all, let me clarify so everybody understands. KEYS is what I'm calling a double-album, for sure. And so the first half of the album is called the Originals. And these original songs are the first songs that I created for the project. And the Originals are all about exactly what we talked about. The singer-songwriter, the piano at the forefront, the pen, the crafting, the music, the bluesy, the hard New York original AK that really had and has all that energy that I think people really want from me.

It has that zone, but that's just because it's a homecoming and I actually finally realized that I've always been who I am supposed to be. And I'm great exactly where I started. And so that's the energy of the Originals. Then I decided because I'm a New Yorker and you know New Yorkers love to sample some shit, I decided that I wanted to sample the Originals album and create a whole other body of work called Unlocked. So when you get KEYS, you're going to get these two bodies that actually live completely separately, but you can reference how there's an "Old Memories" on the Originals, there's an "Old Memories" on Unlocked. There's a "Dead End Road" on the Originals, there's a "Dead End Road" on the Unlocked. There's a "Is It Insane," which is another record that's like ay-ay-ay. And there's a "Is It Insane" on Unlocked.

So you are going to be able to experience these two sides of who I am as an artist. Because I feel like I have an Unlocked side of me and I think that's a little bit maybe of what y'all are starting to get to know me about. And I have the Original side of me. And so you definitely are going to hear them both musically. I was really excited to create that because I am so multidimensional, we all are. And I don't even feel comfortable just living in one space, that it will never fully define exactly who I am. It's going to be a large part of it, but it's never going fully create the full spectrum. So when we started to kind of brainstorm who would be cool to collab with to take these Original records, sample them and bring them to this Unlocked world, there was a few. There was a few on the list. Some good ones that I think now are probably like, why didn't you make sure I was there, Alicia?

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Can you tell me who they were?

I think all of them are fresh. We thought about Hit-Boy. We thought about Illangelo. That's my guy. He's super, super incredible. There might have been one other one that I'm missing. And then Mike Will came up too. And so it was good. It was just kind of timing and energy. And Mike Will, I got on the phone with him and I actually didn't know Mike Will. My husband knows Mike Will, and obviously I know Mike Will. But I didn't know him personally. And so I got on the phone and I was a little nervous. I was like, all right. I mean, I'm going to jump on the phone and we'll see how the vibe goes. But I don't know. The "Is It Insane" record is like an Ella Fitzgerald record. I don't know if Mike Will is going to fully understand what I'm coming at him with. But let's see. So we get on the phone. And when I tell you, he was immediately bursting with ideas. Immediately. He was in the room and he was like, "Yo, this song, it makes me feel like this. What if we made it, and we could take it and do? And he was immediately spitballing what could happen or what it could do, and his enthusiasm was so endearing because you meet a lot of people, and a lot of people do a lot of music and they up to a lot of shit, and sometimes music becomes second to people. You know what I mean? People who have started in music, it becomes like you've done it and you did it and how much more new excitement can you feel? Sometimes I get that from people. He though, he was charged, super charged and he was like, "I can come to New York tomorrow. When you want to start?" He was just ready. He gave me this energy. I was like, "Okay. All right, Mike. Let's see what's up." So we actually ended up meeting in New York and immediately, we did is it Insane. We did "Is it Insane" first.

It's the hardest one to do, probably.

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Yo. I couldn't believe it. And "Is it Insane," for those who haven't heard the record yet, but I know you about to go stream it and download it right now, is this really, really jazzy, smokey, you could hear Billie Holiday, you could hear Miles Davis, you can hear Coltrane, you can hear Ella. This song is one of my most proud moments as a songwriter and as an artist, this song. And so you could feel nervous that one would take this very classic record and maybe it would dilute it in some way. But what we did to "Isn't it Insane," we took all that jazz and it was almost like Ella Fitzgerald meets Portishead or some shit. And when it happened, I was going crazy. I was in the studio losing my mind. And at that moment, I knew that we were going to do some shit. I was like, you know what? This is going to be something crazy.

And ever since then, literally, it's literally been just crazy, interesting perspectives of these very classic, original songs that I personally feel shock people. Because when they hear the originals, they're very, very much, they love it, it feels really good. And then when you hear Unlocked, I think you're really shocked how much you love it more. You don't expect that you can love it more and you actually do. So, I think it's amazing. So that was the creative concept and that was how it came together, and it was so organic that it really worked out because there was a enthusiasm and a love there that was real.

Speaking of those smokey songs, I listened to the originals first and then flipped over to Unlocked. And I knew that there was a version of "Nat King Cole" with Lil Wayne. I just didn't know, I even listened to the original a couple of times, I was like, I'm not sure how this is going to go. But it does, I mean, it works really well. Did you like talk to Lil Wayne in advance about his verse? What are the conversations you have with a collaborator on a track like that?

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First of all, "Nat King Cole" is also one of my favorite records. I just love it so much. It really has this mysterious, dark, hard as hell, that beat drops on the Unlocked version of "Nat King Cole" and I don't care who you are, your mouth is going to get screwed up. You just feel something, it just feels some type of way. With that record, we actually created the Unlocked version first. There's a few records, maybe two, maybe three max, I feel like it's more like two, that we created the Unlocked version and then I came back around for the original. So we created the Unlocked version together, that was the record we actually did from scratch together. And so we had that whole vibe and the strings go crazy and the beat drops ridiculous, and then there's a little bit of almost that, that very tremolo guitar, and then the piano that feels like a sample dark type of vibe.

So all of that was done on the spot. And then the Wayne verse didn't exist, and then I went away and I did the Originals, which is a super vibe too. And then Mike hit me and he was like, "Wayne wants to be on 'Nat King Cole.'" And I was like, "Seriously? He was like, "Yeah, he was going crazy when he heard it." And I was like, "Okay." And so he was like, "I'm going to send it to him. You good?" And I was like, "Send it." So I didn't talk to him, I didn't give him no direction, nothing. But when that verse came back, I remember it clear as day, the verse came back, it was 5:00 AM, I was on my way to a flight and Mike hit me, "Wake up, AK. AK." I was like "What the hell are you doing up? It's late as hell." "AK, wake up. This Wayne versus in I'm sending it to you." I was like, "Okay." I played it because it comes right from the top, boom he's right in.

I fuck with Wayne. Wayne is a special guy, for real. And I know that, but sometimes I think we got to remember how special people are, because people are so fresh and so fresh for so long that we take them for granted. And we need to not do that, because it's really important to recognize people's power and how important they are and how hard it is to be fresh, consecutively, consistently. And that's Wayne.

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And when I heard that verse, I threw the phone down. I said, "What?" Y'all got to hear this verse. I'm telling you, he went in. He went in and he brought in the Nat King Cole reference, which is so fresh because Nat King Cole is a classic artist, but a lot of people might not know him. You know what I mean? My kids, I have to explain to them who Nat King Cole is, they don't know. How would they know? You know what I mean? So it's really fire to just pay homage to the greats, to be a great and to also just really, really connect and create this moment. And "Nat King Cole," specifically is about taking off your pretense and being everything that you're supposed to be and everything that you were born to be. And so that one's a zone.

There is one collaboration that really stands out from 2021, and that's your version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with Egypt, which I'm sure is really special for you, and sounds really beautiful. I know how moving it was to perform on stage with Egypt, and now to have him on a record must feel amazing. I was wondering, with both of your kids, but Egypt is obviously being older and is clearly a really talented kid, there's obviously a chance that he's going to want to follow your path and his father's path as well. If he came to you and said that he did want to do that, all right, mom, I'm ready. I want to do this...

Noooooooooo!

What would you tell him? That would be your advice? Just get out, run for the hills?

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No, son don't. No, no, no, no, no!

Honestly, I really do... He is a really musical kid and he's been like that since as long as I can remember. We were on tour and he was two years old and he would just jump on the drum set and he would just be able to pick up the flow of what he was hearing and all these things. He started piano at four. He actually played with my piano teacher. And when I approached her, I said, "He really loves playing. He plays all the time." "How old is he, Alicia?" "He's four." "I don't know if I could teach a four-year-old boy. That's going be ... just bring him to me and let me just spend some time with him." And she started teaching him at four, you know what I mean? So again, it's all a testament to his vibe and his energy.

When we were, over the pandemic, he did his first couple of talent shows. He had to do them on Zoom, and I remember he did a Bruno Mars song, he played it. He did another one where he did the Eurythmics, "Sweet Dreams," he played it and sang it. He killed it. I was like, "That shit is crazy Egypt. You need to keep going." All the times that he's playing on piano or composing, trust me, I'm there with my phone recording like, "I'm going to make this a record." I always want to steal his chords. He definitely has amazing ear, and he has a great voice too. And so to put together this "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which is a song that we've sang together since he was a baby, and one of the songs to go to sleep too and stuff like that, it was really, really special.

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But I think the thing that was the most special was hearing him on a microphone and on a song, and being able to hear the tone in his voice and the rasp in there and him figuring out, wait, do I sing it like this? Or that's too high for me, let me come lower. And the process of it, and then being able to listen back to it and hear our boy today. This is him today. When he's 13, he's going to sound different when he's 12, he's going to sound different, when he's 16, he's going to be totally different, but today this is what he sounds like. And he did it with bravery and he loves it, so I'm super proud of him. I love the song. The song is such his own, you definitely got to hear it.

And I think that if he was wanting to do that, which I got to say, a lot of our kids are super musical. Our oldest Note Marcato, he's out here killing it. He has his own vibe, his own style, he produces his music, he's writing these songs that are so unique and interesting. Our middle son, he can play guitar, he writes songs like his dad. He writes hooks in his sleep. He come back and he'll be like, "Oh, I wrote this," and it's literally a smash. I'm like, "What? How did you write a hook like that?" So Egypt is following in this type of energy and that type of flow that's in the house.

He's very classic though. He's a classic kid. He's going to choose a Elton John song, he's going to choose a Donny Hathaway song, he's going to choose a Whitney Houston song. And he knows a song, he can call it. If I play something in the car and it's kind of a ... he's like that one, I love that song. He calls really classic records. If he loves it, he loves it. You know what I mean? The only thing I just want to teach him is just the same thing I want to teach him with life, is just be around people who deserve you and make sure that you're surrounding yourself with people that actually listen to you and also have great advice for you, and are not trying to lead you down some wild path. And be strong enough to stand up for yourself because that's the thing.

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He's a lot like me. He's a lover, man. He wants everybody to be happy, he wants everybody to be good. And I'm like, "Egypt, that's good, and we're all about that. We want everybody to be good, but not to your expense." You know what I mean? You have to be good, then we can make sure that they're also good, too. So sometimes he reminds me so much of myself, it does make me a little bit nervous because I'm like, "No, no don't bend. Don't do it." Meanwhile, Genesis, no way. That's the boss. He not bending for nobody. So I'm glad for Genesis, Genesis got it together. But Egypt, I think he's going to really bring some awesome things to the world, and I do think that he's going to have a musical journey to some capacity. But whatever that is, you know what I mean? We definitely going to support him and it's no pressure and it's no stress. It's just, you got to follow your heart.

That's a really beautiful place to end. Alicia, thank you so, so much for making time to talk to me. I really, really enjoyed that conversation. Thank you.

Thank you, brother. Thank you, man. Look forward to seeing you soon and take care.

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Likewise. Thanks, Alicia.

Alicia Keys on hype, Kanye’s advice, and making music with her kids