We’ve Got A File On You: Alicia Keys

Milan Zrnic

We’ve Got A File On You: Alicia Keys

Milan Zrnic

The multi-hyphenate on hosting the Grammys, 'Smokin' Aces,' her new 'ALICIA' album, and more

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Alicia Keys has come a long way from taking classical piano lessons as a kid. As her 2007 single suggests, she is a bonafide “Superwoman.” Nearly two decades after the release of 2001’s critically lauded debut album Songs In A Minor, the artist leapt from the streets of her native Hell’s Kitchen, NY to become one of the music industry’s most prolific figures. And yes, she’s taken that trusty piano along for the ride.

Along with being a 15-time Grammy Award winner, Keys is an actress, a former coach for The Voice, an advocate for women’s equality through her She Is The Music non-profit, an author, an activist (she is the co-founder of Keep A Child Alive and recently announced a $1 billion fund for Black-owned businesses), a wife to fellow music shapeshifter Swizz Beatz, and a mother to two sons. But if you leave it up to her (and the title of her new album), she is simply just “Alicia.”

As Keys grows older, she radiates zen. It seems as if she’s come into her own as a woman. “For so long, I was trying to figure out who I was,” she explains. “So that’s been one of the highlights for me, over these three or four years, just coming into a place of not feeling like I have to get permission to be what I want to be. You can take it or leave it, and that’s okay with me. ‘Cause it’s more important for me to be fulfilled.”

After being in the game since the age of 17, Keys has nothing to hide. She detailed the road towards self-realization both in her first memoir More Myself: A Journey back in March, as well as on ALICIA. For her new album, Keys returned to NYC’s Oven Studios — her safe haven — to craft a 15-track collection that aims to inspire (“Underdog”), soothe the soul (“Show Me Love” with Miguel and “You Save Me” with Snoh Aalegra), and silence the inner voice that dares you to question yourself (“Truth Without Love” and “Me x 7”).

Speaking over Zoom as we’re both quarantined in different areas of New York, Keys’ confident energy was near tangible even behind a laptop screen. “At first I was completely overwhelmed and confused trying to figure out how to make it all gel together,” she said of the transition and helping her eldest son Egypt with virtual learning. “But I like being part of their [learning] experience. I just feel a deeper connection to my family.”

Despite a few technical glitches like blurry screens and unannounced phone calls on both ends, Keys appeared completely unfazed and eager to jump right into her accomplishments. Over our conversation, we took quite the winding road down memory lane as Keys looks back at some essential performances and collaborations that weave together her career’s story.

ALICIA (2020)

STEREOGUM: The album kicks off with “Truth Without Love.” It’s a good way to frame the messaging behind the whole record. You sing: “Wondering if I was the same girl, the girl you knew before she came up.” Like you said before, it’s “take it or leave it” with you. You’re always going to be the same Alicia.

ALICIA KEYS: I love “Truth Without Love” so much. I love the energy, there’s a lot of power in it. My favorite line is “What if I wasn’t Alicia? Would it please ya? What if to you I was just a leecher, how would I feed ya?”

STEREOGUM: You got into your rap bag in that moment.

KEYS: I love the way the song has that rawness and that honesty and asking, “Do you actually know me?” That’s been the best question because we’re all getting to know ourselves, you know? So I love that it starts the record off. It makes my lip curl up.

STEREOGUM: The record’s second single was “Underdog.” It’s become such an anthem, especially during the time that we’re in. Songs like this give people that little kick in the butt to keep pushing.

KEYS: A lot of the times when I write songs, it’s because I need the message myself. With “Underdog,” I love the idea of defying the odds. A lot of the times we’re [thinking], “How can we get to that next place? How can I actually take my dreams and manifest them?” Sometimes that’s the hardest part, but if you keep going you’ll find that it’s going to happen for you. I need that reminder myself as well. And definitely for many people that I personally know who are just sacrificing so much. It’s a tricky time and we need as much hope as possible.

STEREOGUM: One of my favorites is “Show Me Love” with Miguel. It reminds me a little bit of old-school Alicia.

KEYS: If I was to compare it to a song of mine from before, it has this “Diary” feel because it’s personal, sensual, and it’s like you can get lost in it. And Miguel is my guy. He’s such an amazing performer. I was so glad that we could connect again because we actually did some shows together earlier on. We wrote together for a little bit, and then we didn’t really do anything for a minute. So this was a cool reconnection.

STEREOGUM: Well speaking of “Diary,” have you seen the Twitter memes where people are imitating –

KEYS: Yeah, they’ll play one voice and sing another voice. I should do that, shouldn’t I?

STEREOGUM: That’ll go viral.

KEYS: Okay, I’m gonna do it. We’ve talked about it and it’s happening. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: I have it on record! [Laughs] Another thing that I enjoy about this Alicia record is that you’re showing different facets of R&B. There’s features with Miguel, Sampha, Snoh Aalegra, and even a song called “Jill Scott” with Jill Scott herself. It shows people how flexible R&B can be.

KEYS: There was an interesting question that came up earlier today: “When you are successful, do you feel like you have to somehow abandon your Blackness or your soul roots?” And I love what you’re saying especially because this time in my life has been about recognizing and understanding the complexities that make us all who we are — nobody’s just one way. I’m not just “cool Alicia” or “zen Alicia” every time. But I think we get used to just showing that one face. It’s really limiting and it doesn’t allow us to get to know our full selves, you know? R&B and soul music can orbit in all these different places and it’s all still me, but it reflects the complexities of us as humans. So I love that statement and I’m taking it. [Laughs]

First Grammy Award Win(s) (2002)

STEREOGUM: You have so many on your shelf, but you first swept the Grammys in 2002 with Songs In A Minor. Take me back to that moment when you were at the show and getting five wins in one night.

KEYS: I actually have chills. It just brought a sensation back to me that’s so vivid. I never expected the response to be what it was going to be for Songs In A Minor. I had been working so long to try to make it come to life and it felt like it would never happen, you know?

I remember I was just fresh off my first tour, I guess it might’ve been North America at that time. We hadn’t gotten to Europe yet. I was exhausted because I was just trying to pretend that I could do everything that everyone thought I could do. But I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! I woke up that morning and was sick. I couldn’t even sing on that big night. I had a huge performance for “Fallin’” with a little piece of “A Woman’s Worth.” And I did like a flamenco version with this dancer Joaquin Cortés. I took a vitamin B12 shot to open my voice up so I could sing again. But it was like a damn dream. I felt like I had entered outer space and all these people who I only knew from television were like “Alicia!”

It was totally surreal. But when they started calling my name, I was so nervous, so scared, and so excited because this was everything I’d worked for ever since I was a little girl. I couldn’t believe that it was real. I went through so many challenges to be able to keep my own identity.

STEREOGUM: Was it an out-of-body experience? Like, “They’re still calling my name?”

KEYS: I was like, “That’s it!” But it was very powerful and unforgettable. To have received that level of acknowledgement for that particular body of work — which was all produced and written by me as a super-young shorty finding the competence and the words to put out there — was definitely an honor. But I was completely overwhelmed.

STEREOGUM: Do you remember how you celebrated that night?

KEYS: I think I went to bed really early, I don’t even remember. It was so intense and it was so much going on. Of course we were backstage — I remember my mother was there — and we were screaming and jumping every time my name was called. The whole team was full of excitement, but I don’t remember doing some big party or anything like that.

Hosting Grammy Awards (2019 & 2020)

STEREOGUM: You were the first woman to host in 14 years.

KEYS: It was a super full circle. I think we’re all recognizing a need for more women to be front and center across the board, but definitely in a music space. It’s time to shift the paradigms there. But that’s why I was really excited because that represented that. Also to be able to uplift the other young artists that were just coming on the scene. Personally, as a goer to these things, sometimes they just don’t have a vibe. I’m like, “Can we please create energy?” Because everybody’s so nervous and it’s such a big deal.

STEREOGUM: You definitely brought on the vibes, especially when you played two pianos at once. People were just grooving and chilling.

KEYS: I think that’s such a blessing, I felt so grateful to be able to do that where people felt welcomed. Most people told me I shouldn’t do it. They were like, “You’re crazy to host anything.”

STEREOGUM: Wait, why not?

KEYS: Because it’s unforgiving. Usually it’s not set up for you to win because it takes so much for everything to go right. I just knew I could do it.

STEREOGUM: Well it went right twice.

KEYS: The second time was crazier with [the passing of] Kobe Bryant, man. I didn’t even expect that — none of us did. I kept trying to figure out how I could create the right moment. Then also knowing that I was technically competing against myself for the second year in a row, I didn’t want anyone to say “she did better last year.” I was like, “I really gotta kill it this year!” [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: You had to step things up!

KEYS: Like what the hell, why would you compete with yourself? Are you crazy? What made you do that? [Laughs] So I had all these big ideas, like outdoing myself on the piano, but every single idea fell apart. It came to the point where the 19th idea that I was trying to put together fell through. I was like, “What am I supposed to do here? What do you want from me?” But I told myself, “Okay Alicia, you gotta do this by yourself. You sitting here trying to get this person to do that — chill! You can do it.”

Again, it’s just reminding ourselves that we are enough. I think sometimes we feel like we need all these other co-signs to make you be enough. So that was a big lesson for me. Then obviously we all found out about Kobe. Then I knew why nothing came through. It was about me showing up for myself and us showing up for each other in that moment. That was all that was needed. The messages that I got [that night] were so powerful.

Smokin’ Aces (2007)

STEREOGUM: You’ve acted on television as a kid, but your first film role was Smokin’ Aces. You play this the badass contract killer.

KEYS: Yes, Georgia Sykes. That’s the first time Taraji [P. Henson] became my heart. I love her to this day. [Editor’s Note: Henson played Sykes’ partner Sharice Watters.] It was so crazy, but so exciting. I remember the first time I got the script, I threw it in the garbage, I was like, “I can’t do that!” But I started realizing how the whole story played together and how Georgia Sykes and Taraji were the two women that were really the powerhouses. I loved it so much. Just all the pieces that I learned, like really knowing how to handle a weapon for real.

STEREOGUM: How long did that preparation take?

KEYS: You know, the movie was done relatively concisely, but it was still like a good month of target practice and handling the weapons. Then the best [part] was being prepared for what would have provoked Georgia to be willing to kill somebody — like she was 1,000 percent willing! Experiencing those emotions and getting that power was very therapeutic too. Once again, talking about the different sides of ourselves, we rarely engage with our anger. I think we’re always trying to calm down or find the reason why it’s happening –

STEREOGUM: We don’t actually get to live in our anger.

KEYS: Which is rare. So that was a big deal for me. ‘Cause I’m also one of those people that are always trying to just make it make sense. So just to live in that was very good for me at the time, especially.

The Secret Life Of Bees (2008)

STEREOGUM: Your character June was also a little firecracker.

KEYS: Yeah, I play a good firecracker huh? [Laughs] It’s time for a new one, I think. I love this film. That was when I got very, very close with Queen Latifah. Since then, she’s been one of my closest sisters. Nate [Parker] was a part of that too, right? He was June’s love interest. I think that he’s up to so much dopeness. Anyway, we had to learn the Southern dialects and make it right. Me and Queen would just crack up all day. We’d make all these jokes about trying to learn a thing.

STEREOGUM: Both of you are East Coast girls. So I’m sure you had to get in a completely different mindset to play a Southern character.

KEYS: Yeah, it’s totally different. It was incredible though. Thinking about June, she was such a warrior. She was not trying to fall into anybody’s standards of womanhood. Whatever the rules were back then, she was breaking them. Every [film] I did gave me what I needed at the time. So if I needed to live in my anger, that was Smokin’ Aces. If I needed to not subscribe to anybody’s definition of me, that was June, you know? They all added to my education.

Appearing On The Men In Black Soundtrack (1997)

STEREOGUM: I actually want to bring it back to 1997.

KEYS: Oh gosh, how did we end up back there? [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: Yes, I’m doing it! Of course “Dah Dee Dah (Sexy Thing)” was your major debut even before Songs In A Minor. What I thought was interesting when I was doing my research is this the same year that Erykah Badu’s debut album Baduizm dropped. Your song on the soundtrack kind of reminds me of what she was doing at that time. I didn’t know if that was your inspiration or just a coincidence.

KEYS: I have always been very inspired by Badu for sure. At the time, I wasn’t recognizing that she was a direct inspiration for that particular song. But I’ll never forget hearing “On & On.” I never felt more jealous in my life because I was just a shorty trying to figure out how I can craft my music. I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to sound like. And she just seared through in this very specific manner. She was so clear about who she was. You could see it in her videos and her style. You know, jealousy is really your spirit telling you that there’s something about that person that you can receive some information from. It’s supposed to awaken.

STEREOGUM: Wow, I never thought of it that way.

KEYS: I do now, but back then I was like “I wish I wrote that song!” It was a catalyst for me to continue to find my own vibe. So that’s cool that you said [“Dah Dee Dah (Sexy Thing)”] kind of reminds you of Erykah. If anything, I would think Marvin Gaye, ‘cause we took that bassline [from “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”]. But I could see how she was in my ether.

STEREOGUM: What’s interesting is that a few years later “Empire State Of Mind” was on the Men In Black 3 soundtrack.

KEYS: Damn, I didn’t even realize that. You’re good!

STEREOGUM: It’s in one of the closing scenes where the song is playing in the background.

KEYS: Right. That’s the best. I love that song. It’s just timeless and a blessing.

Collaborating With Jack White on Quantum Of Solace’s “Another Way To Die” (2008)

KEYS: He reached out to me because he was creating that cool-ass vibe and heard a powerful voice over the top of it. He’s like, “I just see the vision, I know what we could do. We could have this rock, soul kind of grit thing going on.” I was down because I’m a super White Stripes fan and I think he is so special. He is one of the most interesting creative, unique individuals I have ever met.

STEREOGUM: The way that he thinks about rock music is genius.

KEYS: He’s always going a step further; there’s a reason [behind it]. He’s going to take something and make it into a vinyl and only make one. So he asked me to come down to Nashville cause he was working there. That was actually the first time I’d been in Nashville. I know a hundred people have recorded out of that particular studio. He had this idea, I jumped in on it and it all worked out. It’s definitely one of my favorite collaborations.

Collaborating With John Mayer On “Gravity” (2006) And “Lesson Learned” (2007)

STEREOGUM: With these two songs alone, it’s as if you both are revealing yourself to each other in a very pure form.

KEYS: Those are two of my favorites. By the way, fun fact, Raphael Saadiq wrote on “Lesson Learned.” When John and I worked together, he was playing some chords and I was like, “Ooh, what’s that?” He gently said a little bit of the chorus or something that was already developed. And I was like, “That’s crazy. We got to write it.”

I didn’t even know Raphael was a part of that at the time. So that was a really cool experience. That song is definitely so raw and also defines why John is such a super special artist. He’s another one that just has a way with words and there’s only a few people I’ve ever met that do it like that. Then he called me a while later: “I’m finishing up my thing. Could you come by and sing this one part?”

I came by and it was “Gravity.” I remember the first time I listened to this song and I was like, “Oh my gosh, what am I supposed to do with this? It’s perfect. Like, what do you, what do you want? He’s like, “I don’t know, could you do something at the end?” And as you see, I literally just “ooh.”

STEREOGUM: It adds a special touch.

KEYS: I think it does. It adds a little energy there. I think it was really cool that it almost was a surprise. It was like just something that you heard and if you caught it, you caught it. If you didn’t, you didn’t. So I love those songs. They are very raw and real and genuine.

Writing “Impossible” For Christina Aguilera’s Stripped (2002)

STEREOGUM: This is one of my favorite songs that you’ve ever collaborated on.

KEYS: Ooh look at you. You really know stuff! [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: I know during that time she was going through just a musical rebirth and wanted to get some of the more soulful voices in the game at that time.

KEYS: There’s a really funny, amazing story around this song. I think we were on the same label at the time. She reached out and was like, “Would you write something for me?” And then it came through so many emails. What a voice! I know I could write something fire for her. So time passed and I hadn’t written the song yet. And [the label] was like, “Do you have anything for Christina?” I remember I had just recently written “If I Ain’t Got You.”


KEYS: I told my A&R at the time, “Let’s play her ‘If I Ain’t Got You.’”

STEREOGUM: What? My mind is blown right now.

KEYS: He said, “Are you fucking crazy? We’re not giving her that song. Are you out your mind?” [Laughs] I was like, “Why not? I’ll write a hundred more of those, it’s fine. I think she should hear it. I don’t really think it’s a big deal.” But I thought, “Fine, I’ll go write another song.” So I went off and wrote “Impossible.” I went to cut it with her and I love how she sounded on it. It was such a cool vibe for us to be able to work together during those times. But I will never forget that I would have given away “If I Ain’t Got You.”

STEREOGUM: That would have changed the course of both of your careers. That is crazy.

KEYS: Isn’t that crazy? So that’s a good story.

STEREOGUM: I’m learning so much. The intro is so cute, when Christina goes: “Play something for me, Alicia!”

KEYS: I cut the vocals with her because I produced everything. So it’s really important to be in the same space to just get all the energy. That was great. She sounded so good and she’s very special too.

The Unreleased “Put It In A Love Song” Video With Beyoncé (2009)

STEREOGUM: So I know you talked about this a bunch of times, but I have to ask it because I still want to know: What’s the update on your “Put It In A Love Song” video with Beyoncé? I know you said four years ago the video didn’t capture the energy that you wanted and you guys are both perfectionists. But is it still in the vault?

KEYS: Honestly now, I’m trying to figure out where it is. But I am going to find it. I feel like at this point in our lives, since we’ve been able to do our thing and we all get that was a cool moment between us, we might both be at the place where we can say, “Let’s just throw it out there for fun.” I’m going to try to remember and not forget. I’m gonna see if we can get that ASAP to the fans.

STEREOGUM: All right. I’m putting it out in the universe.

Recording With Bon Iver (2012)

STEREOGUM: Is there a status update on this?

KEYS: Man, we did some good stuff. That’s another thing I might [release] because we really created some great music. Sometimes with music, you’re creating it and then you create other things. By the time you put what you have together it either fits or doesn’t fit. But I might need to go back in the vault and pull out some of those vibes. You need to make me a list! [Laughs] Send it to me and be like, “Okay Alicia, here’s everything you have to do. From, Bianca.”

Guesting On 12 Soulful Nights Of Christmas (1996)

STEREOGUM: Do you remember when you did the “Little Drummer Girl” song for So So Def’s Christmas compilation album?

KEYS: I will never forget. That was such an interesting time because I was just a baby. I mean, that was even before the Men In Black soundtrack. It was my very first opportunity to get out in the world like that.

STEREOGUM: How did you get to be on the record?

KEYS: Well, what happened was I was signed to Columbia at the time and the head of Black music was Michael Mauldin who is Jermaine Dupri’s dad. He was like, “You should put Alicia on this. The compilation is a perfect moment for her.” They asked me which song I wanted to do, and I changed “Little Drummer Boy” to “Little Drummer Girl.” That was such a big moment for me because that was way before Songs In A Minor. And I ideated the whole thing: I produced it, I put it together, I knew what chords I wanted. It was like my own little creation. My first manager would make sure I was good in the studio. I remember I asked everybody to leave. I didn’t want anybody watching me.

STEREOGUM: You just wanted to be in your zone.

KEYS: Yes exactly. That was definitely the beginning of my journey. Being my own producer, writer, and creator stemmed from that opportunity where I could really be brave enough to try. I remember Rodney Jerkins actually worked with me on the programming and we’ve been friends for so long. He was up in that first mix there. So it’s a beautiful thing. Every Christmas I listen to that song.

Working With Drake On Thank Me Later’s “Fireworks” & The Element Of Freedom’s “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)” (2009)

STEREOGUM: “Fireworks” is sentimental because Drake’s Thank Me Later came out when I was a freshman in college. It’s one of those songs you play on a late night leaving the party and just mellow out. It brings back so many memories.

KEYS: I’m pretty sure we wrote “Un-Thinkable” first. He already had his vibe and everything, but it was pretty early on. “Un-Thinkable” is my song. So we wrote that song. It was such an amazing vibe. Then I remember I was in Paris and he was like, “I have this song and you would be perfect on it.” I recorded [“Fireworks”] in Paris, so I wasn’t with him. But I put it on and I remember feeling the same way as you. It’s such an emotional … I don’t know. It just has these sonics that just get you.

STEREOGUM: It tugs at your heartstrings.

KEYS: Yes, yes. I loved singing it because it made me feel like everything was possible. Then come to remember that that was on his first offering and it makes perfect sense.

STEREOGUM: “Un-Thinkable” is in my top five, but “Diary” is number one for me. When you get a little bit more intimate and romantic, those are some of my favorite Alicia moments.

KEYS: I can see that. How about “So Done” [from the new album]? What does that one feel like to you?

STEREOGUM: It’s not really romantic to me. It’s more like a longing type of feeling and wanting more from someone.

KEYS: Nice, I like that.

First Live Album, MTV’s Unplugged (2005)

KEYS: I remember at the time there was only like three [of them] a year. It was something that was really, really unique and special. So it was a big deal that I was going to be one of the Unpluggeds. I was so excited because live performance is my favorite. You always have one new record for it, even though you played it live. That was when we did “Unbreakable,” which was another song that I did with Kanye [West] right around the time that we did “You Don’t Know My Name.” That was fire and I loved it. Common and Damian Marley came out with me and we did his “Welcome To Jamrock” song.

I mean, it was like a moment. It’s a whole world. I remember that day, I keep saying this word dream, but it’s surreal in a sense that you’re in a daze. The energy was so good and it was definitely one of my favorite nights.

STEREOGUM: You made history because it’s the highest-debuting Unplugged since Nirvana’s in 1994.

KEYS: Now I ain’t know that! You know stuff about me that I don’t even know. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: I used to work at Billboard so the charts are always in the back of my mind.

KEYS: That’s amazing.

STEREOGUM: With you bringing up Damian Marley, I’ve noticed you have this connection with reggae music. You even did “Ghetto Story” with Baby Cham. You seem to draw inspiration from the genre.

KEYS: Absolutely. I just feel a real kindred energy with reggae. There’s such a real melody and soulfulness and ease and breeze that comes with it that I really relate to. Even the reggae versions of “No One” and “You Don’t Know My Name” that I did, they just felt natural. That’s a style for me that definitely resonates. Even on the new record, “Wasted Energy” –

STEREOGUM: Yes, it definitely has that vibe and it features the Tanzanian artist Diamond Platnumz. There’s this fusion of his native music with reggae and so mellow. I just want to pop open a beer and chill.

KEYS: Yes, just zone out!

Prince Tribute At BET Awards (2010)

STEREOGUM: You climbed up on that piano, barefoot and pregnant. Such a moment! [Laughs]

KEYS: That’s such a good memory because “Adore” is my favorite Prince song. Another jealous feeling of just wishing I wrote that song. It’s such a good song. I was so honored because I loved him so much and being able to sing my favorite song to him was such a big deal. I was obviously pregnant with Egypt, my first baby, and nothing was gonna stop me from singing for him.

I remember when I was playing it on piano, I was like “I gotta do some crazy.” Like come on, this is Prince. It can’t just be like playing at the piano. I threw out [the idea] to somebody: “What about if I crawl on a piano?” They were like, “Absolutely not, Alicia. You can’t do that.” When somebody tells me that, I have to do it. It was on! So I got ready for the thing and they had these sick heels on me. I was like, “I don’t want to wear these heels.” So I just walked out with no heels, played the piano and climbed up on top just to finish the song. And the hysterical part is when I saw it back and to watch his face–

STEREOGUM: What was your reaction to his reaction? Because that was epic.

KEYS: I was just on another planet that I didn’t see him. I couldn’t look at him anyway. When you love somebody so much you gotta just be focused or else you’ll mess it up. I even pretended like he wasn’t there. But seeing his face made me hysterical. It was so crazy. He was like, “Why is she up there with that belly?”

STEREOGUM: Did you ever get to talk to him afterwards?

KEYS: Yes, we must have. He was definitely like, “You are crazy.” But I know he liked it. That was in the spirit of him. Like he’s our example of crushing the norm. So it was awesome.


ALICIA is now via RCA Records.

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