Music Preview: Through her first several records, Alicia Keys has a golden touch
April 17, 2008 8:00 AM
Alicia Keys, a classically trained pianist, was raised in Hell's Kitchen by her Italian-Scottish mother.
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Read the bio of Alicia Keys and you can actually feel exhausted by the time you get to the end. It's an enormous jumble of albums, tours, movies, TV pilots, trips to Africa for charity work and, don't forget, time spent having to go pick up all those awards.
Even Bob Dylan can't find her.
"How hard is it to be me?" she says, echoing a question in a recent teleconference.
"I don't think being me is any harder than being anybody else. I mean we all definitely go through our ups and downs, and we all have difficult trials that test us and really show us the strength of our character and that kind of thing. I mean, the only difference with me and anybody else is probably that it happens more visibly in my life, maybe. ... So I don't look at my life like it's any harder than anybody else's. Everybody has pressure; everybody has commitments to live up to."
With: Ne-Yo and Jordin Sparks.
Where: Petersen Events Center, Oakland.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
More information: 412-323-1919.
Keys, a classically trained pianist raised in Hell's Kitchen by her Italian-Scottish mother, spent a few years after she dropped out of Columbia University trying to launch her pop career with songs on soundtracks.
Once she met Clive Davis, who was transitioning from Arista to J Records, that career shot into hyper mode. Her 2001 debut, "Songs in A Minor," positioning her as a kind of female Stevie Wonder, not only sold 10 million copies worldwide, it sent her to the Grammy podium five times in one night. Among those awards were Best New Artist and Song of the Year for the No. 1 hit, "Fallin'."
She had just turned 21.
Those expectations are enough to make some young artists crumble. But not Keys, who is thriving at 27.
"You know, I guess I have a pretty level head, and honestly, when it comes to 'expectations,' I never got very caught up in that, fortunately. I never really had crazy mind trips about what people would think. I have mantras about my own personal thoughts for myself, because I expect the best from myself and I want to really, really be the best version of myself. But I never got too crazy about, 'Well, what will critics say or what will people say about it when they hear it?' or that kind of thing. I just always have felt like, if I love it, then I know other people will love it."
Keys, who performs Tuesday at the Petersen Events Center, is right to trust her instincts. The three records after that debut, including "MTV Unplugged," debuted at the top of the charts and won acclaim not only from critics, but peers -- and legends, from Wonder to Dylan.
Dylan's 2006 song "Thunder on the Mountain" includes the stanza: "I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying/When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line/I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be/I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee."
"I loved that, I've got to say it," Key says. "It definitely was a bit of a shock. I wasn't really expecting that. And I didn't quite believe it, honestly. My friend John Mayer was the first person that told me about it. And I was, like, 'Stop it, John. Why?' I didn't understand why. And so obviously after I found it was definitely the truth, it was just a great honor. You know he's one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and I thought that for me to live in his song book is pretty damn cool."
Although Keys may admire Dylan, she wasn't looking for him when she put everything aside to work on her third proper studio, album, "As I Am," which has spawned the soulful hits "No One" and "Like You'll Never See Me Again." She was thinking more of channeling aspects of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.
"You listen to a Janis Joplin record and she just wears everything on her sleeve; whether she's completely drugged up, it's on her sleeve; if she's totally just passionately screaming at the top of her lungs, it's on her sleeve. You feel like whatever she's talking about and whatever she's singing about, she sang it with no cares, no second thoughts, no looking back. She didn't say, 'You know what, let's take that take again.' She sang it and she sang it with every bone in her body and that was that.
"And when you think of Aretha Franklin, she opens her mouth that one second and the power and the passion that comes out just gives you chills. So I just wanted to mesh more the intention, as opposed to saying it's a literal mixture between Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, it's the intention of that passion and that abandonment and that freedom and that rawness just to let it be what it is."
Despite Clive Davis' reputation for being a hands-on producer and music executive, Keys says that he doesn't hover over her projects.
"He has the utmost confidence in my songwriting and my songs and me as an artist. And he has always given me my space to create the music that I create. And he has always respected that and he has always admired it, I think. So we have a great relationship. And he's very happy, I think, that I'm the kind of artist that he knows that I go off and I do my thing and come back and I say, 'Check this record out,' and he loves it."
Just over 10 years since her first single, music is only part of the story for Keys. Along with television work, she's appeared in the film "Smokin' Aces" and "The Nanny Diaries" and she'll star in "The Secret Life of Bees" and a remake of "Bell, Book and Candle." There's also a TV pilot in the works for the CW network, based on her biracial upbringing. She is a spokesperson for Keep a Child Alive, which provides AIDS medicines to children and families with HIV/AIDS in Africa.
"Do I get overwhelmed?" she says. "Absolutely, everybody gets overwhelmed. Are there days when I'm mad? 'I surely should have said no to one of these things, because this is just a bit too much.' Yes. But I try my best to really make choices for things that I truly love from a really pure place, and then it's not like you're angry about it."
Plus, the nonprofit work in Africa keeps it all in perspective.
"I work with an organization that tries to give medicine to families who would never be able to get it. Imagine lying on a dirt floor dying and having to watch your mother die, while you have to take care of your five siblings, and you're 13. I mean that's pressure. For me, I keep things like that in perspective and realize that every day is a blessing and you have to make the most of it. So that's kind of my attitude."