Alicia Keys’ new book, More Myself, isn’t your typical celebrity autobiography. Keys charts her path from growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen to winning 15 Grammys (and hosting the show twice), but she also calls in famous friends for help: Bono, Oprah, Jay-Z, and husband Swizz Beats each open up chapters with their favorite memories of the singer. Keys says the book is a testament to years of working to take down the “armor” she’s spent a lifetime keeping up.
“I’m more open than I’ve ever been,” she says. “Allowing yourself to be who you are is a much more comfortable place to exist in.” Keys, whose next album, Alicia, is due out later this year, talked to us as she self-quarantined with her family at home in New York City.
How have you and your family been handling being stuck at home?
We actually are pleasantly surprised that we’re doing all right with each other. We love a good Monopoly game. We’ve been cooking together. We also do a little run or a little workout together in some capacity. We’re trying to create a schedule so we can keep up a normal energy to some degree. But it is definitely strange.
What music has been comforting for you these days?
I love classics: Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill. There’s one artist that I’m super loving named Chika. DJ Tony Touch is somebody that I’ll play a lot if he’ll do a radio show, and just the energy feels really good. I also love meditative music if I’m feeling a little more down or just a little bit more anxious. My husband and Timbaland have been putting on these “Verzuz” battles on Instagram [where each producer plays snippets of their hits and an online audience decides the winner] that I think have been getting a lot of people through.
Do you think you’re going to get in on the “Verzuz” action?
You never know. I might be up in there. I’ve heard people are requesting me and John Legend, piano to piano.
What made you want to have friends like Michelle Obama and Jay-Z contribute to your book?
There’s just something really powerful about seeing it from other different vantage points.
Those are pretty busy people. Who had the most trouble making deadline?
Maybe Bono. He wrote to me one day: He’s like, “Alicia, I forgot to tell an adult that I had to turn this in, and now no one’s been able to hold me to task. I forgot.” He’s so amazing, and he’s such a brother.
You have so many of these wonderful stories in the book about encountering your heroes. I love the one about Prince.
I had to get his permission to [cover] “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” on Songs in A Minor. I had to call him, which is literally one of the scariest things I ever did in my life, trying to pick up the phone knowing that you had to convince your favorite person on the planet, who often says no to his compositions being redone. But he was so gracious.
He invited me to Paisley Park. He said, “Why don’t you come play the song for me?” So I went to freezing-cold Minneapolis. Walking those halls and seeing all those beautiful memorabilia, just all of these incredible moments in his life, and these pianos that were engraved, and he had candles and doves and the outfits from Purple Rain. My jaw was on the floor the entire time. And then he told me that I couldn’t curse, which is really hard for me because I love to curse.
There’s a great story about how “Empire State of Mind” almost didn’t happen because Jay-Z couldn’t get a hold of you. How different would your career have been if that song hadn’t happened?
Oh, my gosh. It was such a pivotal point in my musical career, and his too. To this day he talks about how in awe he is that the biggest song that he’s ever had is about our hometown. It would have been a shame if that didn’t happen.
In January, you hosted the Grammy Awards for the second time. Do you think that you’ll host again, next year?
I don’t know how the whole Grammy thing is going to pan out. It’s definitely been a great two years, I have to say, even with the deep shadow of Kobe and Gigi Bryant and all the other people that were on the helicopter with them passing away [just before this year’s ceremony].
I was grateful that I could be a part of creating some type of calm for all of us because that was such a shock, and it was literally just hours before the show. We are so close to our mortality. Anybody at any moment — you don’t know when the time will come.
Your single “Underdog” has been getting a lot of attention lately, especially after you dedicated it to medical professionals on the livestreamed Concert for America in March. What inspired you to do that?
Seeing the first responders and the medical professionals and the unsung heroes who are out there trying to care for people who are suffering is just incredible. I actually feel a great sense of hope from everybody connecting and feeling an empathy for each other right now.