The New York recording studio where Alicia Keys is finishing up her new album is as calm and peaceful as she is, with its incense-scented corridors and flickering votive candles. There is a family feel to the proceedings, as Keys makes her way through the various rooms, dispensing hugs and how-you-doings and joking with some of the kids who run in and out. “This is one of my favorite spots,” she says, climbing out a window and surveying the downtown street three floors below as her legs dangle. It’s a scene repeated all over the city: a pretty New York girl spending a crisp fall afternoon on a fire escape. Keys, 22, wears jeans, a brown, yellow and cream leather jacket and big ol’ sparkly black earrings. Her mellow smile is confounding: Doesn’t she know that all eyes are on her for the release of her second record? Few debuts were as celebrated as 2001’s Songs in A Minor, but Keys says she isn’t feeling the pressure of a follow-up. When you hear The Diary of Alicia Keys, due out in December, you’ll know why. It’s a stunner, a blend of hip-hop with warmth and feeling (“Streets of New York” is an affectionate ode to her hometown, opened and closed by Nas and Rakim) as well as instant soul classics that invoke the best of Seventies AM radio. The single “You Don’t Know My Name” even revives the good old spoken interlude, in a phone call to a crush, which she did in one take (“I feel kind of silly doing this, but this is the waitress from the coffeehouse… the one with the braids”). “I’m so excited about this album,” she says. “I feel like it’s the first time all over again.”
Your new record really reflects the Sixties and Seventies soul that you love.
That’s some of the best music ever created, period, end of story. I feel sometimes it’s a lost art — being a true artist, having different angles to offer, experimenting. Long songs that last forever, like eleven minutes — I’m really inspired by things like that.
Surely you are feeling some stress about the expectations that are on you.
I think we sometimes make things extra heavy for ourselves. And if I find myself feeling like that, I’m like, “Go take a walk, go to the movies or something, go see your grandmother, go get with your homegirls and drive around and be silly.”
You seem to have been almost absurdly grounded right from the get-go.
My mother has been a big influence. We went through a lot when I was younger, and I saw pretty immediately what life is and what life isn’t. My mother’s such a strong person that she really instilled that kind of strength in me as well. I’m really thankful for that, because she’s not a pushover, and neither am I.
What’s the most adventurous track on the record?
There are two. One is called “So Simple.” I manipulated my voice, so it’s almost like me featuring myself as a different sound. The other one is called “Dragon Days,” because I play with a lot of different keyboard sounds. It sounds like guitars, but they’re keyboards.
What has been the most surreal moment of your career so far?
A lot of them happen at Clive [Davis’] Grammy parties. Like, I met Stevie Wonder, and he got onstage and asked me what song should he sing. I know every song in his catalog, and I forgot every one. I ended up saying “As,” but I was so mad afterwards because I would have asked him to sing “They Won’t Go When I Go” — that’s on Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Another was jamming with Prince at Paisley Park. He invited me down there to do a show, and he gave me this whole tour of his pianos. He had one piano that has the whole “How Come You Don’t Call Me” lyric engraved on it.
When were you happiest in your career, and when were you unhappiest?
I’ll tell you what makes me the most happy about what I do: that I can be myself. And this is really important, because oftentimes young women are pushed to be something other than they are, even if it’s just slightly. And the worst was probably dealing with so much upheaval with my first record company. I was just like, “I don’t even know where I’m going to land.” That was definitely a very hard, hard time in my life.
What posters did you have on your wall as a kid?
New Edition. I think I even had one New Kids on the Block poster. Oh, man, that’s kind of embarrassing. I definitely had a Mary [J. Blige] poster. But I didn’t have very many posters. You know, our house was really, really small, and where my bedroom was, was divided by my piano and a fold-out couch for my bed, so I didn’t really have a lot of wall space to do the whole poster thing.
What is the ultimate R & B song, and why?
Heatwave, “Always and Forever.”
That’s what Eve said.
No! That’s what she said? And the other is Prince’s “Adore.” I wish I wrote that song. It’s the arrangement, the feeling behind it, the way it grows all the way to the end, those crazy sounds he used at the end. It just takes you on a journey.
And the ultimate rap song?
Biggie’s “Me and My Bitch.” Now this sounds crazy, I know, coming out of my mouth. But he really told a real-life story and brought you through what happens when you’re really digging a person, and you have fights, and you break up and get back together. And in this case it turned around to that one day she paged him, and when he called her back she wouldn’t pick up the phone. And he goes to her place and these people who had some beef with him ended up killing her. And he said, “They killed my best friend.” So although he’s talking like she’s his bitch and that kind of thing, it wasn’t like that — it was deeper than that.
What aspect of the music business do you hope will change in the future?
I definitely would love to see a little more substance, and a little more diversity. And more people that aren’t afraid to really stand up and say, “Hey, this is how I feel.” So that we can have a couple of more different opinions and a little more open-mindedness.
What’s the best advice you ever got?
A brother by the name of Van Hunt, who is one of the most incredible musicians I know, said to me, “Alicia, all you need is three chords and the truth.” It changed my mind on how to write and play and everything. It changed my life.