Alicia is always switched on.
She is wearing Louboutin ankle boots with the red soles well worn, Givenchy black jeans with faux cobalt blue rips. Her jacket is also Givenchy. Her face is fresh but for Cleopatra eyeliner that makes her look like a silver screen movie star.
Her hair recently shorn is slicked back close to her head. Her nails are a blood red oval with the half moons painted creamy, very 1940s.
It is an open and brave face. She is listening to one of her new tracks, Brand New Me, hands me her headset asking if I mind her ‘ear juice’. The track is at that time unfinished but she wanted specifically to play it because it best sums up how her life has changed, how she has had a personal revolution since finding love with Swizz Beatz (rapper and producer Kasseem Dean) and becoming a mother to son Egypt.
It’s been a slow but stealthy revolution that’s taken place within her that has seen Alicia transform from a feisty street kid from Hell’s Kitchen with her hair in braids, a girl who carried a knife and a defensive face, who expressed everything through her music yet was wary and defensive and not comfortable in her own skin.
Countless mega-selling albums – Songs In A Minor (released when she was only 20 was the biggest selling debut record of all time at more than 12 million), Tne Diary of Alicia Keys, As I Am and The Element Of Freedom – made her a worldwide superstar, yet she remained strangely ambiguous, never releasing any personal details about herself.
The public only knew her from her songs. No one knew who she was in love with or if she’d ever really been love. She once told me, ‘I’m not the person who runs around sharing things with everybody.’
The brand new Alicia is not only more confident she is more warm, open and trusting. She has allowed herself to be vulnerable for the first time.
She grew up an only child with her hard working Italian Irish mother Terry Augello who was an actress and legal secretary. Her father, Craig Cook, a former flight attendant turned masseur, left her mother when she was two and she spent many years having no relationship with him at all. But upon the death of her paternal grandmother in 2006, with whom she was very close, she gradually came to reconsider their relationship and only recently decided to give it a fresh start putting past pain, abandonment issues and fighting her mother’s corner behind her.
With each album there has been an emotional shift, Alicia becoming less and less afraid to express who she is. The album Girl On Fire is fierce.
‘Brand New Me didn’t happen straight away, it was an evolution. It was a whole journey to get there. Some of the songs on Girl On Fire are very vulnerable. Some are me talking to myself in a subconscious way. Some have a sense of abandonment, of letting go.
‘It’s been a long process sorting out my work life balance since having Egypt. The first process was just bringing him home and for three months just being with him. “Do I start to record now? How do I do that?” What I learnt from Egypt was I should not always be endlessly in the studio. I realised that was counterproductive.
‘I thought I got more done by staying there longer but in actuality I can get more done in less time by being more sustained and focused. I never even had a social life before when I was making a record. I would think nothing else should come anywhere near it and I was so boring. I’m much more fun now.
‘Even coming to London on this trip is a new level of learning about work life balance. What time zone should I keep him on? Egypt continues to change my life every day. (He is named after the country which she visited a few years ago).’I went on my own, completely alone. When I ran away to Egypt it was the first vacation I had ever taken in my adult life. It came at a time where I realised I could not hold everything together. I had been dealing with a lot. (Her grandmother’s illness and death and the onslaught of fame).
‘The wanting to control thing can be very detrimental. On the outside I’m calm and collected so nobody knows what I am going through. I realised if I wanted to grow as an artist and as a woman I had to let that ship go.
‘I went to the Valley of the Kings down to the temples and the tombs. I sailed down the Nile and I swam in the Red Sea. I saw the power of human beings and the inspiration of things that have lasted for thousands of years. I feel I have roots in Egypt, although I’m not sure of the exact origins.
‘Who knew one trip to Egypt would change my life. I would like to think I could still go on my own. Everyone needs alone time.’
‘I do love being on my own. And there are times when I’m not alone but I’m in my own space. Like in the gym. I’ve just started to do boxing. And even though there’s another person physically there with me I feel I’m in my own space.’
‘I’m loving boxing. I don’t care what music is that I work out to I just need a rhythm. Afro-Cuban is good, Spanish is good too. I learnt that it takes 18 months before you really shed the baby weight. It just doesn’t come off in the first 18 months.
‘I gained 30lbs, which isn’t that much, and once the baby comes out a lot of weight comes with that, but the rest, about 10lbs, seems to stay. You are constantly trying to figure out what to do. Eventually I resigned myself to this will take as long as it takes and at around 18 months I felt I’m ready, I’m really ready. And then the last 10lbs went.’
‘Egypt is awesome. He’s two and just so silly. He’s super light and super giggly. We feel so right together, we definitely fit. From the first moment I saw him I loved him. It’s a mixture of relief, he’s finally here, he’s safe, and who he is, a whole full person.
‘A lot of people when they get babies they take them home and think, who are you? What are you doing here? Then eventually they fall for them. Not me. It was love at first sight and it got progressively obsessional. I want to be there every second. I would like to have some more. At least one. Every woman thinks she wants a girl and so did I but I’m so glad he’s a boy. The mother son bond is really powerful.’
‘Women are more complex by nature. They are born complex. Daughters are often closer to their fathers. I grew up with only my mother. Recently I feel both me and my father have grown up. I think something happens when you become a grandparent. You have a different mind state. There’s less pressure on the relationship, so maybe it’s closer. He was with Egypt last week and he loved it.
‘My father and I are fine now. I would say in the process of growing up you realise you’ve been holding on to anger. I was angry then and am sure I had the right to be angry, but if you hold on to all this anger the only person you’re hurting is you.
‘The process started from my (paternal) grandmother being ill. It caused a shift. You realise what’s important when you see a person you love dearly and you’re not going to have them for long. It was important to her. I saw his love for her. I realised he wasn’t an evil person so I said can we start from this point on? Can we be friends? I can start to understand you and you can start to understand me.
‘It’s a great period in my life. All the relationships in my life I feel I’ve got to a place where I’m honest and I can cut the shit. Here is what it was, here is what it is, and here’s what it might be. Let’s just be in the moment.’
‘Definitely since Egypt I’m a more peaceful person. I’m a more comfortable in my own skin person. But it happened before that too. I was becoming more open. I started to understand things better. I stopped being angry with my father and defensive.
‘There’s some things you can’t change and some things you’re going to have to change. I think I put myself in I’ve learnt so much recently. I think I had boxed myself in because of other people’s opinions, other people’s fears and worries and thoughts so I stopped worrying what other people’s worries might be.’
‘I cut my hair and I love it. It really is the embodiment of everything I’ve been doing over these past couple of years. Letting go, freedom, empowerment, doing my own thing. I might never go back to long hair. The washing process, everything, is done in a few seconds and very spontaneous. It can go curly or straight.’
‘I feel connected to both my parents’ roots. My mother is Irish Italian. Her Italian grandparents were from Sicily. I have never been there so I would like to go. Whenever I’m in Italy people always ask me are you a little Italian? They can see it. I would like to take one of those DNA tests because it would be great to know where our exact lineage is from. I’m not sure of my father’s roots. He is African American, but what does that actually mean? I would like to know exactly where I’m from.’
‘There are so many babies born with nobody and having a son makes me now realise wow, what about those babies who for whatever reason are abandoned. Perhaps their mothers passed away and they have never known contact, that touch from their babyhood.
‘I don’t know if I wouldn’t adopt I just don’t know but it’s a beautiful thing to do.’
‘I really do enjoy cooking. I feel very at peace when I cook even though these days I don’t cook a lot because there’s often the question of do I sleep or do I cook? Definitely sleep.
‘My favourite dish is soy maple salmon. It’s salty and sweet and I always love a contrast.’
‘When I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to study. I went for the experience and to find out what pulled me. Now if I went back I would study business and marketing. I’d like to understand the fundamentals behind the things I put in action every day. What are the mindsets and concepts?’
‘My collaboration with Emelie Sande came about randomly and I love how things happen like that. I was celebrating the tenth anniversary of Songs In A Minor with four shows. One of them was in the Royal Albert Hall, London and I was looking for a support act. So I got turned on to her. There was one song called Breaking The Law. I played it 70 times, so I said let’s have her open the show. We didn’t meet each other that night.
‘She was coming to New York and we ended up getting together and we decided to do some writing. It was instant chemistry. Rarely does it happen like that. She is a unique and important artist who will be around for a long time. We worked on three songs on this album which are all awesome.’
‘My husband and I knew each other for years. We were both in the same industry. We first met when we were something like 16. I didn’t have music out, I was just playing certain places and he was just starting on his music career.
‘A high school friend of his ended up being a girl who was managed by the same people as me. That’s how we ended up meeting and we used to hang out and say things like “Maybe we’ll work together one day.” We knew each other’s music. We were in the same industry. It’s cute that we knew each other when we were 16 but it was not an instant connection. You never know. Sometimes it takes years. It was a very slow burn but it does still burn and it’s beautiful. We understand each other.
‘I’ve never met someone who is like me and the more we are together the more I see we are alike. I’ve never met someone with whom I could be my whole self. I’ve always had to be part of myself with people, but with him I can be my whole self and he loves me when I am. And I love when he is his whole self.’
‘Sometimes we walk into a room together an everyone gravitates towards him, and there are times when we walk into a room together and everyone gravitates towards me. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable and I don’t feel uncomfortable. I love it when people love him. And he loves when people love me. It’s a really balanced thing we have and I’m so glad I don’t have to pull back this part of myself, pull back that part. We can just be “Here’s me.” It’s pretty special and now with our beautiful Egypt we just thank each other every day.’
Best book you’ve read recently?
It’s Isabelle Allende’s book about Haiti. Unbelievable.
What music are you listening to?
A lot of Afro-Cuban, Fela Kuti, Frank Ocean, Emile Sande and Alabama Shakes.
What are you wearing?
I’m in love with Givenchy. Also I love to wear sweat pants, low hanging tanks with heels.
Can’t live without make-up product?
Eyeliner. Always have loved my eyeliner and always will. I like the make-up line called Tarte.
Item that you’ve most recently splashed out on?
I haven’t but my husband bought a Morgan car. It’s a 1940s meets futuristic body style. Hand made and incredible. I’ll gladly hop in the driver’s seat and drive that bad boy.
Of course it’s New York. But outside of that Barcelona.
I have so many. I want to be able to try new passions, do things I don’t even know yet. I want to learn.
It’s midnight and there’s a bank of paparazzi in front of me surrounding Alicia Keys’ trailer like big fat flies with big fat lenses. They jostle and push, they feel very threatening.
I have just seen Alicia perform at St. John’s, Smith Square, the Black Ball. There’s been dinner, auctions, all to raise money and awareness for her charity Keep A Child Alive. There was a performance from Keys which was intimate and emotionally direct in a way that she’s made her own. Whether it’s on stage or on song, Keys can get you right in the heart.
Even my agitated mood had dissipated: I’d been waiting to interview her since 4.30pm that day, hence the agitation. I could have interviewed her after I’d been waiting about an hour, but that would have been while she was having her make-up done. I’d met Keys many times before. I wanted to talk to her properly, not while her eyes were shut to accommodate a make-up brush.
She’s on a world tour and she’s pregnant. I didn’t know she was pregnant at the time though. It was announced the following day, but I had a funny feeling… but more of that later.
Eventually I’m inside the trailer. Keys and her hair stylist, assistant, and several other integrals, all shout my name loud and cheer me in. You can’t be agitated with Keys for long. She’ll always find a way to melt it.
The trailer is a symphony of fawn and beige leatherette; dark and dank – chunks of newly cut hair from Keys’ hairpiece are on the floor. She says, “It’s like being in jail in here.”
She sprays herself with some Dolce & Gabbana, telling me she wants to mask the smell of performance. The smell is sweet, heady, a little bit salty. Performance was better.
She’s wearing a black draped, off the shoulder dress with a fabric corsage. Her shoes are ruffled platform sandals. I’ve seen her in many incarnations before. When she first started out she never wore a dress because she thought that was too vulnerable and too attention grabbing – there was always that paradox. And her hair was in braids. It seems a long time ago. In those days she was defensive and never wanted to reveal anything to anybody, be it friend, lover or interviewer.
She wrote her first song at 13 when she was coming to terms with the death of her grandfather. Her debut Songs In A Minor was one of the biggest selling debut albums ever. She has continued to be relentlessly successful, each album outstripping the last; and Empire State Of Mind is an inescapable modern classic, probably the most played single of the past year.
The first time I interviewed her there was no PR machine. I just turned up at the appointed time. This time I’m aware there is Alicia Keys the corporation, the entourage, the minders, a machine that’s rolling and controlling. I wonder if she feels separate from herself and just how is it to be inside the giant phenomenon that is Alicia Keys? “I don’t really have a gauge on it in the sense that I don’t know how it appears to other people. I don’t think I understand that too much because I don’t think I like that. I’m also hell bent on normalcy to the extent where people are like, ‘Alicia, you are delusional’.”
Keys really doesn’t like the unreal stuff, or the paparazzis outside. She says, “That’s London in particular I have to say. If it were everywhere like that I would possibly become violent. But since it’s just here in London you can smile through it and go ‘wow, weird’. The other day they were following us in a car and I could really see how it happened with Princess Diana. They could really kill someone because it’s dangerous and I was really freaked out by that.”
This time round she played two nights at the O2 Arena which houses 20,000 people. “It’s unbelievable,” she says. And she really does seem shocked at herself. “I’m thinking what am I doing, two nights at that venue.” Keys has always wanted this kind of success – success is what gets you appreciated. Success came from being strong, in control, and throughout her teenage years she’d carry a knife to protect herself on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, New York, where she grew up. It was a metaphor that she didn’t need anybody.
She was brought up by her mother, part Italian, part English, part Scottish, Terri Augello, an actress who worked long hours often until midnight as a paralegal. There was lots of alone time which harnessed her self-sufficiency. Her father was African American Craig Cook, a flight attendant turned masseuse. Her parents were never married and never lived together, but were amicable. Cook’s parents called Augello their “daughter-in-love.” Keys’ relationship with her father was minimal until recently.
Her songs and her diary which she still writes to this day are like therapy to her. Songwriting is her confessor. She once told me, “Most times your blessings are also your curses. And for me this is my ability to express myself so clearly with pen and paper, but when it comes to expressing myself verbally with a person I have a big wall I put up there.” Since then she’s worked to rethread that pattern and become more emotionally articulate and open.
She is very open when she talks. She’ll let you see exactly what’s going on in her head. She’ll let you feel her thinking. But she’s not very good about telling you about other things and people.
This album took only three months, it usually takes her much much longer to finish a record. “I don’t know what happened. I think I’m more playful in my attitude and my approach. I’m still a perfectionist, but just not so serious. It used to be I would never take a weekend trip or hang out. I think it’s a New York mentality, there’s a certain grind. An empire state of grind!”
Christian Louboutin steps into the trailer, exuberant because he auctioned the shoes that he designed for her and another pair for Beyoncé, and was one of the most popular lots. He is wearing shoes covered in metal spikes. The atmosphere is almost euphoric with the success of the evening. Keys seems to be soft and relaxed. I remember there was a time when she never used to drink coffee in case it affected her too intensely.
“I like it like a baby, with so much milk and sugar it’s more milk and sugar than coffee.” I tell her that there’s a psychological test which means how you like your coffee is supposed to symbolise your attitude towards sex, so basically this must mean she likes it hardly at all. “Oh that’s totally wrong,” she giggles in a totally naughty way.
You believe Keys when she talks about her charity, that she deeply cares and didn’t pick it up like a must have pair of shoes of the season. She’s been involved with Keep A Child Alive since 2002. “When 9/11 happened it was like, ‘What’s going on in the world?'” Consciousness in America shifted to fear and self-protection, but Keys thought of it in a different way. She wanted to know what was going on in the whole world.
“I wanted to know what was going on in Africa. I went to Africa to do a performance and I was so ecstastic to be known in Africa at that time. I had a phenomenal time learning about Africa, it was like school. There was a ton of information for me to digest. Then I met people my age who are dealing with hell, and I thought I can do something here, I want to do something special.”
Keys was preparing to go to South Africa to perform at the opening of the World Cup hoping that all the glamour surrounding international football stars will bring out the extreme contrast of the people in South Africa and what they might be going through, particular with their fight against disease, to get HIV medication and extreme poverty.
“The contrast is the beauty of it. It’s very positive to have the world cup happening in Africa. The whole world is turning to look at Africa at this event. Time (magazine) is doing a conference out there which will bring world leaders to Africa to talk about how businesses can partner. It could be an empowering time, but it’s important to think all these billion of dollars that are being pumped into the world cup for two weeks, couldn’t we just pump a few million of those dollars into something that is an issue every day.”
We saw films before tonight’s performance of villages that can be built out of shipment containers. A woman with HIV with young children who needed antiretrovirals to save her life. Then we saw her a few months later happy, rounder faced and able to be a mother to her children.
Keys says, “I try my best just to engage people in a way that’s simple so that you don’t think an Aids epidemic is only over there. It’s a very simple concept: here is the existing medicine, people take it and it brings them back to life. I’ve seen kids that were on the verge of death and then a few years later they are jumping around. ”
It’s not just dogma or a speech. When she says it, it hits you and you feel her voice like a melody. Life is injected into charity fatigue when she talks and I wonder if working with these children, some of whom have been infected with the Aids virus from family members who have abused them, has made her feel broody.
“Oh,” she says looking a little startled. I realise now I asked the question as if I knew something, so she must have been flustered, but answered in a way that would cover if I did know or I didn’t. “I love children and I love family and I love that interaction. Because I had a really close relationship with my mother I understand that deep powerful love, and it’s so beautiful. So as a mother to a child is the most brilliant gift, it’s gorgeous.”
Are you ready for your own children? “Yes. I’m definitely in a place where I have a different sensibility about things. I remember how I used to be. I’m going on the road and I’m back when I’m back and I’m probably gone a long time. I felt that that’s what I needed to do and there was nothing more important than reaching that place I saw in my head. Nothing could stop me. There was no amount of love. There was no amount of nothing that could drag me down. That was then. And now there is a desire in me to have more stability. I never think I’ve reached that pinnacle so to speak, but I do feel satisfied with what I’ve been able to achieve, so I don’t feel this endless need I’ve got to get there, I’ve got to get there.”
And what’s that been replaced with? “I’ve got to get peace. I have to be peaceful and I have to be happy. I think sometimes we confuse success with happiness. It’s easy to do because you figure that success is going to make you happy.”
And if it doesn’t make you happy there’s a crisis. “I think it screws a lot of people up, totally fucks them bad.”
How does she negotiate that one? “I don’t have a ton of friends but the friends I have are great ones. I don’t have huge family but the family I have is a great one. I have solid decent people around me and I believe that is all it is because you will get destroyed if you have people bringing you down.”
Keys seems to have given up on the idea that she can control everything. Much is made of the fact that she never talks specifically about her personal life. For a while nobody knew if she liked girls or boys. She was adamant that that wouldn’t become public property, part of a publicity machine that would steamroller her. But gradually that’s changed and she allowed herself to be papped with producer supremo fiancé Swizz Beatz. She used to be able to freeze away paparazzi by a certain don’t go there I’m not who you think I am stare. She doesn’t even try to pull one of those now. Perhaps being relaxed and in love was why her latest album was conceived in playfulness.
In a way she has always spoken from her heart and how she’s feeling in that moment. It’s more interesting to hear her say that “being in love feels to her like the first sunrise ever seen from earth” than the name of her boyfriend and what they did last night.
I wonder if her non-relationship with her father helped create the emotional reticence that appears now to be dissolving. Has she got closer to him? “I would say that in the process of growing you sometimes realise you hold on to anger. I was angry then and I’m sure I had the right to be angry, but if you hold on to all this anger the only person you’re hurting is you.”
Did he come back into your life? Or how did you decide to give up the anger? “It came from my grandmother being ill. That was his mother and it caused a shift in the family dynamic.” She was incredibly close to her grandmother who died in 2006. She was with her on the night she died. She told me that they were so close she didn’t just look like her, she embodied her.
“You realise what’s important when you see a person you love so dearly and you’re not going to have them for long. It was important for her and I thought well, what is all this stuff. I saw his love for her and I saw that he didn’t mean any harm. He wasn’t being an evil person. Sometimes things don’t work out and it’s difficult to figure out how to put it all together.”
Does she think she saw it all through her mother’s eyes as she was so close to her? “I’m sure that was some of it, and just consistency was lacking at times. But I became more understanding and I said here is my beautiful grandmother, we can start from this point on, we can be cordial. We can be friends. I can start to understand you and you can start to understand me.
“I think one of the most difficult things for human beings is to learn how to let it go because you want to hold on and on and you seem to be the only one that’s fighting.”
How does she let go now? “One is journalising. I like a place where you can be brutally honest. And I’ve also found I really enjoy meditating and chanting. The other thing is I try to be really direct with what I’m feeling. I will talk directly about and say ‘I’ve got to say this shit’ and then I can let it go.
“It was very difficult to be honest with myself because I was ‘I am steel, nothing hurts me, I’m impenetrable, nothing can touch me’, but I’m over that now.”
So she goes from steel to silk? “Definitely I do, although a lot of times I revert back to my steel and think, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to be in this steel thing’. I recognise it a bit more. The triggers are pure fatigue, my patience goes.”
She’s looking forward to not being fatigued, taking time out. “I have a whole list of places I wanted to travel. I’ve promised myself a trip to Israel, but I don’t know if it will be this summer.”
She hugs me goodbye, still smelling of performance mixed with Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. It’s a proper hug with proper soul in it. She will always be working on shedding those layers rather than building barriers, even if her publicist is doing the opposite. And that peace she was looking for? She may well have found it.