In her new book, Keys tells the story about a photoshoot that taught her an important life lesson — if you’re ever uncomfortable or unsure about something: speak up and say no.
“This was a big-time photographer,” she said, referring to her 2004 Vibe magazine cover, where half of her nude body is emerging from water as she covers her breasts with her hands. “The fact that I was even shooting with him was unheard of; they don’t even shoot new artists. It was a big deal and it was made to be a big deal to me, and this would be a great start to everything. When that person started suggesting that I take off this or pull down that or show more of that, I felt awkward as hell. But I was like, ‘OK, you know best, right?’”
“I went through that and I hated that. I remember having that ugly, nasty pit in my stomach, when you get so sick at yourself; you’re getting sick at yourself and it hurts and there’s no taking it back and you’re like, ‘Ugh.’ And you have to actually learn something from it. That was definitely the moment where I realized, if I’m uncomfortable, I’m not doing it. Period.”
Keys knows that uneasy situations like that still happens in today’s world, and her advice to other artists is to “listen to that gut and don’t do it.”
“You can be like, ‘Nah, I’m not good with that. I’m good with this up here. Thanks,’” she said.
A NO-NO TO THE N-WORD
On Alicia Keys’ Grammy-winning 2001 debut album, “songs in A minor,” the singer uses the N-word on the upbeat track “Girlfriend.” She said shortly after releasing the song she decided to never use the word again.
“At the time, I was loving Wu-Tang, that Ol’ Dirty Bastard song,” said Keys, referring "Brooklyn Zoo" by Ol' Dirty Bastard, which she interpolates on “Girlfriend.”
“It was so cool to play it at the piano and sing a song over it. Wu-Tang is like my big, big influence. The soul of it, because a lot of it samples the ‘60s and ‘70s and then the hardness of New York, Staten Island streets — it had such a really big influence on me. That was just my thing. At the end of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard song, he says that line and I put it at the end of my song kind of like an homage to how much I love Wu-Tang. It was a vibe. It was a moment. I’ll never forget.”
But Keys admits she created the song before she became a public figure or a successful musician with an audience of listeners.
“Once I realized, ‘Wow! Millions of people will hear this from me’ — I didn’t know what that felt like before — and then once I did know how that felt, I realized that ... this was another moment where I was able to look at myself and be like, ‘Hmmm, does that feel right to me? No, that doesn't feel right to me. I don’t want to do that anymore,’” she said. “Everybody has their own thoughts and I’m not here to judge anybody either. I just know that for me personally that didn’t feel right for me when I realized that many, many people would hear that from me. I just changed it right there. I never talked about it. Never did it again. That was it.”
LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
As a child, Alicia Keys was surrounded by the arts: Her mother moved to New York City to pursue acting and she lived in building for those working in the creative world.
“I feel like I’m the living embodiment of my mother’s dream. She left Toledo, Ohio, at 19 years old after having to beg her mom to get out of a small town and make her way in the world and come to New York. That story that fuels the spirit of New York is her story. She believed that she could come here and make her life as an artist. She believed in it. She threw all the caution into the wind and came here.”
Terri Auguello graduated from New York University but had to put the breaks to her career when she learned she was pregnant with Keys.
“She had to suddenly become a responsible parent to have me and be able to put food on the table as a single mother; do those things, those sacrifices that mothers do,” she said. “When I look at my life and I look at her, a lot of the times I really feel like she threw all her dreams and all her wishes and prayers, even for herself, on me. It’s really incredible and this was something that feels really moving to me and makes me kind of want to cry.”
BABY KANYE AND A YOUNG JOHN LEGEND
Before they released their epic, Grammy-winning debut albums in 2004, Kanye West and John Legend worked behind-the-scenes with Alicia Keys.
The trio joined forces to create the smoky R&B hit “You Don't Know My Name,” the first single from Keys’ sophomore album, “The Diary of Alicia Keys.”
“It’s so sick. Who would have known that it would have panned out in this way when we first met up?”
Keys said she has to give credit to her then-A&R exec Peter Edge, who is now the chairman and CEO of RCA Records: “I remember he was actually the one who said, ‘Why don’t we try something with Kanye? He’s coming up.’ I was like, ‘OK.’”
At the time, West had been a buzzed-about producer crafting songs for Jay-Z and others.
“I remember the first time I met ‘Ye. We actually sat in his room and he played me, ‘Through the Wire,’” she said of West’s debut single. “He just had gotten that wire off of his jaw from that car accident that he had. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
“Here he brought with him John; definitely didn’t know John at the time,” she continued. “It’s definitely so amazing even to just see John before he was a household name and how grounded he was and how talented he was. At the time I didn’t even know he played piano like he did.”
Legend sang background vocals on “You Don’t Know My Name,” which won Keys, West and co-writer Harold Lily the best R&B song Grammy Award.
“It’s really, really incredible and exciting and just beautiful to see everybody in their element, in their space, doing their thing. And there we were those years ago, creating this magic moment together.”
PIANO & I
Alicia Keys and her single mother lived in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, but they had a third roommate: a piano.
Keys and her mother were gifted a piano from a friend who was moving and needed to get rid of the large instrument.
“Even thinking about that piano that I had in my house — would my mother be able to afford a piano? Hell no! There’s no reason why we would have a piano,” she said. “The fact that that was meant to happen for me because this person was moving and they couldn’t take it with them, whoever gets that opportunity? Some people say, ‘What’s the biggest moment in your life that changed everything?’ For me, I think it’s that.”
“It was the only way that I would have been able to really start to learn that particular instrument; have that at my fingertips and be able to be inspired by it, have the curiosity to start to songwriting and start to explore what it feels like to express my emotions through a piano,” she added.
THE A TEAM: ED AND ALICIA
When Johnny McDaid, the songwriter and member of rock band Snow Patrol, was working with Alicia Keys on her new album, he said a friend had a started a song he thought would be a good fit for Keys.
It was Ed Sheeran.
“He goes, ‘Ed wanted me to share you this idea that he started. He said, ‘He thought you could do something with it.’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK,’” Keys recalled. “He plays me this rough skeleton of this idea. I was like, ‘Oh!’ It had this underdog part in it and like the hustlers at the bus stop and single mothers and all of these pieces of my life that I understand.”
The result was “Underdog,” Keys’ latest single from her seventh studio album “ALICIA,” due out May 15.
Sheeran and McDaid had previously collaborated on the massive hits “Shape of You” and “Photograph,” as well as other Sheeran songs.
“There’s like this really cool way of writing, although (Ed) and I weren’t in the same room together, he completely created this magic moment by the connection of music.”
ALICIA ON TURNING 40 & HER 1st ALBUM TURNING 20
Next year will mark two milestones for Alicia Keys: She will turn 40 and her debut album will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
“It really is a big year,” she said. “Next year is definitely powerful. I feel so honored to be here.”
“I just feel really blessed to be in this space and I truly know that I have not even begun the greatness that I’m meant to do. I feel very invigorated by that prospect and I’m really excited to continue to uncover where I’m going and what’s out there for all of us. There’s so much. I feel amazing.”