The Whole Nine Yards
"It's really dope. It's going to be really fun. I love that I'm the first artist that's able to play it," says Alicia Keys in response to the fact she's going to perform at the Champions League Final in Milan at the end of the month.
The New York superstar is also in the midst of preparing for the release of her first album in four years and what better way of getting word out ahead of the summer release than playing in front of 80,000 fans in the stadium with more than 380 million people watching on TV.
"My kids are crazy big football fans. Currently the names I know the best are Ronaldo, Messi, and James. Look I'm good - that's three names!" she laughs as I back track slightly for asking knowing that football isn't quite the sensation in the US as it is over here. Her love of the sport despite her lack of detailed knowledge is undeniable, though.
"I love that it's such a loved sport and it's so dope I can share my music with an audience I love so much and such a passionate audience, " gushes Keys in a kind-hearted tone that accents everything she says. The fact she's landed this gig - which is about as complimentary as it gets - it shows the parallels between her and internationals like Ronaldo and Messi. She's as dedicated, focused and talented in her work as they are theirs. She's recognised among the world’s best vocalists. But her arrival to these lofty heights wouldn't have happened had it not been for her mother's firm approach to parenting.
"I specifically remember hearing kids outside yelling and playing and screaming and it would be torture because I was distracted so easily," she says, "and all I’m thinking is 'everyone else is having such a good time and I have to do all the work'.
"I guess I remember it being a struggle for me. But it was mandatory it was what I had to do as part of my day. You had to make sure you clean up your room, your bed is made up before you sleep, and you gotta practice. It was just how it was."
"When it's time for me to work I know how to work..."
So was it difficult at times dealing with the pressure from her mother to practice so intensely? "[There] was kind of a love hate relationship to playing," she confides. "I was like 'why I gotta do this?' I always thought everything was supposed to come so easy but my mother would say, 'Alicia, sometimes you gotta work at it. Stuff won't always be easy'."
"But you know I'm really glad she was like that because it definitely created the liberation for me to be able to be my own artist, to not ever wait on a single soul to write a song or to create the music for it to vitalise my vision - to be able to present it or get it out of my soul and that's because of that.
"I didn't know that then, obviously. It’s also improved my discipline, when it's time for me to work I know how to work."
Indeed, part of the sustained adoration she's had from the public is down to this hard work from an early age. A classically trained pianist and one of the most powerful vocalists pop music has ever seen, Keys also has the ability to synthesise numeros sounds into her work from such a broad range of influences - soul, R&B, hip hop, jazz, and pop. She is the embodiment of the diverse musical landscape of her native New York.
So does the new album continue on this eclecticism that she's renowned for? "The album is very much about New York," she tells me. "It’s about how it has made me who I am, how it’s made me see the world, made me the woman I am, the artists I am, and made me sonically who I am," she affirms.
Without hearing the record, I’m unable to decipher what sonics are reflected on the album so I pry: “Oh, I find it hard to describe,”she says, but goes on anyway. “It's always piano but piano in a variety of styles. There’s blues that's been ill, there’s almost like jazz sonics that are underneath the simplicity of the tunes. There's that massive New York heavy drum sound that is just undeniable texturally.
"It feels like you're going to hear a variety of worlds all together and I like that,” she says confidently.
What strikes me the most about talking about the new record - more so than her description of the sounds they experimented with - is her passion. As soon as I bring up the album she lights up with childlike enthusiasm: "Oh my god this album is so crazy. I love it so much! It's definitely the best body of music I've ever done.”
For someone with five impeccable studio albums to date, that's quite some statement and her conviction makes it hard to doubt her.
"What I learned the most from Prince was putting art first, being creatively ambitious, and putting creativity at the forefront of what I do."
Keys appears to have had a great time writing the albm too: "I feel so connected to myself and free of any inhibition that would have stopped me from saying certain things and writing certain things, or touching on certain things."
This ability to be so truly herself - to not hold an opaque window pane between her emotions and her music - is largely a result of Prince's influence on her - an artist she is known to have been in regular contact with throughout her career. "I can't believe it's real," she says, reflecting on his death. She exudes with passion her thoughts on how he shaped her: "What I learned the most from him was putting art first, being creatively ambitious, and putting creativity at the forefront of what I do. He never fit in and tried to be anyone else. I love that about him. We're confined in so many ways to be like everybody else."
It's this trail-blazing mentality that has enabled Keys to form a new discourse surrounding love on her slick new single, 'In Common'. Released today, it's the first cut to emerge from her new album and her first new material in four whole years. Behind the slick beats worked on with The Weeknd producer Illangelo – which makes the tune sit apart from anything she’s done before - is an inspired narrative. It looks at how people think their partners are crazy for loving them. It's a commonality that she found everyone in her studio concurred with. When I suggest it's an issue of universal relevance, she says, "I don't tell anyone how to think." Nevertheless, it is an affecting cut that gets to the root of quite an important issue in love.
“What the songs really talks about is that we're all a mess and that's cool” she says. "We all have our challenges, issues, things that we're working through and insecurity is there because nobody is perfect no matter who you are. It's that imperfection that makes you so dope," she says.
This sideways look at love and embrace of individuality is just one of the many themes that pepper the new album. So did all these ideas come from conversations with friends in the studio? "The whole record was sparked through conversations with friends," she explains. "That topically...I feel like it's the most varied I have ever written."
She truly enjoyed working in this communal way rather than writing alone: “It was ill because it was the first time that I started the music with a core group of us that wrote the majority of the album: myself, Harold Lilly, Mark Batson, and Swizz Beatz. Then I connected with Illangelo and Billy Walsh and we started to have a whole other kind of ill conversations that was also in the spirit of that same place the whole album has been in the spirit of.
"It’s really like poetry and street language and honesty, and wrongness, and humanity and what we're going through.
This embrace of humanitarian issues in her songwriting was expected. Her philanthropic work is an integral part of her personality and a core part of her routine. She's genuinely moved and heartbroken and far from comfortable burying her head in the sand when it comes to injustice. One of the many proactive ways she's expressing this is the We Are Here charity she's started. She works to help fund other charities and offers that supports life's most subordinated. She was stirred to action by the Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestine
There's no time like the present for her either: "We've been so blatantly face to face with the injustices that are going on in the world and I feel like people are not blinded anymore," she says with a sense of momentum.
"I feel as a culture we are ready to look at the truth and address it head on. I think it's the power of how connected we all are with the digital revolution - there's no where you can go without seeing the truth. Although it's upsetting because we can't believe at this day and age at this time it's still that blatantly injustice in the world. I think it's very empowering to do something about it and that's the reason why I create the We Are Here movement out of my frustration about the apathy in society."
"New artists can own their content and completely build their base and their following without having to sell or be owned by anybody and it creates such a diversity."
Whether we're discussing her new album, charity, childhood - or the football - she's filled a boundless warmth and optimism. I ask whether she holds any strict religious perspective that governs her morality. But her spirituality is liberal. Keys believes there’s a higher power whether it be love, God, or Buddha. It’s very abstract and beautiful - an all-encompassing and accepting perception of the world.
Given her positive outlook it comes as little surprise she isn’t disgruntled about the state of the modern music industry. Even streaming services such as Tidal, Soundcloud, and Spotify are, to her, a benefit to new music: "We have more of an opportunity to own our shit. New artists can own their content and completely build their base and their following without having to sell or be owned by anybody and it creates such a diversity.
"I also love the way we're able to injest music in that discovery way I think it's incredible and it's really exciting for music."
The new era of consuming music and the availability of such eclectic sounds certainly suits an artist like Keys. After all, she's the woman who had Kanye West and John Legend working with her in the studio before they were superstars. Her energetic creativity has inspired many and her own material has made for one of the most spectacular contributions to contemporary pop this century.