Cover story Ahead of her show in Abu Dhabi, the singer talks frankly about anger, pain, and how she almost lost her mind.
Another side of Alicia Keys
Revered by Bob Dylan, with Hollywood at her feet and a Bond theme in the bag, Alicia Keys is one of the biggest selling artists of her generation and a bona die superstar. Ahead of her show in Abu Dhabi, she talks frankly to Chrissie Iley about anger, pain, and how she almost lost her mind. Alicia Keys is not an easy woman to pin down. When Abu Dhabi sees her opening for George Michael's farewell concert on Dec 1, they will be seeing Alicia Keys the musical superstar. Those unfamiliar with her may recognise her as the singer (with The White Stripes' Jack White) of Another Way To Die, the theme tune for the new Bond film Quantum Of Solace. But many more will know her from her two smash albums, Songs In A Minor and the The Diary Of Alicia Keys.
Songs In A Minor (2001) spoke from a soul that seemed way beyond its 20 years. She called herself Keys because that's what she did, played the piano, and also because it would take many keys to open her up. With Alicia Keys, there are always many interpretations. When the landmark The Diary Of Alicia Keys followed two years later, she called it a diary but it was more an exploration of her growing up in a tiny apartment in Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, where she had to carry a knife for protection.
Phenomenally gifted, vastly driven, even Bob Dylan announced, "There's nothing about that girl I don't like." On the opening track of his 2006 album Modern Times, he burrs, "I was thinking about Alicia Keys and I couldn't keep from crying/While she was born in Hell's Kitchen I was living down the line." Following the release of The Diary? she won Grammys (nine) and has now sold 40 million records worldwide. Then, just as she was earmarked as the new super diva, her third album, 2007's As I Am, was a shock departure showing Keys stripped down raw.
Then there is Keys the actress. Last month saw the release of her third film, The Secret Life Of Bees, based on Sue Monk Kidd's coming-of-age novel, set in the Deep South of the 1960s. When I first met Alicia, about 18 months ago, she had just wrapped her first role in the murky comedy heist Smokin' Aces, in which she played a hitwoman. Our interview then was a shock exchange. Keys is a woman who, in the past, wanted to reveal nothing. And, in the inverview, I was asking her to reveal everything. She was out of her comfort zone and conceded, "Trying not to control something is actually liberating. I realised that if I wanted to grow as an artist and as a woman I had to let that ship go."
She told me about her walls of protection and how she felt she might be losing herself, how she'd worked too hard and non-stop without ever taking a break, fuelled by adrenalin and not wanting to feel. She went to Egypt alone ("A pilgrimage"). She came back and hated evevrything she'd written for her new album. She started again. Often you interview people and you think you have a connection with them, that your small moment with them mattered. Not Keys. She'd gone from fearing people's judgement to challenging it. She wanted to do the things she feared, she wanted to be uncomfortable.
So I was approached to talk to her again before her European tour. I was to fly to Phoenix, Arizona, but when I arrived there then ensued the sort of mix-up which you never know is publicist or celebrity-led: "Alicia can't do the interview today," I was told. "She's scheduled some personal time that I didn't know about but she'll do it tomorrow." I was unsure what to do: if I demanded to do the interview what kind of interview would it be? Resentful. Stressful.
The next day, there she was, all warm smiles and black, Farah Fawcett hair. She had no idea about any of this: the fame-making machine of publicists and assistants protect her from negative details. And yes, there was a time when she took no personal time. "I was insane," she declares. "I don't know what was wrong with me. I don't know why anybody didn't shake me and say, 'What's your problem'. They tried but I would say, 'I'm a workaholic but I love it so it's not like work'. There were never any blank spaces and a blank space is so much fuller than we give it credit for. But it's hard to know that."
Hard to know that when your life has been filled with non-stop artistic challenges and an unstoppable momentum. Her mother, Terri Augello, was an actress/legal secretary. She got her daughter a gig on The Cosby Show (a small role in one episode) when she was four. By the age of seven she was seriously studying piano. She wrote her first song at 14, and her mother has spoken about her first burn-out just before her 13th birthday. Her daughter was in tears, overwhelmed and begging her not to add anything else to her schedule.
Keys was raised on the concept that achievement gets you appreciated. Success comes from being strong and self-protective. Now she says, "Maybe I'm at the other extreme. I'm either totally boxed in or without limitations." How did she decide to stop being a controlling workaholic? "It was simple. I was losing my mind. I found myself going down this spiralling staircase to hell. I hated the person I was and I was very angry at everyone, especially myself. I couldn't sleep and I had never had any problem sleeping. I was full of anxiety, very insecure, worried about everything.
"My partner was like, 'What's going on with you?' Just let it flow, it'll come together. And I felt I had too much on my plate. I couldn't depend on anybody to help me. I felt I had to handle everything or it wouldn't be handled. It was the ultimate straw when I started to work on my music and realised I hated it, and I was scared that I couldn't get it right. My grandmother was ill, and seeing a person so strong who I loved very much disintegrating before my very eyes was killing me as well."
She says all of this without stopping but with a curious lyrical quality to her voice. It's like another song, a sad and angry song. Pivotal to all of this was the illness and death of her much-loved paternal grandmother. "My family didn't know how to deal with my grandmother dying. You really see the strength and weaknesses of your family at a time like that. I wanted to kill them. How could they be so sefish? It was as if they were leaving it all up to me. 'Alicia will take care of it because she has money'. That made me mad."
This crisis started in 2005 while Alicia Keys Unplugged was topping the charts. The pressure was huge. The less capable she was feeling, the more her success demanded she took charge. "It never rained but it poured and I was so tired," she recalls. "I was finishing my tour and they came to me about doing Smokin' Aces, right after it. It made sense at the time. But I was so beat up. Yet everything was phenomenally successful. So I thought, 'I can do this. I can rejuvenate myself later'. But there was no rest. I can see how people have breakdowns... I was there. I got it."
When I ask whether whe would call her experience a breakdown, she pauses. "It was a breakthrough, that's how I'm going to put it. It was almost like I had to be broken, as if it was God's intention to break me down. I had to be stripped down to the bare bones to know there was really something wrong." It's always been Keys' way to hide everything. "I built a wall. When I first started out I had a media trainer who told me how to control a conversation, so that, for instance, if you're talking to a journalist you want them to know that your album is out, not who you're falling in love with. So it becomes this incredible game. Then you think, 'Wow, I can control what I want you to know. That's where I got the idea that I could be in control of everything."
"On top of that I've always been supremely private. So I don't tell people my secrets. My closest friends don't know everything about me. I used to think that was good, but it is also bad? that's exactly what I found out." And do you tell your partner the deepest, darkest things? Long pause. "To an extent." I imagine the pause was about the word "partner". Earlier, Keys had said "my partner said" and it surprised me. It was the first time she'd even admitted to having one. There have been lots of speculation about this. For a while people assumed it was her long-term writing partner Kerry 'Krucial' Brothers. But she's never confirmed this. For the most part she enjoys toying with the intrigue, but then you feel she'd rather have that over with.
"I think I cared too much about what people thought," she admits. "I was worried they would judge me, but now I don't care about what people I don't know think about me." When her grandmother died, it took a while before she could even say the word "grandmother". She referred to her as "close personal relative". "I stopped everything to stay at home with her," she says. "I was able to be with her through everything. I was with her the night she died. We were so close. I look like her. I act like her. I embody her. Losing her made me realise just how much I'd been losing it."
This process of realisation seems to have been a gradual one, punctuated by intense lows. In the past, her writing has sometimes been a way not to feel: experience something, then have the catharsis of writing it down and so you don't feel it any more. Now, for the first time she wanted to share with other people. With Linda Perry, the doyenne of the power ballad, she wrote the sumptuous, painful The Thing About Love - all big piano and enormous emotion. It's about how love can undo you and define you, but is ultimately beautiful.
She says she needed to put herself in a place of extreme discomfort. "Experimenting with life means I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone. I might be comfortable making music because I know I can. I might be comfortable in love because I know it's safe." But what do you discover when you make yourself uncomfortable? "With music I found I opened up a whole other world. Things that I wouldn't have tried before because I was being safe. You can get into such a safety net, it's boring."
She admits that the need for this safety net came from fear. She grew up in a violent area and needed a knife. "Protection was a big issue. You felt more comfortable with a knife. You felt if someone tried to touch me you would have something to surprise them." And did she fight back? "Definitely." But now she doesn't have those same needs. "It was necessary for me at the time and I'm glad I did it. It enabled me to have a solid foundation."
She talks from a place of unfathomable depth. You know she is knowing, but you can never be sure exactly what it is she has known. Is she the girl from her old songs who sat unnoticed in a cafe? Is she even writing from her own experience? What is the feeling of being in love to her? "It's like the first sunrise ever seen from earth," she says and looks at me - or perhaps through me. She can be emotionally direct, even though she feared it for so long. She grew up as the only child, and often an outsider, to a strong and determined mother who always expressed her emotions. She told me before that she felt that drove her in the opposite direction.
"I've changed now and I've also learnt that my mother was not exactly who I thought she was. I thought she was like a pitbull in relationships and you know I found out that she was?" She's searching for the right dog. "She's not a chihuahua woman, let's get that straight, but there are parts of her that I just didn't know about and we are more alike than I thought we were." Her father, Craig Cook, then a flight attendant, left the family when she was around two years old. Her relationship with him was random. To begin with they were alienated. Recently they have started a relationship again. The grandmother she so adored was his mother, so her illness forced a rebirth in their relationship.
"So that was a positive thing, especially for her because she was always about family and unity. And it was cool for me to get to know the other side of who you are. All my weaknesses are from him. I'm like, 'So it's you're fault I'm always late'. And the uncommunicative thing - well, that comes from him, too. "God had a plan when I was raised by my mother. If I had been raised the other way, I just wouldn't be who I am. I think I would be more insecure? Obviously I'd be more late, and more uncommunicative, and how could I possibly ever be that?." She laughs a huge, all-embracing laugh. Has she inherited any qualities from him that she likes? "He is a very likeable person. Everybody loves him. Hopefully I've got some of that," she giggles. Although she feels that acting was always in her blood, she wanted to start off small and choose parts that would be meaningful. The Secret Life Of Bees is a breakthrough part for her. "It's a great film and it's so therapeutic to me. It's set in the 1960s where these women raise bees for honey. It's a tumultuous time politically, things are ending and changing. "My character, June, really wants to protect herself. She has a stern disposition. She plays the cello. She is a teacher, but she's afraid of being hurt and she has to let that go," she says, her eyes widening and nodding for extra meaningfulness, acknowledging her own life journey. "These parts come to me and I find I need them. I go through them and I am better." Next, there's the possibility of portraying the jazz legend Lena Horne, her first lead role. "I'm not quite sure yet what I'll learn from that. She's also very vulnerable, more than you would know. I think I'm learning that we as people all put on armour every day."
Alicia Keys plays Zayed Sports City, Abu Dhabi on Dec 1.