By Jim Beal Jr.
Whether Alicia Keys was a model child is something for her mother to reveal. But one thing is certain, the young woman from Harlem took her piano lessons seriously.
“The piano always attracted me,” Keys said. “And I don’t remember why. It was always there in my subconscious. If I saw a piano on television I’d always pay attention. If I saw one in somebody’s house or in a store I’d always run to it.”
And Keys still practices.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “I’d better. It’s a skill you have to work on.”
The work has paid off for Keys. Her J-Records debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” with its fusion of jazz, soul, R&B, hip-hop, classical riffs and more, struck a deep chord in critics and fans alike. The album, and the song “Fallin’,” helped Keys rack up five Grammy Awards, including best new artist. Her sophomore effort, “Diary of Alicia Keys,” released a few weeks ago, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and regained that spot last week.
Keys will make her first appearance in San Antonio on Saturday in the Alamodome during halftime of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. That’s a plus for football fans but no bargain for Keys fans who want to hear a full-on concert.
Keys and her band will be doing only a 10-minute set beginning at about 1:20 p.m. Game tickets cost $15 to $25 at the Alamodome box office and Ticketmaster outlets.
“It’s going to be a little bit different,” Keys said with a slight laugh. “People are not all there for a specific concert. But my approach will be the same, the enjoyment of music, but a little bit shorter.”
Keys, only 22, has been enjoying music for quite a while.
“When I was 4 years old, I had a quirky teacher who was always interested in getting us all involved in various things,” Keys said. “All of us in her class had to audition for a play. I was nervous, but I got a part. I remember the nervousness and anticipation but also the rush. I loved that rush. Then, when I was 11 or 12, I started putting my piano with my voice. For a long time I would sing or play but didn’t do both. It was difficult to put them together, but, when I learned, there was a great feeling of independence.”
Keys’ music has been described as “neo-soul” and “contemporary R&B.” Keys prefers to not pigeonhole her work.
“I don’t like to think about it under any category because I’m always going to be growing,” she said. “I don’t want to classify it as soulful R&B/classical because my next album might be a rock album. I like to call it heart music because it comes from my heart and I want it to touch hearts.”
Keys’ theory for her success is relatively simple.
“I think people are looking for music that’s realistic from a real person, not something that has been planned or fine-tuned,” she said. “One of the most exciting things about performing for me is the incredible diversity of the audience — age and race and religion. I see kids on their fathers’ shoulders and couples who are 65.
“I never liked the question, ‘What demographic will you be reaching?’ I want to make music that will appeal to my little brother and to my grandmother.”
Keys opted not to succumb to pressure to top the success of “Songs in A Minor.”
“I refused to allow myself to feel that pressure,” she said. “I also didn’t have time to feel that pressure because I was on the road so long. I had all these songs I wanted to record and I was dying to get them all out. That engulfed me when I went into the studio. I didn’t have time to hear or think and that’s the way I wanted it.”
The majority of the songs in Keys’ sets are numbers she’s written or co-written.
“I’m a mood writer,” she said. “I write from experience or if something hits me. I write every day in a journal and that allows me to express myself.”
But Keys also has served up some covers from eclectic sources including Prince and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
“Covers are a personal trait for me,” she said. “I cover a song because I’ve been moved by it or I can relate to it and make it my own. I don’t say, ‘Oh, that was a great hit and it’s time to do it again.’ Sometimes I never intend to cover a song and it just comes out.”
But Keys does intend to maintain an ambitious tour schedule. She’ll start 2004 with a theater tour and end it with an arena tour.
“It’s going to be interesting to prepare for two different kinds of shows, one intimate and one on a grander scale,” she added. “But it’s going to be fun. I feel very blessed.”