Alicia Keys

Master Keys    ·    October 24th, 2004

Music, acting, travel writing … is there anything Alicia Keys can’t do? George Palathingal tries to find out.

Alicia Keys first played a piano at age seven, signed her first record deal at 16, and won five Grammys for her debut longplayer Songs in A Minor when she was 21. Now 23, she has managed to release a strong follow-up to that near-unfollowable album with The Diary of Alicia Keys.

If you think that’s precocious, wait till you hear how old the New Yorker was when she started in showbiz.

“Um, one of my first things I ever did was The Cosby Show when I was four years old,” she says. “Since then I have definitely gotten into different acting things, but it was the music that really took over my heart.

“That was the thing that I focused on the most as a teenager.”

The Cosby Show ruled American television comedy in the 1980s and made Bill Cosby a household name. Now that Keys is a fully fledged A-list celebrity, has she bumped into the man who gave her her break?

“I haven’t seen Bill Cosby since. He probably wouldn’t even remember. I don’t think he would even know [it was me]!”

Few will have trouble remembering Keys now. In a pop scene crammed with identikit R&B divas and reality-show wannabes, she stands out as the genuine article, whether belting out heartfelt ballads, impressing at the piano or singing cutting-edge hip-hop-soul.

She can get convincingly serious - as in A Woman’s Worth on her debut or the current album’s heartbreaking If I Ain’t Got You - or charm your socks off with her playfulness.

But there’s one man in Georgia who wasn’t amused by the fun Keys had with the song Diary.

“I’m a person that writes from real experiences,” she says. “So I’m at the second verse and I’m writing what I’m feeling and I’m like, y’know, ‘If you need me call this number.’ So I use my actual cell number.”

The idea was for fans to call the singer’s soon-to-be-disused number, where they’d hear a recorded message from their idol. However … “I didn’t specify an area code and so therefore they called many different area codes and now one guy is getting it baaad. I feel kind of bad about it.”

Keys isn’t averse to the odd deliberate prank - “like when you’re in a big building and pass by a door and you just ring the bell and run” - but she doesn’t count her recent tabloid-teasing collaboration with urban superstar Usher as one. On his My Boo, the two rather blatantly suggest they were each other’s first love, causing the obvious rumours to fly.

“Oh, yeah,” she says. “I mean, the point of the song is absolutely about the first relationship that you have with somebody that was really special, and even though you go on and see other people and fall in love with other people, you still remember that first one. It’s just talking about an experience.”

As a result of Keys’s ever-increasing profile, photogenic features and redoubtable talent, a return to acting is on her agenda, as the lead in a biopic of New York pianist Philippa Schuyler.

“Miss Halle Berry is co-producing and she saw me as the perfect person for the part - which I feel, like, is a big, big honour,” Keys says.

“It’s something that’s still in the beginning stages. We’re still working on a script.”

Sounds like a pretty ambitious reintroduction to acting.

“Yeah. Everything that I initially said when I talked about making the transition into film has completely backfired! I initially said I would never play a musician.

“I said that I wanted to start with very small roles and build my way up with a good cast and that kind of thing.

“But everything kinda works out the way it’s supposed to. This seems like the perfect thing to begin with because I can relate to it so well.

“It’ll be very honest.”

Especially annoying for a journalist with (arguably) one talent is that Keys has also found time to write a travel column for the New York Daily News as well as her first book.

“To actually be able to document the different places that I went and what we experienced there and kinda report back to my home town was really cool,” she says.

“And in regards to the book, it’s called Tears for Water and it’s a collection of poetry and unreleased song lyrics. The whole process of going through it and editing it and challenging myself to say, ‘Wow, am I ready to say this? Am I ready to talk about this?’ was just really a nice experience for me - challenging, but nice. That is gonna be published in November.”

Keys sounds both down-to-earth and excited about all the aspects of her life and blossoming media career. She may just be demonstrating the acting skills Halle Berry hopes she has, but the singer’s heart seems to be in the right place.

“I feel like I’m gonna have something to prove for the rest of my life - not to you and not to anybody else, but to me and to God,” she says. “Just proving that I can keep getting better at what I do and proving that, y’know, I can remain a humble and kind and good person no matter what’s going on in my life - that’s the thing I strive for the most.

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m settled or I’m done or whatever.”

Thx 2 Giu

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