Alicia Keys

UK Telegraph Magazine interview    ·    November 12th, 2004

Alicia Keys is seemingly incapable of striking a false note: she’s a Grammy-winning soul singer adept at chopping out Chopin, a workaholic beacon of social conscience in the arena of bling, and now the first artist to headline an international concert on the Great Wall of China. Craig McLean tries to keep up

It’s 8.15pm on Saturday, September 25, on the Great Wall of China, and Alicia Keys and her manager are not happy bunnies. Voices are raised, phone messages fly back and forth between members of Keys’s entourage, personnel from the Asian outpost of her record label move into crisis mode.

On a mission: Keys has set her sights on success politics and literature

Backstage at the Juyongguan section of the wall, 50km from Beijing, in temporary dressing-rooms that have been sited next to the Zhen Wu Temple (built 1425, restored 1997), the young American soul singer had been preparing to take the stage at the Wall of Hope 2004 China World Artists Concert.

Being picked as the headliner for the first international event at the Great Wall is but the latest accolade to come Keys’s way. Since the release of her 2001 debut Songs in A Minor, the singer, writer, pianist, composer, arranger and producer has sold 15 million albums, and collected five Grammies, two MTV awards and two Billboard awards.

Songs such as Fallin’, Girlfriend, You Don’t Know My Name and If I Ain’t Got You have become modern standards. Indeed, Fallin’ has reportedly been banned from Pop Idol auditions around the world, so often was it performed - or murdered: Oprah Winfrey, an early supporter of Keys, told her that Simon Cowell called Fallin’ ‘the most ruined song ever’.

The 23-year-old New Yorker even writes cracking songs for other people, including Christina Aguilera (Impossible) and Usher (their collaboration, My Boo, is his current single). Ask her to delineate her flaws, and she comes up with:

‘I’m very good at pretending. I’m very good at hiding. I’m very good at not showing my real emotions. Painted Smile is a song that I really want to write.’

Even flaws then - you or I might call them skills - can summon a song. In China, Keys was performing alongside a rum bunch of imported and domestic talents: Eighties pop kook Cyndi Lauper, Noughties pop kook Nellie McKay, reformed Nineties R and B; harmony group Boyz II Men, and the young American singer Sylvia Tosun, who has made a career out of performing for US troops and recording the world’s national anthems (all 193).

Bringing up the rear were 60 lantern-wielding children of the Beijing Opera and the five grinning, mad, scary-looking dames who make up the Chinese percussion sensation the Red Poppies.

A televised charity event to raise money for the China Children and Teenagers’ Fund, organised by a mixture of state agency and private enterprise, the concert marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Great Wall restoration project. The audience comprised in the main soldiers, police, suits and a bizarre row of VIPs with travel rugs and complimentary trays of fruit and water.

But the open-air seating seemed filled to only half its 5,000 capacity, perhaps reflecting the astronomical price of tickets - ours, three rows from the back, cost 2,480 yuan (£167) each, more than a month’s wages for the average Chinese.

Embarrassing silences filled the night air as technicians sorted out problems. Cyndi Lauper was introduced several times, even after she had appeared on stage. Tosun can speak 12 languages, we were told in three languages. The event, frankly, was a shambles.

Which brings us to the source of the upset in Camp Keys. Shortly after their arrival at the site tonight, Keys and her manager Jeff Robinson had discovered that copies of Songs in A Minor had been stuffed into the concert programme. This was illegal: no one can sell her records in China without a licence from her label.

Official sales of the album in China are 35,000, well below what would be expected from an artist who has sold millions elsewhere. And it was immoral: this was a charity gig, and whoever was selling the programmes or counterfeit programmes was probably trousering the yuan themselves.

Keys, who signed her first record deal aged 15, whose ‘overnight success was seven years in the making’ (Robinson), likes to do things professionally. They had come all this way, were doing a charity concert, and this is how they were treated?

‘My first thought when I heard about this show?’ Keys had pondered the day before. ‘My first thought was, how did I get all the way to the Great Wall of China!’

At this, Keys had given a low, we-are-amused chuckle. She looked a bit Grace Kelly in her Versace sunglasses and headscarf. No, the headscarf wasn’t also Versace, she scoffed. As if.

‘That’d be, like, $800. And there are people starving in the world.’

‘I thought, how does the music swim across the ocean like that?’ she continued. ‘Hop around different languages and cultures, and still be relevant?’

Then, after that, I thought about discovering for my own self the political environment in places that you’ve only read about and heard about. That you only receive a one-sided story from an Americanised view.’

This was her answer to the first question, delivered in a voice that was husky, quiet and measured. It tells you a lot about this ostensibly glamorous latter-day soul icon. She’s smart, focused, reflective.

She’s engaged with the world: she’s aware of the insularity of her country, supports Aids charities in Africa, street programmes in America, and has performed in the House of Commons (she was invited by the MP David Lammy). She’s not one for bling-bling ostentatiousness, despite the showy mores of the musical genre in which she works, despite the wealth that comes of selling so many records and being an arena-size concert draw around the world.

But, while the lady’s not one for fuss, there’s plenty of it around her. It was Friday lunchtime and we were sitting in the back of a small bus that was taking us up the Badaling Expressway to the wall for her soundcheck. When I first interviewed Keys, before the release last year of her second album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, the only time available had been as she journeyed from London to Brighton for a Sunday night Radio 1 show.

We had talked in the back of a darkened car while upfront sat a driver and her long-term musical partner and rumoured boyfriend Kerry Brothers (she keeps a fiercely tight lid on her private life). Now, one year on, on the other side of the world, the only available slot was, again, as she moved between engagements.

But before that, more hoopla. The Keys party had exited Beijing’s Shangri-La Hotel via the back door out of the labyrinthine kitchens (a touch of Goodfellas, a shade of Spinal Tap). Outside was a praetorian guard of Chinese security guys with earpieces.

Finally, passing under the steely gaze of Keys’s two personal bodyguards, we got to board the bus. One of the bodyguards, Carter, was 6ft 9in but looked taller. And wider. The other, Kevin, was only about 5ft 7in, but he had forearms thicker than my thighs, and the glare of a trained killer.

The first ever China tennis Open was taking place during our trip, and the Shangri-La was the tournament’s base. Yet there was nothing like this security for any of the resident players; Serena Williams could be spotted flagrantly breakfasting in the dining-room most mornings.

The hotel security squadron clearing a path, the bus pulled off into the Beijing traffic. Keys’s mother, Terri Augello, who often travels with Alicia and helps look after her day-to-day schedule, worked out the distance to the Great Wall.

When the length of time until we arrived at our destination exactly matched the allotted interview time, I was ushered the few feet from the front of the bus to sit beside Keys in the back. So Alicia and I talked, with her manager, mother, best friend, stylist/PA, two-man security detail, UK record company person, Chinese interpreter and driver all sitting a few feet away.

For some of the time Augello filmed our interview, for an on-the-road tour DVD. Part of Keys’s success is down to her winning mix of old American soul and new - or ‘nu’ - American soul. It is rooted in the 1970s motherlode: she plays her piano like Stevie Wonder, sings her songs like an amped-up Roberta Flack.

And it has a topspin of contemporary sonic oomph: hip-hop icons Nas, Kanye West and Dr Dre all chipped in with production and/or songwriting contributions to The Diary of Alicia Keys. The unlikely final ingredient is the Chopin or Beethoven she likes to open her concerts with.

These are cultural lineages that, on paper, couldn’t be further from Asia. Yet China is the first stop on a five-week tour of the Far East - taking in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Japan (Indonesia has just been cancelled because of recent unrest) - and the Antipodes.

Very few artists tour Asia with such penetration. What does she think audiences here get from her music?

‘I have no idea but I do know that it has something to do with honesty. When I listen to Gregorian chants I can’t understand a word that they’re saying. But I can relate to that feeling of honesty and truth and something pure.’

If there’s one mild observation often made of Keys, it’s that she isn’t much of a laugh. A workaholic who gets by on Thatcher levels of sleep. A fiercely ambitious young woman who, now that she has triumphed in music, has Hollywood and the book world in her sights.

Who doesn’t do parties, barely drinks, goes to the gym, mostly avoids meat on account of its deleterious effect on her immune system, prays several times a day, isn’t much of a shopper. Does she worry about being seen as too serious?

‘I like being seen as serious. I like being seen as a thinker. I like people to feel like, “she’s a smart one, she has plans”. As opposed to, “she’s the giddy, cutesy, silly, pretty one”.’

Talking to the people who know her best, it seems she has always been this way. Her oldest friend Erika Rose, who has known Keys since she was four and now travels with her as a personal assistant and ‘project manager’, says performing is all she wanted to do (at the age of nine Keys was in a group with Rose’s cousins).

‘She’s always had such depth and such a presence, and always been so grounded,’ Rose says. ‘Very smart and very deep and very evolved in a way.’

Keys’s mother, who is white, split up with her father, a black flight attendant named Craig Cook, when Keys was two. Being the only child of a hardworking single parent in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan - then a rough neighbourhood - she grew up fast, often in her own company.

Winning smile: Keys at the Grammy awards
Aged 10, she was studying piano, dance, singing and gymnastics. She was ‘overwhelmed’, Augello recalls, and wanted to give up something. Her piano teacher pleaded that she stick with the instrument, telling Augello her daughter had a gift.

Keys now credits her piano teacher with her eclectic tastes: she would encourage her to play Scott Joplin and hip-hop tunes alongside Chopin and Bach. Alicia Augello Cook’s proficiency on the piano would later inform her and Jeff Robinson’s choice of a stage name.

‘The [piano] keys were the way that she expressed herself and the way she touched so many people, even before her [first] record came out,’ Robinson says. ‘It just automatically matched up, it felt right.’

The bluff, bear-like Robinson first came across Keys when she was a 14-year-old student at Manhattan’s Professional Performance Arts School, alerted by his brother, a voice coach. What first struck him about her?

‘She was very mature for her age. She has a very inquisitive mind. What she didn’t know, she pretended to know. She was adamant about no one knowing her age - [otherwise they’d say things like] “she’s a young girl, what does she know?” She had a gameplan for her life.

‘I remember telling her for years when she was an adolescent, you need to loosen up and do some more young people’s stuff.’

She wasn’t, however, a complete goody-two-shoes. Augello recalls ’straightening up her drawers and [I’d] see a razor or a knife or something like that. I did worry for her. She had a lot of friends who lived uptown [in Harlem].

‘They had their own ways of thinking they could deal with stuff. I would confiscate the knife and talk to her about it. She’d say, “Well, we go to the store when we’re up at so-and-so’s house, it’s a bad neighbourhood.”

‘And I’d say, “And what do you think you’re gonna do about that? You haven’t been trained. If you really think that’s important then you better take a self-defence class.” I’m sure she rolled her eyes and thought I was very stupid.’

But her precocious daughter even got her adolescent fights with her mother out of the way early. They are now extraordinarily close.

‘Sometimes I look back and say, “Ma, why was I rushing so much? Why didn’t I just slow down? But if I had waited till I was, say, 21 or 22, at a time in my life when I needed more stability and normality than ever before, it would have turned me upside down on my head.’

By the age of 16, Keys was signed to Columbia Records, wooed by a reported fee of $400,000 and the gift of a $26,000 white baby-grand piano. She was also attending Columbia University. It was too much too soon: she had to give up college to concentrate on the music. Then the record deal went sour as the label imposed producers on her.

For three years Keys mouldered, stuck in the contract, making music she wasn’t entirely happy with. But even those depressing days produced positive outcomes.

‘She didn’t want to be a puppet led by these so-called hot producers,’ Robinson says. ‘She began to ask questions of every producer she worked with: what does this machine do? How does that work? She absorbed knowledge like a sponge. Pretty soon she was running her own studio.’

Finally, the music industry legend Clive Davis came to her rescue. He took Keys first to Arista, then to his own label, J Records. He put his years of experience, discovering and breaking artists from Santana to Whitney Houston, to good effect on Songs in A Minor. She was unstoppable.

The longest holiday Keys has taken in the past year was five days in August, when she went to Jamaica just before it was hit by a hurricane. Two years ago she bought an apartment in Queens but it’s still largely in the unpacked state it was when she moved in.

Nicknamed Scrooge McDuck by Robinson and avowedly frugal, she belatedly and reluctantly gave her old Mazda Millennium to her mother and bought herself an SUV and a BMW.

But now she worries about the tinted windows on the flash cars attracting attention. She thinks about maybe downgrading, buying a normal car that she can drive herself.

She gets her kicks from the work. And music was never going to be enough work for Keys. This month Tears For Water, a collection of her poetry, unreleased lyrics and stories is published in the US.

She thought it would be a ‘freeing’ exercise and serve as useful preparation for her next book, a semi-autobiographical novelisation of the journals she has kept since she was nine. Unfortunately there is one crucial book missing, covering 1997 and 1998, when she was signed to Columbia.

‘It’s one of those books that was so important to me that I put it somewhere where I wouldn’t lose it,’ she says, smiling underneath her big sunglasses. Now Keys wants - needs - to find outlets for another of her motivations: to be a role model.

Enter Hollywood. She has done a bit of acting in her time, from kindergarten versions of The Wiz to a couple of independent films she and Robinson made in 1997/98. Next spring she starts filming the lead in a biopic of Philippa Schuyler, a mixed-race pianist in New York in the 1940s and 1950s who ended her days as a journalist, dying in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 1967.

The film is to be co-produced by Halle Berry, who told Keys she felt it was the singer’s ‘destiny’ to play the part. ‘For my first role I wanted to play someone who is completely away from what people know me for,’ Keys says.

‘I just felt that was much more impactful. [But this story] just fits perfectly. It’s a story about your internal struggles as a person trying to find where you belong in a world where you don’t belong anywhere.

‘I just found it so poignant, how similar it is. Philippa and her mother were very close but very at odds all the time; her mother always wanted her to pass as white so she could perform in these beautiful Carnegie Hall-type places.’

Keys and Robinson have long had Hollywood in their sights and have fielded various offers over the years, including one from Steven Spielberg. She turned down the customs agent role in The Terminal because filming clashed with the launch of The Diary of Alicia Keys. Why did Spielberg want her?

‘I guess he saw me in that character. She was very tough on the outside and very soft on the inside.’ Is that what she’s like? Pause. Smile. ‘Definitely. Sure.’

On Saturday night, ever the trouper, there is no sign of the pre-gig furore affecting Keys’s performance. She appears in silhouette with her back to the audience atop some steps.

Wearing a fedora, a fitted leather jacket, serpent-detailed bustier and carrying a bejewelled cane, she prowls the stage for the old-school funk of Rock Wit U, before belting out the ballad A Woman’s Worth. One minute she’s Prince, the next she’s Aretha…

Ending with a classically enhanced, almost operatic version of Fallin’, she finally lays down her microphone and, one hand daintily held by Kevin the Killer Bodyguard, walks through the crowd, her band still playing, boards her bus and makes a swift exit. Alicia has left the Great Wall of China.

Which is handy. By the time Boyz II Men waddle onstage, the Wall of Hope concert is running very behind schedule. They are three songs in when the clock strikes 12. The curfew comes into effect. Chinese police immediately shut down the gig.

The day before, I had asked Keys what she would like to be doing in 10 years’ time, when she will be 33.

‘I wanna continue to become a better musician, a better person, a better woman. Somebody who is even more prolific and more able to really touch people.

‘I wanna get even more behind the scenes in regards to the writing of what we see on television. I wanna get into having talk shows that aren’t censored. I wanna own broadcasting, I wanna own communications. I wanna get into that more than anything else.’

Politics? ‘Definitely politics.’

An Oscar?

‘Sure,’ she grinned. ‘Why not!’

After the tape was turned off she thought for a second.

‘Make that two Oscars.’

Thx 2 HannahJ

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