Thursday, June 23, 2005

Elle May 05 - Alicia Keys

When Alicia Keys first burst onto the scene with her take-over-the-world single, “Fallin”, the public saw a beautiful girl, an explosive talent, and lots—we're talking LOTS—of accessories. From fedoras to feather boas, Keys rocked them all, sometimes all at once. These days, while her music remains an amalgam of distinct elements, our cover girl's personal style is much more streamlined and sophisticated, as befits a multiple Grammy winner. She's still happiest in denim, but this time it's as likely paired with a fierce, fashion-forward top as with her cherished vintage-inspired Doors T-shirt. On the red carpet, the transformation is striking: Keys' everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to dressing has given way to fashion high notes like a killer white tuxedo or the ultrasexy backless Roberto Cavalli that set heads spinning—and pulses racing—at this year's Grammys. We can't wait to see what she'll do for an encore.

Alicia Keys refused to be pigeonholded by the music industry—and has won Grammy awards for her trouble. Now she's more determined than ever to meet the world on her own terms.

It's just a few minutes into my sit-down with Alicia Keys and already I'm despairing of ever getting past her silky-smooth facade. Ah, but what a gorgeous facade it is. The winsome 23-year-old recording artist with the fast-multiplying collection of Grammys (nine at last count) is perched on a chair in an otherwise empty restaurant on Manhattan's far west side. A vision of funkified pulchritude, she's wearing a caramel leather blazer, jeans, and spotless suede Converses, her straightened hair mostly hidden under a denim newsboy cap. But while her Gucci sunglasses are folded on the table in front of her, her kohl-lined eyes remain sleepily impenetrable as she offers up one innocuous quote after another. Performing at the Super Bowl was “really special.” The Grammys were “really awesome.” Her U.S. tour will be “totally incredible.”

This wasn't what I'd had in mind. Keys, after all, is soul music's great savior. She's the antidiva, the genuine article. A singer-songwriter-arranger-producer of such extraordinary emotional clarity that it seemed almost gauche to mention—when her bluesy first single, “Fallin',” from her blockbuster debut, Songs in A Minor, topped the charts in summer 2001—that she is also stunningly beautiful. It was her sound, an idiosyncratic yet fluid amalgam of classical and hip-hop, jazz and soul, that mattered. Working in R&B, a genre that had been coasting on samples, digitized loops, and pantomime passions, Keys had the old-school audacity to sit at a piano—a piano!—and pour her heart out.

“When I heard 'Fallin'' for the first time, I fell,” says Keys' friend Lenny Kravitz. “Alicia's compositions and voice are truly her own. You could sense the passion the moment you heard her.”

“Alicia really just raises the bar,” says hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. “You think about signing a new artist, you've got to ask, Can they write like her? Sing like her? Play like her? She's the best we've got.” He adds, “Nothing against those other girls, but they just ain't like her. She's authentic. She's got a heart. Just listen to the emotion and the honesty in her songs.”

At the moment, that Alicia Keys seems worlds away. But then, in the midst of describing her forthcoming MTV Unplugged episode and album, which comes out this month and will be—you read it here first—“really special,” suddenly she stops and looks me dead in the eye for the first time. “So tell me something,” she says. “What kind of interviews do you usually do?”


“Because I just want to know what kind of answers I should give you.”

Honest ones, I tell her.

She pauses for a second, her lips curling into a half smile. “Okay,” she says, tilting her head. “I can do that.”

Call it Keys' Paradox: Seat her in front of a baby grand and the woman summons psychic winds to rattle the rafters. But she's also a master of self-control, a promotional powerhouse who never fails in her capacity to board up the windows and smile big when necessary. Take, for instance, her recent gig as a guest host of Live With Regis and Kelly, during which she flirted shamelessly with the seventysomething morning man, recited a cute poem she'd written in his honor, and wrapped Rice Krispie treats with Fruit Roll-Ups to make candy sushi. “Can't you tell I'm a ham?” she asks me. “The big problem is when I'm turning it on, to myself,” she confesses. “I think I am actually too good at pretending to myself that everything's cool and great and fantastic when it's not. That's a bad trait.”

But for a vivid glimpse of the other Keys—the fiery, temperamental one with the jaundiced eye and roiling emotions—one need only pick up her book of poetry, last year's Tears for Water. In contrast with Keys' carefully crafted lyrics—tough-minded but hopeful paeans to love and loneliness—the poems are visceral explosions. I HATE EVERY SINGLE FACE I SEE/ EVERYONE SITTING NEXT TO ME is the first couplet of the caps-only tirade “Such a Strong Word.” While the poem takes dead aim at showbiz types and celebrity hangers-on, Keys reserves plenty of ammunition for herself. I HATE BEING LIKE A MACHINE/ I HATE FEELING ALL MEAN/ I HATE FEELING DIRTY/ BUT I CAN'T COME CLEAN.

Another poem, “No Room for Religion,” ventures close to Dixie Chicks territory with such lines as “Democracy is just a trick for capitalism to win” and “Meanwhile the boys are out there/ Consolidating the world/ While we're here in oblivion/ Working hard to party the money away.”
The poem has yet to spark a political backlash, she says, not that she worries about such things. “Look, if no one is fearless enough to express their opinions,” she says, “we are definitely going to hell.…”

Like many kids from tough neighborhoods, Keys picked up her knack for psychological concealment early on. The only child of a white mother, Terri Augello, and a black father, Craig Cook (Keys is a stage name), she was raised by her mom in a housing project in New York's Hell's Kitchen. An actress, Augello brought Alicia along to gigs when she was little—until a rehearsal in which Augello was whacked with a phony bat had to be halted due to Alicia's fretful sobs.

Cook—a former flight attendant and now a massage therapist in Colorado—and Aguello never married, but Cook maintained contact with his daughter over the years. “We did a weekend thing for a while,” she says. “I remember specifically not liking him, being uncomfortable. But he has a 14-year-old son, so that's my little brother, and it's really important for me to have him in my life.” Despite her feelings toward her father, Keys was always comfortable with her interracial background. “Some mixed kids have trouble figuring out who they are,” she says. “I thought I was special because I understood both the white and black worlds. And where I grew up, you'd see someone black mixed with Indian, white mixed with Asian, man mixed with woman.… There was everything. So I was always open to different types of people.” Augello says Alicia was an independent girl, taking the elevator by herself at age seven to meet her friends in the project's playground (where mom kept an eye on her with binoculars). In those days, pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers were a common sight in Times Square, and porn shops and liquor stores outnumbered groceries.

“I miss it,” Keys says. “There was a gritty side, but there was a magical side, too.” She balances a plate of calamari on her knees and plucks a ring from the pile. “There was the theater, but also people beat-boxing and break dancing and playing buckets for drums. There was a certain energy—people being creative to survive. I always felt like 42nd Street was the land where if you wouldn't be accepted anywhere else you could come there. It was like a place of outcasts.” Keys recalls one wintry evening when she and her mother were hailing a cab on Eleventh Avenue. “There were all these women on the street with very little clothing on,” she says. “I asked who they were and she explained. I'll never forget that night because it was so cold, and they were so skinny and sick-looking. I remember promising myself that nothing would ever trap me or force me into a life like that.”

As for the men whose propositions and catcalls became a daily headache as she reached her teens, Keys' response was to throw it right back at them. “Oh, I had words upon words upon words,” she recalls with a smile. She also maintained a strict dress code designed to conceal her curvy figure, favoring bulky jackets, big shirts, big boots. “Everything was as far away from pretty as it could possibly be,” she says. “If I ever put on a dress 'cause I had to go somewhere, I always regretted it. Why'd I put on that stupid dress? 'Cause everyone's always trying to grab at you or say something.”

Keys has become more confident with time, as she made all too clear with the help of Roberto Cavalli, who designed the unabashedly sexy backless Grecian gown she wore to the Grammys this year. “I've definitely gotten more comfortable in my own skin,” she says. “I'm not so fearful of discovering those different sides of myself.” Her current favorite designers range from Stella McCartney, Baby Phat, and Miss Sixty to Cavalli, Christian Dior, and Chanel. “I'm all over the place.”

“She used to wear only pants and jackets, working a lot with accessories,” Cavalli notes. “Now she leans more toward glamorous dresses with clean lines. She's growing up as an artist, and her personal style reflects that.”

Keys began piano lessons at seven with the support of her mother—who is, she says, “definitely the reason I'm anything at all.” By nine she had hooked up with some older girls to form a singing group called EmBish'n, practicing at a Harlem Boys & Girls Club, where she was discovered at age 14 by Jeff Robinson, now her manager. Despite her dedication to music, schoolwork was never a problem. Keys graduated two years early from Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts School, where she was the class valedictorian, delivering what her mom calls a “saucy” commencement speech that took the administration to task for how the school was operated. “I was very bitter, very mad,” Keys says. “My eyes were opening to the ways of the world, which are not always fair.”

Keys had already accepted an academic scholarship to Columbia University when Robinson began shopping her demo to labels (she eventually withdrew from school altogether). She spent three miserable years at Columbia Records, butting heads with executives who hoped to mold her into the next cookie-cutter urban radio sensation, before landing at J Records, the then-new label of industry legend Clive Davis. Signing Keys was “really one of those no-brainers,” Davis says. “The combination of her songwriting, her interest in arranging and producing, and her musical awareness was very unique. She's a wonderfully creative person who just radiates and sparkles wherever she goes. I know I'm gushing, but it coincides with the facts.”

Keenly aware that Keys' music didn't fit into prevailing radio formats, Davis introduced her to the world on Oprah. Keys was invited to perform at a private dinner party shortly before her TV appearance, and by the time she sat down at the piano in front of the show's studio audience, the host knew the words to “Fallin'.” “The camera kept panning to Oprah, and she was singing along!” Davis recalls. “The impact on the audience was just incredible.”

Now that she's made it into the music industry's VIP room, Keys seems reluctant to pass up a single opportunity to expand her reach—from performing a poem on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry to penning a travel column for the New York Daily News. “She's always so willing to do everything,” says Erika Rose Hedman, Keys' friend and program manager and a regular member of her songwriting team. “When her schedule isn't filled she's like, 'Why am I not doing something on this day?'” Hedman grouses that whatever frustrations Keys encounters, “Alicia's demeanor is always so pleasant, and she's always got this smile on her face. Sometimes I'm just like, 'You know what? You can be a bitch sometimes.' I told her, 'I'm giving you 10 Be a Bitch Free cards, and you can redeem them anytime.' 'Cause it's just ridiculous.”

Then again, why shouldn't she be cheerful? Keys is in a four-year relationship with someone “in the business” (whom she has never named in the press) and is a tireless spokeswoman for Keep a Child Alive, an anti- HIV/AIDS organization focused on children in Africa. After her U.S. tour (which ends April 24), she'll fine-tune material and line up some “really weird” guest collaborators for her MTV Unplugged album. She's also hoping to break into acting with a film about the life of interracial piano prodigy Philippa Schuyler. And you never know when Regis will call—or, for that matter, when some reporter will turn up demanding “honesty.” More opportunities to earn those Be a Bitch Free cards, not that they're liable to get much use. “You have to be able to reach people to make things happen,” Keys points out, “and I have a lot of plans.” Such as? “Behind the scenes,” she says. “I want to own as many things as I possibly can—radio stations and venues and television stations. I want to own the media. I want to be like Clear Channel.”

There's Keys' Paradox again: On the one hand, she'd like to give Rupert Murdoch a run for his money; on the other, she just wants to sit down at a piano and uncork a torrent of truth. I ask her if she thinks Clear Channel execs ever let out deep personal feelings in front of a keyboard.
“They have no personal feelings!” Keys shrieks, before quickly returning to matters of controlling the media and improving the world. “It's going to be a lot of work,” she says. “I'm going to have to do a lot of Regis shows and bat my eyes and all of that.”

Keys bats her eyes. “But I want to do everything,” she adds. “I want to be a force to be reckoned with.”