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'More Myself': Alicia Keys On Her Journey As Musician And Healer

Singer-songwriter Alicia Keys speaks during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Singer-songwriter Alicia Keys speaks during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards on January 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Alicia Keys joins us to talk about the challenges and setbacks she’s faced on her path from girlhood in Hell’s Kitchen to global pop superstardom, and about why she believes music is the artistic medium that helps us rally and heal.


Alicia Keys, 15 time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter. She has six studio albums, plus a new album “Alicia” due out later this year. Author of “More Myself: A Journey,” a new book. (@aliciakeys)

Interview Highlights

On participating in a live streamed “living room” benefit concert for coronavirus aid

“That was just a whole new experience. And whereas normally we would have gotten together and done that concert and stood on stage and played the songs and somebody else would come on next, you know, all those pieces are postponed. They’re not happening right now. But I think there was something also very powerful about being able to be there by myself, just in my house, in my living room, in my space, and thinking about who’s going to watch this and the people who are out here every day working to bring the very necessary things that we need right now. And so it just made it even more reflective and more poignant and more personal. And I think we can all testify that it’s different, not connecting directly with people in that way that we’re so used to doing. But it’s also somehow brought us closer.”

On building up her protective shell, and learning to shed it

“I got very used to realizing that I had to work hard or fast, work long and I knew how to outwork everybody and everything. was never thinking about how to take care of myself or if it was good for me or if maybe one less thing would be better. You know, I wasn’t even thinking like that. I was in a place where this was the dream that I’d had my whole life, and here I was smack in the middle of potentially really being able to have it. And I just felt like I owed everybody everything. And it was never about being good to myself.

“… I just went on and on at that pace, at that fever and with that type of consciousness. So in a way, I was really operating from a huge place of fear, because I didn’t know any better. And so after years of that, I just started to lose myself.”

On her breakout appearance on “Oprah”

“We realized very quickly, and [record producer Clive Davis] realized quickly that people had to see me perform to really understand what it was and what the magic was. And so that was what provoked him to make this call [to Oprah] and say, you know, you’ve done this for different young book writers and you’ve featured people for book writers to have an opportunity to spread their work. Could you do this for a new artist? And that’s when the show came back and said that they would love to do that and that they would like to feature a few young artists in this world that is emerging. And that’s when the show was put together. And it really was that special call that he made and that idea that changed everything, because once people saw me, this 18-year old girl with the cornrows and the little penguin tails that I had, all with my Swarovski crystal sneakers, playing some Mozart and moving into ‘Fallen,’ they got it. And they could see why this was something that was special. And now this book is actually the first book released on Oprah’s imprint, and it is so full circle and so powerful the way life goes. It’s unbelievable.”

On asking Prince for permission to cover “How Come You Don’t Call Me?”

“When you are covering a song, you have to get permission from the songwriter to put it on an album… So I found myself in a hotel room. I was doing these really intimate, piano-only little small press things. And here I was in a hotel room and I had to get on the phone with one of the people I’ve admired my whole life: Prince. Like, how do you get on the phone with Prince? Can anybody tell me what to do? Like, what does that sound like? So they give me a number and I’m like, so nervous. I mean, so nervous, that I have to ask this guy who has notoriously turned down people from covering his stuff, and I know this. If I’m going to ask him again anyway, maybe they can still clear this one for me. And so as the phone call starts, I call the number as somebody picks up. They say, hold on, and transfer me again. Someone else picks up. They say, hold on, and transfer me again. By the third and fourth time of the transfer, my nerves were shot. I thought I had it together. I thought I could explain what I was saying. By the time he picked up the phone, I was a mess. And so I was trying to find the words. He was really gracious. He was saying how he heard that I wrote my own music and was proud of me for doing that.”

“… And I told him I loved this song, ‘How Come You Don’t Call Me,’ and I covered it for my first album and, would he be okay with me using it? And he was like well, why don’t you come to Paisley Park and perform it for me, and we can talk more about it there. And I was in shock because who doesn’t want to go to Paisley Park to meet Prince and perform his song for him? And that’s how it went. And we started a friendship there, and it’s something that was a really important mentorship for me.”

On her life-changing trip to Egypt, and the importance of taking a break

“One of the things that was arranged was this kind of sail down the Nile. And it was just so stunning. So I thought, I’ll bring my keyboard, can you imagine you’re sailing down the Nile for three days and I could play and sing and what would that do for me? It’s so exciting, and I got that daggone keyboard and I’m trying to get it set up and everything. And I got it in there and set it up. And there I am in the place, and literally my voice starts to go, just go. Laryngitis, I don’t know what it was. It would not work. I couldn’t talk. And it was unbelievable and at first, I was so frustrated because I’m like, come on, this is a dream that I was after. And then as I sat with it for some time, I realized that I needed to not talk. I needed to just look around. I needed to not say anything, not do anything. I just needed to be silent and quiet and maybe in a way that’s where we are now.”

On how motherhood led her to treat herself with more care

“I think that it was after Egypt was born, even before he was born, I remember getting really, you know, that whole thing that they say, like, that spring cleaning wasn’t only in the house. It was in my life. I finally started to realize, like, man, I don’t have time for negative energy. I don’t have time for people that are draining me because they’re being a drain on my baby. And I don’t have time for anything but what’s going to protect this baby. And I remember that really being a very important moment for me because I myself alone wasn’t strong enough at the time to take care of myself. But through the baby and through my strength being a first time mom, I became better to myself. And that, I found, was for his sake. And I found that that was the beginning of me recognizing and starting to set boundaries.”

Keys’ message to her fellow New Yorkers in the city’s moment of crisis

“We’re all together. And, you know, for the first time ever, we can all understand each other. And I think that we’re all going through our own set of challenges and our own set of struggles, and it’s definitely difficult, but I see the power within us. And with this challenge, we also get to be the solution, and I think that we also get to be a light source. And even though there’s going to be days that you feel down, days that you feel great, days that you feel uncertain, all these things, you know, allow yourself the space to feel that, that’s natural, but also know that the light that you give your daughter, your son, your husband, your wife, the people you’re in the space with and also through our social media and being able to connect with people on our own and all the ways with which we’re trying to connect right now — the light that we can give really is infectious, and it doesn’t cost a thing. And I think, let’s be that for each other, and I think we’re going to find our way through it.”

From The Reading List

The New York Times: “With Stars at Home, a Coronavirus Pop Benefit Scales Down” — “The ‘iHeart Living Room Concert for America,’ broadcast Sunday night on Fox TV and the iHeartRadio network, was a downsized, deglamorized pop gala. With the coronavirus pandemic keeping Americans at home, the night that had originally been scheduled for the iHeartRadio Music Awards, now postponed, instead became a benefit show for the food-bank charity Feeding America and the First Responders Children’s Foundation.”

USA Today: “‘Be good to each other’: Alicia Keys discusses new memoir, shares hopeful messages amid coronavirus” — “Alicia Keys can do it all: Sing, play piano, win Grammys, spearhead nonprofit work and raise a family, among other accomplishments. And she’s exactly the type of person you want to talk to during a crisis.”

Associated Press: “For new book, Alicia Keys looks to the past to find herself” — “As a young woman growing up in the 1980s and ’90s in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen — ‘the name was exactly accurate for what it looked like, what it felt like,’ as Alicia Keys recalls it — the budding musician born Alicia Cook would purposely wear baggy clothing and Timberland boots as she walked to and from the one-bedroom apartment she lived in with her mother.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.