Alicia Keys has been name-checked in a Bob Dylan song, she’s sung for James Bond, and she wowed label mogul Clive Davis to such a degree he penned a letter to Oprah Winfrey to seek her help in turning a then-unknown teenager into a household name.
What could possibly rattle Keys, now 32, and on her aptly-named 'Set the World on Fire' Tour which brings her to the AmericanAirlines Arena Saturday night?
Singing The National Anthem at Super Bowl XLVII from the Superdome in New Orleans before a U.S. TV audience of 108 million.
“It was nothing I ever felt before, that type of nervousness, butterflies, excitement all at the same time,” Keys said in a telephone interview last Friday, a few hours before her concert that night in Las Vegas. “I remember walking up to the empty field in the run-throughs and it was such a crazy feeling, so massive there. I’ve been on that field before and at festivals in the same place but the way it looked at that moment was so surreal and overwhelming and really exciting. At the moment I stepped to the piano I said, ‘I have to ground myself.’ I felt I would be levitating. It would not be good to be distracted.”
So far, Keys has kept it together ever since the release of her debut album, 'Songs in A Minor', in June 2001.
Davis, the head of her record company, saved her from an aborted deal with Columbia Records that had gone nowhere except for landing one of her songs on the 1997 'Men in Black' soundtrack. Davis writes in his new autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon & Schuster, $30), that he was so taken with Keys’ talents he wrote a personal letter to Winfrey to ask her to showcase Keys on her popular talk show weeks before the release of 'Songs in A Minor'. “I know you too are into discovery and perhaps once or twice a year, you might identify the next Aretha or Whitney or Lauryn Hill. Alicia Keys is such an artist,” he wrote.
Davis is known for taking a hands-on approach with his artists but this was the first time he saw fit to seek Winfrey’s help to break a new artist in whom he believed that strongly. “Every time I put Alicia on a stage, she blew the audience away,” Davis opined. Unlike his strategy with stars on his label like Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Whitney Houston and Santana, he gave Keys free reign on her albums to write her own material. Even a songwriter as accomplished as Manilow wasn’t given that luxury for all those years he spent on Davis’ Arista Records.
“I love him, he is one of the greatest of all time,” Keys said of Davis, now 80 and the chief creative officer for Sony Music Entertainment. Eight years after her debut, Keys submitted to Davis her up-tempo song, 'Million Dollar Bill', the standout track for what became Whitney Houston’s final studio album.
“He understood me when nobody understood me,” Keys said. “No one thought this girl from Harlem could write and play and produce except my manager and him. He gave me a lot of confidence and empowered me to create. He’s a mentor to me, for sure, and his instincts are like knives, they are that sharp.”
'Songs in A Minor', the first outpouring of that musical union, sold six million copies domestically and its single, 'Fallin’, won the 2001 Grammy for Song of the Year and had an unexpected backlash. 'Fallin’ became such an American Idol perennial former judge Simon Cowell banned contestants from ever singing the song again, reportedly claiming to be so sick of it he’d grown allergic to the damned thing.
Four studio albums and a live Unplugged set followed, all of which hit No. 1 on The Billboard 200 except for her 2009 release, The 'Element of Freedom', a more ballad-heavy, vulnerable set. The latest, 'Girl on Fire', is an edgier collection, highlighted by the title tune’s infectious chorus hook, a slamming drum sample from Billy Squier’s obscure 1980 tune, 'The Big Beat', and a guest rap by out-there Idol judge Nicki Minaj.
'Girl on Fire' has yet to catch on commercially in Keys-like fashion — its cumulative sales of 612,700 copies since its November 2012 release pale when compared to the 742,000 copies her third album, 'As I Am', sold in a single week upon its release in 2007. But 'Girl on Fire' is a fine album, her most personal to date, written after her marriage to producer and rapper Swizz Beatz and the birth of their son, Egypt, who makes his recording debut in an endearing coda tacked to the end of 'When It’s All Over'.
'Girl on Fire' also opens with a brief interlude on piano, 'De Novo Adagio' (Intro), which allows Keys an opportunity to showcase the classical training she enjoyed as a seven-year-old when she first started playing the music of Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart at the piano. Born in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan to a mother of Italian, Scottish and Irish descent and an African-American father, Keys’ mother enrolled her in a performing arts public school where Keys began writing songs at 14.
This classical background is something Keys has always had to balance with providing her label commercial music that fits contemporary parameters. Classical and hip-hop soul instrumentation would not seem compatible but Keys says she makes the combination work.
Her classical training, “influences the way I receive music or the way it’s orchestrated and arranged,” she said. “Definitely influences the way I play piano. I’m really grateful for this knowledge of music and I’m able to study and understand and learn from the influences. I can ... stay in the classical realm with arpeggios .... I love the 3/4 rhythm and that’s total soul but that’s also totally classical. In regards to the way it influenced me, it lets me stretch out on tour and play more piano in the show. It’s a fabric for creating music that I really love and it’s subconscious.”
The Set the World on Fire Tour arrives at an opportune time for the new mother. Recording in the solitary confines of a studio leads to a desire to “bring the music to the world to see how people are responding to it and how they are connecting. I’m really ready to perform live but when I’ve been on the road a long time I’m ready to start writing again and go more internal and introverted and get more quiet. Seeing as I just finished this record relatively recently, this is the first time I’m out with new music and a new headspace.”
“This makes me think of the first time I did a show with the first record and I would have to throw in all these covers because I barely had any songs,” Keys said. “Now I have a catalog and love how it flows.”
Of course, this leads to a happy dilemma. “I think about Billy Joel and wonder, how he picks his songs, or Prince. How can he choose what songs to do? I look forward to growing a catalog.”
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.