How do you make pop music that means anything in the middle of a pandemic and civil unrest? How do you deliver that music to your fans when they can’t come to see you, when you can’t sing to them in person? At the moment, Alicia Keys is an expert on the topic.
Keys has a new album out today, her seventh in a storied career, simply titled Alicia. In the middle of a jam-packed day promoting her new music — so much so that her side of the conversation had to be recorded while riding in a moving car — she spoke with NPR’s Audie Cornish about singing to this particular moment. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
Audie Cornish: I’ve heard you describe this album as some of your most truthful, most authentic music. I think for people who already describe your music that way, why do you think this one is?
Alicia Keys: I just feel like I have gotten to know myself much better than I ever did before. We all have many sides to us, and I think in a lot of ways we get used to only showing a particular side, or one version. And I’ve been really personally interested in going even deeper than that — and getting to know the parts that I’m not comfortable connecting with as readily as the parts that I am.
Is there a song on this album that speaks to this idea that you’re talking about?
One of the ones I’m thinking of now, that’s a favorite for me, is called “Authors of Forever.” What I really love about this song is, it goes on to talk about how we’re “builders” and we’re “breakers,” and we’re “givers” and we’re “takers.” I think that at one point in my life I was like, well, why do there have to be any takers — why can’t it just be builders? Why does it have to be any breakers — why can’t it just be givers? And I realized that you have to have all these sides. You can’t have one without the other.
One of the things I think is excellent about this album is the way that it’s speaking to the moment everyone’s in. The most obvious example might be “Good Job,” which is a kind of message of encouragement to people who are struggling. When I first heard it I was like, “Oh, she’s speaking to me.” And then I realized, oh, right — obviously, there are health care workers and other people in far more intense positions.
I mean, that’s the part that I think has been the most fascinating to me: I wrote that song almost a year ago, when no one would have ever in a million years imagined that the world would be the way that it is now. And it was really for people like my mother, people like you, people like my dearest friends, who really work so hard to keep it all going together, and a lot of times wake up and just feel like, “I’m not even doing it right.”
I just realized, a lot of people don’t hear the words “good job.” Nobody’s sitting there telling them, look, just waking up again and putting one foot in front of the other is a good job. You’re doing your thing. Look how you’re taking care of your daughter, or how you’re juggling two jobs, or how you’re dealing with whatever emotional state you’re in. So it put me in awe to recognize that during these times, the song did apply to all of those people, as well as the essential workers and people who have become so important to our daily existence.
You are an artist who loves to tour, and a great live performer. But we’re in this time when we aren’t able to connect to people that way, and aren’t able to connect with artists in that way. Are you on social media more as a result?
It is true that we do have the ultimate superhighway of information, and we can connect at a moment’s notice, and I definitely have embraced that more during this time. I’m a real in-person type of person: I love being in front of people’s faces, I love that connection where you can just be spirit-to-spirit. But I really have embraced, a lot more, the power of being able to connect in an intimate way during these times — maybe in a way that I never really thought I wanted to before.
Your breakout song, “Fallin‘,” came out in 2001. We’re heading into 2021. Looking back, what would you say to that young woman who was entering the industry?
I think the part that I would want to make sure she was aware of the most is really understanding that she is the creator of everything that’s happening around her. Even though there’s a lot of great people who support her, and are gonna continue to support her — it takes a village to do everything — she is the unique, special ingredient that makes it what it is. And to not for one second ever doubt that, or be afraid of that. Just know that and treat it accordingly so that people recognize, and you yourself recognize, the value that you bring. I think I would have wanted to talk to her about that.