Alicia Keys: Soul princess

Alicia Keys tells Matilda Egere-Cooper why multi-platinum albums are not enough for her

Alicia Keys has struck again. Her latest album, MTV Unplugged, went straight into the US Billboard chart at No 1, making her the first female R&B artist to score a hat-trick of No 1 debuts. "Performing is my thing," explains Keys. "It just felt like it was absolutely the right time to be able to do a broken-down version of my songs and make them really intimate and personal. I wanted to draw the listener into my world, into my personal, private, intimate location."

Sitting pretty in a Manhattan hotel, Keys has a curvaceous figure that contrasts sharply with the industry's usual requirements. Today, she's wearing her trademark braids, but has recently taken to wearing her hair straight. "I'm definitely not afraid to branch out and try new things, new looks," she says.

Keys is charming and thoughtful in conversation, and even when admitting she may need a holiday, she leavens the complaint with a megawatt smile. "I haven't had the greatest life-work balance," she says. "But I definitely make sure that when I need time to relax or just be with my family, or sit down and do silly things like watch movies, or go bowling or whatever you need to do to relax or unwind, I make sure I take it."

I ask if she makes time for a boyfriend. Recently, she has been linked to everyone from 50 Cent to Lenny Kravitz and even her production partner, Kerry "Krucial" Brothers. She's renowned for not revealing details of her private life. "Cheeky!" she laughs. "I didn't expect you to be the cheeky type. I choose to keep that information to myself."

The singer's admirable work ethic hasn't been in vain. Her first two albums, Songs in A Minor and The Diary of Alicia Keys, are multi-platinum-sellers, and she has taken home nine Grammys. (She has also campaigned for Aids victims in Africa since 2003 and is a spokesperson for Keep a Child Alive.) But she is modest about her success, and is more inclined to focus on the lessons she has learnt.

"I've learnt about who I am as an artist in the sense of as a performer and as a woman, and how much is too much, and how much I can handle - and I'm really being honest with myself about that," she says. "That's a big thing in this business - especially in being able to meet as many people as you can but still being able to stay sane and stay healthy."

It's easy to forget that Keys is only 24. Born Alicia Augello Cook, she led the life of an ordinary New York teenager, growing up in the notorious Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan. She credits her overprotective mom with shielding her from the daily spectacle of prostitutes and drug-dealers. Terri Augello, an Italian-American and an aspiring actress, raised her daughter single-handedly after separating from Keys's African-American father, a flight attendant, when Alicia was two years old.

Recent reports have claimed that the singer was seeking a reconciliation with her absentee dad, but Keys dismisses the rumour. "I don't know how that got out into the press," she says. "I think it just came from the fact that I said somewhere that I didn't really want to hold on to any negative feelings towards him. I feel it's important to experience and grow and feel hurt or whatever you feel when you have different situations in different relationships. But to move on and try to get past it is important."

Keys remains joined at the hip to her mother, who doubles as her travelling-companion. When Augello pursued her acting career, young Alicia started taking piano lessons at seven, and she soon mastered the works of Chopin and Beethoven. Her classical training didn't preclude a love of hip-hop, of which she is an avid fan, and her mannerisms and speech (she has a tendency to say "yo!") reflect the rap culture she embraces.

On MTV Unplugged, she features the guest rappers Common, Mos Def and Damian Marley, and Kanye West was the man behind her hit single "You Don't Know My Name". A friend introduced her to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Donnie Hathaway records, which inspired her love for soul music.

Keys made her first steps towards a music career by joining a girl group, though that "didn't work out". Nevertheless, by the age of 16 she had signed her first record deal, with Columbia Records, but found herself dropped shortly afterward. At the prompting of her manager, Jeff Robinson, she adopted the stage name of Keys and signed a deal with Clive Davis's J Records.

Davis gave Keys the space and time to develop her talent, just as he had with Whitney Houston. But an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, performing the debut single "Fallin'", soon brought Keys to the attention of the public. The lyrics of her songs rarely stray from matters of the heart, but her musical style, which consists of crawling blues coupled with a hip-hop backbeat, and soul melodies enhanced with her raw vocals, made her unlike her R&B contemporaries.

Having maintained this formula throughout her past three albums, she says that she is happy that people understand what she does as an artist. "They understand the way that I like to engage real emotions and real feelings and talk about real situations that go on with everyone in the world," she says. "I always want to be an artist like that. I want to always be able to stretch myself and my hope is that people will accept me in all my variety of ways."

The "variety of ways" Keys is referring to is her other lines as an author and actress. Last November, she released Tears for Water, a songbook of lyrics and poems from her journal. She's hoping to follow up the New York Times bestseller with her first novel.

Keys's first big-screen outing will be in the thriller Smokin' Aces, in which she's set to play a female assassin, alongside Ray Liotta, Ben Affleck and Andy Garcia.

The singer has also been hand-picked by Halle Berry for the lead in a film about the life of the mixed-race pianist Philippa Schuyler, Composition in Black and White. Keys is excited with the prospect. Hollywood has been embraced by a flock of high-profile music types in recent years, with varying results, but Keys says acting is a natural progression. She was cast as Dorothy in a kindergarten production of The Wizard of Oz and she later attended Manhattan's Professional Performance Arts School, the "Fame school". Acting, she says, is in her blood. "For me, it's very important to do film. I love film. I always knew I would come back to it."

Though Keys is far from abandoning the music business, she's ambitious, and believes there is a lot more of her for the world to see. "I have so much more to do," she says. "I've barely begun to scratch what I'm going to get into out here."

'MTV Unplugged' is out now on J Records

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