The new queen of soul

At 22, Alicia Keys has already sold 10 million albums and won five Grammys. So what is she doing on a cold Sunday night in a tiny club in Brighton?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Sunday night in Brighton, and a fierce autumn wind is whipping the seafront. Radio One has been encamped here all week, beaming their annual, peripatetic One Live roadshow from clubs and rock venues throughout Britain's newest city. There have been Q&A sessions with Starsailor ("How does one get ahead in the music biz with slightly moany angst-rock?"), thumping parties with Dizzee Rascal and Basement Jaxx, and thumping headaches with Chris Moyles.

Tonight, for the finale, Radio One has flown in the cavalry. The beachside Honey Club is the venue for Trevor Nelson's Rhythm Nation, whereat a proper global superstar will go about the business of quietly launching the follow-up to her 10-million-selling début album.

Outside around 8pm, three-and-a-half hours before showtime, Radio One's hired labour are bent double in the wind, erecting hoardings around the venue. Engineers and roadies are in and out of the doors to the club, finessing sound and tweaking lights. Inside, a four-piece band and three backing vocalists are stood on the small stage. Judging by their chilly expressions and profusion of knitwear they've been here quite a while. Only the 4ft-something "crowd hyper" in the shin-length Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls basketball shirt seems to feel no cold. This is Freak Nasty, and he is a ball of ceaseless energy and enthusiasm.

Finally, having just driven down from London, their employer strides through the door. She wears a thick, woolly, cream scarf that reaches up to her cheeks and down to her knees. A leather bucket hat, seemingly by Chanel, pulled low over one eye. Tight jeans. Pristine trainers. A big smile. Bunched clumps of a frayed Afro peek out from either side of the hat. She greets her band and flops down at her piano, side-saddle. She stabs dramatically at her keyboard, testing out the acoustics in this small venue. "Who said I couldn't get my drummer on this stage?" she grins to the empty club. The drummer, squished in a corner behind the speaker stack, presumably grins back. She does some soulful runs up and down the keys. She gives a James Brown grunt - "Oourhg!" - and shouts "Gimme a soul clap!" And, as one, smoothly lubricated whole, nine people (wee Freak Nasty included) slot into an immaculate rhythmic tattoo.

Alicia Keys has entered the freezing, poky building and, as if by cheesy magic, the cold isn't so noticeable any more.

Tonight is the opening European salvo in the mammoth worldwide push for Keys' new album, The Diary Of Alicia Keys. As she continues with her brief soundcheck, a giant of a man in a huge leather coat pokes at the ineffectual crash barriers placed floppily in front of the tiny stage. This is Carter, and he is Keys' security guy. He is clearly less than impressed with the safety arrangements.

Hovering nearby, a funky middle-aged white woman in flat corduroy cap, safari jacket with a hoodie underneath, burgundy "combat slacks" and trainers, is also concerned. This is Keys' mum, Terri Augello. She travels with Keys often and is on a wage as a member of the tour personnel. "She would [travel all the time] for me," Keys had said. "But I tell her, 'I can't have you sleeping in those bunks, mom, in a tour bus for six months. It's just not right!'"

Now Augello is enquiring of club staff, "Are they gonna be wired?" - meaning, "Will the bouncers be wearing Secret Service-style radio mics to facilitate coordinated responses to security threats?"

The answer is no, but Carter does manage to secure an extra layer of crash barriers. The Keys camp are used to more elaborate productions. It's barely two and half years since the release of her début album, Songs in A Minor, and Keys is still only 22, but she is a bona fide phenomenon already. The last time she was in the UK she did two sold-out nights at Wembley Arena and one at London Arena. Songs in A Minor entered the US charts at Number One, while her first single "Fallin'" cruised to the top of the Hot 100, and stayed there. She won five Grammys, an unprecedented achievement for a début-album artist, a Brit (Best R&B) and countless other awards around the world.

Why these figures and feats? Because Songs in A Minor was a work of some genius. Sure, there was a devastatingly effective marketing campaign behind the launch of Keys - including a crucial appearance on an Oprah Winfrey TV music special - orchestrated by her mentor Clive Davis, the legendary record label boss who discovered, among others, Whitney Houston. But hype will only take you so far. There has to be grit behind the grin.

Keys' thing was simple: classic soul with a contemporary twist. She had the piano-playing aplomb of Stevie Wonder, the heart-lifting voice of Aretha Franklin, the songwriting chops of any soul legend you care to mention. On top of this she knew hip hop inside out, and could produce modern street anthems as well as Missy Elliott. "Fallin'" was an epic, and epically effective, ballad; "Girlfriend", "Rock Wit' U" and "How Come You Don't Call Me" were sinuous dancefloor anthems. "A Woman's Worth" cornered the head-tossed-back diva market. The result was an album that appealed to lovers of vintage soul, the passing trade f who listened to drivetime radio, and young hip-hop/R&B heads.

On top of all this, she was drop-dead, classy-fashion beautiful. For her near-iconic braids alone, Alicia Keys appeared on the cover of Braids And Beauty, Black Hairstyle And Trends and Try It Yourself Hair. For her comeback, Keys sports a wilder - but still immaculate - hairstyle, and a tougher sound. Fully immersed in her soundcheck, and oblivious to the debates about the security arrangements for tonight's six-song set, Keys plays on. She zings her band through the bustling "Streets Of New York", the urgent hip hop track featuring Nas and Rakim that has already been sent out as a "street track" to 600 of the UK's DJs and tastemakers. Then it's into the brick-rattling ballad "If I Was Your Woman".

It's only a soundcheck, but Keys pushes her tonsils to the limit. God knows how. Since arriving in the UK a couple of days ago her schedule has been mental. She has been on Jonathan Ross's TV show and Top Of The Pops. Yesterday, Saturday, began with a 7am call at CD:UK. Then she had a 90-minute nap "quickly, on the couch". Then she went to MTV's studios, then back to her hotel for another TV interview. At 8pm on Saturday night she entered a recording studio with her band and engineers. She wouldn't leave till 8am on Sunday, having worked through the night.

"I usually work off about two hours' sleep," she had said earlier that Sunday evening. "But today, fortunately, I didn't have to get up until 11am." Woah, three hours sleep - a 50 per cent extra lie-in!

"Exactly! But the good thing is at 11, I had an hour's massage, and then I found out things were pushed back another hour, so I had a good five hours. That was good," Alicia Keys says in a speaking voice that manages to be both husky and smooth.

The ability to survive, even thrive, on little sleep is one of the things Keys inherited from her mum. Augello raised Keys alone after she and her dad, a flight attendant named Craig Cook, split when Keys was two. Augello juggled single parenthood with a job as a legal secretary and a struggling acting career. She would return from work to their tiny apartment in the off-Broadway, midtown Manhattan area of New York, known as Hell's Kitchen, in the small hours. After a couple of hours' rest, she'd be off to her day job.

"But I'd end up bumping into walls," the seemingly-ever-cheerful Augello told me between supportive handclaps as she watched her daughter soundcheck. "Whereas Alicia gets up, performs, smiles, and does it all over again!" For her part, Keys attributes her ability to multi-task - in the studio and on the road - to Augello.

"Oh my God my mom taught me how to juggle without even knowing it!" she beams. "She taught me how to be a workaholic, she taught me how to be strong. She's a very determined person - she never gave me the impression there was anything she couldn't do by herself. She was always like, I'm gonna make it through this. She really showed me what a real woman is, what a strong woman is. That's why I feel like I'm not a pushover. How could I be with that type of [upbringing]?"

Such was Alicia Keys' schedule that we conducted our interview in the back of a car being driven from her central-London hotel to Brighton. On the way we squeezed in dinner - a south-London grocer's finest soup and some sandwiches.

Yes, she says coolly, she's aware that this is only the start. "I knew that I was gonna have to do, like, triple-time with the album coming out, doing some live dates and doing some promotion at the same time."

Make that quadruple time. Keys was in the recording studio in between promotional engagements because she hasn't actually finished the album she's meant to be promoting. She's off to France, Germany and Holland after the UK, and she has studios booked and waiting there, too.

Is she insane? "Yes!" she replied with an emphatic grin. Her hat was pulled low over her face. In the gloom from the car's interior light, I could see one - frankly gorgeous - eye staring at me. It was quite unnerving. Also unnerving was the fact that, in the front passenger seat of the car sat Kerry "Krucial" Brothers. A good-looking young guy in a bulky parka, he was introduced to me by Keys as her studio partner and the other half of the writing/production outfit known as KrucialKeys. In Brighton I would see him fetching some Louis Vuitton luggage over to Keys' mum. More of him later.

So: the as-yet-incomplete Diary Of Alicia Keys is meant to be coming out four weeks and one day after our meeting; three days beforehand, I had sat in a boardroom at her record label while the A&R chap from the New York office played us the 11 tracks that existed in completed form. Among other things, they were still waiting on final tweaks to "Heartburn", a bumping, taut funk number produced by Timbaland, the production whizz involved in creating Missy Elliott's staggeringly inventive sound.

"I had to finish up small things," she says smoothly of her all-night studio session. "Tying songs together. I like it to have a fluid movement. Sometimes there's points where I want one song to lead into the next, I then need to do a small musical suite to do that."

Keys is a different kind of young pop female. For one thing, she is accomplished enough a musician - she took piano lessons from a young age - to talk calmly about conjuring up "musical suites" in foreign studios strung around Europe. As a producer and songwriter, she has created tracks for acts as diverse as hip-hop hero Nas ("Warrior Song"), bullish rapper Eve (the hit single duet "Gangsta Love") and big-lunged chameleon Christina Aguilera ("Impossible" on her current Stripped album).

For another, she is clearly in complete control, apparently unfazed by ludicrously arduous schedules and to-the-wire delays. She is remarkably self-possessed for someone two months shy of their 23rd birthday. But then, her manager has said that, courtesy of various record company and publishing deals, Alicia Keys has had "seven figures in the bank since she was 14". She was always an old head on young shoulders. "When I was younger I never felt that I exactly belonged," she purrs. "In the sense that I thought differently. What concerned people in high school, I just didn't care [about]. It was just boring to me. I hated all that scene. But I can be silly and stupid too," she says playfully. She may pray daily, have a meat-free diet and no great enthusiasm for alcohol, and have been pursuing her musical dreams since she was 14, but she's no ascetic, God-invoking robo-diva.

In conversation, she claims that "I always felt I could only express myself fully on paper; if I spoke it all came out twisted" - yet talks smoothly and with guarded precision. In line with a disdain for the ostentatious "bling-bling" side of her profession - "When I have to walk amongst the entertainment world I do, because that's where I work. But I don't live in that world" - Keys only tells you what she needs you to know and not much more.

She's loved music for as long as she can remember. "I've always written and I've always played. But for a long time I didn't play and sing at the same time, [not] until about a year or so after my [paternal] grandfather died, when I was 13. I was devastated - I was very close to him. I just couldn't believe it [had happened] so I chose to just ignore it."

Then she saw the Aids drama Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks. "I fell apart. I had never confronted my feelings about death. And it tore me apart." She went home and went to the f piano and stayed there all night. She played some chords and began singing. By morning she had a song to her grandfather. "I felt better. I still hurt but I'd talked about him, I said what I felt, and it was a relief."

The song was called "I'm All Alone". It's never appeared anywhere, and currently lurks at home at her New York apartment, in a pile of "tapes and tapes and tapes of song ideas, things I've started, things from when I was a little girl. Some of it's very embarrassing," she chuckles. Aged 14 she was in a short-lived girl trio called Embishion. They wore sportswear and were like Salt 'N' Pepa meets En Vogue. Aged 16 she had a solo deal with Columbia Records and had won a scholarship to study at Columbia University. Both went wrong: the degree because she was trying to do too much, the deal because new executives came in to the label. They didn't understand her music. They told her the album she had made, which was largely Songs in A Minor, albeit without "Fallin'", "A Woman's Worth", "How Come You Don't Call Me" and "Caged Bird" (ie three of what would become her biggest tracks), sounded like a demo. That she should use more samples and guest vocalists - "and get the best producer and this dance instructor and wear this dress. Everything that I wasn't."

She started sinking into "a hole - monetarily, spiritually, physically. That was absolutely devastating, I didn't know where I was going." Then Clive Davis came to the rescue and signed her to his new J Records imprint. "It was like, wow," she says, visibly glowing at the memory. "I felt so relieved. It seemed like they cared, just a little bit. Suddenly it seemed like the moon and the stars were aligned."

She had met Kerry Brothers, co-producer with her on several tracks on The Diary Of Alicia Keys, around the age of 14 in Greenwich Village. "Everybody would go every night of the week to the Village to play basketball, drive around, walk around, party, just freestyle on corners. It was alive. We were both into music, freestyling and rhyming."

How long did it take you to get together?

"As partners, to work together? It took a while. But we were cool with each other for a long time. And we just started working together around halfway through my Columbia experience. We both started talking about some things and we kinda connected. And he said, 'Man, they should try some things like this.' And it just naturally happened."

Is it cool working together and dating?

[sharply] "Who said we were dating?"

Your A&R guy.

[more sharply] "Who's that?"

The guy from New York who played me the tunes last week in your label's office.

"Yeah?" Her voice lowers and I have trouble making out what she's saying.

"I'm gonna let you know, [Kerry's] known me for a long time and you guys, I don't know where your head is coming from, but it's definitely like home base, absolutely. That's solid."

"OK cool," I say, bamboozled. I think she's making the (reasonable enough) assertion that that's private stuff and we don't talk about that. The flash of steel was so unexpected and forceful that I start to doubt myself. Maybe the A&R guy didn't say he was her boyfriend. I'm pretty sure he did though, and she certainly didn't say he wasn't. It doesn't seem, to me, to matter either way. But maybe a near-decade in the business, years of frustration followed by sudden vaulting success, have taught Alicia Keys the value of tactical circumspection.

The night after Brighton, Alicia Keys plays a small show at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly, central London. At 8.04pm Keys appears seated at the piano. Her head is lowered and That Hat is pulled low over her eyes. She is wearing a bolero-type jacket, velvet strap-dangling trousers and a glittering top. An emphatic piano solo gives way to "Rock Wit U" and a dynamic rendition of "How Come You Don't Call Me". A scorching new ballad, "If I Was Your Woman", has Keys the gung-ho performer up out of her stool, bouncing and vibing and swaying. The urban hymn "Streets Of New York" is fantastic, a jazzy hubbub of rapping and sweet soul singing that does exactly what Keys told me she wanted it to do - "be a description of New York as I know it". The snatch of Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City" completes the vivid picture.

Finally, after an intense version of "Fallin'", Keys launches into "You Don't Know My Name", the first single from The Diary Of Alicia Keys. It's a lush, Philly-feeling track with a talkie bit in the middle where Keys plays the part of a waitress cold-calling a hot customer. It's rapturous, a love song that makes a mention of "hot chocolate with cream" the most sensuous thing I've heard all year. It's proper soul.

In the car on the way to Brighton, as Kerry Brothers sat in the front with his headphones on, I had asked where the name Keys came from, as it's neither of her parents' second names.

"Lotsa places," Alicia Keys had replied. "Keys to opening doors, doors that have never been opened before. Keys to opportunity. Keys to life." At this she fished a diamond-encrusted, key-shaped pendant out of her big jacket. "And keys to the piano," she had smiled satisfiedly, like the cat who got the cream, and the hot chocolate. E

'The Diary of Alicia Keys' is released on 1 December