Alicia Keys: You Ask The Questions

Do you think that America is ready for a black or a female president? And can you tell us what you wrote about in your diary last night?
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The Independent Online

Alicia Keys, 23, was born Alicia Augello-Cook and was brought up by her Italian mother in the Hell's Kitchen district of New York. She wrote her first song, "Butterflyz", at 14 and left school at 16 - the same year that she signed to Columbia Records. By 18, she had switched record label, signing to Arista Records in 1998. The following year, she released her debut album, Songs in A Minor, which won her seven Grammies and went multi-platinum. Her second album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, went straight to No 1 in the American charts. She lives in New York.

Is America ready for a black president or a female president?
Sue Smith, Chelmsford

I don't know. America, like everywhere else, is scared to death of change. But I'll tell you what: I think a female president would whip this country into shape; it seems America needs a mommy right now.

Who is Britain's best current musical export?
Carla Hanlon, Skegness

I like The Darkness. I know there are others that I love, but that's who I'm diggin' right now.

What has living in New York done for you?
Ben Collins, New York

New York is my favourite place to be. I've lived here all my life and I've been taught some of my hardest lessons here. I've had to make life-threatening decisions here in an instant, but I've also seen the drive, the spunk and the heartbeat of the world from here. I've seen the best and the worst on the same block and I think that's why I am who I am. In fact, I know that's why I am who I am. If I hadn't grown up how I did, I feel like I would be much more one- dimensional. That's some of what NYC has done for me.

Second albums are supposed to be difficult to write. Was yours?
Pete Crook, by e-mail

No, this album was much easier to make for me than the first. I had more experience and 10 times more confidence. My travelling gave me new perspectives on life and people and myself. I was ready to say new things and create new songs.

"You Don't Know My Name" - surely this song cannot be autobiographical. Who doesn't know your name?
Helen Shepherd, Barnsley

Sure, it is autobiographical in many ways. People didn't always know my name and there are plenty of times when you see someone who you really want to know, who has no idea you feel that way about them. They don't even know your name, but you want to change that. Who hasn't felt like that in one way or another?

What's the best time of day and the best environment in which to write songs? Do you have any superstitions, anything you have to do before you start writing?
Rebecca Adam, by e-mail

I usually write when it's kind of late. The phones stop ringing and I can really hear my thoughts. I don't have any superstitions: I just write when I have something to talk about. I try not to force it, it comes out much better that way. But when I'm in the writing zone I'm away, even if it's just mentally, kind of like creating my own world. That's when the magic happens. I love that.

Do you keep a diary? If so, when did you start to write it? And can you tell us what you wrote about last night?
Karen Regan, Southampton

Yes, I keep a diary. I love being able to have one place where I can honestly vent all my feelings and experiences. I like looking back on them and laughing at myself because I thought that something was so serious and now it really means nothing. I started my first diary when I was nine, so you can only imagine how funny that is.

What I wrote about last night? I just came back from a little vacation that was long overdue and I had one of the most incredible experiences last night. I was in a bath that looked out onto the mountains of Jamaica. Everything was so green and lush. It was heaven on earth. Suddenly, there was a rain shower. It poured down and I was right in the middle of it in this warm bath. The smell of the rain was like a dream. That's what I wrote about last night.

What do you think of the Iraq war? Would you consider becoming more political as a songwriter? If so, what issue would you write about?
Gareth Monighan, London

I think that the war in Iraq is unnecessary. It's much bigger than any of us, but it involves all of us.

I think the war proves how much more involved we all have to be in exercising our right to vote and therefore shaping the world we live in. Becoming more political as a songwriter is inevitable for me. It has already begun.

Will you sing a song just for me?
Thomas Washington, by e-mail

Sure. What do you want to hear?

Why did you decide on the surname, Keys, instead of your family name, Augello-Cook?
Owen MacCaskill, Dundee

I decided on the name Keys because it perfectly describes me and what I do. Not only does it describe the instrument that I play and love, but it also represents the keys to opening infinite doors. Every time I hear the name it reminds me of how many more doors I want to walk through. So, in a way, it's not only a name, but also a mantra, a belief, a reminder.

On your second album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, there are several songs about touring. Do you find it hard? What do you take with you to keep you sane?
Scott Inman, Wolverhampton

There are several songs that I wrote while I was on tour. But I don't find it hard. I like travelling, I like meeting and seeing different cultures and people, and styles. It's definitely strenuous. It's hard living out of a suitcase for months. It's hard travelling so much that you lose your balance and the date and time. It's hard to find things to eat in some of these places, so you find yourself eating peanut butter and jelly or oatmeal for every meal.

It's hard to be away from the people you love for so long, and being in the company of people who just see you as a dollar sign. But my love for the music keeps me sane, plus a cell phone so I can call when I'm lonely.

In your teens, Columbia tried to fit you into the Mariah Carey mould. How did you escape?
Yvonne Clarke, by e-mail

I escaped it by choosing not to go along with it. It was really hard to do and took a lot of strength and patience. It forced me to push any fears I had to the side and have faith in destiny, but I sure am happy I did.

'My Boo', by Alicia Keys and Usher, is released on 1 November

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