Alicia Keys is jet lagged, picking at some mango, pineapple and cucumber, and drinking almond tea sweetened with agave. She has never drunk coffee. She doesn’t need the stimulation; Alicia is always switched on.
Her face is fresh but for Cleopatra eyeliner that makes her look like a silver-screen movie star. Her hair, recently shorn, is slicked back close to her head. Her nails are blood red ovals with the half moons painted creamy, very 1940s.
A string of mega-selling albums – Songs In A Minor (her debut, released when she was only 20, sold more than 12 million copies), The Diary of Alicia Keys, As I Am and The Element of Freedom – made her a worldwide superstar, yet she remained strangely ambiguous, never releasing any personal details about herself.
Alicia grew up an only child with her hard-working Italian, Scottish, and Irish mother, and her father is African American Teresa Augello, who was an actress and legal secretary. Her African-American father Craig Cook, a former flight attendant turned masseur, left her mother when Alicia was two, and she spent many years having no relationship with him at all.
But upon the death in 2006 of her paternal grandmother, with whom she was very close, she gradually came to reconsider their relationship and recently decided to give it a fresh start.
When we meet, Alicia is listening to one of her new tracks, ‘Brand New Me’ from her album Girl on Fire. The track best sums up how her life has changed since finding love with Swizz Beatz (rapper and producer Kasseem Dean) and becoming a mother to son Egypt (named after the country, which she visited a few years ago).
It’s been a slow revolution that has seen Alicia transform from a feisty street kid from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen with her hair in braids, a girl who expressed everything through music yet was wary and uncomfortable in her own skin, to a new Alicia, not only more confident but more warm, open and trusting. With each album there has been an emotional shift, with Alicia becoming less afraid to express who she is.
14 things you didn’t know about Alicia Keys:
- Alicia Keys is biracial of European Caucasian and African-American descent.
- Alicia Keys has sold over 12 million copies worldwide to date.
- She became the best-selling new artist and best-selling R&B artist of 2001.
- She has won five Grammy Awards in 2002, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year for “Fallin’“. Her second studio album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, was released in 2003 and was also another success worldwide, selling eight million copies. The album garnered her an additional four Grammy Awards in 2005. Later that year, she released her first live album, Unplugged, which debuted at number one in the United States.
- Alicia Keys is the the first female artist to have an MTV Unplugged album to debut at number one and the highest since Nirvana in 1994.
- She also produced 3 Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles top 3 hits, “Fallin’“, “If I Ain’t Got You” and “No One“. Also, those singles were charted on 10 or more countries.
- Her favorite book is Isabel Allende’s book about Haiti.
- Her favorite musicians are Afro-Cuban music, Fela Kuti, Frank Ocean, Emeli Sandé and Alabama Shakes.
- Her favorite things to wear is Givenchy. She also loves wearing sweat pants and low-hanging tanks with heels.
- Her favorite makeup is eyeliner. She prefers the make-up line called Tarte.
- Her most recent purchase was a morgan car her husband bought. “It’s handmade and incredible. I’ll gladly drive that bad boy.”
- Her favorite cities are New York and Barcelona.
- Her unfulfilled ambition is to try new passions, do things she doesn’t even know yet and to learn new things.
- Her favorite style icon is Bianca Jagger.
Hear Alicia Keys like you’ve never heard before:
The album Girl on Fire is fierce. ‘Brand New Me’ didn’t happen straight away, it was an evolution. It was a whole journey to get there. Some of the songs on Girl on Fire are very vulnerable. Some are me talking to myself in a subconscious way. Some have a sense of abandonment, of letting go.
Egypt is awesome, he’s two and just so silly. We feel so right together, we definitely fit.
A lot of people, when they have babies, take them home and think, who are you? What are you doing here? Then eventually they fall for them. Not me. It was love at first sight and it got progressively obsessional. I want to be there every second. I would like to have more. At least one. Every woman thinks she wants a girl and so did I, but I’m so glad he’s a boy. The mother-son bond is really powerful.
Women are more complex by nature. Daughters are often closer to their fathers. I grew up with only my mother. Recently I feel both me and my father have grown up. I think something happens when you become a grandparent. You have a different mind-set. There’s less pressure on the relationship, so maybe it’s closer. He was with Egypt last week and he loved it.
Since Egypt I’m more peaceful. I’m a more comfortable-in-my-own-skin person. But it happened before that too. I was becoming more open. I started to understand things better.
My father and I are fine now. I would say in the process of growing up you realise you’ve been holding on to anger. I was angry then and am sure I had the right to be angry, but if you hold on to all this anger the only person you’re hurting is you.
The process started when my [paternal] grandmother became ill. You realise what’s important when you see a person you love dearly and you’re not going to have them for long. It was important to her. And I saw [my father’s] love for her. I realised he wasn’t an evil person so I said, ‘Can we start from this point on? Can we be friends? I can start to understand you and you can start to understand me.’
I feel at peace when I cook, though these days I don’t cook a lot because there’s often the question of do I sleep or cook? Definitely sleep.
When I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to study. I went for the experience and to find out what pulled me. Now if I went back I would study business and marketing. I’d like to understand the fundamentals behind the things I put in action every day.
My husband and I knew each other for years. We were both in the same industry. We first met when we were something like 16 – a high-school friend of his ended up being managed by the same people as me. He and I used to hang out and say things like, ‘Maybe we’ll work together one day.’ It’s cute that we knew each other when we were 16 but it was not an instant connection. It was a very slow burn, but it does still burn and it’s beautiful.
I’ve always had to be part of myself with people, but with him I can be my whole self and he loves me when I am. And I love when he is his whole self.
Sometimes we walk into a room together and everyone gravitates towards him, and there are times when we walk into a room and everyone gravitates towards me. I love it when people love him. And he loves it when people love me. It’s a really balanced thing, and I’m glad I don’t have to pull back this part of myself. It’s pretty special and now with our beautiful Egypt we just thank each other every day.
My collaboration with Emeli Sandé came about randomly and I love how things happen like that. I was celebrating the tenth anniversary of Songs In A Minor with four shows. One of them was at the Royal Albert Hall and I was looking for a support act. Emeli has a song called ‘Breaking The Law’ which I had played endlessly, so I said, ‘Let’s have her open the show’.
[Although] we didn’t meet each other that night, she was coming to New York and we ended up getting together and decided to do some writing. It was instant chemistry. Rarely does it happen like that. She is a unique and important artist who will be around for a long time. We worked on three songs on this album which are all awesome.
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