Alicia Keys Is A Superwoman Come What May

Jon Pareles

It's midnight on a Monday in late July, and the day is still far from over for Alicia Keys. That morning the Jamaican bassist and producer Robbie Shakespeare, from the renowned duo Sly and Robbie, had flown in from Miami for a session at the Oven, a house on Long Island that Keys and her producing partner, Kerry "Krucial" Brothers, have converted into a complex of recording and mixing studios.

She spent the afternoon rehearsing with her band in New Jersey, then headed back to the Oven for a late-night mixing session.

"I love my spot," she says proudly as she offers a tour, wearing wraparound sunglasses and a "Born to Be Wild" T-shirt. "It looks like grandma's house."

From the outside it does. But beyond its parlour the Oven is a warren of clean, well-equipped studios on three floors. Photos of Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley and other old-school legends reside on the walls.

It's where she made her new album, As I Am, working at her own pace. As I Am is her first studio album since 2003's The Diary of Alicia Keys, and Keys has been describing it as "rebellious" at every opportunity.

"I just was really adamant about doing things that were not expected," she says. While some of its songs reaffirm her connection to 1960s and '70s soul, others lean closer to rock - from the Beatles to U2 - than she has before.

The album was about 10 days from being finished and well into the wee hours people were busy with last-minute mixing and mastering. Manny Marroquin, who was mixing the album's first single, No One, told Keys he had just received a call from her record label. "He was, like, 'Do your thing'," Marroquin reported, imitating the tone of the record company executive. " 'I've just got to turn the song in by Wednesday, and I'm not going to get in the way, but … ' "

Keys interrupted. "Back up," she told him. "I don't like to hear all that. It'll be in when it's in. It's there when it's right and that's when it's there."

Getting it right is essential both for Keys as a musician and for a recording business with few young stars that inspire loyalty. In the four years between Keys's studio albums, CD sales have stayed in a tailspin and albums have been dismantled in favour of singles and ring tones. Careers have been forged by American Idol, which boosts singers rather than songwriters, entertainers rather than musicians - nearly the opposite of a determined performer such as Keys.

Although she is only 26, in many ways Keys comes across as a proud throwback: a soul singer in the era of abbreviated R&B hooks. She writes and produces her own songs, with various collaborators including, on this album, the rock and pop producer Linda Perry and the songwriter from Floetry, Marsha Ambrosius. She is an accomplished keyboardist and a singer who needs no electronic assistance.

"She doesn't compromise," says Clive Davis, the chairman of her US label, BMG North America, who has nurtured her career since he signed Keys as a teenager and his company released her 2001 debut, the multimillion-selling Songs in A Minor. "I would never think of remotely asking her to compromise."

Her songs often evoke gospel-rooted, idealistic vintage soul, updated with deeper bass and drumbeats. "I do feel like I was born in the wrong era sometimes," says Keys. "Maybe I just passed away early and ended up being reborn in this one. There is obviously some kind of true cosmic connection with that music of the '60s and the '70s."

She continues: "I love how social people were, how politically aware they were. Mobilising massive amounts of people for one singular vision and making tremendous strides: how does that happen? I'm very fascinated by that."

As urban radio stations thump with proudly synthetic R&B and hip-hop, the organic soul and rock sound of Keys's new songs are almost defiant. But she may have enough goodwill among fans and gatekeepers to thrive as a nonconformist.

For Keys, four years passed quickly. She toured repeatedly, made an MTV "Unplugged" album and travelled in Africa to support the AIDS-response organisation Keep a Child Alive. She flirted with acting, playing a hit woman in Smokin' Aces and Scarlett Johansson's friend in The Nanny Diaries. She and Brothers started a TV production company called Big Pita, Little Pita that is working on a series about a bi-racial child growing up in New York City, as Keys did.

And for a while Keys set aside her career to tend to an older relative who was dying.

"Somebody extremely close to me got very ill," she says, "and I was really the only one that was able to help care for them. This person was strong and my rock, and then totally not even able to walk without assistance. I had no choice but to stop."

Until then she had been working on her career since she was a teenager. "Celebrity is like a drug," she says. "In its purest form you get well known for something that you do, that you do well. That's a genuine emotion, and then you love what you do, and you want to share it with the world, and then people say, 'Well, you've got to do this, this, this, this, this. In three days you're doing seven countries, go.' And you go, 'OK, well I've got to go, go, go, go, go.' "

She adds: "Instead of you living your life, your life is living you."

To visit her relative Keys would cut recording sessions short; she also flew home between tour dates. The experience, she says, of "dealing with mortality every day for a year" affected the songs she was writing.

One, called Tell You Something, is a U2-flavoured guitar anthem that vows, "Won't wait till it's too late."

The album is titled As I Am, Keys says, because she has grown far more straightforward in recent years. "I was becoming a very hidden person. I would just always try to keep everything even-keeled and cool and just smooth everything over. That mask was getting very scary. And I didn't like it."

Growing up in Clinton, known as Hell's Kitchen during the seedy years of Times Square, where she was raised by her mother after her parents separated, taught Keys to be defensive. "I've always been pretty guarded," she says. "I remember I would have guys drop me off, like, two blocks before my house. I didn't want them to know where I lived. Even on the phone I never wanted people getting too close to me; I never wanted people knowing too much about me. I always felt like if people knew about me, then they could use it against me."

Now "I'm done with that," she says. "Everybody's in trouble now because I will tell it like it is."

Still, Keys has never offered private details in her songs. But her voice can make truisms sound like confessions. One new song, Superwoman, draws on gospel and the Beatles, moving from uncertainty to determination. It's a reminder, she says, to herself.

"Even when I'm out, and I'm just a mess, and I'm not perfect, and everything's not great, and I'm struggling to figure out what is what," she says, "I'm still a superwoman."

Keys and fellow neo-soul songwriters Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Erykah Badu, along with recharged soul singers such as Bettye LaVette and Chaka Khan, sing from the perspective of assertive women, defying the latest wave of pop and hip-hop sexism.

"Every guy actually thinks they can have any woman," Keys says, shaking her head. "'Oh, a woman is for my disposal. I use them as an ornament to hang on my arm.' It's not good.

"I mean, not to say there aren't brilliant, brave, beautiful women who aren't all like that," she adds, "but I just don't know when we started being cool with being the afterthought or being the accessory. There's nothing wrong with being sensual, and there's nothing wrong with being sexy, but there's a misunderstanding of what sexy is. Sensuality is the mystery of what it could be."

While fans have come to expect pro-woman songs from Keys, she has also decided to take up political matters, though much more subtly.

One song on the new album is Go Ahead, which has a hip-hop beat and lyrics that might be about a deceitful lover. It's more than that, Keys explains. "Lately I've been into taking social or political issues or problems or general ideas and making them people," she says, "so that it comes off as if I'm speaking about a relationship but I'm really speaking about a world issue."

Although As I Am isn't released until this month, Keys has already been to London, Paris and Tokyo to preview songs for music-business powers. Now that the album is finished, there will be video treatments to read and tour arrangements to decide. Keys is ready to plunge into the music business again, but she wants to keep her priorities old-fashioned.

"I don't know how to be a factory," she says. "I don't know how to churn out records every second. All I know how to do is what moves me, what really moves me to write, what moves me to sing."


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