For our Fall Music Preview, on stands tomorrow, we spoke to Alicia Keys about her upcoming album, Girl on Fire, due Nov. 27 — and she had plenty to say about the recording process, getting the tiniest member of her family in the studio, and why that title is not a reference to a certain bow-and-arrow-wielding girl warrior. Read on:
EW: Let’s start with your album title, Girl on Fire. I know that you wrote that you wanted to make a change in your life and represent a new journey and a fresh start, but is the title also influenced by The Hunger Games?
Alicia Keys: You know, the funny thing is that it’s actually not. It was such a shock when I heard about The Hunger Games — I wasn’t aware of the book at that point. And I didn’t realize that, I guess, that’s what they call the one girl. So we tried very hard to make it all work and put the song in — and to put parts of what I was developing in with the movie. Anyway, obviously it came out way too early, so the timing wasn’t right. But, no, it has nothing to do with The Hunger Games. That powerful feeling is what it’s all about.
You found success at a relatively young age, and you’re only 31 now. Why did you feel the need for a fresh start?
It came more from a personal place. And when I talk about changing, I think I mean maybe more evolution. There was just a moment in my life where I was just realizing all of these things, and they just became really clear. All of a sudden, I realized that things that I had dealt with before, or things that I thought that I wanted in my life before, or things that I thought were acceptable to me before just started to be different. I didn’t feel that same way anymore.
I think that was simply evolution and becoming more conscious and aware of who I am and what kind of life I want to have. You don’t just have to take the s— they dish out to you; you don’t have to take it. You can actually make a conscious choice to say, “You know, that’s cool, but I’m going to leave that one behind.” And there’s something very empowering about that — acknowledging how far you’ve come because of it and then being strong enough and brave enough to leave it behind. Which is not nearly as easy as I’m making it sound because it wasn’t that easy for me either.
Obviously, that takes a lot of time; that takes a courage that, I think, sometimes we doubt we have inside of ourselves. And so just all those discoveries made me realize that this overall claiming of what type of life I want to have is what made me change for the better.
Did any of this have to do with giving birth to your son, Egypt?
Definitely. It’s like you go through an immediate — you get an immediate perspective shift. There’s just nothing like it. And, all of a sudden, it’s like you’re a full-on f—ing grown up. It’s obviously because you’re a mom and you’re caring for another life. But it’s more than that: It’s like you have a sense of what feels right and what doesn’t feel right.
It’s so interesting how before I would literally debate and debate and debate, like, “Hmmm, should I or shouldn’t I?” Or If I had a particular choice to make, it would be like “Maybe I should…” And it’s like the debate is gone now. I know pretty instantly what it is. If I just listen to myself…you know, “Well this cuts in too much to that, and this takes away too much of that. And I just don’t feel comfortable with that, so I’m just going to let that go.” It’s just easier. There’s definitely that growing up and more consciousness of what important to me at this time and why I’ll do anything to make sure that that stay’s true.
So this will be your first grown-up record, would you say?
Yeah. It’s interesting, even as I think about it, my last record — which I’m so proud of and I loved the way we were able to do so many progressive musical things and kind of push the envelope forward for me as an artist. As an artist that’s part of what gives me excitement — pushing myself forward to a new place. So for The Element of Freedom to have done that for me, to have been able to do that with my last record, I’m so proud of it. But as I look back on it, I’m like, “Interesting, Alicia, that you chose to call this an element of freedom because, in actuality, at that point, there was only an element of it.” Now, there is far more to it. It’s kind of incredible; it’s great.
So were all these songs written after Egypt? Or were some of them from before?
I have to say pretty much all of them were written after Egypt. You know, I have a lot of songs, and many of them won’t make the record—but that’s just the nature of things. I do feel like the majority of them were written after, so that’s cool.
Where did you record the album? You said you traveled the world recording it…
The majority of where I recorded was in New York.That’s my hometown, so I love being here and there’s something really powerful about this city that resonates in me. I was definitely here for the majority of the time, and then there were a couple of other places as well. I recorded in London and in Jamaica, which was the first time I ever did that. And that was really cool because it was a gathering of these very interesting collaborators that would never be in one space together…ever! And it just created such an igniting, crazy creation of music and just like explosive situation. That was really cool. I told myself, “I’m never doing an album without doing something like that.”
What ways musically does this album represent a new start?
This album represents a new me in every way. I mean, you’re still going to feel me and you’re still going to identify with what part of me you’ve identified with before. So that’s the cool part. But everything about it is different because my mind frame is different, the energy about it is different, the song lyrics are different. There was something that happened to me that I just really wanted to write these great songs. I sat there and was just really focused on writing songs. I wasn’t focused so much on creating some crazy beat. I wanted to write these insane songs that could live on their own and people couldn’t deny them. So I started a lot of the process like that and because of that a lot of the songs are actually very simple.
But because they’re so simple, there might be this big, huge beat in it. And maybe there’s the piano in it, and then maybe there’s like this kind of piano in it that sounds like a guitar in it. And then maybe there’s like a bass in my voice — and that’s it. Whereas I thought [before] that I had to put 300,000 different instruments in a track for it to sound big, I realized that the less I put in it, the bigger it sounded because it just occupied difference spaces. And that was it. So there’s kind of a rawness to it, I think — like a bigness from that.
How’s the process of being on tour and playing live changed now with the baby?
Well, I haven’t gotten to the touring part yet, so you’re probably going to have to ask me that in like 6 months. [Laughs]
Are you nervous about leaving your son behind while you go on tour?
Oh, I’m not leaving him, are you kidding me? I wouldn’t even go anywhere if he wasn’t coming! I’m actually really excited about it because he’s at the perfect age to come with me. He’s just at that great, beautiful age where he’s exploring so much and he’s learning so much. He’s taking everything in. I feel that 100% it’s going to make me look at the world in different eyes.
It’ll be his first tour.
Well, technically it’ll be his second tour because he was in my belly for the tour before this.
You’re not going to give him a Blue Ivy cameo on your album, are you?
I don’t know; he might need a cameo, you know what I mean? He might. I don’t know what’s going to happen. You mean the song Jay[-Z] did? I don’t know; he may need to say a couple words. There’s one song in particular called “When It’s All Over” that he may need a little feature on. So we’ll see.
I can’t wait until Blue Ivy and Egypt put out an album together.
I’m telling you, I think that they’re going to have a big future. [Laughs]