Self-love and self-expression are intertwined on Alicia Keys’ new double-album, KEYS. The 15-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and producer released her eighth studio album today (Dec. 10), in which she creates two sonic worlds: Originals and Unlocked.
Originals, side one, takes things back to what Alicia calls a “really special part” of herself: her love for the piano. Soulful, timeless, bare-it-all records anchored by the New York native’s captivating voice and songwriting then get a brand new feel on the album’s Unlocked side, thanks to mega-producer Mike WiLL Made-It.
“… I realized that one version [of an album] is never gonna exactly express all of me,” she tells REVOLT. “I felt like, let’s show all the sides, all the pieces and open all the doors.”
The 40-year-old mother of two knew she wanted a piano-centric album to follow 2020’s ALICIA. Even so, creating during the turbulence of last year and the uncertainty of 2021 had its challenges.
“… I was completely confused at the beginning of [the pandemic], like probably a lot of us were,” she admits. “It wasn’t instant. It wasn’t constant. It wasn’t like every second I was overflowing with ideas. It did kind of take a while to warm back up and feel comfortable expressing and finding the space for that expression.”
Next March, Alicia will also release her first-ever graphic novel, Girl on Fire, named after her 2012 hit. The young adult-geared story is about Lolo, a 14-year-old girl growing up in Brooklyn, who discovers she has telekinetic powers while protecting her brother from a cop who pulls a gun on him.
“… She’s just discovering that she has these powers that she never imagined and she’s also discovering how to use them. It’s confusing her; it’s scary,” Alicia explains. “I think that’s so many of our stories. We’re scared of our power and we’re having to figure out… how to use it and what to use it for.”
Check out our full interview with Alicia below as she talks her new double-album KEYS, watching her eldest son grow as a musician, carving out space for self-expression and harnessing her own superpowers.
Congratulations on KEYS! You’ve said before that the concept for the album has been a long time in the making. What was the moment you knew you wanted to make an LP taking it back to just you and the piano?
I knew it from the beginning. I really did. I knew that KEYS was gonna follow ALICIA, my last project. I knew that I wanted to be at my foundation – at my core. Just at the piano, focusing on the songwriting and just creating great, timeless music. I think what surprised me about the project was coming up with concept of the Originals, which is me driving in my lane –the piano, the soul, the blues – and then sampling those records for the whole other side of the KEYS album, which is called Unlocked. And that’s where you get to hear the songs with different drums, styles and patterns that have been inspired by or came from sampling the Originals songs, creating this whole other world. So, that was kind of the shocking thing. I love this concept. I love that KEYS really takes you to all these different entry points and it feels amazing.
When did you know you wanted to get Mike WiLL involved and sample your songs for the Unlocked side?
It just felt right. I’m from New York and it’s true New York fashion – New Yorkers, we love to sample, remix, create. There’s so much energy that I’ve been raised around and I realized that one version is never gonna exactly express all of me. So, I wanted to really create another expression of what it sounds like for the keys to be a part of the sonic in a way that’s even a little bit more unexpected. It just felt right. I felt like, let’s show all the sides, all the pieces and open all the doors. One [side] is like a Sunday and one is like a Saturday.
I love these two different sounds on the album. Do you feel the Originals and Unlocked sides represent the different sides to you and your music?
Yeah they do; there’s no way to express yourself in just one way. But I love when I’m able to do this more intimate piano style. Like, that’s such a huge part of me. It’s a really special part of me and I also love when I’m able to bring New York into it and bring the vibe and the energy. So, again, it’s this idea of not being contained. Like, you don’t have to hold it in. You get to let it all out.
And you created the Originals side at home at your piano?
I did. The Originals was all about the keys, all about writing the songs. I didn’t even worry about production or anything. I didn’t wanna clutter it, I just wanted it to be so pure. And yeah, it was at home, at the studio that I created. So, it was just natural and it just flowed.
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Did you write most of the songs during 2020?
How did the pandemic and working from home impact your songwriting on this album?
Well, first of all, I was completely confused at the beginning of it, like probably a lot of us were. Like, what do I do? How do I do it? Do I do anything, or do I just wait? So, that was definitely a large part of it and then I finally got to the place where it was like, ‘No, you need time for yourself, and you need time to have space to think and create.’ So then I started really carving out that space, which helped. And then from there, I feel like knowing that I wanted it to be so much about the piano, at least the Originals side, allowed me to just let it go, and I started to formulate what that would feel like. It wasn’t instant. It wasn’t constant. It wasn’t like every second I was overflowing with ideas. It did kind of take a while to warm back up and feel comfortable expressing and finding the space for that expression.
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Definitely. I think openness and being able to completely express how you feel is really inside of these lyrics – really inside of all of these songs. And what I really find is that they’re love songs to me. Tuning into the younger side of me that didn’t really feel as loved or felt lost – as we’re all kind of finding out who we actually are and who we want to be – I feel like these songs really are that loving reminder or message to myself. And I love that.
You recently recorded your first-ever song with your son, Egypt. What was that like being able to create with him and also see his progression as an artist himself?
It’s like wow. Super mind-blowing. I love it so much because I practice with him at the piano, or I’ll hear him play these different ideas, or he’ll be singing something and learning how to do it, so I know he loves it. But to be able to create a moment that was captured on the microphone, on a recording, and him being able to explore his own voice and see, ‘How do I wanna sing it?’ ‘How do I wanna do it?’ And then to hear him back, I mean, when I heard him back, I just sat there stunned. I was like, this is crazy, I can’t believe this is happening. So, I love it and I’m super proud of him for going for it and trying and not being too shy because it’s a lot to be in front of a microphone. You’re hearing it back in your ear and you’re like, ‘Am I good?’ ‘Can I do this?’ And it sounded beautiful.
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You’re also working on your first graphic novel, Girl on Fire, set to come out next year. What inspired you to create this story and release it in that format?
I love this graphic novel. It’s so sick. It’s fire. It’s a really powerful story about a girl named Lolo in Brooklyn and she’s just discovering that she has these powers that she never imagined, and she’s also discovering how to use them. It’s confusing her; it’s scary. But at the same time, she’s learning how to harness it. I think that’s so many of our stories. We’re scared of our power and we’re having to figure out how to harness it, how to use it and what to use it for. So, it’s really a metaphor for all of our lives. We’re all Lolo in one way or another. And the graphic novel is such an incredible medium, especially for young adults. I love that it’s engaging. It’s beautiful. It’s colorful. I find that my son really likes to read graphic novels. It’s a way into the reading experience that feels a little bit more interactive and visual. It doesn’t feel so traditional. And it’s gorgeous. It’s amazing, you guys are gonna love this Girl on Fire graphic novel. It’s coming out in March.