The Alicia Keys 'Element' Billboard Cover Story & Video

Alicia Keys Billboard Cover Story
Yu Tsai

An unseasonal gust of wind greets Alicia Keys as she steps out of a doorway behind a Beverly Hills hotel on a late-October afternoon. Decked out in a black leather vest and black leggings brightly accented by turquoise suede knee-high boots and a hint of matching eyeliner, the Grammy Award-winning artist gets surprised by the chilly blast as she ducks into a waiting black sport utility vehicle. Commenting on the wind's force, the singer laughs when it's suggested the quick dust-up is a forecast of the whirlwind activity cranking up on behalf of her latest studio album, "The Element of Freedom."


Video Above: Alicia Keys, behind-the-scenes of the video shoot for "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart," talks about her new album. Video interview by Mariel Concepcion.


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On this particular afternoon, the singer/songwriter/producer/musician is being whisked off to CBS Studios to perform her second single, "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," for an episode of "Dancing With the Stars" that will air Nov. 17. From there, she hopped on the freeway-in rush hour traffic-to neighboring Long Beach, Calif., where she spoke and closed California first lady Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference with a rendition of her hit "Superwoman."


Video Above: Alicia Keys talks about performing "Empire State Of Mind" with Jay-Z at during the 2009 World Series In New York. Video interview by Mariel Concepcion.

Super woman, indeed. That same night Keys boarded a plane back home to New York to prepare for her and Jay-Z's rocking Yankee Stadium performance of "Empire State of Mind" during Game 2 of the World Series. Just two weeks prior, Keys hosted her sixth annual Black Ball at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, where among the 1,000 guests were Chris Martin, John Mayer and David Bowie. The benefit was for the nonprofit AIDS organization the singer co-founded, Keep a Child Alive, which helps families in Africa and India-and it raised $2.4 million. In between all of this, the indefatigable artist launched a new company, AK Worldwide-prepping a new Web site and jewelry line as part of that endeavor-and began recording more music for her fifth album, "The Element of Freedom."

Originally slated for Dec. 1 (World AIDS Day), the MBK Entertainment/J Records project is now set for a simultaneous worldwide release Dec. 15. "She had a couple of more things in the oven and she wants this to be right," says Carolyn Williams, senior VP of urban marketing for J. "So we gave her the additional time she needed. We also get a second look into the market to build a stronger awareness campaign."

Using more viral marketing this time, J Records alerted fans to the project's lost-love lead single, "Doesn't Mean Anything," through announcements on "Live With Regis and Kelly," MTV, BET and various blogs including PerezHilton.com. "Doesn't" is No. 14 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. On its heels is the aforementioned "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart." Keys performed both songs during her "The Element of Freedom: The Lecture & Performance Series" Oct. 21 at New York University's Skirball Center.

Keys' live NYU performance is airing on "Yahoo Pepsi Smash" this week. After a Nov. 5 appearance at the Latin Grammy Awards, upcoming performances by the singer include the American Music Awards (Nov. 22), the "Today" show's outdoor concert series (Nov. 24), the U.K. program "The X Factor" (Nov. 29), the "Christmas at Rockefeller Center" special (airing Dec. 2), a headlining stint at the 2009 Cayman Jazz Festival (Dec. 3-5), "Late Show With David Letterman" (Dec. 14) and "The View" (Dec. 16).

Additional marketing anchors include Keys' free concert on World AIDS Day. Tying in with all of New York radio, the event will also treat Facebook contest winners to a lineup of surprise guests.

BET turns over its "106 & Park" show to a two-hour special, "106 & Keys," Dec. 16. Dedicated to all things Alicia, the broadcast will feature a countdown of her videos, a Q&A and a live performance.

At retail, an exclusive deluxe version of the album will be available at iTunes and Target that includes a DVD featuring exclusive live studio footage and two more bonus tracks. A direct-to-consumer Fan Pak Deluxe (in the $25-$30 range) is also available; it features a standard album in special packaging, two other bonus tracks, audio from last year's Clear Channel "Stripped" program and such add-ons as an autographed T-shirt and-for anyone who pre-orders the Fan Pak-a chance to win one of 88 autographed keys from a Yamaha piano.

When Billboard caught up with Keys again earlier this week, the tireless super woman was finally "taking a small respite" for few days before the promotional juggernaut kicks into gear. "Music is my first love," she says. "But what drives me is the excitement and challenge of trying new things, stretching myself creatively on as many different levels as possible."

Why did you decide to go back into the studio to record more songs?

It was just a natural progression. While we were mixing the last couple of songs, it felt like we would have been rushing for no reason to put the finishing touches on songs that deserved one more week or so to do properly. So we gently moved the album back.

You've now released two singles, "Doesn't Mean Anything" and "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart." What other sonic hints can you share about the new album?

This album is really just about growth and freedom. Sonically, the sound is grand and massive. It feels emotional and vulnerable but there's also a kind of freedom in it. I can't quite find a better word than freedom to really describe it. Even though every song has touches of different textures and sounds, the overall [sense of] freedom is the thing that grounds it. It's definitely the theme of where I am in my life.

Another song example is the track "Love Is Blind." Some people say the piano on it sounds like something from Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley. We've been using a lot of different keyboard sounds on this album. This particular song uses the CP 70 keyboard. It looks just like a piano but has a different tone; more of an electric sound. The song has a darker tone to it and the beats get real heavy. But then the vocals are very soulful and bluesy.

Who is the producer on that track?

On "Love Is Blind" and "Try," I worked with Jeff Bhasker. He plays beautiful keyboards and piano. We definitely had a great time playing together.

You worked again with longtime collaborator Kerry "Krucial" Brothers. Who else are you collaborating with on "Freedom"?

The album mainly features me. There are one or two more songs I'm working on now that it would be really exciting to tell you about. But I'd like to finalize everything before I start spreading the word.

What triggered this whole freedom feeling?

The process began with "As I Am." I was trying to find the way to totally be myself and what that meant; figuring out what choices I wanted to make and not make in order to truly honor myself. That was the beginning of learning how to do that. And now it's culminated into "The Element of Freedom": the ability to have nothing holding you back; to be totally brave enough to be completely yourself in all of its glory.

You worked with Whitney Houston on her current single, "Million Dollar Bill." Are there any other outside projects on your plate now?

Whitney is an artist who inspired me from [the time I was] a little girl. Fast-forwarding to now and being able to work with her to help create this song that took off was fun. We had a lot of laughs; it was like being with a long-lost friend. Although I'm staying focused now on my project, I definitely see myself working with more artists as time goes by and moving more into the writer/producer lane. It's another interesting and fun way to express my thoughts, ideas and feelings in another style.

Do you also envision having your own label?

I don't really have a desire to do my own label, to be honest with you. It's like a pain in the ass [laughs], because you've got to deal with so much irrelevant stuff. To do like me times six or seven other people, I don't know. I might totally lose it. I have more of a desire to bring talented people to the forefront and help support them. That's why I see myself doing more of the writer/producer thing. But not necessarily running a label because labels are dying. It's a whole different world.

You could feel the fun you were having performing "Empire State of Mind" with Jay-Z during the World Series. What jazzes you about being onstage?

One of my favorite things is experiencing the spontaneous moment that only happens once. No matter how many times you perform, you never have the same moment twice. And I love that. I love the magic of that one moment in that one place shared only by myself and all the people who attended that night. It's our special connection. There's nothing like the energy, communication and unity that happens through music. Even if you don't speak the same language, you understand music.

In the meantime, you've established a new company called AK Worldwide. How did you come up with its slogan: "The business of inspiration"?

AKW is the home base for everything I'm involved in presently and want to become involved with in the future. [Her AKW team includes managing director Erika Rose and director of operations DJ Walton.] And its slogan means a lot to me. When I first started in this business, I was really young and trying to figure out how to balance and make everything work. It wasn't until about 18 months ago that it all made sense to me. That for me-through my music and the various ventures I've done so far-there's a certain inspiration aspect that goes along with the kind of businesses I want to be involved in.

I'd always wondered why I was so attracted to the model of Oprah Winfrey, and I realized it's because she's able to do things in an incredible way that somehow touches your life and makes you think about things in a whole new way. There's a lot of inspiration in what she does and gives to the world.

And that's where I feel comfortable, working with what feels natural and authentic. There's enough in the world that focuses on the other side. I'd like to focus on what can lift us up as a people, help us learn and be open to new things.

Besides your philanthropic endeavor, Keep a Child Alive, what other AKW ventures are being planned?

A new partnership I'm involved with is a jewelry line called the Barber's Daughters. I met a designer [Gisele Theriault] in Toronto who makes gorgeous jewelry. I was just so shocked and stunned by her work. Not only is it all done by hand but it's also hand-engraved with beautiful words and phrases. Being a lyricist, I love words. And every word written on this jewelry gives you something to think about, to strive for or lift you up in your journey. You can feel the words on your skin as if it's your own personal mantra. [Keys will debut the collection Nov. 23-24 at a public event at Collette Blanchard Gallery in New York.]

When will you introduce the jewelry line?

We just did a piece for my Black Ball-beautiful dog tags with the quote: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." It's from Gandhi. We're gearing up now for the formal launch of our first collaborative line in 2010.

My other AKW venture is an idea I've had for a little while now, an online inspirational site called IAmASuperwoman.com. It will launch Dec. 15 along with my album. It's going to be a great lifestyle place for people to visit . . . ultimately, in essence, an online magazine. A place where you can get overall advice on financial matters, beauty and fitness as well as tips and thoughts on other subjects. I want to engage wonderful women from all walks of life to share their experiences, who can bring specialized knowledge to different areas on the site. It will be a place where people can commune and talk about what's on their minds, what's going on in the world politically and socially.

Any movie or TV projects on your horizon?

On the acting side, there is one main role that I very much want to tell you about, but I can't. I know that sucks [laughs]. I can say it's an action film. But if it all comes together, that would really, really be my goal of the year.

Outside of that, my manager/partner Jeff Robinson and I are working on a TV show for NBC that's coming along well. And we're working on a film with Miramax about a female DJ. I personally want to get involved with Broadway. I have some great ideas in terms of developing new pieces as well as helping to bring other strong projects to Broadway.

If you weren't in music, what would you be doing?

I definitely love people and being a part of people's lives. I guess I'd be of service to people in some way. Still on my list of things I want to accomplish is creating charter schools.

Looking back on your career, has the journey been what you thought it would be?

This industry is difficult to break into. Like anything you want to do, you have to love it and be completely focused on it. Nothing can divert or distract you. It's not going to happen quick, it's not going to be real easy. It's not going to be the answer to all your problems or like some Cinderella story. There's no such thing.

I look back and see where I started from and, in my eyes, I'm just starting. Honestly, all of it is one big surprise. The many accomplishments that I've been able to be a part of . . . I feel extremely humble, grateful and excited to continue on that path. It's all one big "wow."