Keys Sets Her Own Pace

Excerpted from the magazine for

There's no blueprint to follow after selling 5.6 million copies of your debut album and winning five Grammy Awards -- all before the age of 21.

But for Alicia Keys, whose cool, soulful 2001 landmark album, "Songs in A Minor," wowed the world, selling more than 10 million units globally, the next step was simple enough: Take time off.

"When I got home from touring, I could have gone straight into the studio," she says. "But I knew I owed it to myself to take at least a little time to breathe.

"It had been such a crazy whirlwind. I had to take the time to sleep late, watch movies, be with my nana, have lunch with my mother and hang with my friends."

Fortunately, no one had to lose too much sleep before Keys announced that she was ready to make her next album.

"It only took me three or four weeks before I said, 'OK, that was fun. Now, I'm going to let all these things in my mind flow,'" she says. "I was blessed to write so much on the road that I felt like I was up to my eyes in ideas, and if it went any further it was just going to overflow, so I had no choice."

Those ideas resulted in the forward-stepping "The Diary of Alicia Keys," due Dec. 2 worldwide. The artist maintains that the studio process -- chronicled on a behind-the-scenes DVD included with the first 1 million copies of the album -- was a pleasure, with the pressure turned down low.

"You can't put the same heart and soul into something that's so pressured and time-constrained," she explains. "It has to have the time to take whatever evolution it's going to take."

And that was just fine with RCA Music Group chairman Clive Davis, who signed the singer/songwriter to J Records and championed her work when she was an unknown.

"Alicia sets the pace herself; she told us when she was ready," Davis says.

The record impresario compares working with Keys to his experiences with Bob Dylan: "I would have never asked for music from him. You wait until the artist tells you that he or she is ready. In the case of Alicia, it's very exciting to see the build-up of that adrenaline and her creativity at work."

With Keys, he adds, "you're dealing with a potential all-timer. She creates her own work as an artist in the tradition of a Joni Mitchell or Patti Smith.

"She is not an artist that can be pigeonholed, so people expect her to create new paths rather than try to fit into today's scene," he continues. "She is the ultimate artist -- she writes, performs, produces and arranges."

As for Keys, she says she never wanted to feel like she was "trying to beat the clock."

"I really know that I'm going to be here for a long time, so I thought I owed it to myself to live my life and take the time I needed to develop my songs, my music and whatever vision I had to do it right, as opposed to having two days and having to hurry," she says.

Her approach seems to be paying off. Already, her first single, "You Don't Know My Name," a soulful, midtempo track with a 1960s R&B vibe, is proving that deliberation was the right move. The song debuted at No. 62 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart five weeks ago. It is No. 8 this week.

Although it's currently her main focus, Keys intends to eventually branch out beyond music.

"I have a few things brewing," she says. "I don't want to talk about it too much until I'm really ready. Being versatile is very important. I'd like to do things that aren't expected as well.

"I'd like to score movies, write music for plays. I have this crazy idea right now that bridges young and old in a way you would never think could work. Things like that are what I love putting together."

In the meantime, Keys is content to stay focused on the music and the life experiences it reflects.

"I would never be able to create this kind of album if I didn't have the experiences that I had," she says. "I would have never made this album had I not lived these last two years of my life."

Excerpted from the Nov. 29, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Premium Services section.

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