Newcomer Alicia Keys Chooses 'Songs In A Minor'

On her ambitious debut "Songs in A Minor" (J Records, June 12), Alicia Keys approaches her music with the heart of a classical pianist and the soul of a hip-hop diva.

On her ambitious debut "Songs in A Minor" (J Records, June 12), Alicia Keys approaches her music with the heart of a classical pianist and the soul of a hip-hop diva.

"The album is a fusion of my classical training, meshed with what I grew up listening to," the artist says, indicating influences that include old-school soul legends Marvin Gaye and Roberta Flack. "My music is a fusion of the things I've been exposed to and drawn from and my life experiences."

Although Keys was briefly signed to hip-hop maestro Jermaine Dupri's So So Def label (a period that ended amicably), her career didn't hit full steam until two years later, after linking with industry veteran and J Records founder Clive Davis. She recalls fully digesting the gravity of Davis' career during their first meeting.

"He has this whole wall of pictures of Janis Joplin; Earth, Wind & Fire; Miles Davis; all these careers that he's had his hand in and helped in some way," Keys says. "These are the people whose albums I pull out for inspiration."

Davis was equally impressed with Keys. "I was knocked out by both her songwriting abilities and her voice," he says. "She is a talented musician whose beauty is stunning."

Working under the executive's guidance, Keys took her time in crafting the tracks that comprise "Songs in A Minor." "[Those four years] allowed me to become a better songwriter," says the artist. "It allowed me to become a better musician because I wasn't stifled. Now, when I go into a studio with someone like Jermaine Dupri [who produced the album cut "Girlfriend"], I'm confident in myself and my sound that now we can both bring something to the table."

With total creative control, Keys notes that there was also added responsibility. "It was a lot of late nights and early mornings. You have to be able to meet your deadlines. You have to be able to come through. If you can't come through, it's not going to be yours to hold onto for long.

"It's not the norm to be so involved in your debut album," Keys continues. "Maybe on your second or your third, you start to get in there. I think it was crucial for this project, because otherwise it wouldn't have properly represented what and who I am."

Keys views "Fallin'," the piano-driven ballad that is also the project's first single, as being strongly representative of who she is as an artist right now. "I wanted to write a song for someone who was 10 or 12 years old -- like a young Michael Jackson. Even though he was young, he was singing some deep stuff back then. ["Fallin'"] is about the ins and outs of a relationship. Sometimes, you're completely head-over-heels in love with someone, and sometimes you can't stand that person. You fall in and out, sometimes it goes back and forth, and that's just what relationships are about."

Although Keys and her production team, Crucial Keys, produced the majority of the album, she also collaborated with both Dupri and Brian McKnight (on the song "Goodbye") on "Songs in A Minor." Also featured is a cover of Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" -- a vocally challenging song that she handles with remarkable ease. The idea to tackle the tune came from her manager, Jeff Robinson of MBK Entertainment, and J Records A&R executive Peter Edge.

"I had never heard it before," she admits. "They gave me a copy of the song on tape. I played it every day for three weeks. It is so raw and so truthful -- I was just feeling it. It really came out well."

Once the music was in place, J Records began to launch the project in mid-winter with a multi-city promotional tour. "When you see her live is when you fully understand her," says Ron Gillyard, VP of black music for J Records. "It's just a record at first, but when you see her live you get the full range of her artistry."

Promotion for "Songs in A Minor" has not been limited to the U.S. BMG International (which will release the album outside the U.S. June 11), hosted a Keys showcase for BMG personnel and European tastemakers March 27 at the Villa in London. The following morning, London's Choice FM began playing "Fallin'." Keys will return to Europe in June for a number of live dates.

"On a global level, we intend to deliberately break her as an album artist," says Tom Corson, executive VP of worldwide marketing and sales at J Records. "With Alicia, we're presenting a complete package and not just a pretty face. She is one of these artists who will be global like Macy Gray and Lauryn Hill."