Since her soulful 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor, released when she was just 20 years old, Keys has only had so many calm moments to reflect. She has won 15 Grammy Awards, scored four No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 and released six studio and two live albums. All but one of them topped the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, which ties her with Beyoncé and Janet Jackson for the fourth-most No. 1s on the tally by a female solo act. “She’s a Nina Simone -- a lifetime artist making music always,” says Peter Edge, chairman/CEO of Keys’ label, RCA Records.
But for Keys, writing and performing timeless anthems like “No One,” “If I Ain’t Got You” and “Girl on Fire” is just one element of her artistry -- activism and philanthropy have always been central to her mission as well. Most recently, in June 2018, she co-founded She Is the Music, a nonprofit aimed at increasing the number of women working in all facets of the music industry. In February, Keys became the first female Grammys host in 14 years, winning raves for her earthy, seemingly off-the-cuff energy -- she brought out Michelle Obama, palled around with John Mayer and played an epic medley of songs she wished she had written, on two pianos simultaneously. She’ll return to the gig for the 62nd annual ceremony on Jan. 26.
“She brings you in, and has you experience the Grammys through a creator’s mind,” says Recording Academy president/CEO Deborah Dugan. Keys insists that the Zen vibe she projects onstage isn’t her everyday reality. “We all get nervous!” she exclaims, explaining that she has felt an intense pressure to please since the start of her career. “You go out in the world, and if everybody doesn’t like you, you feel hurt or scared or ‘something’s wrong with me,’ ” she says. “Cross over into social media, where we literally want people to like us -- this shit is a mindfuck.
“I’ve thought so much about the different sides of us all,” she continues. “And personally, I think I’ve leaned on one or two sides because it’s comfortable. Only recently have I started to explore the parts that are scary.”
Grammy night will kick off a year of more change for Keys. Her seventh studio album, ALICIA, will arrive in 2020, and her autobiography, More Myself: A Journey, comes out in the spring. Working on both was “the best therapy I ever had,” she says. “I ended up being able to see the moments that things shifted. When you’re living it, you’re not really reflecting on it.”
As we’re chatting, she remembers that when she takes the Grammy stage, it’ll actually be the day after her 39th birthday. She’s an Aquarius through and through: free-spirited, creative, a little bit stubborn and emotionally intelligent, or, as she puts it, “I connect spirit to spirit.”