alicia keys fights the power on her forthcoming album

We caught up with the star to discuss everything from climate change to Donald Trump.

by Hattie Collins
05 July 2016, 8:05pm

Photography Paola Kudacki

In 14 years of quite an incredible career, Alicia Keys has not only been a multi-million selling songwriter and singer, but a philanthropist, activist, and advocate for change, recording campaign songs for Obama, raising awareness around HIV and AIDS via Keep a Child Alive, and recently founding the We Are Here movement. Taking fours years out since Girl On Fire to birth her second child and create her forthcoming sixth album, the New Yorker returned to the red carpet earlier this year, devoid of makeup, to launch the South American-flavored single "In Common." But the 15-time Grammy winner has more issues to address than beauty, identity, and self worth. With her new, "bolder and braver" album on the horizon, i-D talks to the 35 year-old star. 

1. Her forthcoming album is the most intentional record she has ever made. "Before I started creating it my long-time business partner and manager Erika Rose asked me if I was ready to step into my purpose and be in my truth. It made me really start to think about what that meant, as well as the great artists before me that did that. I realized I was ready to be bolder and braver and make music about the state of the world that we could sing and dance and cry and love to. We even meditated on what the songs should be about, we wrote down what we received from the meditation and those topics became catalysts to the conversations that created the songs. These conversations were such a powerful part of the songwriting process and I hope they will continue to spark dialogues with all who encounter the music. Things didn't really change during the process it just keeps getting stronger and clearer. That's never happened to me before."

2. The creative process began with four people: Alicia, writer and producer Mark Batson, writer and long-time collaborator Harold Lilly, and her producer husband Swizz Beatz. "From the beginning of the creation of the music we wanted to create an intimate group that understood the path that I was on and was really ready to go levels deeper. It was so dope because we all come from such different backgrounds and the combination is really such a powerful sonic and lyrical experience! That continued with Jimmy Napes who wrote and produced some really fantastic songs with me, as well as Illangelo and Billy Walsh. Billy is a poet and Illangelo is a lot like me, a pianist and producer. It has been really powerful to go levels deeper with a diverse but concentrated crew."

3. She's been going through changes and has embraced her true self. "My biggest obvious change was having a baby during the process of the album. It really created time for me to step away and when I came back I was strong and so clear about what needed to happen. But the truth is, that would have never happened if I hadn't taken the time from the beginning of the album to carve out the space to connect with my spirit in a deeper way than ever before. This industry is noisy and a lot of people have a lot of opinions about what I should and shouldn't do, and this go round was really about learning to listen and trust the voice within me. I have a lyric that says, 'All along, I was hoping understanding would be born, I was looking for knowledge to sing my song but know I know that I am wisdom on my own.' I've definitely gotten stronger over the course of making this album. I've become more raw and able to access myself. It's an indescribable feeling."

4. All's fair in love and work, but while her husband Swizz rolls with a crew of 50, Alicia usually works alone. "We are a team so he had an incredible amount of input. I love working with him because he is a true conduit. The way he creates music is so free flowing and fun, it added amazing energy. His style of creation is very different from mine, he helped me open up and break down some walls and preconceived notions about how creation should look… I usually work alone and he rolls with a crew of 50 at any given moment, lol, so this go round, it was like a party at every session and it added such an incredible vibrancy to the sessions and that translated into the sonic. He's very passionate and clear about his opinions and this has helped me refine my muscle of listening to myself even deeper, sometimes he's spot on and sometimes I have to stand my ground and listen to what I feel is best even if we disagree. That's love and that's life and that's the freedom to be yourself in your relationship. It's one of the most important things to me and I love how we encourage each other to do it."

5. Becoming a mother changed her as a human, a woman, and a creative. "I've become an awesome disciplinarian! It's made me feel so much more deeply than I ever knew I could! It's taken my BS tolerance way down and definitely made me stronger, more fly, more bad ass. Better for real! It's also helped me put what's important in perspective and take more time to be present and enjoy life instead of only work work working all the time."

6. David Blaine, Chris Rock and Nas walk into a studio… not the start of a joke but an average night working on Alicia's album. "The majority of the album was done in NY. That's my favourite place to record for obvious reasons. There's no better variety to me than the concrete jungle. I remember the party vibe. There was this magical communal energy and it became this dope cypher where I didn't know who or what I'd see any given night...there was one night that David Blaine came by and did magic. The music was magical so it was a perfect combination. Chris Rock was telling Jokes, Nas vibing, the incredible artist JR so moved to take photos and was a really magical experience."

7. Reading articles kept her inspired. "I found that one of the things that really helped me this album was reading interesting articles, one of the most interesting articles I read inspired a song called 28 Thousand Days. And short stories are great to read too. The conversations we had while creating this album were some of the most inspiring I've ever had!"

8. The US political climate, Black Lives Matter, and environmental issues were big influences. "The world is in turmoil. There is a crisis of apathy. There's so much pain in our world we have become numb. One more black man shot, one more country rejecting refugees, one more famine. I refuse to become numb and apathetic. Yes my album talks about equality, climate change, justice and most of all LOVE which is still and has always been the answer. But everyone must do their part at this tipping point in history. Everyday do something about what irks you. Because if you do nothing you have chosen the side of the oppressor. That's why I created the We Are Here Movement so we can stand up to issues like these and help organizations get the attention they need to do their great work."

9. "In Common" says a lot about where she is in life. "I love the freshness of 'In Common,' how perfect it is for the summer and how it reminds that we're all messed up and working on it. It celebrates just being you. Whoever you are! Be individual, be bold. I love the subliminal things in the video. The negative space. The rawness. The simplicity."

10. While a lot of people find her music cathartic, when she's feeling sad and blue Alicia turns to Stevie Wonder. "I specifically listen to "As I Am." Or Fela Kuti! Fela pumps me up! Or something real bluesy like Coltrane... that's a major vibe."

Photography Paul Hampartsoumian

"In Common" is out now. Alicia Keys' sixth, as yet-untitled album is due this summer.


Text Hattie Collins

Alicia Keys
In Common