Alicia Keys heads out this week for her first major tour since acquiring two new titles: global creative director for BlackBerry, and mother. During a recent interview, the pop piano diva from Hell’s Kitchen was eager to talk about both.
Unlike Adele, who has famously refused to reveal even the name of her baby son, Keys is only too happy to discuss little Egypt and why she chose that name (at a difficult point in her life, she took a soul-searching and empowering trip to Egypt). The two-year-old even appears on her latest album, Girl on Fire. “I love you. Bye-bye,” he says in irresistibly cute toddler-speak at the end of When It’s All Over, interacting with his megastar mommy, who radiates genuine delight on the track.
It started out as “a straight fool-around in the studio,” Keys explains. Fascinated with the microphone, Egypt began speaking into it, and she encouraged him by asking questions.
“[We had] this cute little exchange and all of a sudden, the song took on this whole new meaning for me,” says Keys, 32. “And it really was about, like, that true, true love and that feeling like at least if I’ve got that, I’ve got it all.”
If Keys doesn’t have it all, she has surely come close. She burst onto the scene in 2001 with Songs in A Minor, which went multi-platinum. With subsequent hits such as No One and Empire State of Mind (with Jay-Z), Keys has sold millions of records and picked up 14 Grammy Awards.
But life changed dramatically in 2010 as she parted ways with her long-time manager, married music producer Swizz Beatz, and gave birth to their son. In many ways, Keys grew up. Her new album, which opens with an adagio by the classically trained pianist, followed by the autobiographical Brand New Woman, reflects that personal growth, she says.
“It’s just an incredible arrival, and I have to say I love it more than anything. I love being able to kind of stand so tall and stick my chest out so far and just be like, ‘I know what I feel now, I know who I am now, I know what I want now, I know what I don’t want now. And nobody can convince me otherwise.’ And that didn’t happen at first,” she says. “You’re really finding your way. You’re a little wobbly. I feel so much stronger now.”
Asked what it is she knows she doesn’t want, she answers: “I don’t want bad energy around me. I don’t want people that I have to pretend around. I don’t want to be only thinking about tomorrow; I want to be living for today, you know? I don’t want to waste time and I don’t want to lose time either.”
Girl on Fire – her fifth studio album – was a highly collaborative effort. Keys wrote with the likes of Frank Ocean, John Legend and Maxwell, recorded with Bruno Mars and Nicki Minaj, and worked with various producers, including Dr. Dre, Babyface and her husband.
“Even just a couple of years ago, the thought of me collaborating with another person I didn’t know was like terror, it was horrific to me,” Keys says. “But now, in a place of more openness … I loved the idea of collaborating with new people.”
“It really was a cool process,” she adds, “because I was able to do things and create sounds and styles and moments that I probably never would have before, because maybe I was too closed up.”
Keys, of course, is also rocking a new corporate collaboration these days.
In a slightly strange songstress-meets-smartphone executive moment at the BlackBerry 10 launch in January, Keys was introduced as the company’s new global creative director by CEO Thorsten Heins. She had broken up with her BlackBerry some time back for something that had a little more bling, she confessed onstage, and started to play the field. But then BlackBerry called and “now we’re exclusively dating again,” she declared. But a couple of weeks later, a tweet (it was a Drake lyric) from her account appeared to be sent from her iPhone. Oops. Playing the field again? No, no. She was hacked, she says.
“I can’t even believe it,” says Keys, who calls the incident very frustrating. “I’m like, ‘How could that have even happened?’ I don’t know. It’s ridiculous. I have been hacked before. It’s a really awful feeling … and yes, that is exactly how it happened. That’s not even my style of writing; I don’t even write like that.”
Beyond the controversial tweet, smartphoners are dying to know what Keys’s new job will entail. What exactly does a pop star do as global creative director for a Canadian tech giant at its make-or-break moment?
“It means that there’s a lot of hands-on work in regards to helping to identify the places that the company can continue to grow on a creative level, on an entertainment level, in regards to licensing different films, music, in regards to making the experience, the actual user experience, something that’s unique and one of a kind, solely for BlackBerry,” she says. “And creating an environment that really merges the two worlds, that takes their very strong business world and moves them into also having the ability to really touch on the creative entertainment world too, so that they become the all-in-one phone; and that’s the goal.
“So that actually requires a lot of new relationships on their end that I’ve been able to build over the years, and us working together on those things is really exciting.”
The response is a little difficult to decode, but there’s no time to follow up when you’ve got a superstar on the line, promoting her Set the World on Fire tour, which launched Thursday in Seattle and makes its first Canadian stop tonight in Vancouver. She is able to offer more clarity on the topic of heading out on the road with Egypt, who will have his own little bunk on the bus, and for whom each venue will be equipped with a playroom.
“I think that [it’s] going to be more of a fuller experience,” she says. “I’m going to really want to … do something special with him so he can remember the city. And me, I’m going to remember the city, I think, in a different way too.”
Alicia Keys plays Rogers Arena in Vancouver March 8, Toronto’s Air Canada Centre April 2 and the Bell Centre in Montreal April 3.