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Alicia Keys Shares Lessons Learned from “The Diary of Alicia Keys”

Alicia Keys

I’m reflecting back to “The Diary of Alicia Keys”. I’m reflecting back to this being my second offering to the world. There was so much that changed for me. There was so much that was different than it had ever been before in my life. Obviously a girl born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen in Harlem, never had travelled like that. You don’t travel like that. Where do you go? You go to Jersey. Maybe you’re going to get to Connecticut. There’s not really a tonne of places that I had gone at the time, but thanks to the Songs in A Minor. I travelled the whole world.

Here I was kind of coming back. I remember things like washing my dishes, doing my laundry, going shopping.

On ‘Nobody Not Really’ being the first song she started to work on and it being the last song on the album…

I remember that moment so vividly. I was coming from whatever airport, because I was coming from whatever airport, getting into whatever car. There was a boy, a boy. He was selling candy. I was like, “Yeah, I’ll buy the candy.” You know what I mean? He was asking me if I would buy some candy. Then I was like, “Yeah, I’ll buy the candy from you.” I started asking him about himself. “What’s your name? Where are you from? Where’d you grow up?” I just asked him all these questions. His energy and his vibe at the time, I wonder if he remembers this the way that I remember this, but his energy and a vibe at the time, I could tell that things weren’t the easiest for him. He had been through a lot.

I also remember just feeling like who was asking him anything about his life? Who was asking him what he had experienced or caring about what he might be losing sleep over or scared about or anything like that? I remember leaving that moment with that young man, and that’s what made me write Nobody Not Really. The first line is, “Who really cares when I talk, what I think, what I feel? Nobody, not really.”

That was just what I felt, and even for myself, people care about what benefits them, but a lot of times people aren’t really actually interested in what you are really going through.

On Clive Davis…

Listen, I learned a lot from him. I’ve learned a lot from him and I really appreciate … He said to me one time, he interviewed me and he said to me that he always approaches everything with how can I, he’s talking, how can I ensure the win? He’s making sure that everything he puts his hand on is going to win. Every single thing. He’s going to make sure every dot is … Everyone one is dot, every T is crossed. He’s going to make sure that every … I learned a lot from when he said that because I think a lot of the times as a human, definitely as an artist, a lot of times we are just reacting to what’s happening to us as opposed to ensuring that whatever is coming our way is by design.

On what happened after she won at her first Grammys…

We were so shocked that I don’t even feel like we celebrated like that. I remember after the Grammys, that first Grammys, I remember we all just went home. I remember I sat in my hotel room. I was just like … Because it just felt like that. What are you supposed to do? It’s shock. It’s shocking. It’s literally shocking. I don’t know that we celebrated as much as maybe we should have even because I think I learned how to celebrate myself more way later. Way later, I started to celebrate, and that was more …

On her husband Swizz Beatz teaching her to celebrate herself more…

Swizz taught me that. He definitely taught me that. You know, he’s right. You do have to have take a moment to give thanks and be grateful. And enjoy the times that you have to enjoy because it’s rare that you get those moments.

On the difference between her first two albums ‘Songs in A Minor’ and ‘The Diary of Alicia Keys’…

Man, so much was different between that first one and that second one between, ‘Songs in A Minor’ and ‘Diary of Alicia Keys’. The second one, I was just starting to discover who else I could be beyond what I thought that I already was. I wasn’t ready to really be fully that person because it was new. If you even notice down to the details, it was the first time I… The Songs in A Minor, my hair was all braided. In Diary, my hair was half braided. Again, that was just me even first experimenting with what does it feel like when I change this? People knew me so specifically for cornrows.

It was a big, big thing. I spent hours and hours in my day braiding my hair. It was like a special ritual. You know what I mean? To become who I already was, but this kind of presented version of myself. Then I started to undo that, and in a lot of ways I was undoing what I thought that I was and discovering who I was becoming.

On classical music and her classical training especially when she was younger in her career…

It’s a pain in the ass. It just is. I know. I feel it is, but there was also like, yes, the action of practice, practicing  anything, a practice that you’re dedicating yourself to and having to be dedicated to in order to find momentum in… Is definitely highs and lows. You have the joy of accomplishing something that you never thought you could at the beginning. The beginning when I would open these pieces or try to play them, I was so scared of them. I was terrified of them. You have to see the black and white notes on the page, and they look endless. There’s 16, 18, 25 pages of music that you’re needing to get through in order to complete this entire suite or this opus. Or whatever it might be, or these movements. At first I’d be terrified, but as you find yourself pushing yourself through one measure at a time, I’m going to learn these two measures. And I’m going to learn these next two measures, and then I’m going to put them together.

On the song “Heartburn” and working with Timbaland…

I cannot believe this, but I’ve really only made one record with Timbaland. But Heartburn is such a special energy. It really does capture the soulfulness of Timbaland. I’ve always loved Timbaland’s songs, and I think that there’s such a frenetic energy that he captures in even the most soulful ways. It just doesn’t make sense. Today, Swiss will be on the phone with Tim and be like, “Yo, listen to this.” And Tim will be in the studio doing something crazy. I think just being in that space with him and being able to create and taking that moment, it was so simple. It was just-

On keeping the momentum from her first album and bringing that energy into ‘Diary’…

I definitely saw my own growth between ‘Songs in A Minor’ and ‘Diary’ vocally. Vocally, because I was the first time that I was toured so extensively, and the first time that I was able to really understand what it takes. Probably the first time I was able to watch myself and say, “Ooh, we got to be tighter with this or better with that, or.” You don’t get to see that if you’ve never done it before. And so I really grew a lot from that experience, and I saw myself really growing. And part of what I think is one of my own writer techniques is that the song is always going to be a little bit out of reach.

And ‘Diary’ was an anomaly. It was definitely writing itself on the ‘Songs In A Minor’ tour. And I would sit down every day and I would be like… And I knew it came naturally. And I couldn’t write it for the whole time, I couldn’t write it. The chorus were there and I knew they were so beautiful, but I didn’t know what they wanted to say.

On “You Don’t Know My Name” and working with a young Kanye West…

It’s crazy, this record and I love this song so much. And I love how people have loved this song so much, even to the point where all over TikTok, you’ll see people reenacting the entire talking part of the record. It’s incredible. But working with Kanye at that time, he was a baby. We were both definitely babies. I’m still a baby. Exactly.But at that moment, we just were just all passion and all love and it was so cool to be able to experience that moment where we were both just finding out who we were. And so You Don’t Know My Name, which definitely was that vibe, I’ll never forget that day in the studio with him. That was the first time

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