We met singer and actress Alicia Keys after her performance at the NBC “Today” show recently.
Tell us about your new album.
My new album is “Element of Freedom.” It’s one of my favorite albums so far. I love to feel like that. I feel that every album that I do, I want to be better than the last album. So this one is a lot of different songs. All something for people to be able to listen from beginning to end. And I called it “Element of Freedom” because there are no limits on the music. There’s nothing that could stop us from all the ways that we could be who we want to be. So I love to always think about that, and I love to put that in the music.
How did you develop your love for music?
I think by just being around music and just naturally. You know how you listen to the radio and you listen, and you buy different CDs, and you just love how it sounds? And it always made me feel really good. I always loved to perform. Even though the first time I performed, I was really nervous and very scared, after I did it I felt really good, and I love the way music makes me feel. And so I found that when I needed to express myself, I wasn’t always so good at talking, but I was always good at writing. I could write a letter or I could write a note, or I could write words on a page, and it would make me feel better.
How do you think you matured as an artist?
Good question! I definitely matured as an artist just because with time, you just learn more. It’s just natural with all of us. Every day, you learn a little more, you get a little better, and so I definitely matured because when I first started, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go, how to be or what was the right thing or the wrong thing, and now I understand a little bit more. So as an artist, I feel I’m a little bit more confident, and I have a better understanding of myself, a better understanding of how to put the music together, how to do the whole process because it’s more than even just making the music. So I feel a little more confident about it.
What forced you to never give up on your dreams?
Because I’m really, really determined, and I made a decision really early in life that I was not going to listen to negative things people say. Not my friends, not my family, not people I didn’t know, not strangers, no one. . . . There’s nothing that I can’t do. And so for me, that’s been a really strong asset: to be able to just stay focused and never get deterred. Because a lot of times, even our friends, they don’t mean to deter us, but they’ll say something and make you feel uncomfortable about something that you feel, and you feel like maybe I can’t do that, or maybe I shouldn’t wear that, or maybe I shouldn’t go there, maybe I shouldn’t try that.
You acted in “The Nanny Diaries” and “Smokin’ Aces.” Was it hard for you, and did you take any acting classes?
I acted in three films: “Smokin’ Aces,” “Nanny Diaries” and “Secret Life of Bees.” I did take classes. I like to take classes for anything that I’m doing to become better at it. I think it’s really important. Like schooling and being the best that you can requires time and focus, and you have to put time into it. It’s really important to me because I want to be the best when I do it. I want people to say she did a really good job. And so I love it, though, because it’s like becoming a whole other person. And with all of those films, I was able to like change my hair, change my clothes, and in the last film it was based on the 1960s, so imagining being alive in the ’60s as a woman in the South . . . was just incredible. I changed my accent. It was really, really fun.
How did your charity Keep A Child Alive affected you personally and as a recording artist?
Keep A Child Alive has definitely affected me personally. It’s something I think about all the time and I like to bring into the world of music as well. Because I think they go together. Things that are happening in the world and things I’m able to reach people through music. I think that they should go together. So when I first went to Africa, I met so many amazing people, just like you, just like me. They were just so smart and intelligent and beautiful, and I learned about the fact that in Africa, people aren’t able to get the medicine that helps to keep you alive when you have AIDS. So it made me upset because I felt like if the medicine is available and you can get it, how come everyone can’t have it. It was because it was too expensive. That’s why certain people can’t afford it. I just felt it was so unfair. So it made me want to come home and do something about that. So I started the organization Keep A Child Alive with a wonderful lady named Lee Blake, and now everyday I feel so positive and so wonderful that I’m able to have a whole family of people all around the world and that we’re able to really work together to help to make this medicine available — and not only do we make medicine available, but we do pediatric wings in hospitals. We built orphanages. We built clinics in places that don’t have so they could really serve people. You could go to a hospital, get treated, get food and have your questions answered. You can have legal guidance, and so it’s been really amazing to be able to be a part of over 250,000 lives in that way. So it makes me have a more meaningful life.
You have two collaborations on your new album with Beyoncé and Drake. How did that exactly come about?
Well, the first one with Beyoncé is called “Put It In A Love Song,” and it’s really exciting because that’s one of my friends, and we’ve known each other a long time. And she’s incredible, and so it’s always been kind of a question if we would do a record together and work together. And so to be able to get together and do it this time and] it really happens. . . When it’s meant to happen, it happens, because we both travel a lot, and she was traveling. She was touring. I was working on my album. She came back to New York, and I said, ‘I want you to hear this song. I think you’re going to love it. It’s a perfect representation of the both of us.’ And she heard it over the phone, and she loved it. There was] one day only that we could get together in New York. And so we both got together and worked on it and put it together and had fun, and now the song is on the album, and I’m very excited about it. And with Drake, I wanted to reach out and try something and see how we could get together and what we could come up with. So we all got into one room, and it kind of just started with me at the piano, and we all started writing ideas, and words and out came the song “Unthinkable,” and I’m really proud of both of them. And ’ whenever it comes together, you never quite know how it’s going to work. But it’s great when it works out well.