Alicia Keys performs as part of MTV Crashes Manchester at Manchester Cathedral in Manchester, England. / Shirlaine Forrest / Redferns via Getty Images
With a husband (music producer Swizz Beatz), son (Egypt, 2) and non-stop schedule, Grammy winner Alicia Keys, 31, definitely lives up to the title of her CD Girl on Fire, on sale Nov. 27. Keys, who took up piano at age 7 and songwriting at 14, also acts, produces and directs. She even wrote a digital children’s book, The Journals of Mama Mae and LeeLee. Here, she pauses for a few funny, firm reflections.
How do you stay calm? I get freaked out if I can’t control things, but I have faith that they will be the way they’re meant to be. I also order from Insomnia Cookies. Last night, that helped a lot. They were fresh at 3 a.m., straight from the oven. Omigod! I deserve to eat whatever I want.
Are you ‘on fire’? That’s exactly the way I feel. There’s something interesting about screaming out ‘This is who I am!’ at the top of my lungs. It felt really necessary and important for me to say. I’m not backing down. I feel like a warrior. Many times in my life, I believed in myself as long as someone else concurred. Now I’m at the point where I don’t need anyone to concur.
What’s different? Egypt helped me even before he was born. I became much more conscious of how I was treating myself. What am I eating, drinking, listening to? Who am I around?
Any useful advice? After I gave birth, my auntie said, "You’ve got your big-girl panties on now." They are still on, baby.
Has motherhood changed your music? I think so. The core of the music comes from that same heart and same honest, soulful place, but I’ve been able to go deeper and access a clearer part — a place that’s way less filtered. I ask myself, "What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?"
Still singing about love, pain and heartbreak? This particular record is the story of a girl becoming on fire. So many different emotions come through: those vulnerable moments where you’re trying to find your way, those moments when you become aggressive, trying to claim your way, moments of extreme intimacy, almost like secrecy the way it comes across. We know there’s so much complexity to life. It’s never just cut and dried. I think all of that does come through on this record.
Anything left for the next album? I promise you I’m going to keep getting better. I know for a fact that this record is the best I’ve done yet. The next is going to knock this one down.
Who inspires you? I’m always attracted to women in their 50s and 60s. They’re so beautiful. There’s a regality about a woman who is living a powerful life. She is completely in her womanhood. She is more fiery.
What’s your relationship with your mom? She is serious, focused and smart-- the most incredible person I’ve ever met in my life. She didn’t let me just be flip-flop. She made me stand up to whatever it was I thought I wanted.
Did you like that or did you rebel? Of course I hated it. ‘C’mon! Give me a break!’ If you knew my mom, you’d listen to her too. (She laughs.) If I could be one-fourth the woman she is, I’d be incredible. Being a mom, my respect for her has grown. I can’t imagine her life at the time, having to connect all the dots, pay all the bills, figure out all the scenarios and worry about this girl. How can I keep her safe in this crazy city? I can’t even imagine how that must have stressed her out.
How did she keep you safe? She kept me busy. When you get bored, you start finding things to do.
Did you miss out on your teen years because of your career? My life was definitely escalated and maybe fast-forwarded a little, but that’s because of growing up in New York City. I had certain responsibilities. I was working toward something and dreaming of something. But I went to the prom.
What do you remember about being on The Cosby Show when you were 4? I remember it being really fun and being really tired. I also remember riding on Bill Cosby’s knee because he did this funny competition with all the kids who slept over at Rudy’s house. We were all trying to win. I was the one with really short hair. I kind of looked like a little boy.
How did you get the part? My mother is an actress, and she ended up being an extra for one of the ‘Cosby’ shows. Her best friend, who is my auntie, ended up also being cast as an extra. My mother is white, and my father is black. My auntie is black, so they made me be the child of my auntie. That’s how I first got in the mix.
You were in Smokin’ Aces, The Secret Life of Bees and The Nanny Diaries. Want to do more acting? I love it so much. As an expression, it’s one of my favorites. It’s shocking how much it affects me and how timely it is to whatever I’m personally going through. I can’t wait to do more. I’ve definitely been doing more on the producing side. Last year I produced my first Broadway play--Stick Fly--and I did the music for it.
What’s your most recent extravagant purchase? I’m notoriously conservative financially, and I’ve never been a crazy, wild spender. My husband buys me many extravagant things. He’s Mr. Fashion Extraordinaire. He just bought me the most gorgeous pair of Giuseppe Zanotti shoes that have these gems and jewels and crystals on them. I haven’t even worn them yet. They’re so spectacular that they need their own entrance.
You were born Alicia Augello-Cook. Keys is your stage name. Why does it suit you? "Keys" means so much to me. It connected because I play the piano, which has keys. I love how keys open doors. There’s so much endless possibility of what you can open and where you can go.