An unseasonal gust of wind greets Alicia Keys as she steps out of a doorway behind a Beverly Hills hotel on a late October afternoon. Decked out in a black leather vest and black leggings brightly accented by turquoise suede knee-high boo a hint of matching eyeliner, the Grammy Award-winning singer is surprised by the chilly blast before she ducks into a waiting black sport utility vehicle. Commenting on the wind's force, she laughs when it's suggested the quick dust-up is a forecast of the whirlwind activity cranking up on behalf of her latest studio album, The Element of Freedom.
On this particular afternoon, the singer/songwriter/producer/musician was being whisked off to CBS Studios to perform her second single, Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart, for an episode of Dancing With the Stars that will air November 17. From there, she hopped on the freeway -- in rush hour traffic -- to neighboring Long Beach, California, where she spoke at California first lady Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference and closed the event with a rendition of her hit Superwoman.
Superwoman indeed. That same night Keys boarded a plane home to New York to prepare for her and Jay-Z's rocking Yankee Stadium performance of Empire State of Mind during Game 2 of the World Series. Just two weeks prior, Keys hosted her sixth annual Black Ball at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, where among the 1,000 guests were Chris Martin, John Mayer and David Bowie. The benefit was for the nonprofit AIDS organization the singer co-founded, Keep a Child Alive, which helps families in Africa and India -- and it raised $2.4 million. Between all this, the indefatigable artist launched a new company, AK Worldwide -- prepping a new Web site and jewelry line as part of that endeavor -- and recorded additional music for The Element of Freedom, her fifth album.
Originally slated for December 1 (World AIDS Day), the MBK Entertainment/J Records project is now set for worldwide release December 15.
Using more viral marketing this time, J Records alerted fans to the project's lost-love lead single, Doesn't Mean Anything, through announcements on Live With Regis and Kelly, MTV, BET and various blogs including PerezHilton.com. Doesn't is No. 14 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. On its heels is Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart. Keys performed both songs during her The Element of Freedom: The Lecture & Performance Series October 21 at New York University's Skirball Center.
Upcoming performances by the singer include the American Music Awards (November 22), the Today show's outdoor concert series (November 24), the U.K. program The X Factor (November 29), the Christmas at Rockefeller Center special (airing December 2), a headlining stint at the 2009 Cayman Jazz Festival (December 3-5), Late Show With David Letterman (December 14) and The View (December 16).
When Billboard caught up with Keys again in early November, the tireless superwoman was finally taking a small respite for a few days before the promotional juggernaut kicks into gear. Music is my first love, she says. But what drives me is the excitement and challenge of trying new things, stretching myself creatively on as many different levels as possible.
Billboard: Why did you decide to go back into the studio to record more songs?
Alicia Keys: It was just a natural progression. While we were mixing the last couple of songs, it felt like we would have been rushing for no reason to put the finishing touches on songs that deserved one more week or so to do properly. So we gently moved the album back.
Billboard: You've now released two singles, Doesn't Mean Anything and Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart. What other sonic hints can you share about the new album?
Keys: This album is really just about growth and freedom. Sonically, the sound is grand and massive. It feels emotional and vulnerable but there's also a kind of freedom in it. I can't quite find a better word than freedom to really describe it. Even though every song has touches of different textures and sounds, the overall (sense of) freedom is the thing that grounds it. It's definitely the theme of where I am in my life.
Another song example is the track Love Is Blind. Some people say the piano on it sounds like something from Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley. We've been using a lot of different keyboard sounds on this album. This particular song uses the CP 70 keyboard. It looks just like a piano but has a different tone; more of an electric sound. The song has a darker tone to it and the beats get real heavy. But then the vocals are very soulful and bluesy.
Billboard: What triggered this whole freedom feeling?
Keys: The process began with As I Am. I was trying to find the way to totally be myself and what that meant; figuring out what choices I wanted to make and not make in order to truly honor myself. That was the beginning of learning how to do that. And now it's culminated into The Element of Freedom: the ability to have nothing holding you back; to be totally brave enough to be completely yourself in all of its glory.
Billboard: You worked with Whitney Houston on her current single, Million Dollar Bill. Are there any other outside projects on your plate now?
Keys: Whitney is an artist who inspired me from (the time I was) a little girl. Fast-forwarding to now and being able to work with her to help create this song that took off was fun. We had a lot of laughs; it was like being with a long-lost friend. Although I'm staying focused now on my project, I definitely see myself working with more artists as time goes by and moving more into the writer/producer lane. It's another interesting and fun way to express my thoughts, ideas and feelings in another style.
Billboard: Do you also envision having your own label?
Keys: I don't really have a desire to do my own label, to be honest with you. It's like a pain in the ass (laughs), because you've got to deal with so much irrelevant stuff. To do like me times six or seven other people, I don't know. I might totally lose it. I have more of a desire to bring talented people to the forefront and help support them. That's why I see myself doing more of the writer/producer thing. But not necessarily running a label because labels are dying. It's a whole different world.
Billboard: You could feel the fun you were having performing Empire State of Mind with Jay-Z during the World Series. What jazzes you about being onstage?
Keys: One of my favorite things is experiencing the spontaneous moment that only happens once. No matter how many times you perform, you never have the same moment twice. And I love that. I love the magic of that one moment in that one place shared only by myself and all the people who attended that night. It's our special connection. There's nothing like the energy, communication and unity that happens through music. Even if you don't speak the same language, you understand music.
Billboard: If you weren't in music, what would you be doing?
Keys: I definitely love people and being a part of people's lives. I guess I'd be of service to people in some way. Still on my list of things I want to accomplish is creating charter schools.
Billboard: Looking back on your career, has the journey been what you thought it would be?
Keys: This industry is difficult to break into. Like anything you want to do, you have to love it and be completely focused on it. Nothing can divert or distract you. It's not going to happen quick, it's not going to be real easy. It's not going to be the answer to all your problems or like some Cinderella story. There's no such thing.
I look back and see where I started from and, in my eyes, I'm just starting. Honestly, all of it is one big surprise. The many accomplishments that I've been able to be a part of ... I feel extremely humble, grateful and excited to continue on that path. It's all one big wow.