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Interview: Alicia Keys

Michael Patrick Welch talks to the Girl on Fire, who comes to the New Orleans Arena March 21



After graduating as the valedictorian of her New York performing arts high school at the age of 16 and studying music at Columbia University, singer/songwriter Alicia Keys was mentored by record industry legend Clive Davis. Since the release of her 2001 debut album Songs in A Minor, which featured the hit "Fallin'," Keys has won 14 Grammys and sold more than 30 million records, in the process becoming the first woman to have three albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Also, the now-32-year-old Keys accomplished all this not with dancing and stage shows, but sitting behind a piano.

  Keys' sixth album (counting an Unplugged live record), 2012's Girl on Fire, was inspired partly by the birth of her first child in 2010. Keys and her hip-hop producer husband Swizz Beatz named their son Egypt, after a life-changing trip Keys took to that country.

  "I now feel like I am writing from a place of deeper understanding," Keys says. "You can't understand emotions until you live them. I think I am open more now. ... Now it is easier for me to make choices, whereas before I would bounce around for days and days wondering, 'I dunno, should I go for this thing? Or do that thing?' Now those decisions are easier because I know they're so much more important. I know what's most important to me now."

  Despite Keys' reportedly happier family life, Girl On Fire is rife with struggle and, seemingly, heartbreak. "The reason why there's that type of song on there is there's been a huge growth process for me," Keys says. "The snake has shed its skin and gotten bigger, and with that shedding comes a lot of emotion."

  Like Keys' other albums, Girl on Fire opens with a piano instrumental, "De Novo Adagio," which segues into the sparse, echo-drenched single, "Brand New Me." Girl on Fire progresses to bigger, grander songs, such as the title cut, and the huge drums and sawtooth Moog of "When It's All Over."

  Previously, Keys hasn't included many collaborative tracks on her albums, but Girl on Fire includes songwriting and singing by British artist Emeli Sande and controversial rap group Odd Future's resident R&B star and New Orleans native Frank Ocean. Sultry crooner Maxwell decorates the hand-clapping slow jam "Fire We Make," and producers Dr. Dre and Swizz Beatz team up for the militaristic snare drums of "New Day."

  Psychedelic echos and reverb reminiscent of dub reggae hint at the album's origins in a studio in Jamaica. "[Girl on Fire] was all about coming from a place of simplicity," Keys says. "A lot of the first things we did were so simple, like a piano and maybe a Moog sound and vocals. That allowed me to really hear the song first without cluttering it. This whole record — even the biggest song with big huge drums — if you break it down it's only four instruments in each song. This space of simplicity helped me get my ideas out — the less I put in the song, the bigger it became. And because of that simplicity, you can now hear that delay, which you probably couldn't hear before because there was so much in the way."

  Her first album was famously in A minor, but this is a new Keys.

  "This new album is in many keys," she says. "Girl on Fire is in the key of coming into my own."

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