Keys to the world

20:59, Nov 24 2013
Alicia Keys

It's one of those songs that reaches inside you to a place where only music touches. Alicia Keys singing Empire State of Mind always provides an exquisite, tiny moment where your eyes close without thinking, to soak in the beauty of it.

You don't need to count her Grammy trophies (14) and album sales (more than 30 million) in such a moment, because Keys and her ability to connect is contained in just one perfect line: ''Neew Yoooork''.

It's no different to so many of her other soulful tracks, those from her smash-hit debut album Songs in A Minor through to her current release Girl on Fire, which will form the basis of her tour to Australia and New Zealand, supported by singer John Legend.

But Keys, who has been considered a musical prodigy since her childhood, says her latest release shows a different side to her, one that is more personally assured. Because for all her industry success, Keys admits she has long been a people pleaser - and no doubt a bit of workaholic - something which has shifted not only with age but because of the arrival of her son, Egypt, who is now three.

''I think my life has definitely changed in many different ways and naturally I think confidence has come with experience and getting comfortable in your own skin. You know realising, 'OK, here's who I am and here's who I'm not'. I think that does come from experience,'' Key says.

''But I have to say there's been a huge part of growth that has naturally come from motherhood - it just gives you this instant perspective that changes all things and I never had a reason to have that kind of perspective before. It definitely has given me a certain groundedness, a life balance. It's probably all of our struggle, but it's always been my biggest struggle - life balance - I felt like I was in this kind of habit of always wanting to please everybody, you know, do everything for everyone else,'' she says.


''Now, it's because it's right for me, it's right for my son, it's right for my family first, then we can talk about whether it's right for whatever else follows. So it gives you a perspective that makes you be calmer, I think.''

Keys says she also feels braver now, musically. She opened up the process of collaboration for Girl on Fire - not only working with artists such Krucial (a longtime collaborator) but others including Bruno Mars, Babyface, Legend, Jamie Smith from the xx, Frank Ocean and songwriter Emeli Sande.

''It's really cool because a lot of times when you collaborate with people you don't have a clue about how it's going to go and that's actually really nerve wracking,'' Keys says, with a laugh.

''It's much more comfortable to work with people you've worked with before because you have a comfort zone there, you're protected. But [with this] there's always the possibility it's not going to go well. It's a little bit of paranoia that you feel, because in order to create good music you have to be comfortable. You can't be uncomfortable and create good music, so it's a bit of a juggle, but when you do push yourself and go to a place you never would have before, there's also a really great reward there too.''

It's hard not to wonder how much fame has changed Keys.

She grew up in Hell's Kitchen in New York but, after years of music and dance training, she had already reached dizzying heights of fame at 19, when Songs in A Minor was released.

She says that at 32 she is still the same person on the inside.

''You know, honestly, who I am, my soul, the spirit of who I am, the core of myself I don't think has changed. I don't think that person has changed,'' Keys says.

''I've definitely learnt a hell of a lot, been shown a ton of things, in faster succession maybe than most people - then maybe not, everyone has their own experiences so not to compare - but I think it hasn't changed the soul of who I am and I'm very proud of that.''

She says her main goal, particularly while touring, has never changed. And that is to simply connect in a real way.

''My biggest hope and dream is to always connect with people - that's the dream, that's the desire - and I really love this show a lot,'' Keys says, of her Set the World on Fire tour.

''I feel it's one of my best shows I've ever done, I love the way it flows, I love that it's musical, it's visual, emotional, all the things I want it to be. And I really find that the way that it's gone, in the places I've performed, there's a real connection between me and the audience.

''So that's what I hope will happen when I come [Down Under]. And I really love this area of the world. Obviously, since it's not very close to where I live, I don't get to come as much as I wish I could, but every time I come, the people are incredible, it's obviously very beautiful and I just really love to be able to connect again. I'm really looking forward to it.''

She says having Legend on the bill during her visit to Australia and New Zealand will mean a lot to music fans. ''I can't wait for the show, it is really going to be very special, the fact that me and John are doing it together, I'm even more excited about it ... it's going to be totally worth the wait,'' Keys says.

She remains as enthusiastic as ever about being on stage, saying she has come to relish the pure freedom in it. ''Oh man, when I sing, that's what it's all about. I think I'm realising that more and more and more and more every single day. The feeling I get when I'm singing on stage or the feeling I get when I'm performing music, in any way that is, it's like the ultimate freedom, the ultimate power, the ultimate 'goody good','' she says, with a low chuckle. ''I feel happy, I feel present. And that is definitely the most beautiful thing.''

You get the sense though, amid all the excitement and hype surrounding her visit, there's one tiny person who will be making it particularly special. Keys says her young son will be with her during her tour. ''Most likely Egypt will be with me ... and that's what makes it even better actually, to be able to experience the country, the people, the culture, the places and experience it with him. It's taking it to the next level.''

Alicia Keys Set the World on Fire Tour with special guest John Legend, Auckland Vector Arean, December 19. 

Sydney Morning Herald