Alicia Keys finds her 'freedom' on tour
Since releasing her critically acclaimed debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” nearly nine years ago, Alicia Keys has shown no signs of slowing down. Over the years she has churned out chart-topping albums, dabbled in film and taken on philanthropic work by devoting time to Keep A Child Alive, a program for children and their families with HIV/AIDS in Africa.
The 12-time Grammy award winner’s fourth album, “The Element of Freedom,” debuted No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart -- appropriate given that she was named the R&B/hip hop artist of the decade in December by the magazine.
In support of the album, Keys has embarked on a tour that ends Saturday at Oakland’s Oracle Coliseum. On the eve of her show in Los Angeles at Staples Center Tuesday night (with Melanie Fiona and Robin Thicke as openers), Pop & Hiss spoke to Keys about the show, that highly anticipated video featuring Beyoncé, and her passionate “life-changing” charity work.
For those that have seen your previous tours, you’re heavy on storytelling. What did you want to create when you did the Freedom Tour?
There’s definitely a theme to this tour, and coming off of “The Element of Freedom” and calling this “The Freedom Tour,” it’s really a great theme. It’s a theme about liberation, about finding yourself, about finding your own way, about letting go of anything that may be holding you back, about self-love, about possibilities. It’s definitely themed along those lines. Although it’s a really heavily musical show and it’s really about the music first and foremost, that message comes through loud and clear, and that’s something that I really, really wanted to be a main part of the show so people not only leave with a musical experience and a visual experience, but an emotional experience.
Your fans have been patiently waiting for the video for “Put It in a Love Song.” When can they expect it?
Actually, that’s a great question. They’re going to be able to expect it right after my “Unthinkable” video. It’s kind of nice that I have such a great video, with such a great artist in the can and ready to rock and they’re going to be able to see the “Unthinkable” video first and then see “Put It in a Love Song.” But it probably won't come until closer to this summer.
Could you talk a little bit about your work with Keep a Child Alive, for those that aren’t familiar with the charity.
Keep a Child Alive is a big passion of mine, and I feel very blessed to be able to have work like that. What we do for anyone who doesn’t know is provide the medicine for children and families with AIDS, especially in places like Africa and India who aren’t able to afford it. I’m proud because we were able to start really early before antiretroviral medicines were available. Now, they’ve become a bit more easily accessible in places like this, but when we started it was really, really, really almost impossible to receive them unless you were very, very wealthy. Now that they’ve begun to create generic versions of these medicines, they’re a bit more affordable, so we’re able to provide those medicines. We’re able to provide nourishment to go along with the medicines, care in the form of clinics that we helped to build and scale up orphan care because that becomes a big problem once the parents have sometimes passed from the disease. There’s a large amount of children that are left without care, which is a tragedy of the epidemic.
I’m thrilled to say that we’ve been able to serve to date over 250,000 people, and I’m going back in June, which is right around the World Cup. I’ll perform for the World Cup and then I’ll also be able to visit the clinics and orphanages and families and people that we know and support there. We have a campaign called Text Alive where you text Alive to 90999, and you’re automatically entered into this contest where I’m going to choose five people to bring with me on my trip to Africa. I plan that that trip will change their lives as much as it changed mine.
What have been your favorite moments on the tour so far? Any specific highlights?
Yes, the tour’s going so great. I have to say this is my favorite tour I’ve done yet, period, and it should be like that because I feel like I’m getting more experience and just learning more of my comfort zone. I’ve definitely been able to find that in this show. Every show has its own special highlight, its own special moment, but I do have to say that New York City was definitely an incredible feeling because that’s where I live, that’s my hometown, that’s where I grew up, and so there’s a certain connection and feeling that I have when I come there. Then during the show we had Beyoncé come out and do “Put It in a Love Song” with me, and Jermaine (Paul, also opening for Keys at her L.A. show) came out and did “Diary” with me, and then Jay came out and did “Empire” with me, so it was extremely electric. The energy was crazy, and people just damn near knocked the building down.
Yes, I’m in the process of doing a whole documentary-style of capturing exactly what goes on, especially particularly for this tour. It’s so important to me because it just represents such a brand new time in my life, and it represents such a certain growth and a certain confidence that just has been really great to experience. I’m definitely capturing a lot of that in a very behind-the-scenes intimate way. Then I will also capture this tour for DVD as well, so yes. This show is one I’d really like people to be able to hold and have and own.
You’ll be in L.A. very soon. Are there any surprises that you may want to tease?
All you’ve got to know is that the whole show is one big surprise and something that you won't forget. It’s an incredible night that I feel leaves us all feeling on the next level, so looking forward to playing L.A. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
You really keep your personal life to yourself, but how do you balance that with performing? When you’re on stage, you are giving so much of yourself. How do you kind of find that balance between not giving too much or giving enough, but still have people feel like they know you other than just your music?
Well, that’s just natural. When we’re on the stage, we’re under one roof, and we’re all there for one reason which I feel is to have this amount of time to kind of release anything that’s going on in our world, that’s going on in our lives and just have an opportunity to feel good and find something we all have in common because music is a thing that really connects us all no matter where we are. The thing that’s amazing about music is it represents all people’s lives and different times in their lives. I have no idea sometimes what these songs represent to people and the memories they remember or the things they were able to overcome or those feelings and emotions that it gave them peace for, whatever the case that I’ve heard millions of stories of, and I love them. That’s what’s so amazing. They have their story, too, and they’re there to kind of share their story with me, so it’s really definitely like sort of give and take up on that stage, and you feel it. There’s a very, very obvious connection, and I love it.
What are your favorite songs to perform on the tour?
That’s hard. I love to perform all of the songs because they just come from different places and they mean different things, but I have to say it’s always incredible to -- “Fallin” is always incredible because that’s like the beginning of my whole career, and to see how it still affects people is crazy. “Ain’t Got You” is another amazing one to perform because I can just basically not sing a word. People will sing every single word to the song, and again, it means different things to different people. I actually really have a great time performing “Another Way to Die,” which is the song that me and Jack White did together. That’s a lot of fun. Of course “Empire,” it just shocks me all the time that no matter where I’ve played it people can't wait to hear it. It doesn’t matter that they’re not from New York. It’s about what it symbolizes, so it’s very hard to choose because all the songs in the show that I’ve chosen this time especially are really fun to play, and I can't even play all the songs.
Do you remember the first concert you ever attended?
Someone just asked me that question. The first concert I ever attended was Michael Jackson, and it was I think like the reunion tour or something because he had all his brothers with him, and it was like a big, huge deal. I remember I was really young, and I was with my mother, and there were all these ambulances everywhere, and I was like, “Mommy, who’s sick?” I didn’t understand the fact that just in a few hours like grown men would be fainting at this concert. It was just incredible to see that level of performance so young. That was a great first concert to go to. Michael Jackson I think has influenced every performer on the face of the Earth. What he really inspired me to do is my best, and I feel like that what he represented is a very quality and craftsmanship with his performance. He was one of the best performers of all time, and it was because he put in work, and he put in time, and he was creative, and he wanted to be the best. When I go up there and when I arrange my shows, that’s exactly the mind state that I have.
[Updated at 10:43 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said her album "The Element of Freedom" debuted No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, it debuted No. 1 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.]
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Alicia Keys with Robin Thicke and Melanie Fiona, at Staples Center; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $49.50-$125, not including surcharges.