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Sun November 25, 2012
Music Interviews

Alicia Keys: How A 'Girl On Fire' Keeps From Burning Out

Originally published on Sun November 25, 2012 4:28 pm

Alicia Keys arrived on the national stage in 2001 with the song "Fallin'," which was all about a relationship on the verge of going up in flames. More than a decade later, after four No. 1 albums and 14 Grammy awards, Keys is the one burning up. Her new album is called Girl on Fire, and the title track, she says, captures the deep satisfaction she's feeling at this point in her life.

"I'm married now," Keys says. "I have a beautiful baby boy. I've been able to take control of my business and my life and what it is that I want to do creatively as a businesswoman. And it's just a great feeling to kind of just arrive in my own space."

Here, Keys speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about making Girl on Fire, collaborating with Frank Ocean and why she's writing fewer of her songs at home these days.


Interview Highlights

On stretching her vocal range for the title track

"It feels so good to sing in this really high space because it's almost like I'm screaming at the top of my lungs when I say, 'This girl is on fire.' It's like a declaration; it's a passion that's like, 'This is me.' And so when I was recording it, it felt perfect. I didn't have any feelings like it was too high or not. I just felt it was in that breaking spot in my voice that feels like the emotion that I wanted it to feel like. ... And then, I came around to have to do, like, 90-minute shows, and add that on top of all my other songs. And all of a sudden, I said, 'Whoa. This is kind of high.' "

On keeping a studio outside of her home

"When I was first starting, I used to have every single thing in my house: My studio setup was in my house, my piano was in my house. And I couldn't even barely watch TV without feeling like, why was I sitting there watching TV? I should be writing or doing something else. After a while I realized that it's really important to have some type of separation — that I have a place to go where I write and I create and that kind of thing. And then when I come home, I'm home, and I'm just able to be home and relax."

On the song "One Thing," co-written with Frank Ocean

"[The narrator is] reflecting on this relationship, and as the song progresses, you realize why she's on [a] train — because she actually waited for this man to come get her and he never came. He kept saying that he was going to leave, but she never thought he would. So now you end up understanding the depth of their relationship, as to how it has created this rift between them. It's a really beautiful story about the discovery of the one thing that we're all looking for — this one thing that was made for us, that's saving us. You'll take that over anything."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALLIN'")

ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) I keep on falling in and out of love with you...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This was Alicia Keys back in 2001. Her debut single "Fallin'" was all about a relationship on the verge of going up in flames. More than a decade later, and after four number one albums and 14 Grammy Awards, Alicia Keys is the one burning up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL ON FIRE")

KEYS: (Singing) This girl is on fire, this girl is on fire...

MARTIN: Alicia Keys' new album is called "Girl on Fire," and the title song captures the deep satisfaction she feels at this point in her life.

KEYS: I'm married now, I have a beautiful baby boy. I've been able to take control of my business and my life and really, you know, what it is that I want to do creatively as a businesswoman, and it's just a great feeling to kind of just arrive in my own space.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL ON FIRE")

KEYS: (Singing) Oh, got our head in the clouds and we're not coming down. This girl is on fire...

It feels so good to sing in this really high space because it's almost like I'm screaming at the top of my lungs when I say this girl is on fire. It's like a declaration, it's a passion. It's like this is me. And so when I was recording it, it felt perfect. I didn't have any feelings like it was too high or not. I just felt like it wasn't that breaking spot in my voice that feels like the emotion that I wanted it to feel like.

MARTIN: Like you're pushing it.

KEYS: Yes. 'Cause you're like this is me. And then I came around and had to do, like, some 90-minute shows. And add that on top of all my other songs and all of the sudden I said, whoa, this is kind of high.

MARTIN: The girl on fire needs to not burn out.

KEYS: Let's not burn out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL ON FIRE")

MARTIN: I want to talk to you a little bit about your creative process, and songwriting is such a big part of what you do. How does writing, songwriting happen for you? Do you carry around a little notebook?

KEYS: I do have a notebook that I do use, and sometimes I end up having, like, three or four notebooks. One's, like, for my journaling, the other's for my lyrics, the other's for, like, thoughts I have. One I have for, like, my baby. I was like, OK. Wait a minute. I got too many books here. So, yeah, I do have a notebook because I really prefer writing over, like, typing.

MARTIN: Old school.

KEYS: Yeah. It feels good. The pen to the paper and the sound and everything. And when I'm writing, I mean, sometimes I'm writing everyday. you know, when I'm really heavy into the record-making process, I'm definitely writing, you know, everyday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE THING")

KEYS: (Singing) What, where am I...

This song was actually written by myself and a great writer named Frank Ocean.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE THING")

KEYS: (Singing) What's life like on a train, nobody there knows your name. Has your decision changed? Do you wish that I came?

She's reflecting on reflecting on this relationship. And as the song progresses, you realize why she's on a train, because she actually waited for this man to come get her and he never came. And he kept saying that he was going to leave, but she never thought he would. So, now, you end up understanding the depth of their relationship as to how it's created this rift between them. So, it's a really beautiful story about kind of the discovery of the one thing that we're all looking for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE THING")

KEYS: (Singing) This one thing is made for us, won't stay with us, it ain't saving us. But I'll take one thing over everything, I'll take that thing over anybody. Baby...

MARTIN: When you build a song, especially when you're working with another person, how does that happen for you?

KEYS: I didn't use to feel so excited about writing or working with other people. Now, in this new space that I am, you know, I feel really open to the possibilities that come from it. It's actually really cool when you open yourself up to creative forces in one room. And so what came first for this song was these chords that I had played in my house and at some late hour. And I was playing. I really noticed how they felt and they went in and out from minor to major. And then we actually - myself and Frank Ocean and his partner, Melee, who also produces with him - was kind of in the studio just hanging out. And we didn't really know if we were going to write a song or not. We were just talking, and I played these chords. And I was like, you know, I'm just messing around with these. And from there that's kind of how it happened. And Melee picked up the guitar and the piano was there and we were just playing through it. And then this kind of falsetto part that's on the chorus kind of started to come out. And then Frank starts writing down what he's thinking. It's like, wow, we're here.

MARTIN: You said that before it wasn't something that you sought out, these kind of writing partnerships. What was unsettling about that dynamic for you?

KEYS: I just felt so uncomfortable. I felt like, you know, here's this person that maybe you don't even know that well, and you're just in a room with them and you've never barely been in a room with them before. And now you're supposed to expose all of these, you know, kind of private, intimate thoughts that you're having that - 'cause those are the thoughts that make you write a song. So, you know, and it felt uncomfortable. And it took me a long time to feel differently. But it's kind of a growing process.

MARTIN: I want to listen to another song. This one's called "101." Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "101")

KEYS: (Singing) I might as well as stand in front of a bullet. Close my eyes and kick the chair to the floor. It's like a speeding train is coming. I know you've crashed it 100 times before.

My favorite part of this album and writing for this album was like just opening up these spaces and these concepts and conversations that are just, like, maybe you don't often hear them in a song. And this one was really interesting. Written by myself an incredible young writer named Emily Sandy out of the U.K. And we were talking about kind of, like, this instance where a person who maybe you'd loved before, a person that you love, like they have had experiences before you, 100 times before you that have been that of which you would really not like to recall, or really not like to mention or talk about. And you still, the way you feel about them, would be willing to be the 101st time, that whatever it is happens happened.

And this feeling, that thought is so deep and true. And I think that conversation that we were having was really virtually about, you know, the hope that you can have for love, because that's really all that you have when you're falling in love, is a hope. You don't know. It could turn out all wrong. It could turn out totally, I mean, you have no idea. It could. You don't know. So, you know, but the thought that it could also be the best thing you ever experienced in your life is the thing that makes us trust. So, I think this song right here, it's like has so many interesting, beautiful meanings and places that I think it would take a listener and their own experience in their own life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "101")

KEYS: (Singing) Then there's me, could I be the one. And baby, there's me, make you undone. Ooh, darling, there's me, no use, no use in pretending. Oh, there's me, 101.

MARTIN: Alicia Keys. Her new album is called "Girl on Fire." Alicia, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure.

KEYS: This is great. I'm so glad to talk to you too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

KEYS: (Singing) Feels kind of crazy...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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