February 7, 2002


Last summer, Alicia Keys surprised everyone when her debut album entered
Billboard magazine's pop albums chart at No. 1 and sold 236,000 copies in its first
week, even though the young singer-songwriter was virtually unknown to much of
America. Since then, the 21-year-old New Yorker has been everywhere, gracing
countless magazine covers, appearing on numerous high-profile television gigs and
garnering six Grammy Award nominations.

Among music industry insiders, credit for these accomplishments has been evenly
divided between Keys, a piano prodigy who grew up in Harlem, attended
Manhattan's Performance Arts High School and walked away from a scholarship
to Columbia University to concentrate on her music, and former Arista and
Columbia Records head Clive Davis, a music industry veteran who used all of his
considerable muscle to make Keys the first star on his new label, J Records.

I spoke to Keys while she was in New York, preparing for the latest leg of her
tour, which brings her to Chicago for shows tonight and Friday night at the Arie
Crown Theater. Appropriately enough, our interview was delayed for 20 minutes
so that she could take an unexpected call from Davis.

Q. So what did Clive want?

A. [Laughs.] Oh, nothing. We were just talking about all the things coming up,
exchanging different ideas, making sure it's gonna be riiiight!

Q. Your debut album, "Songs in A Minor," was three years in the making, but
despite the wait, the response must be gratifying. Can you imagine your
career without Clive Davis at this point, or is that unthinkable?

A. It does appear that you're led in a certain direction for a reason, and that it was
all meant to happen in this way. I'm sure it would still be happening without him,
because that's the type of determination that I have--that no matter what, I would
always be putting my all into it. But I do believe that when things are lined up
properly, and you get with people who are on the same page as you, as Mr. Davis
is, it just really makes it magical.

Q. Do you think you've bene-fitted from Davis really needing to put J Records
on the map?

A. I think there was so much energy and determination going in the same direction,
of me really wanting to prove in my own way that I had what it took to be all I
wanted to be, and of him wanting to prove that he had what it took to continue
doing what he's always done, that it was just the perfect timing.

Q. I opened my mailbox today, and there you were on the cover of yet
another magazine. There's been a tremendous buzz, but do you worry that
there might be a backlash where people just get tired of you?

A. I hear you! It's something I'm absolutely conscious of because I know how I
feel when it's happened to me with an artist that I really, really love so much, and
then all the sudden it's like, "All right, already!" At the same time, I try to always do
what feels right to me, and if it doesn't feel right, I don't do it. I can't let other
people's opinions determine the moves that I make. I just try to keep focused.

Q. As a critic, I think one of the most encouraging trends in recent years has
been the move back to real instrumentation and sweaty grooves, whether you
call it "natural R&B" or "neo-soul" or whatever. Do you feel a kinship with
people like Jill Scott, Angie Stone or Macy Gray?

A. I think it's wonderful, with those artists that you named plus many
more--India.Arie, Lauryn Hill, these are people that I truly look up to. I admire
them for what they do and the time and the effort and the heart that they put into it,
and I'm very happy to be a part of it.

Q. Do you feel any competition?

A. No, I don't really believe in that. I feel that everybody has their own faith and
place and their own individuality that makes them have their own niche. One thing I
have to say about all those people that you mentioned, although they have many
similarities in the sense of going out with bands or live music or writing and
producing their own material, you still can separate each one.

Q. A lot of critics have said that what sets your material apart is more of a
hip-hop consciousness. Do you think that's valid?

A. Definitely. I grew up straight in the heart of all that, with what I was cultivating in
New York City, and one of my biggest influences is hip-hop. In my subconscious,
it's always there.

Q. How do you square the Beethoven and the hip-hop? When I saw you at the
Chicago Theatre at a WGCI show last September, the classical piano
interlude didn't seem to mix that well with your short MC, who, quite frankly,
really annoyed me and distracted from what you were doing.

A. I understand what you're saying! [Laughs.] It's all a matter of personal taste, and
I've had different people say different things: You either love him or hate him, that's
kind of the vibe that goes on. But when I did those radio shows, that was a
different scheme, and if you saw me now, you would see how the evolution has
definitely taken place. It's just a feeling, and you go with the moment and the
feeling. I do appreciate your honesty, though. [Laughs.]

Q. How do you deal with the burden of headlining a room as big as the Arie
Crown on what is still essentially your first tour?

A. Let me tell you how much fun I have onstage and how I feel no pressure every
night. Every night I get prepared to do this show and my energy is so high and my
spirit is so calm that it truly amazes me. I feel ready to conquer and that I am
confident and that the people in the audience are guaranteed to have a fantastic
time. And up until this point, that's exactly what has happened. To me, pressure is
nonexistent, as long as I follow my heart.

Q. Critics also have praised you for addressing the issue of hip-hop's
disrespect of women.

A. I think that's exactly what's happening now, and it's time for that to happen. Of
course, everybody has negative sides to every story. You can find a beautiful,
strong, amazing, supportive woman, and you can also find a trifling, terrible,
scheming person. That's natural; there's always those two sides. I just feel it's time
to show people how beautiful a woman is and how much she's worth and how
much she should be respected. There's so much more than what's kind of become
the cliche of women in music.

Q. Do you think there'll ever be a sea change in hip-hop away from the
gangstas' disrespect toward something more positive?

A. Definitely. It already exists, and it just so happens, it doesn't get as much press.
It already exists with MCs like Nas and Common and Eve. And now me.