Alicia Keys, MORE MYSELF

Alicia Keys, MORE MYSELF

Zibby Owens: Hi, everyone. I had the privilege of interviewing Alicia Keys recently, which was just so amazing. I just loved talking to her. For those of you who might not know who she is, which is impossible but just in case, Alicia Keys is a modern-day renaissance woman, a fifteen-time Grammy Award-winning artist, songwriter, musician, producer, an accomplished actress, a New York Times best-selling author, a film, television, and Broadway producer, an entrepreneur, and a powerful force in the world of activism. Since the release of her monumental 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor, Alicia Keys has sold over sixty-five million records and built an unparalleled repertoire of hits and accomplishments. Alicia’s forthcoming seventh studio album, Alicia, is slated to be released worldwide later this year. The first single, “Show Me Love,” earned Alicia a record-extending eleventh number one on the Billboard Adult R&B Songs Airplay Chart. Current single “Underdog” was the most-added song at top-forty radio upon its release and has already topped the US iTunes chart. Alicia released her new book, More Myself: A Journey, on March 31, 2020 through Flatiron Books. I am so excited to present my conversation with Alicia. Enjoy it.

Zibby Owens: Hi, Alicia. How are you?

Alicia Keys: Yay. Hi, Zibby. I’m good. How you doing?

Zibby: I’m good. Actually, I hope this is okay. Just for the first two seconds, I have my two daughters here who are huge fans of yours. They’re six and twelve. They just wanted to say hello.

Alicia: Hi.

Kids: Hi.

Alicia: How are you doing today?

Zibby: She said, how are you doing today?

Kids: Good. We’re doing good.

Alicia: I’m glad.

Zibby: They spend half the day singing “This Girl is on Fire.”

Alicia: I love it. You’re on fire. I’m so happy to hear your voices. You’re amazing.

Zibby: Thank you so much for doing this with me. It’s really just amazing.

Alicia: I’m so excited. I’m so happy that we could get on the phone. Does everything sound good, the reception and everything?

Zibby: I think so. Does mine sound okay to you?

Alicia: Yes, it all sounds perfect.

Zibby: Awesome. Alicia, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” This is such a huge treat. I really appreciate all of your time.

Alicia: I’m so happy to be on. Let me tell you, I’m so excited what you’re doing. There’s nothing more true than moms don’t have time to read books. I’m always complaining. I’m like, I just want to read a book. That’s all I want to do is read a book.

Zibby: Seriously. The second I sit down, someone’s jumping on top of me of pulling the book away or something. It’s always something.

Alicia: I know. It’s really hard. Then you’re like, that’s okay, I’m going to read tonight. Then you get into bed, and then you’re asleep. That’s exactly what happens.

Zibby: Totally. I’m like, I’ll just read a few — well, let me just check my phone first. Same thing. I’m glad we found the time.

Alicia: Me too.

Zibby: You book, on the other hand, did not put me to sleep at all. More Myself is fantastic. I loved, by the way, being able to see on your Instagram how excited you were about it because that just made the excitement even more contagious when you’re jumping up and down and doing your little celebrations. It’s so awesome.

Alicia: I am. I’m so excited about it. I love it. It’s been such a project. It’s so different from writing a song. It does compare to creating a whole body of work, though. Even though writing a song does take a little bit of less time, creating the entire body of work or an album or a project or whatever does take a considerable amount of time. The book as well, it’s such a lengthy process. It’s so tedious. You want it to reflect what you really want to say properly. It covers such a long spectrum of time. I really am excited about it because I feel like I’ve been able to achieve what I wanted to achieve. I love how people are responding to it and how it’s a conversation that we can all have together, especially right now in the world and just because of where we all are. We’re all trying to figure out who we are. I guess that’s going to be a constant thing we’re doing maybe for the rest of our lives.

Zibby: Totally, especially now. I love how in your book you talk a lot about creativity itself, kind of like what you’re saying with the difference between a song and a book. I could read this one quote. You said, “Creativity is inherently messy. It’s chaotic and nonlinear. It comes to life in fits and starts, disjointed, and seemingly random.” I was hoping you could talk a little more about your creative process with whatever you’re trying to achieve.

Alicia: I do feel like that about creativity. I never have an exact way that it happens. In fact, it’s constantly intimidating. The fact that you don’t know how it’s going to actually come to fruition is also part of the magic. That part of it that I think I’m most addicted to, I most crave, is that surprise. Even after doing it for many times or writing songs for a long time or playing in front of many people or whatever it might be that you do, it still has this insecurity part of it that is, I think, the purest part of what creating something is. It doesn’t have a straight line. I think I like that the most about it, to be honest.

Zibby: I feel like that might intimidate some other people, the lack of control or linearity.

Alicia: You think so?

Zibby: I don’t know, maybe not creative people.

Alicia: I guess that’s why I said it because I think that sometimes people maybe think that it might be easy for some people. Sometimes maybe we stop ourselves from trying our version of creativity because we see other people and we might see them be successful at it or what we assume success is or what we attribute to success. Then we think for ourselves, I couldn’t do that. I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Then we don’t start. I thought that sharing that it’s intimidating for me, creativity is also intimidating for me, was maybe more encouraging just because for everybody there’s this unknown about being creative or about putting together something that you’ve never done before, that has never been done before, or specifically no one thought you could do or however it might unfold. There is something really scary about that. I think the scariness, once you get over it and push yourself past it and just give it a shot, you find something that’s really special that comes out of it.

Zibby: Absolutely. Can you tell me a little about your decision to write this book? which you call a journey. What made you decide to write it? How long did that process that you were describing before actually take?

Alicia: Man, it was at least two years. It was so interesting because obviously I haven’t written a thousand books. I don’t know. Again, I would wonder because for me as a songwriter, I’ve written so many songs. Still, I find myself at the beginning of writing a song, I’m like, how do I do this again? What do I do? How do you actually ? I find that I’m always asking myself that question. Perhaps even if I wrote a thousand books, I’d still be asking myself that question in that world as well. Because it’s such a new process for me, it was so interesting. Part of it was terrifying and definitely daunting. I was like, this is crazy. How do you go back and think of all these pieces? The inspiration really came probably around my album called Here. I really started to ask myself a lot of questions. It was the beginning of my own search for my own identity and who I am and who I want to be, kind of who you become in the world because you think you’re supposed to be that and then who you actually are or who you actually want to be. I was starting to really ask myself those questions because I started to realize that I maybe was who I thought people wanted me to be. I didn’t realize that that had taken me over so much.

I started to dissect the way that was happening. Different moments in my life were revealing that I was quite oppressed, I would use the word, from the standards of what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a successful woman, what it is to be “beautiful,” what it is to be beloved or whatever it is. I started to find myself changing myself or being extra-concerned when I picked up my kids from school. Do I look nice enough to go out with? and all these things that were — really, I just truly didn’t understand how convoluted, how that was affecting me. I didn’t even realize that I was that person. I never even thought I was that person. I thought I was super independent and completely a feminist and really strong. I realized, wow, there’s so much of me that I’m discovering. That discovery started to uncover parts that I wanted to share and I wanted to think more about and really challenge the way that we’re told to be who we think we’re supposed to be because we see it in front of us since the day we’re born. We don’t really get a chance to meet ourselves. That was what I was starting to do. I wanted to share my personal journey with discovering more of myself.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love how early in the book you talk about the photoshoot you went on and how you were basically, not against your will, but just slightly manipulated in a way that set the course for being careful not to let that happen again forever and how that became a symbol for you of how you needed to use your voice and become who you are and all of that. Can you talk a little more about that moment?

Alicia: Definitely. It was the very, very first time that I had been asked to do a pretty important photoshoot with a really important photographer. It was at the very beginning of everything. Here you are, you’re a young, up-and-coming artist. You really just want people to hear your stuff and start to know it and be excited about it. It seems like it’ll probably never happen because that’s usually the way it all crumbles. When I found myself in this space with this photographer and for this magazine, it was the very first time I had done — I hadn’t done a ton of photoshoots either. Photoshoots in themselves are just awkward. What do you do? Where do you stand? How are you supposed to look? Are you supposed to smile? Do you not smile? What’s the face feel like? What tilt? You don’t know what to do. You’re standing in a blank room with a person. It’d be different if you had a bed to sit on or a chair to sit on. You could actually do something that’s normal. It’s completely unnormal. It feels totally weird. It was my first time on top of all of that. You also discover that people often are looking for an angle. They’re looking for something to sell. They’re looking for something that’s racy. They’re looking for something that’s going to challenge or spark interest. I didn’t know any of that. I wasn’t thinking of any of that.

The guy starts to suggest that I pull my pants down a little more like this or cover my shoulder a little bit like this or pull my shirt down a little bit more like this. Because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing anyway, I was kind of like, okay, I guess. Would that look nice? You’re searching, in a lot of ways, for approval, which happens in our lives in many ways. It doesn’t matter if you’re new or not, or just starting something or not. We’re all looking for approval in some way. I thought they knew better than me. I tried it. I did it. I felt uncomfortable the whole time, but I kind of felt uncomfortable anyway. I couldn’t tell the difference between my discomfort of just feeling awkward standing in a blank room or pulling my shirt down too far. That all got completely convoluted. Fast-forward three or four weeks later when I saw the picture. I was devastated. I looked a way that I never wanted to look. My pants were too far down. My hands was covering my boobs. I just completely looked like I was trying so hard.

I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t even know how I got there. I realize now that it taught me a lot about speaking up. It taught me a lot about really understanding your own gut. If your gut is saying you feel uncomfortable or you don’t feel right, you’ve got to stop. What’s making you not feel right? I don’t like this. That makes me uncomfortable. You’ve got to speak up because if you don’t, you’re going to have a picture on your hands that’s pretty embarrassing, or god knows what else. Of course, I didn’t know how to do that then. Part of it is also the lessons that you learn as you go. You need those lessons, so you can’t beat yourself up about it, which I did. be enough to know that I didn’t want that to happen again. I didn’t want to feel that way. I didn’t want to feel compromised or feel uncomfortable or taken advantage of. It changed a lot for me. Then going forward, I had a different perspective.

Zibby: I love how in the book it’s not just about you, but it’s a lot about motherhood in general. It’s about your relationship with your mother and your grandmother. It’s a relationship with you becoming a mother. I wanted to hear a little more about that aspect and how becoming a mother yourself has affected your creativity and even your perception of own your mother’s mothering. I feel like whenever we all have kids, all of a sudden you look back and you’re like, oh, I get it. That’s how my mom was. How has that affected you?

Alicia: Motherhood in general has affected me in a really, I feel like, an awesome way. I definitely met a part of myself that I didn’t know before. I didn’t know that I could be so tender. I didn’t know that I could feel so deeply, and I surely felt deeply prior to it. I felt deeply in the many songs that I wrote before I was a mother. I felt deeply in different experiences I had in the world or seeing in the world in all its chaos. I felt that deeply, but nothing was as potent and as uncontrollably emotional as when I became a mother. I met a part of myself that I definitely didn’t know existed. I also met a part of myself that was much stronger. I didn’t know how to be as strong for myself prior to becoming a mother. I was very, very much about always compromising. I found myself to be a super people-pleaser, which to this day I fight myself against, being in a detrimental way. There’s nothing wrong with being good to people. There’s nothing wrong with pleasing people, but if you’re doing it to the detriment of yourself, then it does become a problem. I was doing that. I never considered my own well-being. I oftentimes just did what I thought would make other people happy. I met a new side of myself with that.

Once I had a baby, I really realized the boundaries that I needed to set, not even for me, but for the baby. By default, I started to take better care of myself. That started to teach me something and show me something and open my eyes to things. I remember I was a super workaholic. I probably picked that up from my mother. She’s always been a very hard worker, always worked many hours and could live off of very little sleep. I became that person. I was that person. Then when I had a baby, things weren’t as important anymore as being actually pregnant and this young, tiny being’s life and being able to be home and do those special things as a mom. It definitely started to give me a lot more balance. It started to give me a lot more perspective. I started to meet myself in a brand-new place. That was cool. Then I definitely respected my mother on whole other level. My mother raised me a single mother. It was just her. That is a mind-blowing thing. She worked all the time. She still figured out how to get me in the worst trouble ever. I don’t know how she did it. I’m like, you’re not even here. How am I in trouble? She ended up having to be everything. Somehow, she did it. She definitely had to be tough as nails for a girl growing up in Hell’s Kitchen in Harlem in New York City, but she did it.

So much of that toughness and that grit and the common sense that I have came from her really not allowing me to have any room for any foolishness. She would grill me so hard about whatever I was telling her. If I didn’t have my facts straight and all my thoughts organized, I was not making it out alive. I wasn’t. I think that gave me a lot, even as I became a businesswoman and as I became a person who had to control my own life and my own destiny. There was a certain amount of just strength that came from her. Now as a mom, my son — we’re all doing this homeschooling thing. I was telling my friend that my son, he says I’m mean. I’m like, I’m not mean. I just want you to do your best. I want you to be your best. I don’t want you to just do sort of, kind of enough with the time you are given and now that the time is over you run away. Complete it. Make it great. Be proud of it. “You’re mean, Mom.” I’m getting a lot of “You’re mean.”

Zibby: My five-year-old son, we were doing this letter, like, what’s your big idea? What do you really want to change? He’s like, “I need to get my mom to stop bossing me around so much.” I was like, I just asked you to come to lunch. Really? All I’m trying to do is help you. I’m trying to make you a better person. I’m trying to feed you and get you on your silly Zoom call so you can learn about the weather system. I don’t know. I’ve had it up to here.

Alicia: I know. My son’s five too. He was so mad at me yesterday. He was in the living room. I was like, “Hey, Gen.” Then he was coming out of his bedroom. I was walking up the stairs. I was like, “Hey, Gen.” He was like, “Mom, are you going to say hi to me every time you see me?” I was like, “Uh, yeah. I can’t say hi to you when I see you?” He’s like, “No, Mom. I really don’t want you to say hi to me every time you see me.” So I get it, man. I’m like, what the hell? Damn.

Zibby: I love how five-year-olds boys are running our families at this point.

Alicia: I’m like, you are something else.

Zibby: But they’re so cute.

Alicia: Yes, oh, my gosh, the cutest. The cutest and the hardest.

Zibby: Yes. It’s so true. Everybody always asks, how does everybody keep it all together when there’s so many different things? Even in your book, you talk about how an artist life is teeter-totter, as you call it, and how you’re holding your family tight as you navigate all the ups and downs and just the craziness of life. Your life, I would think in particular being such a public person and accomplishing so many things from all these albums and the book and all the rest, how do you stay sane? How do you do it?

Alicia: Oh, man, how do I stay sane? How do we all stay sane? It’s a really, really good question. There’s a couple of different ways that I feel I stay sane. Suddenly now, I feel like I have to relearn how to stay sane in a whole new way because I don’t know. For a while, I wasn’t doing very good with that. I wasn’t really sure how to balance it all in the one space that we’re all staying in. I love to organize things. I tend to like things very organized. I like things very tied up in a bow, which I’ve also learned how to get a little looser on because sometimes it’s not going to be a bow. You just need to let the bow go. It’s okay if the papers are all over the floor. It’s all right if the wrapping is like, you didn’t put it away. It’s okay. It’s all right. I’m learning that. I think that really helps me to stay sane. I like the organizing part. When I say organize, I like to create space or time. I like to calendar things, even just making sure that things are, they have their space. That also means me having my own space. Even in this circumstance, a lot of the times one of my sons is actually having to get up really early to start his school thing. I have about an hour and a half between when he starts and when my other son starts.

I will take that hour and a half, and I will do a meditation. I’ll even go work out. It’s early. It’s six AM, or from six to seven, or six thirty to seven thirty. Sometimes I just don’t want to do it at all, which is fine. That goes back to the bow and the paper being on the floor. That’s fine. Just honor that when you need it. When I do do it, I find that I feel like I’ve given myself my own time. I’ve given myself time to just think and be quiet before it gets all noisy and loud. That really helps me stay sane a lot. I found that I need quiet. Whereas my husband, the first thing he does when he wakes up, he’s putting on music. Everything gets really loud when he wakes up. Me, I need quiet. I figured that out. I give myself that. That helps me. Just that little thing, that one hour makes a difference. Then I feel more sane. Things like that help me stay sane and help me make my way through it all. I’m definitely getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s my latest realization even with the current state of everything. It’s not comfortable. We don’t exactly know what’s going on. It feels like we’re confused. Many of us are probably quite anxious. You feel fearful. You feel worried, all these things. I found that I’ve been wanting to just be comfortable being uncomfortable and just sit in that. That’s okay too. That’s some of the pieces that can help me stay sane. How about you?

Zibby: First of all, my husband and I are the same way. I know when he wakes up because all of a sudden the house is blasting with music. I was like, okay, he’s up somewhere because now he’s turned on the whole music system. Whereas the other day, my five-year-old, this same guy, woke me up at four fifteen just to let me know he had to go to the bathroom, which is great. Then of course I couldn’t fall back asleep. I was like, you know what? I’m just going to get up so I can sit in my house and have it be quiet. I don’t care that it’s four in the morning. I just want that moment to sit in my kitchen and not have anybody bother me. So I did. It was great.

Alicia: Yes, I’m all about that.

Zibby: I understand what you’re saying. I don’t know if I do stay sane these days. By the way, I think what you said with letting the bow go — I am a perfectionist also. I just like everything to be perfect. That is such a great mantra. I feel like you should make a whole T-shirt line, let the bow go. That’s so helpful.

Alicia: I feel you. I’m so with you on that. T-shirt’s coming, let the bow go.

Zibby: Great. Perfect. Now that you’ve written this book, you have a new album coming out. This is so exciting. What are you most excited about next? assuming we ever get out of our homes. When you look forward, what are you like, I can’t wait for this, or, this is getting me through this time?

Alicia: I’m really looking forward to some good hugs. Let’s start there for two seconds. There’s a lot of arms that I haven’t been able to hug and a lot of people I haven’t been able to hold. I’m really looking forward to just holding them and hugging them. I was just thinking about that the other day. Just that simple act is going to feel really good. I’m looking forward to that for sure. Of course, I’m looking forward to the music that I created coming out into the world, the album that’s called Alicia. I decided to hold it during this time because we’re all figuring out where we are and who we are and what’s important and what’s going on. Of course, music plays such an amazing part of getting us through. It would be on time anytime. I was going to put it out in this timeframe. I decided to wait a little bit. I’m definitely looking forward to people hearing that music and continuing to hear more of what I created with that. I’m also looking forward to maybe rethinking the over-over busyness, the way that somehow we feel like if we could just be busy, we’re somehow achieving something. I want to continue to think about that. How do I want to relate to that in the times when things will be a little bit more, at least hopefully, not back to normal because I hope that we are able to move forward and get better. I feel like we don’t want to go back. We want to go forward. Obviously, we’ll be able to move around more and travel more and can pick up business as usual a little bit more. I want to think about how I want to relate to that business. That’s what I’m thinking about. That’s some of the things I’m looking forward to and that I’m thinking about and wanting to do. There’s a lot to look forward to. I’m looking forward to rethinking certain things and making sure to not forget.

Zibby: That’s great. I hear you on the hugs. I’m really looking forward to that too. I don’t want to take too much of your time. I was wondering, as the consummate songwriter and now author of More Myself, what advice would you have to other artists who are trying to create works in whatever format, be it song or film or book? What advice would you have?

Alicia: Man, it kind of was how we started. My advice would be to be unafraid of the insecurity and to be — okay, maybe you can’t be unafraid of it because, shoot, it’s hard. The insecurity is real, and the doubt and all these things that come into our heads that make us try to feel like we are unable to achieve something. Acknowledge that everybody feels that. Everybody goes through that. No one really knows what they’re doing. Everybody is just trying to figure it out. I would say to have the will to try your idea, to try to put it out there, to put it into words or put it into song, to put it into action, and know that what you’re going to learn from it, what’s going to come back from it is going to surprise you in the most amazing way. It’s going to get you to the next place that you’re meant to go. That’s what I would share.

Zibby: I love that. Thank you so much. Thank you for sharing all this time with me and all my listeners and your amazing book and your amazing songs, even the Kobe Bryant, the Grammys were just — oh, my gosh. You’ve been a real leader in authenticity. I just have so much respect for you. Thank you so much.

Alicia: I love that. I love those words so much. Thank you as well. Thank you for shining and being so yourself and allowing us to remember to be ourselves and that imperfection is perfect. I’m so glad that we could connect. I’m so blessed to be a part of your show. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Alicia: Yay, Zibby!

Zibby: Yay! Thank you. That’s so nice.

Alicia: Be safe. Be super safe. We’ll talk soon.

Zibby: You too. That sounds great. Buh-bye.

Alicia Keys, MORE MYSELF