Today’s top pop stars have taken the intensity of worldwide fame and molded it into something new—a life that’s as full of challenges as it is glamorous and exciting. Whether it’s collaborating with equally huge performers like Jay-Z and Beyoncé or just finding the right balance and tempo for creating the perfect concert experience, Alicia Keys puts in the time and reaps the benefits. She’s had three consecutive records debut at number one on the U. S. charts since she released her debut album, Songs in A Minor, in 2001. Her most recent offering, The Element of Freedom, broke the streak by debuting at number two, but then went to number one in the U.K., a first for Keys. The album has also been well received critically and praised for its subtle and engaging songwriting.
Still, there’s nothing subtle about “Empire State of Mind,” the mega-single that appears on both Jay-Z’s and Keys’s most recent recordings. Keys gives her version a slightly more down tempo treatment, but that does nothing to diminish the timeless, unforgettably classic feeling of her vocals and piano playing. Recently, the singer gave a conference call interview about her upcoming tour, which stops in Santa Barbara this Wednesday night. What follows are the highlights.
Did you know that “Empire State of Mind” would be a hit when you first heard it in the studio? Yes, when we did the song, you did feel it. I didn’t quite know exactly what it was, but I knew that I felt something really strong. And even just in its rawest form, before it was even exactly what it is now, it just felt like wow, this feels good. I think that’s what the world felt, too, something that just really feels good and something that really says that kind of sentiment of being able to make it and achieve your dreams. It’s like something that people want to feel, you know? I love that song. It does shock me over and over again the way that it has been received and how it continues to be received so well.
Do you give it a prominent place in your show? Definitely; it’s a highlighting moment. People love that song a lot, so it’s very fun to be able to perform it and also to kind of mix the two styles, because you know [Jay-Z] has his version on his album and I have my version on my album. To mix the two styles and portray my beloved city is a really fun thing to have on the night of the show.
You have a great new video out for “Put It in a Love Song” that was shot in Brazil. Can you tell us about that? We were kind of throwing ideas back and forth, and me and [Beyoncé] were talking on the two-ways, and she was like, “What about Egypt? We should go somewhere crazy and really do an incredible video.” So from the jump, we knew we wanted to go somewhere that was really special and unique and somewhere that just is not often seen. As we were figuring out dates, she was saying that she was actually touring some in Brazil, and so we both kind of looked at each other and were like, “Brazil is kind of crazy.” So that was how Brazil came into the mix. We got down there, and, again, Brazil followed so closely with the energy of the song, with kind of the sensuality of it and how it’s eccentric and it’s colorful. And they were preparing for their carnival, and that’s just on a whole other level, as well. So it just all blended together and came together in the way that it exists now.
When you’re starting a tour, how much time goes into rehearsing? A lot of time goes into rehearsing, and it’s still never enough. But at the same time, usually when you’re starting a tour, you’ve also just released an album—like I am—and are putting in all the promo that it takes to make sure everyone is aware that the album is in the world. It’s always a juggling act, and you’re trying to rehearse as much as you possibly can and you’re in a different country like every other day, so it’s pretty nuts. For us, we rehearsed a good solid two strong weeks just in a regular rehearsal studio and then we moved into production rehearsals, where you start to get a feel for the stage and you start to pull everybody together, and that was about three or four days. Then we moved to the first venue, and we have a couple of days to really work it out and stage it and see how it feels and figure out if it’s working and all that stuff. But really, you’re working through it the first two weeks even to really pull it together.
It’s two weeks before you really feel that it’s come together? Yes, because you need it. You need the audience. You need to know where you fit, where they are, and what’s happening. … You can prepare for it as much as possible, but the rest is just like feeling it out and seeing what happens when you are both in the room together.
Alicia Keys performs at the Santa Barbara Bowl with opener Melanie Fiona on Wednesday, April 7, at 7 p.m. Call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets and information.