Alicia Keys rebounds (from all of that success)

Times Staff Writer

IT might not rank with JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" as a phrase for the ages, but when Alicia Keys looked out from the stage at the crowd of striking Writers Guild members at their Hollywood Boulevard rally and declared, "I'm a writer too," it sounded like a ringing plea for legitimacy that a star of her stature rarely has occasion to make.

This was a rare appearance by Keys in which the audience wasn't automatically in her corner, and there were even some murmurs of skepticism under the picket signs about this showbiz adornment preceding their afternoon march down the boulevard.

But as Keys and her band punched into her new song "Go Ahead," the glamorous diva gave way to union rabble-rouser, and her lyric easily transformed from romantic reprisal into bargaining-table shout-down: "What have you given me but lies lies. . . . Must be crazy if you think I'm gon' fall for this anymore, everybody say no no no no. . . . "

Soon even the skeptics were waving their arms and singing along on the funk-flavored tune, a chorus of defiance that must have pleased Keys, a performer rooted in the socially conscious music of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.

"I like doing things like that. I think that it's important to have something to say, something to stand for," Keys had said a few hours earlier, fueling up for the day with an egg-white omelet and Throat-Coat tea.

"I think that all of my songs have a message. I think that I will get a little more overt about what the message is. I think at this point, I'm feeling around the ways to talk about it, the ways to describe what's going on around me and the things that I see. Maybe a little bit more like how U2 does it, where they will be very specific about a specific issue and specific plight and write a beautiful song about it, and you totally get it."

Keys' appearance at the rally also had a symbolic edge that might not have been obvious to anyone but her. Like her audience there, the singer has learned the importance of standing up for herself. She jokingly calls herself "Little Miss Transition," but the process of escaping the crushing weight of demands and expectations was serious business -- serious enough to stretch the gap between her last album and the new "As I Am" to four years and deep enough to make it the most edgy and urgent work of her seven-year career.

"I kind of came face to face with having to identify what kind of woman I wanted to be," she said at breakfast. "There's a point where you're a girl, and then you're a woman. So what are you going to do? Are you going to constantly be the girl that kind of follows and does all of this or are you going be the woman that states what you want for yourself?"

Not as easy as it looks

Growing up in public might have been part of the deal for Keys, who was barely out of her teens when she debuted in 2001 with the sponsorship of veteran music executive Clive Davis -- the business' ultimate letter of introduction. She quickly established herself as not only a compelling entertainer but also a gifted songwriter with a firm vision of her sound and direction. She sold more than 10 million copies of her first two albums, and her extended absence hasn't slowed things down -- "As I Am" has added 1.5 million to that total since its release in mid-November.

The New Yorker's wide-ranging but tradition-rooted R&B; has also earned her nine Grammys and more critical recognition than most mainstream favorites enjoy, and her nascent acting career just took a big step when she won the starring role in a biographical film about entertainer Lena Horne that's being produced by Oprah Winfrey.

Along the way, Keys has taken every step with seemingly effortless ease and managed to pretty much stay out of the tabloids in the bargain. In short, it looks like a charmed life.

Sitting in the cafe of her hotel in Beverly Hills, the 27-year-old singer shot down that notion with a scoffing snort.

"Life has not been 'charmed' for me, that's for sure," she said. "But God does carry me. . . . There are certain things that I have said, 'Wow, why not me?' I've seen a massive amount of my friends fall victim to all kinds of situations, and I've been right there with them in so many ways doing the same things that they did, so why not me? . . .

"It makes you think. I realized that yes, there's a certain destiny that I'm meant to fulfill and there's a certain protection that I do have around me, so I think maybe that's what people see. But my life hasn't been like, 'Oh, my God, it's the easiest thing ever.'

"Hopefully I'm graceful enough to not let every single part of my life be everyone's business. . . . But everybody goes through many, many transitions and pains, there's no escaping that."

Overworked and under stress

A few nights earlier, Keys was playing in a more typical setting, for an invited audience of music business figures, celebrities and media members at a small soundstage near Silver Lake. The intimate affair was one of a series she's done around the country, part of the job of building anticipation for the new album.

But even here, allusions to troubled times surfaced. Sitting at the piano to perform the new "Superwoman," Keys offered that she wrote the song during "a time when I wasn't doing very well." In the lyric, a "Yes I can" anthem of self-renewal, she describes herself as being a mess.

That was a difficult image to conjure, considering how impeccably put-together Keys looked at 10 a.m., even after getting in late the night before after a stretch in the recording studio. Wearing a metallic jacket and sparkle-pattern T-shirt, she was upbeat and lively, leaning forward to make sure she was heard clearly.

The success of those first two albums, "Songs in A Minor" and "The Diary of Alicia Keys," came with a price, she said.

"I did go through a time where I was very uncertain and insecure, because everything around me was falling apart. I was a wreck, and I couldn't really hold on to anything, so nothing really made sense.

"So when I then tried to create music, it was confusing and it was disjointed. It didn't come together. I had these ideas, but they didn't work. I was very frustrated about that, because I felt like that's my one sanctuary."

Keys experienced an intensely emotional time attending her maternal grandmother, who played a big role in her upbringing, through a fatal illness, but she said that her own problems stemmed from the demands of her work. She's tirelessly committed to the process of performing and promotion that stoke a prominent career, but after "Diary," she found things spinning out of control.

"For a minute there, I was doing things that were not humanly possible, and it was just a miserable way to be. . . . I had to learn from it or die, one or the other. I'm serious.

"All of it, every side of it. Never saying no, always doing everything, accepting everything. Every inch of space was taken up with something to do and somewhere to be and someone to call and someone to talk to and someone to meet, and it's too much.

"I came to a point last year where I was just sick of being that. Sick of holding in these emotions that I had that were really eating away at me. So I became very rebellious about that, very rebellious about people telling me what they thought I should do and what they felt was good for me."

Making her escape

'SUPERWOMAN started to wear down," her manager, Jeff Robinson, said in a separate interview. "She didn't want the outside world and her family and friends to see her cracking, so to speak. Everyone is used to seeing her so strong and so confident, and just to see her in tears and kind of confused and unsure of herself as was a total shock to most people around her. She didn't know how to handle that.

"I told her just forget about everything, and just go away, just be alone with Alicia. . . . Don't worry about deadlines, don't worry about record companies don't worry about shows. Just go, it will all be here when you come back."

That's what Keys did, escaping for a time to Egypt, and the clarity that resulted not only unburdened her personally but also had a major influence on the new album. While it doesn't depart radically from the soul and R&B; forms fans are familiar with, "As I Am" has a freedom and urgency in its grooves that's new to Keys.

"I discovered that I spent a lot of my life feeling like I had to prove myself. People look at a young lady who's a musician and a writer and they automatically think, 'Ah, she's probably OK, she can't really be a producer, you can't be serious, I'm sure there's someone else that's really doing it, she can't really have written all that.'

"Really, they doubt you, and so I think I spent a lot of my first two albums feeling like I had to prove that I could do all of this. So I was very controlling. I would come into a session with everything mapped out, and I think that restricted me in a lot of ways. . . . "There's a certain magic that happens when you just let it go, and this time, because of being able to let go of a lot of things that were holding me back and coming to a more secure place in myself, I went into sessions this time and I was just like. . . . 'Let's see what happens.'

"You're definitely hearing freedom, searching for freedom, self-realization and strength and vulnerability, and everything that happens to everyone, every day."

And don't expect to wait another four years for her next work.

"I would really like to put out another album relatively soon. Something that's a bit more stripped back. . . . I already have about six or seven records for it that I love. I just want to keep creating. . . . The last record and the last tour, I went so hard that I kind of took away that side of me. And when it came time to come back around to create again it took me a while to find my groove. I just don't want to ever get that far away from it again."

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richard.cromelin@latimes.com

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