Alicia Keys might be the reigning queen of cool. With her megawatt smile and her 15 Grammy Awards, she's a one-woman musical empire, with more sold-out concerts than she can name, and more fans than she can count.
But even as she was rocketing to new heights of fame, the private Alicia Keys was struggling with some lingering doubts: about what she was doing, why she was doing it, and even who she was.
Correspondent Tracy Smith met up with Keys about a week ago, just before the world as we knew it shut down.
Smith asked, "Looking at you from the outside, you seem like someone who's always kind of known herself."
"I hear that a lot," Keys replied.
"And yet, this has been a struggle for you?"
"It is, it has, totally. But I think the craziest part is that I didn't know that I didn't know myself."
So, for the past few years, the 39-year-old married mother of two started doing some hard soul-searching, and the result is a book: not a memoir, but more a journal of self-discovery: "More Myself: A Journey."
Keys goes back to the very beginning, writing about how her mom, Terry Augello (who was then a single paralegal), had a relationship with flight attendant Craig Cook, and got pregnant.
Smith said, "Your mom talks about how she nearly had an abortion."
"Right. Even her mother said to her, 'Terry, you never do anything easy.' She was making a really big choice. And at the time, I'm sure she didn't even know why she was making that choice exactly. But she knew it. She knew what she needed to do."
To hear Alicia Keys perform the song "Underdog," from her upcoming album "Alicia," click on the video player below:
Alone and financially struggling, Augello raised her daughter in what was then one of New York City's toughest neighborhoods, Hell's Kitchen. Our interview with Keys' mom was called off last week because of concerns about the coronavirus, but her accomplishments speak for themselves.
"She raised a girl in the middle of Hell's Kitchen, which looked like it sounds, you know?" Keys said.
"It was rough?"
"Hard, dangerous, difficult, scary," Keys said. "I can't even imagine, as a mother today, me sending my kid off into those streets. But if you had to, I mean, what's she gonna do? She had to go to work, I had to go to school. We had to live. That's how it is.
"I am so grateful to her for choosing me. And I really appreciate her."
Smith asked, "Did you appreciate it growing up?"
"No! Hated it! You kiddin' me? I was, like, 'Could you give me some space?'"
But the tough love worked: When Keys graduated high school as valedictorian, she was offered a scholarship to Columbia University – and, somewhat poetically, a contract with Columbia Records.
She ultimately chose the music, and wrote the song that would change her life overnight.
Smith asked, "You write that you were 'looking for that one song that would raise the hair on your arms.' And you found it."
"I was actually writing that song already while I was at Columbia. And that song was 'Fallin'":
The song, "Fallin'," from her 2001 debut album, "Songs in A Minor," brought the rewards of sudden fame, and all the problems that go with it: Keys said she wanted to please everyone, and that she'd work herself to exhaustion trying to do it. "You start to think that you have to do everything that you can possibly do to make sure that these doors remain open for you."
"Say yes to as much as you can, try to make people happy?" asked Smith.
"But at the same time, are you making yourself happy?"
"You think you're happy, 'cause right, that's what you were here working for, right?" she said. "It's, like, 'Oh, man, this is actually happenin', this is great! I'm so happy!' And then I think, little by little, you start to see how you are maybe going too hard. Maybe you start to see that you're not getting enough sleep. You're just constantly ignoring your own feelings, your own emotions, your own intuition, your own instinct.
"I have to remind myself even today that, you know, you are valuable. You're important. And you have to take care of yourself," she said.
"You still are saying that to you today?" asked Smith.
"Today. Today. At this point, I've created a habit that I have to remind myself, 'Hey, hey, guess what? You should go sit on that couch, you should just relax,' because that is just as valuable as all of the work."
Of course, the work is still important to her: she has a new album, "Alicia," coming out soon.
But it might be that Alicia Keys has captured where we all are at this moment: pausing for a little self-reflection, and ready to come back even stronger on the other side. "I think that this idea of being even more accepting of just how I am, as I am," she said. "Like, I might be in a really s****y mood."
"And that's okay?" said Smith.
"I can be there. I'm good. It's okay, because you know, I think that we do this thing where we swallow our truth, and we don't let it out. So, I'm finished with that."
"You're lettin' it out?"
"Done, I'm done, I'm done, I'm done, I'm done with the swallowing and the holding back and the excusing and all of that. And just being. That was good. I feel better!"
To watch an excerpt of Alicia Keys recording the audio book for "More Myself: A Journey," click on the video player below:
For more info:
- Pre-order Alicia Keys' new album "Alicia," released on May 15 via Amazon, Google Play and iTunes
- "More Myself: A Journey" by Alicia Keys (Flatiron Books), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available March 31 via Amazon
- Pre-order the audio book of "More Myself: A Journey" read by Alicia Keys and special guests, available March 31
Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Henry Ledesma.