Attracting attention has never been a problem for multimillion-album-selling, 14-Grammy-award-winning, 2013 Super Bowl National-Anthem-crooning singer and pianist Alicia Keys. The 32-year-old New Yorker’s blend of soul, R&B and hip-hop, matched with a knack for old-school singer-songwriter nonspecific confession, has an undeniable grasp on the popular pulse — just ask the 25 million people who like her artist page on Facebook. We caught up with this industrious performer on the phone from L.A., between gigs on her current tour behind her fifth studio album, “Girl on Fire,” released in November. Keys and her crew land at Cedar Park Center on Wednesday.
Austin American-Statesman: As you know, Austin’s the hometown of Gary Clark Jr. (The guitarist played on Keys’ latest album and has performed with her elsewhere.) What did he bring to your party, musically speaking?
Alicia Keys: One of my managers introduced me to his music. He said, “I think you’re really going to love this guy.” So I heard his stuff, I did love him, and I asked him to come perform in my Black Ball (charity event). We did this beautiful “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” Beatles kind of moment, and it was insane, and from there we just became friends. Obviously, I want to support him because he’s such an incredible artist. It’s been awesome, and I’m so excited for him and proud of him, and super proud to come to Austin where he’s from; it’s going to be crazy.
He’s not going to be playing the show with you, is he?
I like to leave things to be mysterious a bit.
Okay, fair enough. It’s been a few eventful years for you, with personal and professional growth and change. What will your longtime listeners expect to see that’s new, on this tour?
I think I’ve totally come into my own in every way possible, personally and professionally, over these past couple of years. A lot of me really shed some old skin and grew into the person I’m meant to be at this time. I think that people, when they come to the show, (will) really see that I’ve found a comfort zone and we’re able to share it all together, and so we all kind of go through this incredible journey where we go deeper into the record, into the album, into the songs, into the meaning, into the feeling. Everybody ends up having a great time because it’s just really relaxed, it’s really organic and it feels good.
One might call what you do romantic, with an urban edge. Tell me a bit about how you write songs, what you’re trying to get across, and what’s your ideal blend of romance and reality in song.
I think the ideal blend comes from honesty and truth, and I guess my understanding or my experience, or those that I know well and how things have affected them, and therefore it affects me. I think it takes you where it’s meant to take you. It comes in different forms, different stories, different rhymes, but I love that it all comes down to just the truth.
What do most people not know about you that might surprise them if they did know?
People don’t know that I’m really silly and funny. I know that it sounds weird to say that I’m funny, but a lot of people think I’m very serious. If they meet me they’re like, “I didn’t think you were going to be so funny,” or whatever. I was really surprised about that because I live with myself, but I always find that to be something people don’t realize, or they find out later.
What’s the most important thing having a child has taught you? (Keys and her husband, hip-hop artist and producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, have a 2-year-old son, Egypt.)
Oh, my gosh. It’s taught me everything important. It’s taught me, honestly, what’s important and what’s kind of not important, what can be let go of and what can be held on to. I think I learned from the very beginning, even when he was just in my belly, who I wanted around me. You don’t want just anybody around you anymore, and you don’t want anybody with negative, funky energy; you don’t want anybody with bad intentions.
Speaking of children, how did you get involved with Keep a Child Alive? (For the past decade, Keys has been deeply involved in this charity devoted to combating HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.)
Keep a Child Alive came about 10 years ago when I first went to Africa and met this incredible woman named Leigh Blake; she was beginning to see how there was a great need in Africa. There was such a huge pandemic that was happening out there; the problem was there were all these people who had AIDS or HIV and they weren’t able to access the medicine that was available here in the wealthier countries. When I started learning about it, I told Leigh, “Is there something we can do? I’ll be a part of it.” It really became powerful because we were able to go directly to the people that needed it and not be caught up in any bureaucratic situations. I love Keep a Child Alive, and we’ve been able to do so much since that very beginning to now, so I’m very proud.
What are the most important things you’ve learned over the past five years, personally or professionally?
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is balance. I’m not perfect at all, but that’s been a big lesson for me, to foresee that time when you’re going to become over-drained and how to avoid coming to my breaking point. I think you’ve got to be vocal about what you feel, and you’ve got to be honest about it and try to fix it as quickly as you can, because otherwise it just becomes a big burden on top of you.
Finding balance is always tricky, especially when you’re balancing the public space and the private space, right?
I figured that out way better than I had five years ago! Still figurin’ it out!
What: “Set The World On Fire Tour” with special guest Miguel
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Cedar Park Center, 2100 Avenue of the Stars, Cedar Park
Cost: $49.50 to $125
Information: 800-745-3000; www.cedarparkcenter.com