Alicia Keys arrived on the national stage in 2001 with the song "Fallin'," which was all about a relationship on the verge of going up in flames. More than a decade later, after four No. 1 albums and 14 Grammy awards, Keys is the one burning up. Her new album is called Girl on Fire, and the title track, she says, captures the deep satisfaction she's feeling at this point in her life.
"I'm married now," Keys says. "I have a beautiful baby boy. I've been able to take control of my business and my life and what it is that I want to do creatively as a businesswoman. And it's just a great feeling to kind of just arrive in my own space."
Here, Keys speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about making Girl on Fire, collaborating with Frank Ocean and why she's writing fewer of her songs at home these days.
On stretching her vocal range for the title track
"It feels so good to sing in this really high space because it's almost like I'm screaming at the top of my lungs when I say, 'This girl is on fire.' It's like a declaration; it's a passion that's like, 'This is me.' And so when I was recording it, it felt perfect. I didn't have any feelings like it was too high or not. I just felt it was in that breaking spot in my voice that feels like the emotion that I wanted it to feel like. ... And then, I came around to have to do, like, 90-minute shows, and add that on top of all my other songs. And all of a sudden, I said, 'Whoa. This is kind of high.' "
On keeping a studio outside of her home
"When I was first starting, I used to have every single thing in my house: My studio setup was in my house, my piano was in my house. And I couldn't even barely watch TV without feeling like, why was I sitting there watching TV? I should be writing or doing something else. After a while I realized that it's really important to have some type of separation — that I have a place to go where I write and I create and that kind of thing. And then when I come home, I'm home, and I'm just able to be home and relax."
On the song "One Thing," co-written with Frank Ocean
"[The narrator is] reflecting on this relationship, and as the song progresses, you realize why she's on [a] train — because she actually waited for this man to come get her and he never came. He kept saying that he was going to leave, but she never thought he would. So now you end up understanding the depth of their relationship, as to how it has created this rift between them. It's a really beautiful story about the discovery of the one thing that we're all looking for — this one thing that was made for us, that's saving us. You'll take that over anything."