NOEL KING, HOST:
Singer-songwriter-composer Alicia Keys has been famous for half of her life, since she was a teenager. In a new book, "More Myself," she writes about how the first half defined her. Her mom was strict but supportive. She was a single mom who worried when Alicia gave up a scholarship to Columbia for a music career that started with this unforgettable song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALLIN'")
ALICIA KEYS: (Singing) I keep on falling in and out of love with you.
KING: A few weeks ago, Alicia Keys came out to NPR's Tiny Desk.
KEYS: I was actually, like, wondering - I kind of - I think I have FOMO because I was like, I might be the only artist that hasn't done Tiny Desk.
KING: She wore jeans and a denim bustier and door knocker hoop earrings. Her hair was in two long braids. She played the crowd songs from her new album, "Alicia."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KEYS: (Singing) I've been trying to fulfill you with your every need. Now you falling for a person that's not even me...
KING: Afterward, she signed some autographs, and then, with fans still crowding around, she closed the studio door behind us and said she was ready to start. As we talked, she was introspective. Her book is about growing up, knowing when to say no and figuring out who you are when the spotlight is on you and when it's off.
KEYS: I've been thinking so much about who I am and what makes me that way and how can I stay connected to the truth of that even in a really, really noisy world and a noisy existence. And so I guess there is these parallel themes about identity, there are these parallel themes about liberation, you know, about how does one liberate themselves from the messages and the things that have been constantly pumped in our minds so that we start to believe in them, but they're not necessarily true. So to find your own truth, I think, is one of the most powerful practices.
KING: I want to ask you about a moment in your book when you were young, very young, before you were liberated. You were in your teens, and you were on the cusp of fame, and a photographer asked to be alone in the room with you.
KEYS: Ooh (ph).
KING: Ooh - yeah.
KEYS: This photographer - this was kind of one of the first big covers that I was asked to do, which, you know, as a young artist, you're so excited to have the opportunity for people to listen to your music, to be introduced to you. And so I felt this deep desire to please because I felt that this was an opportunity for me, and I wanted to do the best that I could. And so this photographer asked the room to be cleared, which, at the time, I was like, I don't see - I guess that's fine. He would like to make sure that we get the photos that we want to get. And little by little, he kind of slowly encouraged me to unbutton more and zip down more.
And it was my first time really recognizing that, you know, people are going to push you to places that might make you uncomfortable. If every instinct in your body is kind of rising up and saying, I don't like this, doesn't feel good, you have to say no, and you can't falter on those things. But, man, it's been about 300 experiences after that that I still...
KING: It took that much - yeah.
KEYS: ...That I still didn't get it right. And now finally, I have this capacity or this understanding of knowing that that's what I have to follow for myself.
KING: The flip side of that is when you were a teenager, you were asked to compromise on your music. You were asked to change who you were. You had the presence of mind - you had not made it yet. You were not a famous person. You had the presence of mind to say, no, I'm going to do this my way.
KEYS: Yeah. You know, I think there's - that is an interesting point. There's - in the case of the music, I knew who I was, and I didn't want to change it. I didn't. I didn't want to try to do something that was more commercial or more whatever it is. But I knew I wanted to be a representation of a young woman that I didn't really see in music. You know, I didn't see, at the time, a girl who really looked like me. The closest that that I identified was, you know, a Mary J. Blige, who was also from New York, a Lauryn Hill, who was also, you know, this mixture of a woman.
Other than that, it was mostly kind of big, beautiful, elegant singers with big dresses, and I just didn't identify. I didn't know - that wasn't how I lived or what - how I grew up. So I was looking to represent these young girls that I am, that one who's kind of a tomboy and, you know, doesn't really do her nails like that and puts her hair back in a bun and, you know, wears braids. And so I was very clear that I didn't want to switch that up.
KING: As you were learning to both say what you needed and what you couldn't do, you became a mother. And that's all the changes right there, right?
KEYS: Oh, gosh.
KEYS: That quickly changed everything - quickly.
KING: What is the biggest thing that it changed?
KEYS: I remember this, like, massive instinct of clearing that I had to do. I had to clear the energy that wasn't working for me. And it's one of my most profound moments because I realized that this life that was coming to me, I wasn't strong enough to do it for myself, but I did value this life enough to do it for him. And by default, it helped me because I needed to clear the energy for him.
Prior to that, I would fly to London and do a show in one day and then fly all the way to LA and then do that show and then come right back to New York to do the morning of the - and it was crazy. It was intense. It was, like, just not even realistic or healthy for a body. But I didn't even have the perspective that that would be too much. And it finally made me to start to say the magical word of all words - no.
KING: It's a good word.
KEYS: Such a good word. Say it with me.
KING: "Alicia" will be your seventh album.
KING: You've won 15 Grammys.
KING: And so many other awards that I needed a separate sheet to write them down on. What keeps you motivated to keep producing?
KEYS: You know, I feel more connected than ever to the purpose that I have on this planet. And I have also learned more diverse sides within myself, and I believe that I'm here to kind of bring an energy, a light that, damn, we need it bad. We need it right now, and I want to bring it.
KING: Alicia Keys - her new album is "Alicia," and her new book is "More Myself: A Journey." Thank you so much for coming in.
KEYS: Oh, that was good.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDERDOG")
KEYS: (Singing) This goes out to the underdog...