In less than five years, Alicia Keys has accomplished more than seasoned performers twice her age, from releasing two multiplatinum albums and winning nine Grammy Awards to consistently selling out concerts.
Keys’ performance chops are spotlighted on her new CD/DVD, “MTV Unplugged,” which J Records released Oct. 11. The project features new single “Unbreakable,” which is No. 48 this week on the Billboard Hot 100, plus collaborations with Common, Mos Def, Damian Marley and Maroon5’s Adam Levine.
Q: Why do you think doing an “Unplugged” session was a good fit for your music?
A: Before I even got signed, I’d play these small clubs, or hotels even. When I did get signed and I was going around letting people know what I was about, that’s exactly how I did it: me on the piano, playing a couple of songs I’d written and talking to the people in between. That’s how I got my performance chops up. Now, when I perform in front of large audiences, I’m much more comfortable, because I’ve already performed in front of tiny audiences — which is much harder, honestly. The smaller you strip things down, the more you depend on the songs and yourself, as opposed to arrangements.
To go back to this style is one of the reasons why I really wanted to do this “Unplugged.” Obviously it was a little different than me and my little Kurzweil keyboard, but it was that feeling. I could look at every face in the audience.
Q: What is the origin of “Unbreakable?”
A: It has been around since the sessions for the last record (2003’s “The Diary of Alicia Keys”), and it was one of the favorites for the album. But when we started putting the album together, it just wasn’t right for it. The style is so perfect for “Unplugged,” so I decided to put it in there.
Q: Are you planning to tour anymore this year?
A: I was just talking to Bono the other day, and he was like, “Are you doing shows?” I’ve just been off the road for a month-and-a-half, and he was like, “You lucky girl.” Something I’ve learned from people like U2, the Stones and Lenny Kravitz is that the grind of live shows is so necessary (to build your career). We were on the road for two years straight doing shows. But for now, I’m not really doing anymore shows. I might do a couple of spontaneous, small, “Unplugged”-style things.
Q: Has any new material for your next studio album sprung forth lately?
A: Oh, there’s been a lot of things springing forth from me. (laughs) I have this new direction I’m feeling I will go in for the next album. I’ve been playing around, experimenting and vibing on different styles. I have about four or five songs I’ve been working with, but I’m constantly writing all the time. I’ll be really focusing on my next album at the top of this next year.
Q: Has your next book begun to take shape?
A: It is percolating. It will be based off my journals I’ve kept since I was 9. But it won’t be an autobiography. It will be more like a novel, using the likeness of a young girl with big dreams and all the normal, everyday things from when you first can write them down to when you’re 21. There’s no date yet. I think this one is going to take me a little bit of time.