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Carrying a tune, a charity and a grand piano
Many music fans found it hard to believe that Alicia Keys was only 20 years old when she released her debut album, Songs In A Minor, in 2001. Her sophisticated blend of R&B, hip-hop, jazz and classical flavors was a sharp contrast to the prefab dance pop performed by most other female singers near her age, and her sultry, bluesy vocals seemed to come from the same deep emotional well that inspired legends like Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday and Lena Horne. While her sound was certainly contemporary, her approach reminded listeners of classic recording artists who were more concerned with making art than making cash.
"I tend to be a bit of a vintage fanatic," admits Keys. "That's the music that I love and the kind of energy that I like. There's something about the Sixties and Seventies that's always spoken to me since I was little. I always felt like I was born in the wrong decade. I was supposed to be alive when Nina Simone was alive. I was supposed to get that whole vibe of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. There's just something about the honesty, craftsmanship and integrity that existed during that time. There was a genuine passion that I share with those artists and that time. People did what they did because they loved what they did, not because they got paid exorbitant amounts of money or got massive amounts of recognition."
Like many of the artists who inspired her, Alicia is a consummate performer who writes and arranges most of her own music and an accomplished musician who plays several instruments, including piano, guitar, bass and cello. She started taking classical piano lessons when she was just seven, and she was educated at New York City's Professional Performing Arts School, where she graduated as class valedictorian. The music industry quickly recognized her talent and potential, particularly Clive Davis, the former president and founder of Arista Records, who helped develop the careers of Whitney Houston, Sarah McLachlan, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. When Davis left Arista and formed J Records, he brought along Alicia, who he had signed while he was still with Arista.
Songs In A Minor made an instant impact, debuting at #1 on the Billboard album charts and staying there for three weeks. The album went on to sell over six million copies in the US, and Alicia won five Grammy awards, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year for the hit single "Fallin'." Her career continued to prosper as her follow-up albums The Diary of Alicia Keys and As I Am also went multi-platinum, her singles like "Karma" and "No One" topped the charts, and she received another seven Grammy awards. Keys also collaborated with a wide range of artists, including Eve ("Gangsta Lovin"), Usher ("My Boo"), John Mayer ("Lesson Learned") and Jack White of the White Stripes ("Another Way to Die"). Her most recent collaboration with Jay-Z, "Empire State of Mind," reached #1 on the Billboard singles chart and has become an unofficial anthem of New York City. Alicia recorded her own version of the song, "Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down," for her latest album, The Element of Freedom.
While Keys' free-flowing acoustic piano playing still dominates much of the instrumental backing on The Element of Freedom, songs like "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," "Put It in a Love Song" and "This Bed" add electronic drums and synths that are reminiscent of Prince's Eighties recordings. "On this album we focused a lot on the sounds that were used in the late Seventies and early Eighties," says Alicia. "We still always mix it up, but it's interesting to explore the way that I would express myself on an original Roland Jupiter or Juno synth, an old Oberheim DMX drum machine or a Roland TR-909 or TR-808 drum machine. I would mix that with a variety of different virtual synths and sounds, mixing the new with the old. That's part of the sound that I like anyway. You can feel that authenticity but you also get the freshness of now."
For her third studio album, As I Am, Keys says that she worked from a much more adventurous and experimental perspective than her previous efforts: "We recorded a lot of the album out in Los Angeles instead of at my studio in New York. We would take all of these crazy effect pedals and put them on my piano or a Wurlitzer or Rhodes electric piano. We even used pedals on harpsichords. Usually you think of using pedals only on guitars or maybe bass, but not keyboards. There was something about that experimental side that really started to take the sounds to new places. I could picture how the Isley Brothers used to zone off into that land of effects."
Alicia credits recording engineer Ann Mincieli with inspiring her interest in vintage synths, drum machines and effect pedals: "Ann is a massive, monstrous collector. She's always looking at different things and buying gear at various Guitar Center stores. She'll be like, ‘Wait 'til you hear this!' It's great to have someone like her who feeds that part of me and who really resonates and connects with those classic sounds."
Ann was also a key contributor to the creation of Native Instruments' new Alicia's Keys virtual piano software. Ann meticulously recorded Alicia's favorite piano—a Yamaha C3 Neo—in Alicia's own studio, The Oven, with assistance and direction from sample specialist Thomas Scarbee who, along with impulse response expert Ernest Cholakis, transformed those sounds into software.
"We started with an idea of creating piano software that felt like home to me," says Keys. "I've played many different software instruments of all kinds of keyboards and pianos, but none of them felt like home for me. I have my own studio, and it's this very special place where Ann and I are really able to create the sounds that we want and take the time to develop them. I wanted to be able to take my piano sound on the road with me as well as have it any time I wanted to record. Ann thought it would be interesting to bring in Thomas Scarbee because he created some bass sounds that we love and use often, but he hadn't done a virtual piano sound. We all got together in my studio and started to create it by going through this long process of sampling, recording every note, sound and expressive nuance. We ended up with my entire piano in virtual form."
Mincieli and Scarbee used vintage mics and preamps to record Alicia playing, resulting in an exceptionally warm, rich and responsive sound. The Yamaha C3 Neo is a very distinctive-sounding six-foot grand piano that Yamaha built to celebrate the company's 100th anniversary, and this was the first time that a C3 Neo was sampled.
"It's a very beautiful instrument," says Alicia. "It's a mixture of silver, wood and Plexiglas so it's super cool looking, but more importantly it has a nice ring and a nice feeling to it. There aren't millions of pianos like it in the world, and that makes it very special. I tend to prefer a bit of a darker sound. I don't like things to sound too bright. I like things to be kind of moody and a little bit heavy. When I was growing up, I played a lot of classical music and my favorites tended to be the heavier and darker composers, like Chopin. His ‘Raindrop Prelude' (Prelude in D Flat Major, Op. 28 No. 15) is one of my favorite pieces. Even though it starts out softly and gently, by the time it gets to the middle section it's all dark and tumultuous."
It's very difficult to bring a six-foot piano on the road, but fortunately Keys can bring her favorite piano sounds anywhere she goes now that Native Instruments has transformed her C3 Neo into a virtual instrument. "You can take a guitar anywhere," she explains. "Now I can take my piano anywhere. In a couple of days I'm going to a studio in Atlanta to record some piano parts. It's a big relief to know that I'll be able to record with my piano."
Native Instruments Alicia's Keys virtual instrument is now also the core of Alicia's on-stage sound. She uses a Yamaha MIDI grand piano to trigger the virtual piano from a rackmount VST plug-in player, and just in case there are any electronic problems she can mic the piano's acoustic sound and still get through the gig.
Alicia played a Minimoog Voyager on The Element of Freedom, but it stays at home in her studio. "The Moog is definitely one of my favorites right now," she says. "It has the whole analog-based format that a Moog synth should, but it's updated so it's easier to create sounds. You don't need to use all those patch cords like they did in the past. The people who programmed Moogs back in the Seventies had patience beyond belief, but the sound was incredible. Stevie Wonder was really amazing at experimenting with those types of sounds."