Alicia Keys had a slogan during the recording sessions for The Diary of Alicia Keys, one of the five Album of the Year nominees at Sunday’s Grammy Awards.
“She was always saying, ’Hey man, do you,’ ” recalled guitarist D’Wayne Wiggins, who played on two of the tracks. “And I love her for that.”
The slogan encouraged the more than 50 guest musicians who worked on the album to bring their own styles, but it also served as a sort of mission statement for Keys herself. As the title suggests, Diary is Keys doing Keys.
“It’s not one of those premeditated type of albums,” Wiggins, formerly of Tony! Toni! Toné!, said. “It’s really, truly a diary. Not many people would put their diaries out there, and I’m shocked that she did. People can feel the passion and pain in the music. It’s almost like a reality show on wax. It’s one of the most genuine things out there” (see “Kanye Scores 10 Grammy Nominations; Usher And Alicia Keys Land Eight” ).
Keys started work on the album in early 2003, after spending the previous year touring behind her hit debut, Songs in A Minor. The album won five Grammys, including Song of the Year for “Fallin’.”
While her peers expected her to be at least slightly uneasy about following up such a smash, she was actually quite the opposite.
“She played us the stuff she already had on the album and she seemed very confident,” recalled Andre Harris, from the production duo Dre & Vidal. “Her vibe was very open and inviting, and we fed off of that.”
“I think she was more anxious than anything, ’cause she has so much to say,” said Wiggins, who first worked with Keys in the late ’90s, while she was struggling on Columbia Records. “She’d been held back for so long, she was just ready to go, like a Ferrari in the slow lane.”
Keys went into the sessions with basic blueprints for several songs, but she welcomed ideas from her collaborators, who also included
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Kanye West, Notorious B.I.G./ LL Cool J collaborator Easy Mo Bee and Stokley Williams from Mint Condition.
“Kanye is really a soulful brother, so we connected immediately,” Keys said shortly before the album’s release in December 2003. “For me, the music that I love the most is the music from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s just innovative — it’s fresh, it’s sweet. It’s real feelings and emotions. A lot of this album feels like that to me. I like to call it ’Back to the Future.’ ”
To capture that sound, Keys stocked her studio with vintage instruments, “the stuff we were raised on,” Wiggins said. “It was cool playing with a new artist with an old soul. She’s like a reincarnation of somebody.”
“We jammed a lot in the studio,” Harris added. “We had live drums, live bass guitars, quite a few live instruments. We started sampling each other. It was a relaxed atmosphere and it was all about the music.”
The vibe of the sessions surprised Easy Mo Bee. “Anyone who wins five Grammys with their first album out, you’re expecting diva qualities, but Alicia was so down to earth,” he said. “She was running around, jumping around, being playful and wearing jeans and construction boots, with her hair in a ponytail. I think that says a lot.”
Still, when it came to the songs, Keys got serious. “There were passionate moments when her eyebrows turned down to her nose,” Easy said. “She communicates to make sure it comes out the way she wants. She’s that serious about her music.”
One of the ideas Keys brought to Easy was remaking Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman,” something she first did with Wiggins years earlier. “It was way out there originally, like an alternative-rock thing,” Wiggins said.
This time around Keys had the idea to put the lyrics to a different familiar melody. She loved the way Easy sampled Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By” on Biggie’s “Warning” and wanted to try the same music.
“I was concerned about combining two melodies, like what key is she gonna do it in, how’s it gonna work?” Easy recalled. “We started working on it from scratch, and as I’m making the track, she’s sitting there singing it. I’m seeing her sitting in the chair at the board, half-smiling, singing. That told me it would work.”
“It’s one of my favorite songs in the world,” Keys said in 2003. “I experimented with that a lot, too, which was a great thing.”
Oftentimes Keys would record the music with her collaborators but lay down the vocals later, alone. “That’s when she poured out her emotions,” Wiggins said.
In the end, Keys felt she managed to top Songs in A Minor by not trying to (or “not caring about singles” for that matter, according to Wiggins). She simply allowed herself to grow.
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“[Diary] sits in the same place as Songs in A Minor in regards to my heart and soul. All of me is poured into it, but it’s just truly grown to another level,” Keys explained. “Personally, for me, I don’t want to be stuck in one box. I wanna always spread my wings. That’s how the songs on the album are. Every song on the album is a growth in some way, even if it’s something as simple as vocally. I feel my vocal growth is definitely something I’ve experienced. Seeing different places broadened my mind, seeing how people are so much alike.”
Along with Keys’ approach to the album, Wiggins credits a certain substance the singer always kept in full supply while recording.
“She always had a jar of Vaseline on her piano,” he revealed, laughing. “To keep her lips lubricated.”
Keys will be performing at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night (see “Green Day, U2, Alicia Keys Lead List Of Grammy Performers” ).
As this year’s Grammys approach, you can get all the latest news on the show, the scene and the nominees in our Grammy news archive. On the big night, February 8, be sure to tune in to MTV at 7 p.m. for our “All up in the Grammys” preshow. Plus check out videos of the nominees and more right here on mtv.com.