NEW YORK — Filled to capacity with aspiring songwriters, the students at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU were on their feet to welcome [artist id=”503203″]Alicia Keys[/artist]. The event, moderated by MTV News correspondent Sway Calloway, was an opportunity for the school to showcase Keys’ humanitarian and philanthropic efforts and also a chance for the songstress to share details about her creative process. The New York City native talked how she came up with a new approach to writing for her forthcoming album, The Element of Freedom.
“The only thing I really understood was [working] to the point of exhaustion,” Keys said. “All I really understood was just submersing myself in it to a point of just possibly drowning. Not in a bad way, but in a sense of that was all I did all the time every second.
“Finally, [with] this record I really learned to have a balance to it,” she continued. “I actually learned there’s more creativity to be found when you balance the actual productivity of doing it with going places, seeing people that you love, taking a drive, taking a walk … seeing a beautiful image in a museum. … Inspiration comes from anywhere at all times, and so I just found that balance helped me to become more creative and enjoy the process more.”
Keys also discussed how the creative process differed when she teams up with other artists. When asked to name one of her favorite collaborators, Alicia immediately named Linda Perry, adding, “She’s writes these songs that really grab at your heart.”
Continuing to reflect on her past recording methods, Keys explained the difference when working with another woman. “When I was first-first starting, I was working with a lot of guy producers and the minute that I would walk into the room they would be like [sarcastic tone], ’So she plays the piano,’ and immediately they doubted me … so I always came in there extra-prepared. So by the time I was working with Linda, I was letting things flow a little more, which is scary.” Alicia noted that some of her best music came from her sessions with Linda Perry.
Sway then let the audience have their chance at picking Keys’ brain as she fielded questions. One of the highlights was when one aspiring songwriter asked, “How do you write a hit song?” Keys replied with a line from a much-quoted country song: “All you need is three chords and the truth.”
When the inquisition ended, the furniture was removed from the stage and the curtains were back. Keys then appeared behind a piano framed by spotlights and smoke machines. The crowd immediately got out of their seats and surged forward as she opened with the anthemic hook from “Empire State of Mind” as a prelude to “You Don’t Know My Name.”
Delivering to the crowd, Keys performed her breakthrough hit “Fallin’ ” to a different arrangement, this time with help from two powerful background vocalists and muted plucking from a rhythm guitarist.
Moving from the behind the piano to the front of the stage, the audience gave an exceptionally warm welcome while she performed her uplifting new single, “Doesn’t Mean Anything.”