Alicia Keys says her expectations for her debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” never had anything to do with how well it sold.
“Being connected with people, that’s what I hope for,” the 20-year-old Manhattan native says. “Numbers I leave for everyone else to count and calculate.”
Well, everyone else has had a lot of calculating to do. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart after its release June 26.
“We were stunned by the sales,” said Clive Davis, the music-industry veteran who heads up Keys’ label, J records.
“Stunned” pretty much sums up the music world’s reaction to Keys, the classically trained pianist with the husky voice, braids, big eyes and even bigger smile. At a recent performance, she had a crowd of 2,000 people singing along with every word of “Falling,” the album’s first song, about the ups and downs of a relationship.
While Keys admits “it’s so wonderful, everything that’s going on,” she’s doing her best to stay grounded.
She loves that journalists have put her name in the same sentences as Lauryn Hill, Macy Gray, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, praising her stage presence and lyrical and musical promise. But the hype does make her laugh a little.
“I definitely feel like sometimes people jump the gun. Not to say I will not be around for a very long time – because I will – but at the same time, step by step,” Keys says.
The steps started for Keys when she was a child. At 7, she began playing piano, followed by dance and voice lessons in later years. She studied at the Professional Performance Arts School in New York, graduating at 16 and studying at Columbia University for a minute before deciding to devote herself full-time to music.
She signed with Davis at Arista Records in 1998, and when he left to form J Records, she went along. Her respect for the music industry legend is in her voice whenever she talks about him.
“When we first met, he definitely asked me, ‘What do you see for yourself? Tell me what you see for your career,”‘ she says. “That’s an incredible question for a person of his stature to ask you, record executive-wise, and to even care what you think.”
In turn, Davis calls Keys “a stunning beauty, a unique writer of songs…. She is the combination of the best of what you want.”
He made sure she got media exposure, taking the video for the track “Fallin” to executives at MTV and BET, and writing a letter to Oprah Winfrey, asking her to showcase new artists – in particular Keys. (Keys did appear on “Oprah.”)
Keys wrote, played and produced the songs on her album, and she enjoys being at a fledgling label – but one where the executives have years of experience.
“Having that place to build, it’s not like, ‘I already have 30 female solo artists, so what do you do?”‘ she says. “It gives it a freedom, a kind of an experimentation.”
She counts Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder among her influences but, like any self-respecting member of the hip-hop generation, also talks about how Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” will always be in her CD player.
She doesn’t label her sound, which mixes a bit of everything from hip-hop to soul to classical.
“It’s definitely a lot of different styles and I don’t describe it, because I hope to constantly be changing it in a sense, ever so slightly, ever so gently experimenting with different sounds and styles,” she says.
Keys says she likes discovering performers who may not have sold millions of albums, and she goes into an almost stream-of-consciousness discussion of artistic freedom versus commercial success.
“You know what I think, when you’re not 2 million thousand times platinum you have more freedom to just be and do, you don’t have to quench the thirst of any main public or whatever, it’s just like being more able to be yourself,” she says. “Those couple of hundred thousand people accept you for that and that’s what they like. They like you to be yourself.”
Not that she has any intention of being unknown.
“I want to be around forever. I want to be performing if I want to when I’m 65,” she says. “If I want to roll out of the house and do a show, I want to be able to do a show, and write songs and get into as many different things as possible.”
For now, that means promoting the album and performing. She goes on tour with Maxwell starting in August.
“I do definitely expect to take the world by storm, I absolutely intend to do that,” she says. “I intend to just do quality things, follow my spirit and build my spirit so that it gets strong, so that me as a person continues to grow and be a good individual and I know everything else behind that will follow.”