Later, after talking to her, after listening with her, I realize it’s almost necessary that it happened this way. Of course Keys would be in charge of her own listening session, because being in control — of her business, her music, her life — is a big part of the album. It’s there in the how and the why, the who and the what.
“Through my business and through who I am and what I want to do, I realized that there comes a time in all of our lives when we might have to make tough decisions, and you have to choose what life you want,” she says. “It’s just become more and more apparent. And when you choose the life you want, you’re able to really see clearly who fits in it and who doesn’t.
“And that’s said with all love,” she continues. “That’s not with any malice or anything. You have to keep close to you what feeds you and what nourishes you and what protects you and what keeps you strong and smart and feeling good. And if anything in my life was not doing that, it became apparent that I had to change it. No one else could. And I couldn’t blame those people who were maybe not giving me those things for not giving me those things. I had to claim it and choose that that’s what I wanted in my life. That fed a lot of songs on … huh.” She laughs. “That’s a good lead-in.”
Keys cues up “Listen To Your Heart,” cutting it off after 20 seconds or so because the sound isn’t right. Then she almost knocks the boom box off the long wooden table we’re sitting around because its cord isn’t long enough. We — and it takes both of us — move an acrylic chair that looks like an open paper clip toward the power outlet and move the boom box to it.
“Can you believe these chairs are so heavy?” Keys laughs. “They look like a plastic piece of crap.”
Then we finally listen to “Listen To Your Heart,” which builds from a skittering, bongo-style beat to a boom-bap chorus, all the while maintaining focus on Keys’ voice and what she’s saying. It’s the rare female-empowerment anthem that includes a supportive man in the picture instead of leaving him just outside the frame. It’s easy to transpose the lyrics (“He says, ‘You’re a little bit scared, just hold on, we’re almost there’ ”) onto Keys’ marriage, and there is probably more than some truth there. But the genesis of the song, of all the songs, came from outside.
She began working on Girl on Fire a few months after Egypt was born. She wasn’t really trying to start then. She was in Los Angeles, meeting with playwrights. Keys became fascinated with how they worked, how one person could write the stories of six or eight or however? many characters, could hear their voices and get them down, personalities and vulnerabilities intact.
“All of a sudden, that trip became more than just meetings,” she says. “It became this introduction into my desire to be inspired to write about people’s stories that maybe weren’t my own. That was interesting because that was the first time for me. Every time I’ve written, I’ve written from a personal place. Even now, having this thought of writing other people’s stories, I still have to tie it into a personal place or else I don’t quite know where to start. But that was a cool mind-opener for me.”