“I started to really be focused on just writing the song, writing a great song, and figuring out the production afterwards,” she says. “Other times I would produce all this stuff or do all this music, then try to figure out what to write on top of it. And what was happening was, I was getting this body of songs that were really strong songs and sparse almost — and it was feeling great, because you could hear the voice, and the voice was big, and you could feel the song and the melody. And it didn’t feel empty; it felt kind of complete.”
This is a natural setup for Keys to play me the title track.
“It’s definitely a representation of who I am and how I feel,” she says, scrolling through the songs on her phone. “It sounds really big, but it’s really, like, three instruments — it’s a bass, it’s piano and it’s drums.”
I don’t know how you can tell a song is a hit. Keys doesn’t know. No one does, not for sure. But I can tell you that, from the first five seconds after Keys presses play and her almost unadorned voice fills up that room in the basement, I know I am hearing a song that will be as inescapable as “Empire State of Mind” was three years ago, as her first hit, “Fallin’,” was 11 years ago. It is a radio song that is not for a moment trying to be. And that is before we get to the chorus, absolutely stomping in every way you can take that word, with Keys singing the back out of every syllable: “She’s got her feet on the ground and she’s burning it down/She’s got her head in the clouds and she’s not backing down.”
Those other songs might be someone else’s stories, but “Girl on Fire” is all Alicia Keys — right here, right now, doing anything and everything she wants.
She lets out a soft, “yeah,” when the last note ends. And you know what? Maybe she does know when she has a hit — with a face and legs and arms — on her hands.
ZAC CRAIN is a senior editor at D Magazine and has written for Spin, Esquire and RollingStone.com.