Alicia Keys got the spark for the title track of her new album at a very meta-moment: while reading about herself. “It came from this interview that I did, and the woman wrote something like, ‘She’s like a girl on fire,’ ” Keys said recently at her studio. “And I was like: I love that. And I remember thinking, I’m writing a song called ‘Girl on Fire’ for sure.”
The next question was, as she put it: What does a song called “Girl on Fire” sound like?
It might seem an obvious thing to consider, but figuring out the sounds that complement your ideas is one of the most important decisions in music. In the wake of her last album, “The Element of Freedom,” in 2009 — which made its debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and failed to make No. 1, a first for Keys — and given the fact that she was a new mother, she decided to take it slowly while working on new material, listening to some of the songs that inspire her. “I’d come in and listen to music,” she said. “I was listening to some Frank Ocean, definitely some old stuff, like Nina Simone. Just whatever I thought on the day — an easy vibe, not to put too much pressure on it. And then maybe I had a rough idea, maybe something I’d started, or I’d write a little bit, or if I had an idea I’d put the idea down. Maybe it was just piano, and I’d sing some vocals for it, just see if I liked it.”
One day, she was in the studio with two collaborators, the producers Jeff Bhasker and Salaam Remi, and she brought up the “Girl on Fire” concept. Together they tried different chords and melodies, but nothing struck her as quite right. “They just didn’t spark anything,” she said.
Then Remi, who has made hits for the Fugees and Amy Winehouse, moved to the computer. “He started going through his sample library and all these different crazy drums. And there were these loud, obnoxious, just destructive drums, and I was like, Yeah! A girl on fire is loud and obnoxious and destructive and just, like, totally unrelenting and she’s free, you know what I mean?” She’d found her sound; now she could start her song. “That’s what a girl on fire sounds like.”
For Keys, the search for songs started way back when she was 7, living with her mother in a tiny apartment on the West Side of Manhattan and singing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in the mirror. When friends of the family were giving away a piano — it wasn’t much, just a wood upright from the ’30s — they asked Keys’s mom if she’d like to have it. She took it, and Alicia started to play.
“When I was first learning songs, I’d have a favorite song, and I’d take the chords and twist them around,” she said. “I’d learn the chords and then play them backward. That was my first experimenting with writing a song.”
More than 20 years and four albums later — with the fifth, “Girl on Fire,” set to be released Nov. 27 — her method isn’t all that different. You can see it even when Keys is just warming up at the piano in her studio, a neat and airy space in New York that houses several vintage keyboards and offers expansive views over the city. She still gets ready to perform by moving through slow progressions and mutations of the chords, feeling her way toward the song.
After that initial breakthrough with the “Girl on Fire” drum samples, she wrote the song with unusual swiftness. All three collaborators started throwing out bits of melody and lyrics: “She’s got both feet on the ground and she’s burnin’ it down.” The song came together in a few hours. All that was left to do were some tweaks and to find a bridge.
The “Girl on Fire” lyrics are characteristically Keys, evocative but unspecific. You might imagine the girl-power message nods to Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of “The Hunger Games,” who appears in a key scene wearing a gown of flames, but “Girl on Fire” also speaks to Keys’s life, which has changed recently with marriage and a new son, Egypt. In her lyrics, her aim is to be personal while stopping shy of confessional, a technique she learned from listening to Marvin Gaye. “As a lyricist you love to hear other great lyrics or other great concepts,” she told me. “I really appreciate Frank Ocean’s lyrical style, I appreciate the way that he can kind of draw you into this personal space, but it’s still lyrical. It’s almost poetic, in a way, but it’s very personal at the same time.”
On a recent late-summer day at her studio, she kicked into a rendition of the finished song: “She’s just a girl and she’s on fire: hotter than a fantasy, lonely like a highway.” The melody recalls some of the easy attitude of Pink’s hit “Just Like a Pill” — the kind of punkish, rockish track that marks a departure for Keys from her calmer, more self-possessed songs in the early 2000s. But like Keys’s past work, the new material has a recognizable backbone of classic soul and R&B. And the simmering emotions of songs like the quiet, longing ballad “101” have their origins in lots of listens to Prince’s smoldering “Beautiful Ones” and Stevie Wonder’s moody “They Won’t Go When I Go.”
“I wouldn’t listen to it for lyric inspiration,” she said of the Wonder track, “but it’s more for the tone, for the sound of the vocal, for the way the piano feels and how he’s delivering it. It’s dark and vulnerable but still beautiful and inspiring.”
Her new music is also plainly conscious of current trends. While the meat of the album — including the track “Not Even the King” — is recognizably Keys, piano-driven and stylishly smooth, the defining moments are more unexpected. The first song released from “Girl on Fire,” in June, was the raucous anthem “New Day,” which combines the aggressive percussion of Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” with Rihanna’s island flavor and pepper-shot syllables (“celebrate and say hey-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay”). Keys’s voice has become ever so slightly huskier in the 11 years since “Songs in A Minor” and its lead single, “Fallin’,” made her a superstar. “Girl on Fire,” with its belted high notes and exposed, soaring chorus, keeps pushing her up against the limits of her range.
Halfway through the song, she laughs. “What I’m gonna ask myself is why I wrote this song so high,” she said. “ ’Cause I didn’t even get to the chorus yet, and I’m asking myself what made me write this song so high?”
The challenges pay off in impact. On Sept. 6, the song made its debut at the MTV Video Music Awards. Keys stood at the keyboard in a slinky top and skintight pants and pounded out “Girl on Fire.” Nicki Minaj rapped a verse, and Gabby Douglas, the Olympic gold medalist, did handsprings backward and forward, smiling broadly.
The performance was posted to YouTube, where someone wrote a comment that might well have come from Keys herself: “this song (to me) is about any girl with confidence despite the trials and tribulations she may endure. so yea it could be about someone as real as Gabby or a fictional character named Katniss or it could be about YOU.”
Source: New York Times