After suffering an emotional breakdown two years ago, Alicia Keys fought back to make her deeply personal third studio CD, 2007’s As I Am. Propelled by the anthemic single ”No One,” the disc debuted at No. 1, picked up two Grammy nominations, and sold more than 3 million copies. Now Keys is hitting the road with R&B crooner Ne-Yo and season 6 American Idol champ Jordin Sparks for the U.S. leg of her As I Am tour, which kicks off on Saturday (April 19) in Hampton, Va. The singer-songwriter and actress (The Nanny Diaries) called EW.com from the set of the video shoot for her third single, ”Teenage Love Affair,” to discuss her vision for her grandest tour yet.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the overall concept for your tour?
ALICIA KEYS: This is an arena tour. It’s the biggest show I’ve done yet. Because it’s the As I Am tour, we are kind of telling a story through the music. Basically, we take you on a journey from my beginning — where I started, how it was, searching for my dream — to where I am now. It tends to feel like you’re wrapped up not only in great music, but also a whole body of work. When I go to a show I wanna feel like I’m enraptured in the artist, their vibe, and their world, and so it’s been exciting to put this show together because we really wanted to come up with something that was a little bit more conceptual.
What does the set design look like?
The stage is crazy because it’s simple but it’s visually stunning. I always call it my little spaceship. The band is right there — they’re a part of the show, not hidden behind stuff. My piano almost floats in and out of the stage through a magical, gorgeous door, and I have some keyboards that I rock a lot. And then I have a catwalk on the top of the stage that lifts 8 to 10 feet in the air. I have dancers up there and I do my thing up there. There are also screens above the stage that display everything from gorgeous visuals to live footage of whatever we’re doing. It’s very artistic and gorgeous. It’s not only a musical experience, but it’s a visually moving experience as well. And everything just lives together in this way that takes you on a trip. It’s just magical and so beautiful.
Giorgio Armani custom-designed your entire tour wardrobe. What does it look like?
I love Armani very much. He did the whole stage — everybody is head-to-toe Armani. But for me personally, we really wanted to come up with some looks that were beautiful and flattering but also practical because when I’m on stage, I work. I’m sweating, I’m singing my heart out, I’m moving, I’m playing, I’m tapping my foot, my legs are spread, I’m at the Wurlitzer — I’m doing what needs to be done. Our main look has these great metallics. They’re super cool-looking but it doesn’t feel like too much. And then when we go to my little girl group section, we have these cute shimmery beaded dresses. And then, at the end, I’m wearing beautiful satin pants and a top that goes down in a V in the front and is all the way open in the back. It’s beautiful. And you’ll see as I change that everything makes sense. It’s cohesive.
Are you going to get up from behind your piano and dance?
I wanted this tour to show all the sides of who I am. A quarter of the show is me at the piano. Just me. And it’s so beautiful because I’m able to interact with the crowd. It feels like a vacuum — very small and intimate. But we also have very big parts of the show where I have, like, six dancers and each one comes in depending on the vibe and the style. For instance, as I’m going through my journey, I talk about how I started with a girl group, so we do all these songs old-school girl-group style. It’s crazy! And then, later on, when we get to a song like ”I Need You,” which has percussion and horns, we blow it out! It covers everything. You get it all.
Are there going to be any surprises?
What’s really fun about this album is there are so many ways that it can be done [live]. You never know how it all comes together, and that’s the fun part. My last show in Paris, a good friend of mine, Lenny Kravitz, happened to be there and he hopped on stage during one of my favorite songs, ”Go Ahead,” and we did this vibe together that was bananas. So you never know what’s gonna happen. I love to surprise people.