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Alicia Keys: The stories behind the songs

As she prepares to release her fifth studio album, 'Girl on Fire' (out Nov. 27), the 14-time Grammy winner, 31, tells EW how some of her most loved songs came to be.

Fallin' (2001)
''This one is like my little baby. There were so many people who didn't believe in it, because it went so much against the state of radio at the time. And just the journey of writing it — about how when you love someone but you're in and out, the struggle... When I sing it, I remember the years and years it took to get to a place where people would hear it, and I'm just so grateful.''

If I Ain't Got You (2004)
''I have heard a lot of people cover this song. I think that's actually the biggest compliment for a writer and for an artist, but especially for a writer. It showcases a big range and a powerful emotion, and I never think about it until it's time to be on tour, and then I'm like, 'S---! What did I do?' [Laughs] You gotta make it through two hours, and I'm not lip-synching, so it's serious.''

No One (2007)
'''No One' was, like, straight up from God. It just came down from the heavens and fell into my lap. I don't know how to explain it any better than that. I'll never forget, we had already picked [another] single, but I called everyone — my A&R, my manager — and I was like, 'I think y'all gotta come down.' It was undeniable. You just knew it. [Ed. note: The song spent five weeks at No. 1 and won two Grammys.] I love it with all my heart, and every single time I sing it, it sets me free all over again.''

I Need You (2007)
''There's a Coldplay song, 'Viva la Vida' — those daggone lyrics, whoo! It's perfect. If you write them down, they're the most beautiful poetry book. It's really spectacular without a melody or anything. I don't know if that song was out at the time [that I wrote 'I Need You'], and they're two totally different songs. But as a fan of music, that Coldplay song is just beautifully written, and that's what I'm proud of in 'I Need You.' To me, it's not just a song, it's a beautiful poem.''

Empire State of Mind (2009)
''The time that [Jay-Z and I] performed at Yankee Stadium [during] the World Series — that was pretty nuts, standing in the middle of that huge stadium in my hometown. But one of the coolest moments was when the song was just beginning to get attention, and I was singing a couple songs in this little intimate spot in Paris to promote my record. When I sang it, the way the crowd reacted was so crazy to me. That was when I realized that it wasn't just about New York. It was about a feeling of hope and peace that all of us hold on to, the possibility that we just might make it to where we dream about.''

Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart (2009)
''There was such a Prince element to it — that quiet Prince place, where you know you could sing at the top of your lungs, but it's more powerful to be in this whispery zone. And that emotion of trying to get over somebody, it hurts so bad. Every time you tell yourself, 'This is it! I'm gonna be over it and over you.' And then you're not.''

Girl on Fire (2012)
''I wrote this way before The Hunger Games came out, but they did approach me to do a song for it — the timing just didn't work out. The first spark for it actually came from this great [piece] Jeannine Amber wrote about me in Essence magazine. She said, 'She was like a girl on fire,' and when I read that line, it was so crazy impactful to me, and I carried that title around for months. I knew that I was going to name the album that. [Guest rapper] Nicki [Minaj] and I are from two different worlds, but it doesn't matter. It's about who you are as a woman standing in your own flame.''

Originally posted Nov 16, 2012 Published in issue #1234 Nov 23, 2012 Order article reprints