Making hits is no easy thing, not even for a seasoned star like Alicia Keys herself. It had been several years since her last album and she’s a new mother and a busy business woman, too, so for this next round, she figured she would take things slow: “An easy vibe, not to put too much pressure on it,” she tells the New York Times. Before getting to work each day on The Element of Freedom, which is out November 27th, she would take time to listen to other people’s music — Nina Simone and Frank Ocean (!) — and work out her thoughts. You can almost hear this patience in the album’s new single, “Girl on Fire,” a fully realized and empowering anthem replete with crashing drums and a soaring chorus.
Keys brought the Times into the studio to show them — very, very excitedly! — her writing process, from the moment of inspiration to the post-release regrets. Want to write a song like “Girl on Fire”? Here’s what you need to do:
Step 1: Check your Google alerts
Alicia actually lifted the “Girl on Fire” idea from an interviewer. “The woman wrote something like, ‘She’s like a girl on fire,’ and I was like: I love that. And I remember thinking, I’m writing a song called ‘Girl on Fire’ for sure,” she says.
Step 2: What does “Girl on Fire” sound like?
That settled, Alicia and her team went to work figuring out what exactly “Girl on Fire” might sound like, and where Alicia begins to get extra animated.
Step 3: Chords
They began to toss around ideas and thoughts, letting different sounds and things come out until, “Eventually we came to the chords,” she says. And then it takes two tries, but she shows off the chords. “Those are the chords.”
Step 4: Vocals
“It’s like a different kind of twangier sound,” she says, sitting at the piano now, singing different bits of the song to show just how it is so. Later in the video she jokes that, “Now what I am going to ask myself is, why did I chose to write this song so high?” The first rule of being a girl on fire, though, is living without regret.
Step 5: Drums
Keys heard the song’s “loud and obnoxious and destructive” drums while scanning her producer Salaam Remi’s sample library and knew immediately that “That’s what a girl on fire sounds like,” she says. “I was like, Yeah! A girl on fire is loud and obnoxious and destructive and just, like, totally unrelenting and she’s free.” And it’s true, the huge drums on this song really buoy the powerful “Girl on Fire” image.
Step 6: Let the rest flow
Find a mic and just let it flow. Talking really, really quickly now, she explains: “It’s just flowin’! It’s one of these crazy moments where it’s just flowing. Which sometimes happens, sometimes doesn’t happen. But this moment was just like magic.”
Step 7: Again from the top
Chords, drums, twang — all together now, and from the top!
Step 8: Explosion of magic fairy dust
“I don’t know what happened, but it was like an explosion of magic fairy dust that came down, and that’s basically what happens sometimes with songs, but it’s very rare.”
Step 9: Call your husband
Once the fairy dust has settled, know what you’ve got: “My husband called me and I was like, ‘Yooo!‘ And he said, ‘What’s up?’ And I said, ‘I think we just came up with something.” From spark to fire, something indeed.
“I love this song,” she says, and us too.