Alicia: Of course you're an Aquarius—I'm an Aquarius! I want you to know that we're one of the coolest signs on the planet. I love being an Aquarius!
Oprah: You don't have a choice. You're obviously a Stevie admirer. Who else did you listen to growing up?
Alicia: Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald.
Oprah: Chopin and Mozart.
Alicia: Nirvana and Led Zeppelin.
Oprah: You signed with Columbia Records when you were 15. Didn't somebody hear you when you were on the road?
Alicia: My manager put together these showcases so that the heads of various labels could hear me play. They were all interested, so we had a bidding war. Columbia brought me in to play in this gorgeous building that looks out over Manhattan. I was on, like, the 579th floor with this white piano. The whole room was white and glass, and I'd never seen anything like it. I was like "Wow." So I played my little songs and everyone was excited. I was in heaven. Then the exec cleared everybody out and said to me, "If you sign with us, I'll give you this piano." All I had at home was my broken-down room divider. He might as well have been offering me diamonds. The guy says, "I'll give you 15 minutes," then he walks out. It was a game.
Oprah: Was it a baby grand?
Alicia: Yes. It was a $26,000 piano—and I signed with Columbia. Life has since taught me that signing for a piano is not always the best thing to do.
Oprah: What happened?
Alicia: At first it was good, but I was a baby and had no idea how to put together an album. They plunged me into the circuit of writing with producers.
Oprah: What many people don't know is that record companies are marketing machines. They size you up and say, "We can fit you into this niche. If you do it our way, we'll make you a star."
Alicia: Exactly. I was writing with these people, and I hated it. I remember driving to the studio one day with dread in my chest. Months had passed since I'd been signed, and Columbia was asking, "Where's the music?" I was miserable. Then some of the people I worked with started saying things like "You wanna come to my house or meet me at my hotel room?" It was horrible.
Oprah: Wasn't Columbia trying to make you the next Whitney or Mariah?
Alicia: I think that's what they were hoping would happen naturally. The person who's now my collaborator, Kerry Brothers, said to me, "You wouldn't play as well as you do if you didn't have your own piano. So how do you expect to be a producer and an arranger if you don't have your own equipment?" I bought my own things. Through the music I wrote then, I was finally able to express the turmoil I'd been feeling. My manager was ecstatic, but some people at the label were saying, "What's this? It's kind of soulful. Where are the pop smashes?" They wanted my hair blown out and flowing, my dresses shorter. And they wanted me to lose weight.
Oprah: Oh, Lord.
Alicia: I believe I'm so much more, and they wanted me to be the same as everyone else.
We Hear You!