On staying real in a fake world, spirituality, writing love songs, and the lessons of motherhood
Welcome to Rolling Stone’s 2021 Musicians on Musicians package, the annual franchise where two great artists come together for a free, open conversation about life and music. Each story in this year’s series will appear in our November 2021 print issue, hitting stands on November 2nd — with four special covers, including this one. We’ll be rolling out all 10 stories this week and next, so check back often.
Kehlani can’t remember the first time she heard Alicia Keys — just that Keys was there, in her childhood, as both legend and blueprint. In her head, she can see the CDs and the music videos; she can hear the young girls at school belting Keys’ 2003 hit “If I Ain’t Got You” to prove their vocal bona fides. She wouldn’t have even been 10 at the time of its release. So to hear Keys explain, in a West L.A. studio this past August, the first time she heard Kehlani’s own music feels a little surreal. “It was definitely the first album for sure,” Keys recalls, referring to 2017’s SweetSexySavage, “but it was something more than that. It was almost like you have a certain energy that you carry with you.”
Keys’ major-label breakthrough, in 2001, came at the end of an era often pitted against Kehlani’s generation — purist fans of Nineties and 2000s R&B decry everything from the lack of church-cultivated vocal conviction to the lyrics that echos today’s flightier attitudes toward dating and love — but only mutual respect exists between the two. In their creative lives, they share a knack for aesthetic subversion and understated eloquence; in their personal lives, a commitment to living authentically, even when that eclipses expectations lingering over them. Both are in a period of flowering, reflected in their upcoming releases. Keys’ as-yet-named eighth album, due out later this year, aligns with a newfound clarity of vision; Kehlani’s upcoming Blue Water Road is, in her own words, “vastly different than anything [I’ve] ever created” — so much so that to even share it with the world scares her. On this point, they splinter, with Keys more confident than she’s been at any time in her career.
Keys and Kehlani’s conversation brims with earnest curiosity that reveals a kinship that extends beyond music. Though time may split them, Keys, who celebrated her 40th birthday this year, recognizes in Kehlani something familiar. “I don’t see you chasing anything except your truth,” Keys tells Kehlani. “You had the song with, like, ‘I’m singing like Alicia’ [Kehlani’s 2020 track “Can I”], and then I kept rocking with you and riding with you. But I feel like the first thing that brought me to you was your energy and your individuality.”
Keys: You’re a creative being. Yet the music world, the entertainment world is, let’s just be honest, fake. So how does a real person like you manage in a world that is based on illusion and things that are absolutely not real?
Kehlani: I don’t think I was always really good at it. From the outside looking in, people have complimented me in that way, like, “You’ve always seemed like you just knew exactly who you were.” I think I was just really honest about where I was at with it. I might have been like, “Oh, I actually have no idea what I’m doing right now. I actually am trippin’ right now. I’m actually going through it right now.”
So I don’t know, navigating the music industry is definitely different. I’ve always had people — you’re one of them, and very few — who have reached out and been like, “Yo, I like the music, it’s cool. I like what you do. But I see who you are as an individual,” and chose to latch onto me to offer me support. That’s been the best thing.
Keys: I think that’s it, just finding kindred people.
Kehlani: I got a question for you. How do you think it is now versus when you first came out? Like navigating from then to navigating it now? Because I couldn’t imagine. Y’all didn’t have Twitter, y’all didn’t have—
Keys: At the beginning, obviously, there wasn’t those types of social media tools and platforms. I remember when they first started coming around, I was so like, “Ugh, I’m supposed to share everything?” I’ve always been super-private anyway, that’s my nature. I’m not the one that wants to — it’s probably just New York shit, you keep it close to your vest.
Kehlani: Yeah, y’all different.
Kehlani: No, no, no, I love it. I wish. We’re a little too chill. We’re like, “Yeah, I’ll tell you everything you need to know” [laughs].
Keys: Right, and we like, “Nah, you don’t really know me, you think you know me” [laughs]. But honestly, I guess the thing is it hasn’t changed. People are always going to try to use you. You’re a transaction to most people. As an artist, your most prized possession, which is the magic that we create, is unbuyable and it’s unsellable. It’s a connection. It’s a frequency.
So to try to make that an item of commerce naturally is a tricky thing, but the commerce of it is always generally the same. How it’s shared has changed, that’s a difference. And I like that. Before, there was so many gatekeepers who held the keys for your life and your future, and now you hold your own keys. You create your connections, you have an individual’s perspective, and you can share it. I think that’s really a beautiful freedom.
But, man, what do you do for inspiration? You have a very beautiful spiritual side to you. You’re seeking and actively searching and actively practicing. How did you get into it and how are you practicing it amid super-busy-ness, being a mom and all the things? What is your practice?
Kehlani: For the most part, I am in a very committed, very serious spiritual practice.
Keys: That’s beautiful.
Kehlani: I was on a lot of different spiritual journeys growing up. I grew up Christian, and then my grandma who was taking me to church passed away. And then I was like, “Oh, Buddhism seems awesome,” and I’d dip my toe.
Then something else would seem awesome, and I would read up and I would go connect with people, and they would take me to their temples and they would take me to their ceremonies. But to me, the most important is lineage and ancestor work and just taking care of the people who were here before you because it’s really all that we can do to pass on in a real way. Like we know where they go after and they have a major purpose for us, so we really have to be on the other side of that relationship and take care of them as well.
Keys: Oh, my gosh, I love that.
Kehlani: I think every single person on Earth has the ability to be mystically spiritual. It’s about maintaining a connection with the spirits that you have around you, and everybody has the capability to do it because we all have dead people. We all have ancestors. Everybody has somebody to take care of. It’s super-simple. But spirituality has always grounded me because it does remind you that there’s so much more than right here.
It saved my life so many times. So now I’m just really disciplined with it and give as much energy to it as I can, and it takes care of me the same way.
Keys: What do you listen to? What’s some things that you go back to and you’re like, “This sets me off,” or that you recently discovered even?
Kehlani: My mom, the one that raised me, is a super neo-soul head. Like you would have thought I was a kid from Philadelphia when I was little because I only knew neo-soul from what was played in the house, and like a little bit of R&B here and there. Then, as I got older, music changed and neo-soul kind of like branched out into other things. But I didn’t know any rap when I was little. People would be like, “Who’s your favorite rapper,” and I’d be like, “Whew, this is hard.” I also wasn’t a big outside kid. My aunt protected me from a lot of stuff, so she kept me pretty much in the house, kind of in our own little world. And my mom — I say my mom and aunt interchangeably, but that’s my mom — she has that CD player I’m talking about. It was all the same. We would add albums when people that she had all of their albums in there dropped another album, if that makes sense.
Keys: I feel you. I like Jhené, I like H.E.R., I like Kehlani, I like SZA. I like to take it back to Nina [Simone]. I love Fleetwood Mac. I like to vibe with just super-classic things. I love records. There’s some artists from Saudi that are amazing, and some artists from France that I love to get into that are crazy. I just love to explore all these different tastes and tones.
Kehlani: What’s your comfort-food spot, though? Like musically. Because that’s what I’m talking about. I listen to a lot of things, but I always go back to — how I start my morning correctly is the same, it’s like my sweet spot.
Keys: I think my comfort-food music is Sade. I feel like when I put her on, I can just be like, “I’m good.”
Kehlani: That’s how I feel about Stevie [Wonder]. I’m always going to be like, “OK, I can relax now.”
Keys: That’s a good one, comfort-food Stevie. So for you, I guess you more recently became a mama, and that would have been in the middle of a freakin’ pandemic.
Kehlani: She spent her first birthday actually in the pandemic, so it was actually a week or two after they announced we’re officially locking down. We had a pandemic birthday, just me, her dad, my little sister — pretty much anybody who lived in the house and, like, her one best friend that we got super-tested. Everybody wore masks and stayed apart because we didn’t really know anything at the time. And it’s been interesting because I dropped an album from home. I shot a bunch of videos from home.
Keys: Like literally home?
Kehlani: Literally home.
Keys: And those visuals were fresh, too.
Kehlani: It was me and one person, my photographer. We bought a camera and we bought Adobe, and we literally got on YouTube and learned how to edit videos and just, like, did them all in my hot garage in the Valley with no AC in there and my baby on my lap.
Keys: That’s amazing.
Kehlani: So I haven’t experienced what it’s like yet to be super-away from my child because we spent the majority of her life so far in this pandemic, and all of my work has been from home. I’m just now starting to leave and be back on set or be back in the studio or be back away from my house and kind of navigate what that looks like for me. Creatively, I think about everything different. I can’t really be super-reckless. You have a second thought at all times, like I have something major to consider in every single movement of my day, even if it’s tiny. Even now, I’m listening to my allergies, like, “My kid needs me to not eat things I’m allergic to.” Even things like that, so everything is different.
Keys: It’s definitely different. I remember for me, too, it was just like I found my power. I didn’t have the strength to tell people no by myself because I wasn’t important enough to myself, but that baby was important enough to me that I found my power. I know what you mean about being more considerate. I used to burn the studio down to the ground. I would be digging for the thing until I was on the floor. I couldn’t figure it out, and it would be seven in the morning and I’m finally going home. Now, I’m at a place where I’m just like, “OK, it’s not happening.”
Kehlani: Go to bed.
Kehlani: I love when you finally get to that point. It’s the best, like, “You know what?…”
Keys: It’s not my day today.
Kehlani: I’m going to sleep. Exactly.
Keys: And that changed everything, too, because it actually allowed there to be more space. And I didn’t realize that space gave you more—
Keys: Here you are, thinking you got to …
Kehlani: You can’t create if nothing’s happening.
Keys: You know?
Kehlani: I’m the same way. If I’m trying to put myself in the studio every single day, I’m seeing four walls, for 12, 13, 14 hours a day, and then I’d go home and see my four walls and my bed. What, am I going to write music about the four walls? Am I going to write music about my bed? The lights in the studio? What am I experiencing to allow me to bring anything in? And at least if I’m home and I’m resting during the day, it’s not my dark room at nighttime because that’s the time I get home, so I feel it.
I think motherhood influenced my writing — you write about love from different emotions. You can write about love from anguish or impatience or gratitude or lack of it. But all of the things you gain when you become a parent influence how you view love. I write love songs. I don’t say I write more things than that, I don’t even fight it anymore.
Keys: Right, like it is what it is.
Kehlani: I make music about love. It’s the most universal thing. It’ll never go away. You’ll never get tired of it. People will experience it until the Earth explodes. So obviously my baby gave me patience and a backbone and all these things.
Keys: That’s what I’m talking about!
Kehlani: So then I’m experiencing relationships, and I’m hella patient now and I have a backbone, and then the songs aren’t these like “Pick me, I’m dying without you” songs because it all goes back to how my kid made me. I think parenthood transforms emotion in general, and emotion is direct creation.
Keys: Yeah, man, I feel you. I love that backbone. That’s really it.
Kehlani: What? I was spineless [laughs].
Keys: It’s like that. It really is like that.
Kehlani: It happens. We made it out. We free.
Keys: How does [preparing to release new music] feel?
Kehlani: I be scared, yo. I don’t know. I feel like no one is around when you’re creating it but the core people that you’re creating it with, and it’ll never mean what it means to the people in the room that are creating it to anybody else. I mean, it might mean more to some people because they resonate with it in a specific way, but you weren’t there to love this song in the way that me and the producer and the instrumentalist and everybody that was there with me love it. So it’s this scary feeling of like, “Will you really get how much this means to me? Will you really get why I’m so proud of this? Will you really get how far this feels, like it was different from the first song I ever dropped?” I’m about to drop music that, to me, feels vastly different than anything I’ve ever created. I wouldn’t call it the same genre sonically as I’ve done before. And I’m scared about it because I’m like, “Y’all may receive it and just feel like Kehlani is dropping another project.” And to me, I’m making a pivot creatively because it was something I always wanted to do with people I always wanted to do it with.
Kehlani: I guess I just be nervous, but I had to also stop psyching myself out. I try to look from this big bird’s-eye view of like, “Well, I’m probably going to drop like five more albums. I’m going to have this experience a bunch of more times, don’t freak out, be like water, let it come out. Let people think whatever they think.” I try to always come back to the emotion that I felt when I was creating it.
Keys: So do you think that the thing that makes you nervous is the judgment? Like just honestly, because it has to be, right? All of us, everyone gets scared of being judged in a way that you don’t—
Kehlani: I don’t even think it’s judgment. It’s receiving. It’s like — you know how we’re sitting here and you told me your favorite thing about me is me?
Kehlani: You can receive me, you can see me. I sometimes have a hard time feeling like people don’t receive me. You can feel how you feel about whatever comes out on the surface with music, creativity, interviews I might’ve done. But, like, being perceived or received as a whole, really it’s seeing my heart. So I feel like if I’m putting out this thing that’s coming from my heart, and I feel like you can’t receive my heart in it, that makes me nervous. You’ll hear it, and you’ll think this is another song. I’m like, “Did you listen to the lyrics?”
Keys: “Did you hear what I was saying?”
Kehlani: “Did you hear what it meant? Could you understand?” I go through those processes. So it isn’t even judgment because I don’t care if you liked the song or not. Somebody is going to like the song, and I’m really glad they do. And I love this song, but can you feel me?
Keys: You described that beautifully. You can get used to picking up other people’s energy because everybody has skin in the game. They have something they’re to gain or lose from your shit. And so I think I used to pick up their energy so much that I would start to make it my own thoughts when it wasn’t really mine — I inherited them.
So that’s something that I learned over time, to be really cautious and aware about what your feelings are. Because a lot of times you’re just regurgitating what someone else is feeling. I think that’s quite tricky, especially in this world where there’s so many opinions attached before you even — you share your music with your inner crew, and they’re going to have their vibes on it.
Kehlani: “This the best song you ever made.” Then you’re like, “Is it? Fuck.”
Keys: Or they might be like, “I mean, ‘Nah, I like it, but …’ and then you got to feel how that feels, too. And again, back to that thing about what you’re saying — I love it, I have a vision for it, and I’m going to own it. And so I think that’s the place where I am now.… I’ve given up a lot of this idea of wanting people to approve of me, and that feels much better.
Kehlani: Give me a couple of years [laughs].
Keys: You on your way, you close.
Kehlani: I’m a lot closer than I was a year ago.
Keys: You’re close. Honestly, I know what you mean because a lot of people would tell me, too, like, “Man, Alicia, sometimes you share that you didn’t have a strong sense of yourself, but you always came off so strong.” Like, “What do you mean, ‘You always were so strong?’”
And, I think, that’s what happens with strong people. I think it’s those people that come off really strong and together that oftentimes need the most checking in on.
Kehlani: Because usually they’re holding it down for a lot of other people.
Keys: Yeah, I understand. I can already tell that you’re definitely in that space. You’re good, super-good.