"Come over here and talk to me," whispers Alicia Keys from an oversize couch, where she's sipping delicately out of a can of Coke. The 20-year-old R&B wunderkind is in a Williamsburg loft shooting a video for her new single, "A Woman's Worth," and trying to recover from an overnight bus ride from Washington, D.C., where she opened for Maxwell. "The trip ended up taking like seven hours," Keys says. Then she pulls back: "But it's all good -- getting to play with Maxwell has been a dream."
Keys's modesty plays against R&B type as much as the elegant Eames-style chairs on the video set do, or as much as "A Woman's Worth" non-vengeful-sounding upbraiding of disrespectful men does. That same sensibility is all over her triple-platinum Songs in A Minor, which is as influenced by Brill Building songwriting as it is by Prince (a cover of the Artist's "How Come You Don't Call Me" takes the song's loneliness to new heights). At a time when most R&B singers are puppets of producers who stack their albums with trendy cameos, Keys wrote and produced most of Songs herself, and the few collaborations are with soul giants like Isaac Hayes. Lyrically, her sensibility is that of the underdog -- not the reigning diva. "We call ourselves Batman and Robin," explains longtime friend and manager Jeff Robinson, chatting with a group of stylists near the back of the loft, "because we're about busting the cliques, the bullshit private parties, the 'Page Six' stuff."
Keys credits her low-key approach to growing up in what she calls "the Two H's" -- Harlem and Hell's Kitchen. She was singing Broadway standards by 4, was studying classical piano by 8, and spent her teenage years at the Professional Performing Arts School. In whatever spare time she had, Keys sang R&B hits with girlfriends during after-school programs at the Police Athletic League on 124th Street in Harlem. "But groups are hard," Keys says. "We could never agree what to sing -- or even on a name for a group."
Enter Robinson, who made the trip to 124th Street to see Keys perform at the urging of his brother Conrad, a pal youth counselor. "She sang Mary J. Blige and I was like, okay, cool, she's got soul," Anderson remembers, "but then she sat down at the piano and started playing Scott Joplin and I was like, whoa, this is some next-level shit." Columbia Records signed her in 1996 -- "They gave me a good deal and they offered me a baby grand piano, so how could I refuse?" Keys says -- but shelved the album she recorded. "They wanted something more easily definable," she remembers, "something not me."
She was then signed by Clive Davis, who had just formed J Records after being pushed out of Arista, and Songs, which debuted at No. 1 last summer, is the label's first big hit. Now Keys has to balance her natural humility with Oprah appearances and the responsibility of composing songs for the forthcoming Muhammad Ali biopic. "This," Keys says, surveying the hairdressers, makeup artists, and production assistants scurrying around the shoot, "is everything that I've been working for."
-- ETHAN BROWN
When Ryan Adams, country music's great young hope, broke up his North Carolina band Whiskeytown and moved to New York, he got his bearings every day by starting at the Lakeside Lounge. "It was the only address I knew in New York," he says. "So I'd tell the cab driver to take me to the Lakeside, and then I'd figure out where I was going from there."
Often Adams didn't go anywhere -- he just perched on a leather barstool and wrote songs ("New York, New York," the single on his new album, Gold, includes a sly shout-out to the bar). The Lakeside is that place essential to the soul of any true music city: the musicians' hang. The tiny, U-shaped space on Avenue B offers cold Tecate, a photo booth salvaged from the Asbury Park boardwalk, and the kind of genius jukebox, with 3,000 tunes ranging from Hank Williams to a Ghanaian version of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," that can only be the creation of an obsessive.
But the Lakeside's true attraction, the real reason that there's often even more talent sitting at the bar than playing onstage, is rooted in the rock-and-roll-forged friendship of the bar's co-owners. Now both in their early forties, Eric "Roscoe" Ambel and Jim "the Hound" Marshall met in a midtown recording studio one late night in 1979. Ambel was an original Blackheart, playing guitar with Joan Jett; Marshall was driving the van for the Cramps. Six years ago, Ambel, who had started a record-production company, and Marshall, then a WFMU D.J., opened the Lakeside. Joey Ramone appeared unannounced on one of the first nights, and touring friends like Steve Earle and Gillian Welch began stopping by for spontaneous late-night shows after their paying gigs. The Lakeside quickly became an incubator for new talent, particularly of the southern-accented, alt-country variety, thanks to the partners' love of roots music. The North Mississippi Allstars made their New York debut inside the Lakeside. Pedal-steel wizard Robert Randolph played his first nonchurch show here. Regulars (from left, behind Ambel and Marshall) like Laura Cantrell; Mike Ferrio of the band Tandy; Ambel's wife, Mary Lee Kortes; Tammy Faye Starlite; Amy (daughter of Mose) Allison; and Tandy's Drew Glackin all use the scruffy room to test new material. "We avoid using the C-word," says Ambel, fresh from playing in Steve Earle's touring band, the Dukes. "Because whenever we say 'country music,' we get tons of terrible tapes from bands who want to play here."
That's as exclusive as the Lakeside gets. "They were nice to me when I was nobody," Adams says. "What was that place Arlo Guthrie sang about? The Lakeside Lounge is like Alice's Restaurant -- only for guys who like to play G chords and Stones records."
-- CHRIS SMITH