As the year ends, USA TODAY recognizes people in the news who embody these qualities. Pharrell Williams took the world by storm this year with the feel-good hit, Happy, a song so popular it became one of the best-selling singles of all time, earned an Oscar nomination and spawned joyful tribute videos around the world.
The mega-producer also took home four Grammys this year and changed the game on The Voice as a new judge. Now this is how you ace every platform. Pharrell Williams served up an innately cool 2014 as our impresario of music, television, social media and fashion. On the radio, he made us Happy, with a bright, poppy tune that became one of the best-selling singles of all time — and took him all the way to the Oscars stage.
Then, Williams took a seat on The Voice, and became part of our national lexicon. What does Pharrell think? we wondered, watching him in the judge’s chair. And (for those who didn’t know him) why did seemingly every contestant want to be on his team? It had something to do with the fact that Williams is behind most of our favorite songs on the radio (Get Lucky or Blurred Lines, anyone?).
From Salsa To Soul: Maxine Ashley started posting YouTube videos of herself doing covers of R&B hits and then one day Pharrell Williams called. Now she’s making her mark on the music scene as she releases her first EP, MOOD SWINGs.“I was born and raised in the BX [the Bronx] and I still live here – LOL. I started early. When I was 13, I moved all the way to London for around three years. This was because I got signed to a record company out there.”
“When I returned home at 17, my current producer and co-writer Pharrell Williams hit me up. So I’ve literally been doing music all my life. I’ve never had a real job, and I’ve never done anything else besides music. Maybe this is because I was born into it. My parents did music as well. I grew up around live music – my mother was a salsa singer, and my father and uncles also played and sang salsa. It’s hard to say what the most rewarding experience in my work has been so far – I’m still experiencing it all. Every day, every new project I engage in and every new talented person I meet, all of it is so rewarding.
I don’t just enjoy music – it is literally everything to me. It is who I am. It’s how I express myself. It helps me when I’m down and it makes me even happier when I’m already happy. When it comes to inspiration and making music, it’s always based on how I feel that day. For example, it can be about how the track makes me feel, or what I’m going through at that moment, or something I’ve gone through recently. It can also be a complete fantasy, but that also depends on how I’m feeling.” Maxine Ashley is currently working on visuals for her EP MOOD SWINGs, but she is already working on music for her next project. Photo by Naomi Shon.
Pharrell Williams Is Finally Happy
By Zach Baron. It might seem crazy what we’re about to say: Pharrell Williams, the ageless 40-year-old mega-producer, is about to have his biggest year yet. GQ’s Zach Baron spent a few days in the once and future Neptune’s orbit to find out why—after years of hit-making and money-raking—Pharrell says he’s just now figured it all out. Clap along, everybody. Photograph by Paola Kudacki.
Pharrell Williams looks like he’s been to many Zen gardens in his four decades on this planet, but in fact, today’s field trip will be a first. “We’ll be learning together,” he says, standing in the lobby of his Bel Air hotel, surrounded by outrageous ferns. The peaks of his Vivienne Westwood buffalo hat are huge and uneven, like the Alps. His face is—well, you know. He looks like he is never going to die. He has looked that way for forty years and counting.
Someone mentioned this Japanese Zen garden in Van Nuys, said Pharrell would like it. And so, on an overcast Tuesday in January in Los Angeles, we are off to look at some meditative trees. We wedge ourselves into an SUV and start driving, Pharrell in the captain’s chair, his cheerful, pixie-cut wife, Helen, beside him. His phone rings almost immediately, the name “Ush”—for Usher—displayed on its screen. They start talking. It is, at first, not at all clear what they’re talking about—just that Pharrell is trying to talk Usher into something preposterous involving horses.
“What I wanted to intimate to you is,” Pharrell is saying, “if the record comes out one month from now, the video comes out two months from now—you’re not late.” Okay, so: a song, one that Pharrell is apparently producing, “Year Of The Horse.” Chinese New Year is next Friday, and Usher’s worried about missing it entirely. But, Pharrell is saying, the Year Of The Horse lasts all year! Usher will be fine. Then he listens for a while. “Go and shoot the video,” Pharrell says finally. “That’s the only thing that I beg of you.”
By Catherine Clifford. From Gum to the Grammys: How Artist-Entrepreneur Kenna Bulldozed the Status Quo. Kenna was a businessman before he became a Grammy-nominated artist. Then, he took the best of both worlds to move forward. This now 35-year-old — whom you may have never heard of — combined his entrepreneurial instincts and Hollywood connections to galvanize support for clean water advocacy.
Born in Ethiopia, Kenna Zemedkun, known simply as ‘Kenna,’ moved to the U.S. when he was 3 and has spent much of his life finding solutions to problems that most people either pretend aren’t there or do their best to steer clear of. And despite the gravitas of some of the problems Kenna is tackling, he has a lightness in his step and in his spirit that is infectious.
New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote extensively about Kenna in his 2005 book Blink, arguing Kenna’s music – a cross between rap and the British new wave music of the 1980s – failed to gain widespread acclaim in the U.S. because it didn’t fit into any familiar category. While music executives loved it, much of the general public found it uncomfortable. But Kenna has always been about going against the grain — and his suave, sexy likeability, combined with a hearty dose of nothing-to-lose courage, has made him a life-long change-maker. “I was raised an entrepreneur. My mom is an entrepreneur, my Dad is a finance professor and economist, so it’s been a part of my life — business is a part of my life,” says Kenna.
An hour with music producer Pharrell Williams at Jungle City Studios, up above the High Line and a wide array of new construction, feels like a minor form of time travel: He can connect an mp3 player to the console, turn the monitors up to jaw-rattling volumes, and play you pop music from the near future. These are the tracks he’s written for (or co-written with) various singers, beats he’s made for various rappers, a selection of sounds he’s crafted that could become radio fodder over the coming months. When we meet, he’s making adjustments to “ATM Jam,” a track for Azealia Banks’s upcoming album, and there’s plenty more of his work to follow. A tough-as-nails Jennifer Hudson song with a Rick James feel. A not-dissimilar piece for Miley Cyrus. A cut for Mayer Hawthorne that would sound like seventies smooth-rock kings Steely Dan even if we hadn’t just been talking about how much Williams loves Steely Dan, and even if he didn’t lean over afterward and say, “Sounds like Steely Dan, right?” A record with resurgent Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland. And my favorite, an astonishing number from Kylie Minogue, which Williams might take extra pride in, because he makes a point of playing it without announcing the artist, then asks me to guess who’s singing: “That’s Kylie Minogue!” This is just the music he can share; somewhere beyond it lies the music he can only hint at (like new work with Beyoncé), and the stuff he can’t even discuss yet (he recently tweeted a photo of himself in a studio with Jay-Z and Frank Ocean).
At 40 years old, Williams still has the lean, boyish air of a teenage skater, as though he could blend in with the kids in Union Square. But I’m guessing the metaphor he would choose to describe this listening experience would not be time travel; it would involve visiting a fashion house and browsing through next season’s clothes. He employs a whole lot of fashion analogies to explain what he does with music. They’re complex and thoughtful, featuring Mark McNairy, Rei Kawakubo, and different methods of setting Swarovski crystals, and they may be slightly informed by the marketing person who’s here to remind him to mention the tenth anniversary of his clothing line, Billionaire Boys Club—but the central thrust is that writing and producing songs for other artists is a lot like designing their clothes: “I think about the person, where they are in their life, what they’re going through. I think about what’s going to look good on their body. So I’ve got to put the right fabric, the right print, the right weight and feel. And then I’ve got to dress the window.” That Kylie Minogue song, for instance: Williams was inspired after Minogue, suddenly confronted by some other urgent matter, thought she’d be forced to cancel the recording sessions. So he built “The Winners,” a giddy perseverance anthem whose verses all begin, “I was going to cancel …”
Meet Pharrell’s guitarist, GF native Brent Paschke. It might seem strange for a self-described “indecisive” guy like Grand Forks native Brent Paschke to make career plans before he was old enough to apply for a driver’s license, but he said he “just knew” all along that music was his calling. “That was just never a question,” he said. “In the seventh grade, I quit all sports. There was never a backup plan.” His risk paid off, and Paschke has gone from an ambitious guitarist who was convinced he’d make a suitable replacement for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante in the early 1990s to a musician, producer and songwriter who seems to have his imprint on everything these days. Over the years, Paschke has earned acclaim and the respect of fellow musicians — not to mention an ongoing gig with one of the biggest names in music and the chance to open for major acts like the Black Eyed Peas.
Getting A Break
Paschke graduated from Red River High School in 1990 and then attended a music school in Minneapolis. He cut his teeth as the guitarist for Twin Cities pop rock group Spymob, a band formed in 1993 that seemed poised for stardom. But a common occurrence for new bands — unexpectedly getting dropped from a record deal — changed those plans. Paschke said the band’s lawyer also represented Pharrell Williams, half of the Grammy-winning production team The Neptunes. Pharrell had a meeting with the president of Epic Records, who had just dropped Spymob, and Paschke said the timing worked out perfectly even though the band was “really bummed.” “Pharrell went in there telling her he loved Epic Records and his favorite band, Spymob, is on her label,” he said. “She then had to break the news to him that she just dropped us. Pharrell was like, ‘O.K., that’s fine, then I’ll sign them.’ That’s where it all started.”
Check out this very nice article about Alyssa Bernal from Zmarter.com. It seems that discovering new talent using technology and the internet is the coolest trend since celebrities and their accessorized babies. You never know who, out of the thousands and thousands of videos you watch, will be the next to pop up on your television or the radio. I had a similar experience with this new artist back in early 2009, when I was browsing YouTube looking for something new, something fresh. As I’m sure many were with artists like Esmee Denters and Justin Bieber, I was with Alyssa Bernal: thoroughly impressed.
So, least to say it was a wee bit of a surprise when I came back six months later to her YouTube page to see that she was discovered by Pharrell Williams, signed to Star Trak Records, and recording her debut in London. Wait, what!? Having raked in over 7 million channel views on YouTube with 253, 978 subscribers (well, while I write this), it’s clear that Alyssa’s got what it takes to make it big: a warm personality, a gorgeous voice, a love for life and an uncanny appearance to a celebrity*cough think of a name that rhymes with Manessa Dudgens (see Katy Perry & Zoey Deschanel for success story example).
This San-Antonio native launched herself on YouTube back in 2006, and has built a portfolio consisting of covers and a few of her own pieces. One cover, and one of her most popular videos, is of idol Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”, and I believe was the one that Pharrell watched before he went to snatch this girl up. Alyssa’s got a very pure sound, the kind of voice that’ll make you want to take a road trip or bake colourful confectionery goods (well, maybe that’s just me, but cupcakes and pretty voices seem to go together, kinda like peanut butter and Nutella – they just heal you). If you’re into artists like Jason Mraz, Colbie Callait, Sara Bareilles and Corinne Bae Railey, then you’re gonna like this kid. A lot.
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