“I’m looking at palm trees” N*E*R*D frontman Pharrell Williams tells me, rather dreamily. I’ll have to take his word for it. He could be looking at the entire Florida State cheerleading team doing combination stunts in his hotel room, for all I know. He’s calling from Miami. “It’s beautiful here. You gotta come.” As it happens, he is coming to New Zealand. Later this month, N*E*R*D – Williams, Shay Haley and Chad Hugo – will touch down in Gisborne as the headline act at the three-day Rhythm and Vines festival. It’ll be his first visit to New Zealand and Williams says he’s expecting “a lotta green”. Odds are he’ll be disappointed. By then it’ll be mostly dry and brown. “What I know of it, it’s a beautiful place. There are beautiful people. Good people, man and a lotta culture. That’s where they filmed Lord Of The Rings, correct?” Even if you’ve never heard of Pharrell Williams, you will have heard him.
A multi-award winning producer, for the past two decades Williams has worked with everyone from Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake to Beyonce. According to a 2003 survey, he is said to have been responsible for 43 per cent of the songs played on United States radio. He sings falsetto, a little like Prince. “That’s very nice – but I’m nowhere near as good as that guy. That’s the truth. He’s great.” He would like to collaborate with Prince, though, and also Eminem. “That would be cool. “I still have a lot to do. I would like to work with everybody. Each opportunity is super cool. You learn a lot in the process.” When he’s not producing with Hugo under the moniker The Neptunes, he’s designing for his clothing labels The Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, collaborating on jewellery designs with Louis Vuitton and furniture designs with some smooth-sounding French outfit, Domeau and Peres. A rolling stone gathers no dross.
But while he glams it up, he says he is happiest “eating breakfast cereal at two in the morning and watching Ancient Aliens – it’s on History [channel] and it’s a good show. Someone sent me dope classic Shaw brothers’ kung fu flicks. And dope animation. I’ve just been looking at them. “That’s my favourite thing. That and being in the studio, concentrating on this new N*E*R*D thing that we’re working on.” Can we talk about it? “No. But when it comes out you’ll be like, whoa!” He can talk about the new album, though, insouciantly titled Nothing. N*E*R*D – no one ever really dies – have channelled the artists of the 1970s – Earth, Wind and Fire, The Doors and America, which also happen to be the soundtrack to Williams‘ youth. Pharrell Williams was born in 1973 in Virginia Beach, to Carolyn and Pharaoh Williams II.
He learned to play the drums, the keyboard and he skateboarded. He still does – he has a half-pipe in his home. He drives a McLaren Mercedes SLR and a Ferrari Enzo, but he’d probably be just as happy in the Starship Enterprise. He’s a Star Trek freak. He’s got tattoos, which he’s now trying to erase. That must be a bummer. And really expensive? “I’m working on it. It’s just time for something different.” The self-described “hot-headed Aries” is a Christian who loves science – astronomy – and he has a particular thing for the late Carl Sagan, the astro-physicist. “Yeah, I’m a Christian. To each his own. I have a conversation with atheists just as I would have a conversation with someone who believes in theology.” If he wasn’t an artist, Williams thinks he might have been an astronomer.
“But that requires a level of math and doing calculations. That would get really boring for me. “I do love the stars. I love what they represent. I love the way they affect us – inspirationally I mean. “I’d definitely be wondering ‘what if’ and looking up to the stars. “The stars are amazing to look at. Nothing compares. Besides the people you love. That’s the only thing that shines a bit brighter than the stars.” He should put that in a song. He probably has already – a love song, such as That Girl, which he wrote about his childhood sweetheart and performed with Snoop Dogg. “I forgot about that song. I love that song. It’s probably one of my favourite productions of ours. The string arrangement was great.” Is she around? “Who?” That girl? “I dunno. I forgot who I wrote that about, to be honest. There’s always somebody special in my life.”
Williams has dated Jade Jagger, but he’s been quoted as saying he’s looking for his Yoko Ono. He loves the ladies and the ladies love him. They say so in the countless florid, unprintable dedications on fan websites – declarations and invitations that would make Larry Flynt blanch. The most enduring relationship he’s had, though, is the bromance with Hugo, who he met when he was 12, and Haley, when he was 14. They’ve evolved and survived the battles that are inevitable in any creative partnership. “We’ve fallen out. But that’s what anyone does,” says Williams. “When people care about each other you go through things. And you don’t always respond right in those scenarios. Maybe you could take a step back and think about a different way of approaching it. But you know, I’m an Aries – I’m a hot head. Sometimes when I’m angry, I’m angry. “For the most part I try to account for my mistakes.
Try to make peace with it and those people and just try to move on and move towards greatness.”That’s the only thing you can do.” Journalists have been on the receiving end of his “hot head”, apparently. He won’t be drawn on specifics, but it sounds like good sport all the same. “I hate sitting around answering questions about me. It’s like pulling out my own fingernails. “It happens to be a part of the process. You have this idle moment. You’re just kinda sitting there talking about yourself. “Have you ever seen that Charlie Brown cartoon? You know, when the teacher starts talking – that’s what I sound like to myself: ‘Wah wah wah wah wah!’ That’s the most genius cartoonist – that Shultz guy is a genius. “When journalists become pricks, that’s when it ends. I immediately fire back and say things that I know will get me in trouble.
But usually I will have someone from the office that will email me saying, ‘Stop it. Stop it. Or, Don’t do that! Or, you’ll regret it later’.”Something tells me Williams will have few regrets. Apart from those tattoos. “It is a rollercoaster ride. But you have to remember even when the going gets tough how lucky you are, you know?” He has a catalogue of options to choose from, but he’s never stopped to think about what he’s most proud of. “You know what, as thankful as I am, I’m always trying to conquer the next thing. “But I guess I need to take that question as an inspiration and take a second to think about it.”