Dressed in a midriff-baring vintage tee and Topshop pants, Miley Cyrus is barefoot dancing to her new hip-hop-infused sound at a Burbank, California, recording studio. A few feet away, Pharrell Williams, the megacharming megaproducer who helped to orchestrate this clever, heartfelt sonic breakthrough, leans effortlessly against a console, trading lyrics with the smiley 20-year-old determined to revolutionize her career. They are listening to “#GetItRight,” the possible lead single off her impending, first post-Disney album, and a sure Top 40 diamond with a whistling hook and clever sweetness that partially obscures the frank sexual nature of its lyrics.
A global phenomenon since her Hannah Montana days, the daughter of Billy Ray “Achy Breaky” Cyrus is widely recognized for kid-friendly hits and a corporate-approved persona. But after shedding her Disney veneer—genuinely, without the trappings of image strategy—Miley has revealed herself to be a far more compelling pop figure in the throes of a powerful transformation. The world is watching as her look, identity, and womanhood evolve, fixating on every life decision from the engagement to Hollywood heartthrob Liam Hemsworth to the defiant, much-ballyhooed cropped do which she attributes to the ongoing mentorship of Williams. Here the collaborators sit down to discuss everything from fashion to family to triumphant next-level greatness.
Where did you start?
MILEY CYRUS Pharrell was the first person I wanted to work with. I had so many different producers and managers and all of these people coming to my house because I didn’t know where I wanted to start. My record would have come out like a high school mixtape with these different songs and feelings that don’t blend. Then I met Pharrell, and it was the first time I was in the studio just being really free. Pharrell opened that door. At the end of the day, it’s what me and P are making. And of course we’re so grateful for the people that got us here, that brought us to each other, and now we’re on our own path. I’ve never been more thankful for someone in my life. It’s just crazy. It’s been almost a year since we started, and my life has been completely different. I could keep doing this forever, just making this record.
When did you first really connect?
PHARRELL WILLIAMS If you walk in the room I can tell you a lot of things about you. I think people just emote. She started talking and I started realizing. Because I knew the music, but I didn’t know it know it. I kept hearing about this girl Miley who had this song “The Climb.” And then there was the video with her locked in the cage…
MC “Can’t Be Tamed.”
PW I was like, Okay, she wants out. Then there was the whole salvia thing. [turns to Miley’s press representative] And I’m sorry but I just…
MC It’s part of our…
PW That was an integral moment for me. Because it let me know that this was a girl coming from that world who saw, This is cool, I’ll enjoy it, it’s great, but I’m feeling me now, I’m waking up. It was like her hormones were speaking to her in all kinds of ways. When I met her, I just thought of a ball of fire. She was saying, “I like this and I like that.” And I was impressed, because she knew to say those things.
PW Just the music she was listening to. Like Waka Flocka Flame.
MC “Dance A$$” [by Big Sean] was my shit at that moment. [laughs]
PW Because “Party in the U.S.A.” was pop as fuck, but it was honestly good pop, and she was saying the right shit. She was like, [singing] “And the Jay-Z song is on!” And I was like, “Okay, the salvia, that line in ‘Party in the U.S.A.,’ and the different shit that would pop up online? There’s definitely something in there.”
MC No one let me sing the way that Pharrell does, which is to just go in and do your shit and do all of the harmonies that you do, which is what brings it to where I’m from. Which is being from Nashville and being around Dolly [Parton, her godmother] and listening to her sing. No one would give me the chance to say, “Turn the Auto-Tune off, turn the filter off, and just listen to what I’m saying.” He was the first person that ever did that. I can never say that I don’t love “Party in the U.S.A.” and that I’m not appreciative of it. It would be like my dad saying that he hated “Achy Breaky.” It’s what gives you everything that you have. I would never take it back. But that’s not who I am, that’s not where I want to sing, that’s not what I want to sing, and that’s not what I want my voice to sound like, because you can’t hear me through there. I like that Rihanna has a tone of her own. Beyoncé has a tone of her own. I have a tone of my own. Everything else is just blending into one club mix—but we keep our 808s in there because I love them.
PW Yes, she does.
MC I was listening to what me and P worked on last night and I had Liam’s little nieces over and they were all dancing to it, and then his brother came in and was like, “Is this the stuff with Pharrell? It’s so dope!” That’s exactly what I wanted to do. Everyone can like what we’re doing. That’s when I feel like my record is so different. It’s not what people expect where it’s me giving my middle finger and saying, “Fuck you. I didn’t make a record for the people that love me.” I made a record for the people that love me, but then I made a record for the people that I want to start to understand me.
What does that sound like?
PW It sounds like her personality. This whole process has just been me holding up the mirror. Let’s move to the hair part of the conversation. We’re down in Miami and she kept saying things like, “Yeah, well, this is what I think, but such and such is going to think such and such.” And I was like, “You’re the queen of your own kingdom. At the end of the day, you need to do what other people can’t do.”
MC It was awesome because we were sitting around with Helen [Lasichanh, Williams’s fiancée] and Rocket [the couple’s son], and I’m like, “Why don’t I just cut my hair, all blonde?” Because I’ve always wanted to do it. I got to pretend to be a Jonas Brother one time and I had to wear a Jonas swoop and as soon as I saw it I was like, Okay, I kind of look dope like that. And I never really thought about it again. And then Pharrell said, “That’s what you can do that no one else can do.” Maybe two weeks later, he was the first person I called as soon as I pulled my bun up and [hairstylist Chris McMillan] went like this [makes snipping motion]. He was the only person I wanted to call, because I wanted him to know that I’m not fucking around with what I’m saying. I’m going to change, I’m going to be different, I’m going to do what I want to do. I chopped my hair and bought a pair of Docs and never looked back.
What did you think when you saw it?
PW I was excited for her, but it wasn’t shocking, because she already was that. My only thing was, Free yourself.
MC In this industry, no one wants to turn a mirror to you and encourage you to see the good things. No one wants you to see yourself fully because then you don’t need them. If there’s nothing missing, then you don’t need them.
PW This is a 20-year-old. Do you hear all of this awareness? I kept saying to her, “Your view of yourself, your view of the world, is so accurate. Start to embrace it now so you can be great when you’re in your 30s. Right now you’re really, really good, and you’re super-advanced, but don’t be one of those girls who had everything you needed at a young age but because you were distracted by all of the peripheral bullshit you burn out at 25 or 30 or whatever. Embrace this power of yours.” It’s been a year, and I’ve seen a complete difference. When I first met her, she had 5.6 or 5.7 million Twitter followers. You look now and she’s at 11.3 or 11.4.
MC That’s right. It’s 11.4 today. You’re on my Twitter too much. [laughs]
PW I watch the growth. It’s like a growth chart. This is very important to me, because this is my little sis. You stick with your own. You’re there for your type. And that’s my type. I feel a responsibility to our relationship and everything that we’ve become. You’re just never going to meet a nicer person that’s this fucking on it.
It reminds me of Janet Jackson’s Control album…
PW Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
An artist coming into her own.
PW Fearless. I’ll never forget when she first cut her hair and a good friend of mine—Tyler, the Creator—made a comment on Twitter.
MC About my barber. He called him my barber!
PW And she fired back!
MC It’s actually funny. He wrote something about how ‘Miley should kill her barber for what he did to her.’ And I was like, “Nothing can match what God already did to your face. By the way, I love your music. Smiley face.”
PW The balls! The ovaries! The sophistication to end it with, “But I love your music. Smiley face”? I was telling people, “Told y’all. She’s different.”
MC And now he’s on a track with us and in here and chilling.
PW “Yes, I will nuke you. I’m not afraid. But I like your music.” That’s the real shit. That was a very proud moment for me. Name another pop artist under 21 who would have responded like that. Because on paper she’s a pop artist. If you cut her open, she’s many things.
MC In my mind I’m Gucci Mane, but on paper I’m a pop artist. [laughs]
I remember seeing you out wearing a Moschino logo belt and knowing that you knew something.
MC That’s what’s crazy. I felt like I always got it. I would always secretly keep my shit for around the house. Now I’m like, Fuck it. It’s not about the girly-girl shit anymore, the pop shit. Times are changing, music is changing, fashion is changing. It’s all changing.
I like that you’re engaged but also no bullshit. You have a certain stability while taking on the world.
MC I work every day. My assistant is always like, “I don’t want to hear you sing during the day unless we’re at the studio, because I’m at the studio with you from 5 pm until 5 am half the time.” And it’s like, I’m not home with my boyfriend all the time. We work. Every week it’s “Are they broken up? Because we don’t see a photo of them.” I don’t have time to go to Starbucks with my boyfriend every morning. I wish I did, but I don’t. I’d rather chill at my house and be there for the time I actually get to spend with him. And then I’m at the studio all day. He gets up to work out at six and I come home at five from the studio. I put this record before everything, and I’ve never done that with anything. I’ve put too much into this record to put anything else in front of it.
Have you two discussed the look of the music?
MC My accountant doesn’t love Pharrell like I do. Because he introduced me to some vintage shit in Miami that’s crazy. I’ve always been different in how I dress, but Pharrell and especially Helen—because when Pharrell would be editing we would just go on the computer and shop—they helped me understand how I could express myself through how I dress.
PW And that’s what you’re seeing and why I can’t take credit. It’s been great to watch her style evolve, because she’s always had that in her. The Comme des Garçons, the Chanels of the world—you can tell a lot of people about that shit, but they may not pick it up right. Whereas with her, it’s like, This speaks to me. Because this is how I feel right now. It’s not like, I’ve got a lot of money! Let me buy everything in the store! With her, it’s an honor to watch it. It’s a privilege. She dives in. What you’re seeing is the manifestation of her personality. It’s just like the music. We played you two songs worlds apart, and with both of them you understand who Miley is.
The album is your story.
MC I got excited because on this record I can say whatever I want. And then I got more comfortable with that and the record got better and better. If I had made it two years ago when I should have had a record come out, it would have been a little brat trying to say “This isn’t who I am! This is what I’m trying to prove!” Now I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody.