By Todd Gilchrist. In the contemporary music world, there are few performers who have collaborated with a wider variety of artists than Pharrell Williams. As one-half of the producing outfit The Neptunes, Williams has contributed music and vocals to songs by Jay-Z, Britney Spears, No Doubt, Kelis, Nelly, Clipse, Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake and more, in the process creating what has become the defining sound of popular music in the past 10 or 15 years.
As such, it comes as little surprise that Illumination Entertainment would enlist the born hit-maker to contribute the score for Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2, where he applied his irresistible hooks and pop savvy to the life and times of its charming antihero Gru. Spinoff Online joined a small group of reporters for a conversation with Williams at the recent Los Angeles press day for Despicable Me 2. In addition to talking about his motivations for some of the film’s iconic tunes, including the appropriately titled “Happy,” Williams delved into the process of acclimating himself to the world of film scoring, and reflected on his evolving repertoire as he continues to influence and inspire artists and performers the world over.
How do you decide what project to take on at any given time, and why was Despicable Me the project for you to take on at this point?
Pharrell Williams: I mainly go with a feeling, if it sounds right. But I have a super-incredible comprehensive team that sometimes sees things before I do and goes, “No, you’re buggin’ – you need to do this.” But this wasn’t something that they needed to twist my arm to do; it’s animation, and as a child growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I was always obsessed with cartoons. Like when my aunt used to watch me, it was like a real serious tug of war – she wanted to watch General Hospital, I wanted to watch The Flintstones. It was like a real thing. So now being a grown up and being able to afford my own television and my own satellite service, Boomerang is on all of the time. And as far as working with these guys, like I said, it’s animation – who turns down that job? It’s not afforded an offer to many people. So I know that I’m blessed, I’m super-fortunate, so what I try to do is repay it with diligence and research and going super hard. And as he was asking me earlier, just trying to find things that are so sticky, but feeling good — because there is a stickiness that kind of pisses you off, too. Like those songs that annoying but you can’t get them out? But they’re sticky. So I try not to bore you with the wrong kind of goo.
How tough was it to make the transition from writing for yourself to writing with other people’s ideas for themes and ideas in your mind?
Uh, the funny thing is, when I’m given directives, I’m usually learning on the job, but I’m also being pushed to a different place. It’s kind of like being in high school again – you have electives, different course that have requirements that you may not be interested in but they’re making you do it. Like home ec. – you’re like, what? But then you grow up and you realize that you now know how to make chocolate milk. That was a joke. But those things do come in handy in a way; when you have requirements in high school, when they’re giving us these directives to go into these places that I would never have imagined going, I’m now learning something. I’m now adding it to – it’s a new experience and I get to say, I now know a bit more about this sound or that sound. And there are things that I never took an interest in on my own that I’m able to apply, like listening to the arrangements of mariachi horn sections, like, wow, now I can actually do this in a film. It’s both, but I consider it all a learning process, and I’m thankful.
Have you spoken with Danny Elfman since he made a similar transition from pop music into film composing?
I have not, but he does almost every Johnny Depp film, and all of those really brilliant Disney films they do over there. The music is like, he kills it. That Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was like, it was amazing. I mean, he blended so many things together. It was like, whoa.
Are there meldings of animation and music that inspired you, either as a kid or any other time in your artistic career?
What’s the guy’s name – Carl Stalling? I mean, he’s the king, to me. Like, that’s partially the soundtrack to my life as a child. And then there is Randy Newman, the guy that just takes every song for animation and does Best Song. He must have a latrine where he just lines them up like cars. He’s a genius guy – he really is.
Is it easy to meld humor into music?
I really wish I could just sit here and be cool, like, “Oh, yeah, it was so easy.” It was so hard. It is so hard, because so much of what we do doesn’t really have humor, and that’s what makes videos fun, because now you’re allowed to add humor on top of something that’s slightly a little bit more serious, or festive. Even when they’re festive, you’re having fun but it’s a different kind of fun. It’s not really humorous. So the visual is usually where that comes into play, but what you’re asking is like, from the inception, putting humor into your music, it was very much a challenge for me because I had never done that before. So again, I’ll say that working on this film is a learning experience. Thank you.
What inspired you to write “Happy,” the sort of central theme song from Despicable Me 2?
The process is usually the same. They usually do one of two things: They go, “We’ve just written this new scene and we need X, Y and Z.” There’s your criteria – you have directives. Or, sometimes they’ll already have temp music, where the tempo works, and the feeling of the song works, but the song is just overplayed. Or a lot of it is right but they want something new and fresh. So there’s a criteria, and then there’s your mode of inspiration. And ingeniously, these writers and the director chose a different overarching theme for this one, which was in a much more happier place. And I was just saying over the last couple of interviews that I feel like they were smart – they sort of predicted that this is where the world will be right now at this moment. The internet has been responsible for so much connectivity with us as a species, humanity, but also at the same time, with all of that connectivity, there’s a lot of great things you’re seeing, and a lot of shock – and I think people are becoming desensitized at this point. One week there’s a train off the track; the next week, there’s another train off the track. But again, you’re dealing with math, and you’re dealing with 7 billion people, so things are bound to go wrong. But what about the happier side of things? And I think people have just become so desensitized to all of the tragedies and travesties, that us as a species needed to go to a lighter place – and I think these guys sort of ingeniously predicted that’s where things are headed. And they actually used Gru, the guy who’s least likely if you look in your yearbook to ever be happy about something, and they chose him to be the main guy with a really good mood and attitude. And I was just so happy, pun intended, to express that for him. And it’s really been cool, because you wouldn’t think that would work, but it kind of did – those guys are super genius. And I was just so lucky to be a sticker on that rocket ship.
Which character or situation was the most fun for you to create music for this time around?
Again, it was the overarching theme. My first contribution to the first film came from different things different characters would say or their behavior or the things they would do. This time I just chose a different approach. I went, “You know what? I’m just going to go with the overarching theme.” I still consider myself a novice, because filmmaking and scoring is a really comprehensive job that takes a lot of years and experience to sort of get to an expertise level. I’m far from that, but I got to learn so much on the job and like working with Heitor Pereira and Chris and his extensive super-crazy team, and I just got to learn that there are many different approaches to get to the same destination – many different routes. And so for this one, I chose the overarching theme, which wasn’t specifically about anyone else, as it was about the air of the film, you know. The continuity was honestly based on lifting people up emotionally, and I think they did such a great job. I was just so happy to have my music kind of harmonize with those intentions.
How much of the music you make for this film influences the other musical work you’re doing?
Uhm, you learn from experiences, you know. I suppose that’s where I color most of my music from – life experiences. Part of it is like reaching into oblivion – things that don’t exist, like what the writers did when they were creating the story for Despicable Me. Like, what is a minion, and what does that look like? They were reaching into oblivion. But most of my work is colored by, like, experiences.
There aren’t a lot of musicians that came out of Virginia Beach, where you grew up –
Timbaland. He’s from the beach! We went to the same church together. Timbaland is a genius. Missy, and then there’s Chad [Hugo, my partner].
What about growing up at the beach influenced your music?
I think because – and you can relate to this – I think because there weren’t a lot of outlets, you know. It’s normalcy. It’s kind of like Leave It to Beaver land – “Good morning, dad!” “Morning, son.” It’s that. Whereas, if you look at a New York or an L.A., a child is more likely to see a basketball player walking through the mall, or some startup internet company dude sort of walking out of a restaurant. We didn’t see that in Virginia as much. We did have a lot of star basketball players and football players, but they eventually go play for their respective teams, so we just didn’t see them until they came home. Like Allen Iverson or Joe Smith or so many incredible dudes like that, but in the music world, virtually nothing until Teddy Riley moved his studio like a five-minute walk from my high school. So, yes, we were terrorizing them – we were over there all of the time, knocking on the door and being turned away. And then finally, when he discovered us at that talent show, he gave us an option. But not having anything there, I think that’s what did it. It’s like there weren’t the same outlets, so as a kid, and me, I always had a super vivid imagination, like, man, I like those shoes but they should have made them in purple! Or, like, man, I wonder how people make songs. So there was a little bit of it there, but the industry wasn’t there. And I personally attribute it to not having an outlet. You just have all of those ideas and all of those little dreams built up inside and then when you finally get the opportunity to do it, you just sort of burst. And I love Virginia, man – I wouldn’t change anything about it. I mean, obviously things have changed tremendously since then. There’s a huge budding music scene there now, but when I was there all the time, it wasn’t. And I don’t know, Virginia made us all. Some people say, is there something in the water? And I’m like, yeah, it’s Virginia Beach.
It’s fair to say that The Neptunes’ sound has become the defining aesthetic in hip-hop and pop in the last decade. How much do you push yourself to explore beyond the sound that you and Chad are able to apply so effectively to so many artists’ songs?
You know what? I just follow the same philosophy. Someone asked me what inspires me and I always say that which is missing. Because I don’t want to copy what’s already happening. I feel like when you copy, you sort of blend in, and when you blend in, you get lost. So when I try to make music, I try to make something that is like super colorful and like something you’ve never heard before – so when you hear the whole album, it’s like a good feeling. So musically, that’s what I aspire to do whenever I’m making an album. Despicable Me 2 opens today.