By Andreas Tzortzis. Photos : Finlay MacKay.
The man in that hat is as cool as you’d like; voice above a whisper but not much more, holding forth on the trouble with success, the absurdity of hit-making, on why people don’t feel anymore. Forty years on this earth, 23 of them creating the type of music that has soundtracked house parties, breathless and fumbling late nights, slow cruises through the neighborhood, and Pharrell Williams is still, remarkably, nailing it: Two global hits (“Get Lucky,” “Blurred Lines”) in 2013, which netted him four Grammys, including his second Producer of the Year award; another party-starter, “Happy,” showed up on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack and won an Oscar nomination, as well as an award for the innovative 24-hour music video created for it.
But then there’s also the hat, and what it reveals about the taste-making gene Williams possesses. Last seen in Malcolm McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team’s “Buffalo Gals” video in 1982, it’s a Vivienne Westwood piece that first appeared on the shelves of the shop she and McLaren owned in London. Now tweeted, mocked, and memed the world over, it’s almost as if Williams planned it. Which he’ll assure you he didn’t, because nothing Williams does follows a plan so much as appears to him at the right moment, ready and willing to be birthed into success. That includes his new album, Girl, his first solo project in eight years, which comes out March 3rd but will likely be firing our collective synapses far beyond that.
The Red Bulletin: What are you looking for when an artist walks into your studio?
Pharrell Williams: It is three things. It is, one, what they walk in saying they would like to do. It is also their energy that they just are naturally giving off. You know, whether it is a cab ride or it is an argument or something that they have on their mind. And then, third, it is the way that they actually sound and vocal tone. I always try to make sure that there is some interesting juxtaposition. So if your voice is like velvet and people are used to hearing you in things that would be conducive to a velvet voice, I would say let’s try gravel music, if that makes any sense. So there is some interesting alchemy there.
And the magic is when you are able to marry those elements together. Like, “Man, I didn’t know peanut butter and chocolate could go together.” Yeah, it is called a Reese’s cup. But you would never know unless you try.
So that is where I find the magic, in trying to just blend different worlds together and mix it up.
In pairing and trying, there seems to be no fear of failure whatsoever.
Do you fear failure at all? Because looking at your track record, you seem to be very consistent from success to success.
What do you mean?
The fear that maybe this shit isn’t working out. Maybe this track isn’t going to hit. Maybe that clothing line isn’t going to work. Do you think about it in those terms?
Yeah, I don’t even understand that. My mind just can’t even process that.
And it has always been like that?
Yeah. When you love something, what are you scared of?
I suppose you are scared of negative reaction.
Well, if you are thinking about fame and success, yeah. But who …
Well, if you’re on top, I guess the fear would be losing that, right? Losing that touch.
Right. But if that is your main concern, being on top, then you probably should find another business. Because our business works off of emotion, and it is not really easy to quantify it outside of what it is.
It is like saying, “Well, are you afraid of how the ball is going to react to the ice hockey rink?” No, because that is not what it is meant for. The ball is for that world and the puck is for that world. Emotions are just emotions. So when a song works, you should just be thankful, because that is not why you do it.
So any kind of success that I have ever had on a song is not my doing. So you don’t do it for that, because I can’t control that. I do it because I feel like it feels good and it may resonate with other people. So it is not really good to mix the idea of what success is and the purity of why you do something.
Unless, define success. Big or huge? That means that after I have done what I did or anybody else that has made their contribution to something, success means the people voted, they requested, they shared it with a friend, they purchased it, they downloaded it. And they did it in large numbers.
That is what success means. I have nothing to do with that. I can’t control it. I can only control what I do.
When I was young, yeah, I looked at it differently, because I looked at a lot of people who quantified their happiness by how successful they were. And nobody wants to work really hard and not get recognized for it.
You want to be appreciated for your work. But that is a fine line in appreciating your work and it doing super well and you getting hooked on that. If you get hooked on success, you are screwed.
How did you manage to avoid that?
Well, I have been doing it for a long time, and I realized the thing that always gives back to me is my curiosity for how I can find new chord progressions, new sounds. That is how I am rewarded, because I can’t control anything else.
So when something is “successful,” that is what you guys always see me saying thank you for all of the time, or I put my hands together, because I want you to know that I know where it comes from, and point up.
You know, we are vessels. We are straws. We are not the juice. And anyone that believes that, those are the people that end up, you know, losing their minds later on in life or not happy.
I don’t have to be the juice. I don’t have to be the glass. I don’t have to be the coldest part of the whole entire thing, which is the ice. You could be that. I am just happy to be a part of it.
You are the facilitator?
I am a part of it. I am a participant. The minute that you claim you are a facilitator, well then you are the all-powering. And are you? If everybody that made a song gained that kind of power, then I mean, what would this world look like?
That is why everything is fair, right? We all play a part in it. It is like an ant farm or a beehive. Everyone has their job. My job is to just listen and sort of try to channel it through, but it is coming from somewhere else, hence the term channel. So I am thankful when songs become what they do, because it is not my doing.
There are some producers out there who think it’s possible to manufacture hits; that a chord progression, that a certain hook sung by someone, will guarantee success.
You don’t subscribe to that at all?
Well, not unless you want to get in the rat race and compete with everybody else and hope that your song makes it to the top when it sounds just like everything else. Then yeah, but I like the different stuff anyways.
And you know what? I am not the only one. There are so many people that love different things. That is why I like the concept of a phone, you know—connectivity is a huge part of it, too. But where the device companies are really smart, they realize people wanted to customize things, because individuality is everything.
Your house smells like what you want it to smell like. It has been customized by you. Can you imagine where you wake up where there are only three furniture layouts for everyone’s home in the world? Yeah, it is funny; music is kind of like the only place where there are people that believe that delusion, that there is a formula.
I guess you can lump Hollywood into that as well.
Yeah, but there are festivals that celebrate indie filmmaking that don’t celebrate indie music, not with the type of visibility that they do in the film world. And film also has the advantage of playing with two senses, whereas music is just auditory. That is why the business of music has had such a slump, because they always thought it was in the song first.
But you know, as the paradigm is shifting, everybody is starting to realize that kids want a visual. That is why YouTube gets more audience than any radio station collectively.
But you always thought visually.
Yeah, but most musicians are the same way. I am no different. Hence the term the blues.
You interviewed Spike Lee and talked about the importance of using “Fight the Power” as the main anthem in Do the Right Thing. How can songs contribute to the feeling that you get from film?
Well, film gives you two different senses. It is curated. With music, some of it is left to your imagination, what you want to picture in your mind. With a film there is a curated direction by the point of view of the director and the music that is under it. So those two are working in concert to sort of take you to a place that the director has intended.
So film sort of has the jump on it, but I think the music industry is catching up, because all of the indie artists are just like, “I don’t want to leave it up to your interpretation of what I am feeling when I make this song. I would like to show you.” So you are watching all of the indie kids make the best music, because they are thinking about music 3D, the way it has always been intended.
Is there an album or artist that you think is doing it particularly well?
Well, you know what? Even on a big popular level there are some artists that have figured it out. Look at Beyoncé. Her visuals were so strong that the only marketing she did was either tweeted or she put something on Instagram.
I am not exactly sure of the method that she chose, but she just dropped the whole thing. She just put out a bunch of videos and her songs and was like, “Here. It is my art.” No gimmicks, no campaign. And it has really honestly caused the record industry to sort of take notice—well, the smart ones—because there are still cocky ones that are like, “Oh, well that is Beyoncé.” But those are the old guys. The ageless ones are the ones who are just thinking forward and they realize that he who occupies the majority of your senses with something that is irrefutable wins.
Did you struggle with the structure of the record industry when you started?
I was a child. I had no idea what was going on. All I knew is what drove me then is what continues to drive me now: music that I am like, “Whoa, that feels amazing.” I just love the feeling of great chord structures and great melody and lyrics that just touch you, you know?
You’ve got a new album now, the first solo one in quite some time. Why was it time to do it now?
I didn’t know it was time. I never know anything. That is part of just being open. When things are too predetermined, I have never really had success with that. “It is going to be this, this, this, this and this.” That is all ego. And that is all you sort of rely on, because your ego is basically you have your experiences and then you have your memories of your experiences. And the way in which your mind, as a librarian, goes back to refer to this information is where your ego, where you can sort of measure or quantify what your ego is. “Well, I know such and such and such and such, so therefore …”
Have you ever heard that phrase, “God laughs at our plans”? And that is why. Because when you think you know, you can be blindsided by something that is completely left of center and just change your whole shit.
I have learned—I am 40 now—so I have learned to not do that. I have learned to just be open and just experience things. And when something strikes me, go get acclimated with it instantly, because I may not hear it again. Because what are the odds? There are 7 billion people on the planet. And just because that is a lot of people doesn’t mean that the odds are in my favor.
So there is no such thing as knowing. You just have to be open. So I try so hard. You know, I really work at just sort of trying to be egoless so that I can be open and not miss important morsels of music and points of view, new ways of making music.
If I go in there so predetermined, then I am completely blocking everything that could have been the best thing that ever happened to me. So when I had the awesome opportunity to work on the first Despicable Me, I had to listen. As much as I felt like, “Oh, you know, I can make songs and whatever.” No man, they had a direction. They knew what they wanted. And in that process, I learned more about reaching more people or just opening songs up. OK cool, so you think the music is there. You think the lyrics are there. Cool. Is it as accessible as it could be? Was that line sung as good as it could be, so that it is clear and the diction is clear?
In other words, is it legible to people’s interpretation. It might not be, because your ego told you that you killed it. But if you would remove your ego and only use your feeling, that is when the best stuff comes out.
Is that a difficult lesson to learn for you?
It was a great lesson to work, because that is how “Happy” came. Because I swore out that I had it nine times in a row, nine different songs for that one little scene.
Yeah. And it was only until I was completely out of ideas—no more ego, right? Because what I knew about Despicable Me the first time is that [the main character, Gru] is mean and duh, duh, duh, so therefore … and it was a mistake.
So it took nine times to sort of get it through my head that I needed to be open and realize, “OK, yeah. Gru was a mad guy in the first one. He is happy now.” So how do you write a song about somebody being happy and just having a relentless mood about it? And then the song came.
But you had the basics of it?
I didn’t have anything. That is what I am trying to tell you. The basics are where the ego comes in. Remember, you have to be open.
But surely you have to start with something.
But that is crazy, because you’ve built a career out of knowing it and of having it.
No, I built a career of loving music and sometimes becoming intoxicated by things working out and sort of thinking it was me. And it wasn’t me. A hit song is not your doing. The song is your doing. The hit is made by the people. You can’t lose sight of that.
What purpose does the new album serve for you?
I was just given the opportunity and, you know, when asked what I wanted to make it about, I went with the feeling. So I did decide with my eyes closed. But what does that mean?
Did you just ask your own follow-up question?
Yeah. That was a rhetorical question. What does that mean? That means not, “Oh, I am so good. I can do it with my eyes closed.” When someone says that they are doing it with their eyes closed, what they are ultimately saying, what that really is supposed to mean, is that you didn’t think about it and that it was second nature because you were going off of feeling.
I went off of feeling. I didn’t look around peripherally to see what this person was doing and what that person was doing. I went inward so that I could go upward. So I made it with my eyes closed, which means the litmus test was when you close your eyes, does it work for you there? That means no outside influences. So I made all of the music just based off of feeling, not thinking. Because every time I have ever thought too much in my whole entire life, I have f*cked it up.
So you think, “What does euphoria sound like? What does sadness sound like? What does giddiness sound like?” I mean, you are ascribing sounds to emotion.
Yes, but that is what all musicians do. That is not singular to me. We just all do things our way. And your way is who you are. The way of doing things is what makes you who you are.
In other words, we all speak English, but somehow you use the words differently than I do and you use it in your way. Your way is your fingerprint of who you are as a person. A lot of us make music the same way. It is just your way is more specific to who you are as a person. Do you know what I am saying?
I do. I also think it is interesting how you have never been afraid to indulge interests, directions.
What do you have to lose? Failure? If you are concerned about failure, then you can’t make no good music.
Why is the new album called Girl?
Well, there is major purpose in there. But let me switch gears on you. Let me tell you my intentions aside from the content is the feeling, so that we have a through line between how I make music. So at the genesis I knew that the criteria was festive, celebratory, and I wanted everything to feel urgent. So I worked really hard.
Urgent is an interesting word to use.
Urgent just means like, “Man, what is that?”
Stop and listen.
Shooting, always shooting for unique and undeniable. Always shooting for that and using the feeling as a compass. We are so dismissive of our feelings. Yet most of the time when you hear about them in songs, unless it is a real good singer/songwriter, it is always generic. But your feeling is like one of the … your feeling connects to your spirit that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have feelings. Our feelings can lead us to do really crazy things or really amazing things.
You can tell when someone is standing behind you, even if they are not making a sound. You can feel it. You can walk into a room and you can tell when someone doesn’t like you. You can walk in a room and you can tell when there is something going on between those two.
It is a feeling. But we are always so dismissive of it. So with this album I intended to capitalize on that and just try to make something that would be real stimulative.
To resonate with women?
Oh yeah, totally. Totally. Women have been so good to me and my career.
What do you need to understand about women to write songs for them?
Well, I think most of the time we hear songs that are written at women versus for. You know, it is like most products. It is not really for them, it is just marketed at their insecurities. It doesn’t really fit her hand like that though, does it? It is not really the smell she truly prefers, it is just what your old, antiquated corporate statistics tell you.
But where are you doing these consensuses and with what types of women? My thing is let’s start doing things with them truly in mind—truly in mind. That is not writing something at her. That is writing something intended for her.
And the only way to do that, the only way to really sort of figure out if that works or not is based off of feeling. That is what she is going to tell you, what she feels.
Are you trying to demystify that otherness in women? Is it kind of about trying to understand it or cater to it?
I just want to make music that ladies, the girls, listen to and they feel an escapism. That is my intention.
Sometimes I think that success comes from being very calculated and being very smart and not getting too involved.
Yes, Steve Jobs. He so geniusly brought that product to the world; it is called a computer. But we are human, and that is what a computer will never be able to do is feel. That is what still makes us the superior species on this planet.
So you are a curator of feeling?
At this moment.
Has it been different earlier in your career?
Yeah, because, like I said, when I realized that thinking is not my path and feeling is for me, I started to realize that people are so dismissive about other people’s feelings.
I have always felt music since I was a little child. But I realized that it was the key probably in the last 10 years. Because before that I just wasn’t thinking. It was like private flights, Ferraris, jewelry, all of those things that mean nothing. Ferraris get old. They depreciate as soon as you drive it off of the lot.
The same as a Honda Accord.
You have got to trade it in in two years, because in four you have lost a lot of money. And I appreciate the car, I do. I still do. But that is not what it is about. You can’t take that when you go. You take your feelings with you and your experiences that gave you those feelings.
And also what you gave others.
That is the wealth, man. An experience. The coolest thing that you talk about is your trip where you went and you had a good time. The first thing that you talk about it in terms of your description, “Man, it was awesome.”