Photos by Philippe McClelland & Jake Isham. Robin Thicke is playing host. He has uncorked a bottle of wine, ordered a pizza and salad, entertained his friend’s children – all while clad in a slim-fit tuxedo, bow tie unravelled around his neck, his pompadour set to a fault. Thicke’s Malibu home may have been the site of a busy photo shoot on a recent sunny Saturday, but that didn’t mean this couldn’t be a party. The music came on. Thicke’s adorable six-year-old son, Julian, swayed and smiled. Friends reclined on deep couches outside, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
It didn’t matter that the schedule was packed, there wasn’t a frayed nerve in sight. “It’s all kind of become one enthusiastic joy,” Thicke says, when asked about his varied career threads; performing, songwriting, producing and acting. “I don’t have a master plan. I just follow my heart.” The 39-year-old Thicke embodies a raffish charisma that is almost a throwback to another era. He is astute and ambitious, but seems to have acquired the ability to hit the brakes, have a cigarette and let things unfold.
In conversation, it’s easy to see the renegade spirit that, alongside Pharrell, helped Blurred Lines to the top of the charts in 2013. It became one of the best-selling singles in history. He was known for his smooth, soulful sound prior to Blurred Lines, but that song made him a bona fide pop star. Entertaining is in Thicke’s blood. His father is actor, writer and producer Alan Thicke. His mother, Gloria Loring, is an actress and singer who had a five-year stint on Days Of Our Lives.
These days, Thicke is evolving into a legitimate multihyphenate. He’s wrapping up his latest album. He’s finished a collaboration with rapper Juicy J that, oddly, was inspired by a trip to Jakarta. The day prior to the shoot for #legend, he had spent 14 hours on set filming Real Husbands of Hollywood, a spoof-of-sorts of the Real Housewives mega-franchise. In the series he gets to flex his comedic muscles, playing a heightened version of himself; his co-stars include Kevin Hart, Mariah Carey’s ex-husband Nick Cannon and the always- funny JB Smoove.
Thicke was also gearing up for a trip to Shanghai as the new timepiece ambassador for venerable luxury jewellery and watch brand, Harry Winston. It was an alliance forged after Thicke met Harry Winston’s chief executive, Nayla Hayek, at the amfAR event in Cannes last year. “I was beyond flattered,” Thicke says. “It’s such a historic, classy, sophisticated brand. It’s very much my style.” Outside of brandishing pricey watches, Thicke takes a few things seriously, music and fatherhood are chief among them. In this interview he talks candidly about both.
What did Jakarta have to do with one of your songs?
I’d see families of four driving around town on motorcycles, and I’d start wondering, “What’s the drive that keeps people going when everyday they’re struggling to put food on the table, to provide for their families?” You realise that it’s the children, that you can’t give up for them, or on them. That’s the same thing that drives me, every day, to provide a loving household for my son – food, shelter, health. A healthy child is a happy life.
What’s it like being one of the “real husbands”?
It’s so much fun. You have to be on your toes because it’s also a challenge. You can read that script and study it and then show up, and throw the script out the window because it comes down to who’s got the funniest jokes. On most sets you wouldn’t get to laugh all day with great people the way we do. When we’re not filming, we’re cracking as many jokes as we are when the cameras are rolling. It’s very improvised. We have a script to get from scene to scene, a story arc for each episode. But once we’re in the middle of the scene, it becomes about who’s got the best joke, the best “diss”, or who can make fun of the other person the best. We like to leave it wide open and take chances.
Is it hard to be funny?
I grew up in a comedy household; my father is a comedic actor and writer, my uncle produced America’s Funniest Home Videos from the beginning. Dinner at our house was about who had the best jokes and stories. I grew up in that environment and being able to do comedy comes very naturally to me.
Music has obviously come naturally to you as well. Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
In the beginning, it was whatever was on MTV: Michael Jackson, Prince, Billy Idol. Then I got into gospel, especially Take 6, a gospel vocal group. I learned all these harmonies and riffs. After that I got into soul music – Al Green, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder. At 12, I taught myself to play the piano, and then started writing my own songs.
Do you think everybody can get into music that way – teaching themselves instead of academic training?
I think the best thing is to have both, to be able to hear something, sit down and play it, and training will get you there. But training can also sometimes be daunting and exhausting for young kids. If they find a song they want to play, then that gives them incentive because the ambition is there, as opposed to, “I’m doing this because mommy told me to.” For me, it was about learning songs that were on the radio as opposed to just being taught how to play. I don’t play (the piano) correctly. My fingers don’t move correctly. My son, Julian, has his hands in the proper position because he’s being trained. He’s focused. He sits there 30 minutes a day and loves it. He can read the notes. He plays by ear. I play just well enough to write songs.
Is music what you always wanted to do?
Absolutely. When I was seven years old, I’d sing on the school bus to anyone who would listen. Sometimes if they didn’t want to listen I’d still sing to them. My mum was a singer, my dad was a singer/songwriter. My family goes back six generations of family bands. Back when they used to have silent movies, there would be a piano player in the cinema who would play along with the movie. My great grandmother was that pianist. My grandfather was a jazz saxophonist. It was the inevitable curse.
So there was no Plan B, then?
No, and there still isn’t. This better be it.
What would you do otherwise?
Become a fireman?
Do you feel differently about songwriting as you do performing?
Making music, the journey of creating the music, is so much fun. Just writing and being with friends, thinking you wrote the best song in the world. The reality kicks in the next morning that, OK, it’s just a nice song. And being on stage now, after all the years of worrying “Is it going to go right? Am I going to do well?” After you do 10,000 hours of that, now it’s a release to be on stage. It’s rejuvenating. It’s the fountain of youth.
No pre-show qualms then?
Before a show I get focused. Sometimes, if a show is at 8pm, they come back and say it’s been pushed back an hour and I say, “Come on. I’m ready to go.” You’ve then got to put the cannon ball back in the cannon. Otherwise, my nerves are about wanting to be the best for the audience. I want to give them something special. I want to walk out on that stage, and all preconceived notions are out the window. You just go. You have the time of your life. I’ve been with most of my band for so many years that there’s such a harmony and brotherhood up there.
Is it easier for young people trying to break into the music industry today, given all the new ways in which they can be discovered?
I would say it is easier now. Just the ability to have your music heard, to have the whole world hear it sooner rather than later. The opportunities are more vibrant than ever before. Look at Justin Bieber. All he had to do was sit with his guitar and play a few songs and put it on the Internet and he had a million fans in a few weeks. Now he’s one of the biggest stars in the world. I think it levels the playing field. For everyone who used to say, “No, you’ve got to know someone,” the answer now is, “Not really.” You’ve just got to show what you’ve got and people will flock to it if they want to watch it or listen to it.
Has your own musical style evolved much?
I never saw myself as a pop artist. I got lucky with Blurred Lines as it became a big pop hit, but I’ve always considered myself more a soul artist, a singer-songwriter. I love all different types of music. My new album has more reggae in it than I’ve ever done. I think that’s because of the environment I’m living in. Here in Malibu, there’s a serenity. There’s a sense of peace in my soul right now. It’s not contentment, but it is serene.
Do you think in order to be a compelling musician, you need angst in your life?
Not angst. I think you just need something that passionately fills up your void. It could be real love, new-found love; that’s something that’s exciting to write about. Or if you’re down in the dumps and you need to pick yourself up, that’s something to write about. Sometimes you go to a great party and have the time of your life, and the next day you want to write about that. For me, all my albums and songs are examples of where I was right then in my life, what I was feeling and going through. Every album is a different chapter in my life’s book.
And introducing music to your son, that came naturally?
I realise that the more doors I open for him, the better. In the beginning, you kind of have to force them to stay on it. But they flock to what inspires them and brings them joy and recognition. When he sits down and plays piano, everyone says, “Whoa! Look at you playing piano”, that gives him a sense of confidence and self-worth. It was the same with tennis. He didn’t love it at first. But now that he’s gotten really good at it, he loves it. It’s his favourite sport. It’s a question of encouraging him, making him take some chances. By the time he’s a teenager he’ll know what he likes and doesn’t like. But right now, I want to give him as many opportunities as I can.
What’s one of the most important things you learnt about fatherhood from your own father?
Communication. My dad is a very intelligent man. He explained the world to me, but from both sides of the coin. I never felt uninformed or left out of the conversation. With my son, I never say to him, “Because I said so.” I always explain to him why I want him to do certain things. Like with the tennis, I told him I wanted him to learn so he and I could play together for the rest of my life. Sure, it’s selfish. But I want to be able to play with my son. He got that. That was good enough for him. My dad wasn’t as strict as I am. I take all the intelligence and love and conversation he gave me and I’m throwing a little more discipline in there. I teach Julian about respect, looking people in the eye, to respect his elders, his peers, to take care of the younger kids and not leave them out. I give him most of the day to be a kid and then I snap my fingers and say, “Hey, I need you to be a big boy right now.” He responds wholeheartedly.
How do you handle being recognised wherever you go?
These are great problems. Most of the time people are genuinely happy to see me. Maybe they fell in love or got married to one of my songs. These are the moments that music crosses a financial boundary and becomes a part of people’s homes and lives. To be a part of those positive things in the world is why we do what we do, and why we love it.