Words: Andreas Tzortzis / Photography: Finlay MacKay
The man is as cool as you like, his voice above a whisper but not much more, holding forth on the trouble with success, the absurdity of hit-making, and 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 and slow cruises through the neighbourhood, Pharrell Williams is still, remarkably, nailing it: Two global hits in 2013, Get Lucky and Blurred Lines, netted him four Grammy Awards, including his second Producer of the Year award; another party-starter, Happy, appeared on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack and won an Oscar nomination, as well as an award for its innovative 24-hour music video created for it.
But then there was that hat, and what it reveals about the taste-making gene Williams possesses. Reminiscent of Malcolm McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team’s 1982 video for Buffalo Gals, it’s a Vivienne Westwood piece that first appeared on the shelves of the shop she and McLaren owned in London. Since tweeted, memed and, finally, auctioned off for a good cause, 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 came out in May but has been firing our collective synapses for far longer than 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 they 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 their 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 tried it.
So that is where I find the magic, in trying to 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 something 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 can’t even process that.
And has it always been like that?
Yeah. When you love something, what are you
I suppose you are scared of negative reaction.
Well, if you are thinking about fame and success, yeah.
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 there 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 being unhappy.
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.
Are you 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, 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 anyway.
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 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 and 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’ve always thought visually, haven’t you?
Yeah, but most musicians are the same way. I am no different. Hence the term ‘the blues’.