Pharrell Williams

Pharrell Williams: I have learned to just be open and just experience things

Words: Andreas Tzortzis Photography: Finlay MacKay

In the second part of an exclusive interview with The Red Bulletin Editor Andreas Tzortzis, Pharrell Williams speaks about the creation of his hit single “Happy” and why he decided to title his new album “Girl”.

You interviewed Spike Lee and talked about the importance of using Public Enemy’s 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.

Pharrell Williams

“I was a child. I had no idea what was going on.”

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 realise 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, which is 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?

I have learned to just be open and just experience things. And whensomething strikes me, go get acclimated with it instantly, because I may not hear it again
Pharrell Williams

You’re releasing a new solo album, the first in quite some time. Why 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 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 centre and just change your whole thing. 
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 about seven billion people on the planet. And just because that is a lot of people doesn’t mean that the odds are in my favour. 
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 the music legible to people’s interpretation? It might not be, because your ego told you that you killed it. But if you could remove your ego and only use your feeling, that is when the best stuff comes out. 

Has that been a difficult lesson to learn? 

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. 

Nine? 

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 [Gru, the main character] 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 realise, “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. 

Zero. 

But that is crazy, because you’ve built a career 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 a 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 on feeling, not thinking. Because every time I have ever thought too much in my whole entire life, I have f––ked it up. 

Everybody is starting to realise that kids want a visual. That is why YouTube gets more audience than any radio station collectively
Pharrell Williams

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? 

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
Pharrell Williams

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 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’re 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 two people.
It is a feeling. But we are always so dismissive of it. So with this album I intended to capitalise 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 on feeling. That is what she is going to tell you, what she really 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, like 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 realised that thinking is not my path and feeling is for me, I started to realise that people are so dismissive 
about other people’s feelings. I have always felt music since I was a little child. But I realised 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, jewellery, all of those things that mean nothing. Ferraris get old. They depreciate in value the first time you drive them. 

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 somewhere 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.”

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04 2014 The Red Bulletin

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