By Laura Studarus; photos by Cass Bird on April 17, 2014
IT MIGHT BE HARD TO BELIEVE, but Pharrell Williams is 41 years old. In both quantity and quality, the musician’s CV reads like someone’s twice his age. There are the production gigs. (Among his credits is work for Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, Johnny Marr and Robin Thicke.) There’s time spent as a member of The Neptunes and N.E.R.D. There’s his solo work. Even as a guest musician he has the knack of landing once-in-a-lifetime spots. (Perhaps you’ve heard Daft Punk’s ubiquitous single “Get Lucky”?)
But for all his headline-worthy accomplishments, Pharrell bounds along in conversation with the enthusiasm of a teenager. Each statement, no matter the question, is peppered with mentions of his main interests and delivered with the intensity of a well-crafted pop hook. Life is good. Unique equals special. And ladies? Yeah, he loves ’em.
Pharrell has plenty of reasons to celebrate the fairer sex these days. His sophomore album G I R L is a tribute to the women in his life—wrapped in the soulful grooves, pop hooks and funk-filled swagger of the songs of his youth. A sharp turn away from the bombastic rap of his previous solo album, 2006’s In My Mind, the sunshine-infused song cycle breezes by with such ease that it might be easy to miss all the high profile collaborators. (Timberlake, Kelly Osbourne, Timbaland, Miley Cyrus, Daft Punk, JoJo, Alicia Keys, Tori Kelly and Leah LaBelle, to be precise.)
The Guide recently sat down with Pharrell for a closer look at what makes up his sunny disposition. Like one of his catchy singles, the musician moved from topic to topic, filling us in on some of the music, philosophies and women that have inspired his life to date. And like one of his albums, it’s a potent blend.
You’ve gained a reputation as being a very positive person, and obviously G I R L isn’t going to change that. How do you respond to people who equate serious music with being sad or dark?
I think humanity fell into a spell of feeling like the only way to emote was to take the dark route. In a movie there has to be a moment where someone stumbles and falls. Getting back up makes you feel better. The world has been over-inundated with so much travesty and tragedy because of the Internet. If you look at the news in real time, there’s seven billion people on the planet. There’s bound to be tragedy every five seconds. That’s the odds. But what I want to do is highlight some of the happier moments in life. For every guy who dies in a car crash, a new beautiful baby has been born. We don’t spend enough time seeing those things. So I wanted to make an album that gave people the feeling that I felt when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I didn’t feel so drab and so down and so low. When I was a child, music was jubilant and it took you to another place and made you feel something good.
What were you listening to as a kid that brought you to that transformative place?
When I was a kid I’d listen to this station called K94. You’d hear everything, from “Another One Bites the Dust” to “As the Beat Goes On” to “Planet Rock.” “Eyes Without a Face” by Billy Idol, Tears For Fears, Michael Jackson, Prince, to Madonna to Genesis to Phil Collins. Dire Straits, David Lee Roth, Van Halen, Europe... It just kept going! Lionel Richie, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers... it was such a great place. It was so diverse. All these songs emoted. As a child, when I heard music, it moved me; it would take me to different places. I wanted to make music that could do that.
Is there a woman from history with whom you’d love to have a conversation?
I’m happy having conversations with everyday women. That’s what “Marilyn Monroe” is about. I love Marilyn Monroe, she’s a wonderful figure who represents beauty in a lot of different ways. I thought Cleopatra was beautiful in the images that we’ve seen, but she’s mostly known for her strategy—the stratagems that she would exercise while making her pharaonic decisions. Then you think of Joan of Arc, a woman who’s completely brave and gallant enough to die for what she believed in. I love what all those things represent, but I don’t feel that every woman has to live up to those standards. In fact, I think that what makes you different makes you special, and that’s what celebrating the everyday woman is about.
Who are some of the inspirational women in your own life?
I find inspiration in all kinds of women, in all kinds of archetypes of women. Writers, politicians, fitness instructors, soccer coaches, teachers, visual artists and designers. Hillary Clinton. Oprah Winfrey. There are just so many.
I understand your grandmother was also a major force in your life.
Yes. Both of my grandmothers were major, major, major forces. One encouraged me into music, and the other was very encouraging about my life and where I was headed when I was young boy. Both of my grandmothers were different types of motivational forces, and both of their elements in my life created the alchemy that is my personality. I love them and I miss them both dearly.
That’s wonderful, then, that you can pay tribute in a way with G I R L.
I tried really hard to get it right. In situations like this, there are going to be some imperfections due to the fact that I’m a human being and I’m also a man. This is only from my perspective. I tried my hardest to get it right. I just wanted to make a connection with you all and celebrate my affinity for all women. It was a thank-you because they’ve been so good to me for so long. I just wanted to make something that was jamming and wasn’t too preachy, but felt good. When you hear it, it takes it to a place of escapism. Should you go looking in it, below the surface of the groove, there are some messages there.
Was your creative collective “i am OTHER” started in the same spirit?
I am OTHER is an umbrella of all kinds of creative people who come together and shield each other and create a refuge. Normality is supposed to be cool. But we think “normal” and “standard” is weird. We believe in individuality and celebrate that. That’s what we do together. We join arms and stand, metaphorically, for individuality, for people standing up for themselves and just being different.
Was that a message that you heard a lot as a kid?
With a name like Pharrell I had to learn that on my own.
It’s awesome that you’re able to pass that on.
That’s the other thing: I don’t want to be preachy. So I try to hide these things in my music. I try to hide some of the things I want to say. That’s why when you listen to “Happy” you hear the groove first. If you like the groove, if you go looking, you can find some holistic medicine in there. I’ve grown to love hiding intention and purpose in everything that I do. That’s a pastime of mine. A hobby. An Easter egg hunt. You’ve got to go look for meaning and find answers. I got to deal with things that are no longer idle and aesthetically pleasing but have some kind of spiritual value.
Has that been a theme throughout your career, aiming for a greater purpose?
I never knew that when I was younger. I never knew that was what I was doing.
In honor of your Coachella performance: If you had to head into the desert with one person, who would it be—a member of Daft Punk, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, or Miley Cyrus?
My wife! F