Pharrell Williams interview

Time Out speaks to Pharrell Williams, after a year in which no one could go anywhere without hearing the producer, songwriter, singer, rapper, multi-instrumentalist and fashion designer’s voice or beats

Pharrell Williams
By Ben Sin
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When Pharrell Williams appeared alongside Jay-Z in a commercial for the latter's album, 'Magna Carta Holy Grail', last June, it was hard to resist the thought that Pharrell was everywhere - and that's no exaggeration. Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky', the infectious megahit that Williams helped produce, and for which he sang vocals, was just two months old, still at the peak of its ubiquitousness. Williams's crooning of 'I'm up all night to get lucky' could be heard just about anywhere and everywhere.

Then, as the summer came to a close, two music figures dominated pop culture talks on various scales: Miley Cyrus, with her twerking, became the hottest mainstream pop culture topic; while Kendrick Lamar's blistering verse in the track 'Control' drew critical acclaim from music critics and fans. Yup, Williams produced tracks for both of them as well.

Williams went Hollywood, too. He co-wrote the soundtrack for the hit animated film 'Despicable Me', and he was one of the guys pounding on the drums in that epic Hans Zimmer score when Superman first took flight in last summer's 'Man of Steel'.

Of course, Williams has been collaborating with music's biggest stars - from Britney Spears to Mariah Carey, Snoop Dogg to Justin Timberlake - for over a decade, ever since he and childhood friend Chad Hugo formed the production duo The Neptunes, and he's appeared prominently in megahit songs before (most famously 2005's 'Drop It Like It's Hot', with Snoop Dogg) but never before has he been at the forefront of this many things at once.

And that's just the music. Last year also saw Williams designing a down jacket for French fashion label Moncler and teaming up with internet giant eBay for an online venture involving celebrity-curated collections. Indeed, Pharrell Williams is everywhere. We chat with him about penning chart-toppers and collaborating with music royalty.

You were part of the two biggest songs of last summer, probably of 2013. How do you write a song? Like is there a specific process? 
There are different ways of doing it. For me, I want to chase after a feeling, something that just feels good. And from there, lyrically, the music just sort of sets the template for the words. The feeling directs all creativity. The beat comes first. My job is just to listen to it, and let it tell me what should be fed lyrically, where the drums should go, where the melodies should go. It's all by feel.

You work with so many different types of artists who have such a huge range of music styles. How do you get ideas? What inspires you? 
I do some of my best songwriting when I'm in the shower. Probably a third of the songs I wrote came from my showers.

Which songs were written in the shower? 
'Hot in Herre' [The 2002 hit from rapper, Nelly].

Do you know when a song is going to be a huge hit? I mean, you make so much music, do you sort of know which ones will be bigger?
No sir, I don't know when a song is going to be huge - you never know really. The people make that decision. The only thing you can do is be loyal to your creativity and try to do something new and fresh, and leave it at that. What makes a song huge is people buying records, streaming it online, voting for it, and those are things that are out of my control. Those are the factors that make a song a hit; it's never been me. The people decide. What I do is such a small part.

What are some of your earlier music memories - music you listened to that made you want to pursue music?
I had a mum and dad who urged me to pursue music but at the same time were realistic about it. It just sort of happened, to be honest. I can't [come up with] a special inspirational story. It's mostly my parents who didn't shoot me down when I wanted to do it. Nor did they put too much pressure on me.

You met Chad Hugo at band camp, and you guys jumped into music early. At what point - was there a specific moment - that made you or both of you go, 'We've made it!'?
No, I don't have a specific moment where I thought 'I've made it'. I never look at it like that. I always looked at it like, 'Wow, I get to do it again.' You can't assume you've made it. That's too much of an assumption.

So, even now, you don't want to assume you've made it in the music industry?
No. No sir. I just want to work.

Of all the musicians you've worked with, who's the toughest or most interesting to work with?
Everybody's a pleasure to work with, because you're learning different processes and different methods of creating music. Collaborating with a musician is like a conversation: each experience is unique to that person.

Okay, what about people in particular, then. You work with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, arguably the most powerful and influential couple in pop culture today. Jay in particular, you worked with last year on 'Magna Carta', and you also worked with him ten years ago for 'The Black Album'. Has he changed? How's the process of working with him?
Jay is just growing deeper and deeper into his comfort zone and his understanding of who he is, as an entity and his purpose on this planet. He's secure with himself. When he works, it's interesting to watch. Being in the studio with him and hearing him on radio is like two completely different feelings, because all that time in between, he's evolving. Everything you hear comes from his mind.

And Bey?
She's the queen. She's very particular, with a specific taste.

Anyone you haven't worked with you really want to work with?
Prince.

How has technology changed how you make music throughout the last decade?
Technology changed a bit of how I make music - it's more convenient now - but the process is still the same for me. I listen to what I'm feeling and expand on that, be as true to it as possible.

Aside from music, you're also involved with fashion and art. Where do you find the time, how do you stay inspired, and where do you get ideas?
Life in general. Conversations, movies, reactions to things.

Do you watch a lot of movies?
I do. I'm a huge Wes Anderson fan and I love the Coen Brothers. Those are the directors that can never go wrong.

You're helping Hans Zimmer score 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2', and you helped him with 'Man of Steel' last year. Are you a comic book fan?
I'm a semi-comic book fan. I'm a fan of Magneto. As for Spidey, I'm going to have to wait until the big boss speaks on it first. I can't say anything on it right now. Now, as for Superman, I shouldn't get much credit. I was one of, like, 12 drummers who did the drum parts that Hans wrote. So it's not even like I wrote anything. I was merely part of an ensemble. He's been incredibly generous to me and my career. The most valuable part of our friendship is that he doesn't mind sharing gems about the craft with me. That's something I can never pay for. It's invaluable information. I could lock myself in a vault with the most valuable things in the world and I wouldn't be able to get these experiences.

Williams's second record 'G I R L' is out now. pharrellwilliams.com.

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