Pharrell Williams is about to make someone cry. In a good way. I meet the 40-year-old musical maverick loitering in the corridor of a Woolwich community centre, preparing to drop a completely unexpected surprise upon a megafan of his. A group of kids are learning a dance routine to Pharrell’s latest mega-hit, ‘Happy’. Suddenly, the Virginia-born producer sashays into the room, smiling sweetly and flapping his arms in time to the music. The teacher’s eyes widen to the size of dinner plates, her hands shoot to her mouth and she squawks like a startled parrot. ‘Happy’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Actually, it makes sense that Pharrell’s moved into spreading cheer via direct action. He may have spent most of his career creating worldwide smash-hit singles for everyone from Britney to Jay Z (as half of production duo The Neptunes), and performing as one third of rock-inflected rap trio NERD, but last summer he went from being the thinking rapper’s producer of choice to the planet’s poster boy for fun times. His appearances on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ defined the 2013 ‘summer of disco’, and those tracks became the go-to songs for DJs wanting to instantly whip a dancefloor into a big, sweaty joygasm.
Now his own track ‘Happy’ has become the feelgood hit of the winter. So much so that when a recent poll named Belfast the UK’s happiest city, its citizens celebrated by recording their own video to the song’s goofily joyous soul vibes. He’s performing at The BRIT Awards on Wednesday February 19, and following up with an intimate show for MasterCard in May (like his Woolwich drop-in, it’s part of their Priceless Surprises series). After that, he’s personally pledged to provide every newborn baby in the land with a kitten and a hug. Okay, okay, the last bit’s a lie. Wouldn’t put it past him, though…
‘I’ve spent 20 years preparing for this without even realising.’
You just made one fan extremely happy. Are you on a quest to bring joy to the world or what?
‘Is it that transparent? I had this personal mission to sneak some positive stuff into my music and see what I could get away with. I guess that’s obvious to everyone at this point.’
It is. But does the success of ‘Happy’ make you happy?
‘Seriously, I find myself trying to be cool about it, but I’m really like… whoa! I’ve always produced music for artists who are going through this level of success, but I just didn’t know it would be this crazy. I’m like a kid with a sweet tooth waking up in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.’
Come on, it can’t be that alien to you. You’ve already got a shelfload of Grammys.
‘Look, as a producer, I’ve always been the guy standing next to the guy, and I was happy with that. But then the universe taps you on your shoulder and you realise that there’s more in store for you. It’s kind of like “The Karate Kid”. He thinks his exercises are just for washing cars – he doesn’t realise what he’s preparing himself for. I’ve spent 20 years preparing for this without even realising.’
A lot of your recent success has been down to two songs: ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Blurred Lines’. Did you ever get sick of hearing them last summer?
‘No, I was just very thankful to all the people voting, requesting, downloading, sharing and talking about those songs. I always think it’s really funny when a person claims to be the author of their own success. They think it’s all “I, I, I”. And then when people don’t like them any more, they get all like “But my success was supposed to happen!” No it wasn’t. You forgot who gave you success. The people. The fans.’
‘Is it sexist when you walk around in a museum and a lot of the statues have their boobs out?’
Robin Thicke got into a spot of bother with the lyrics and video to ‘Blurred Lines’. How come you didn’t?
‘I didn’t get away with it! There were lots of women who wanted to understand what we meant by those lyrics. But the two lines go: “You don’t need no papers/That man is not your maker.” Boom! Lyrically, you’re done: there’s nothing else to talk about. “That man is not your maker.” Plus that treatment was written and shot by a female director, who’s a feminist.’
So, sexy videos aren’t sexist?
‘Is it sexist when you walk around in a museum and a lot of the statues have their boobs out? The women in that video weren’t doing anything sexual: they were only dancing. Just because they had their boobs out, that was “sexist”. I didn’t do anything sexually suggestive to any of those women, I wouldn’t allow it. I have respect and I know the message that I want to put out. I’m a fun guy.’
Is your new album also about having fun?
‘Yes! When we were working on it, I kept asking, “Does this feel celebratory and festive?” My muse for it was women. I love them.’
What, all of them?
‘Look, I love them, because I know their importance. If women wanted to shut down this country, economically, they could just not go to work and the UK would be finished. If they wanted to kill off our species, they’d just decide not to have babies. And there’s going to be a huge shift, a huge shift. There will be a time when women get paid as much as men. There will be a time when, like, 75 percent of our world leaders will be women. All the presidents and prime ministers. There will come a time. And I’m going to be on the right side of that shift when it happens.’
Does that mean your videos will all be PG-rated from now on?
‘Oh no. I want to support women, but that doesn’t mean I won’t make another song where girls’ behinds are everywhere.’
‘I’m willing to go on record as saying that I don’t drink people’s blood.’
On to the all-important issue of millinery. Will you be wearing that hat from the Grammys at The BRIT Awards?
‘I’m a little bit of a hippy, you know? I do what feels right. I can’t really take any cool points for it. At the moment, wearing this just feels right.’
Any idea what you’re going to play at the awards ceremony?
‘We’re going to play “Happy”. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll be taking advantage of this platform I’ve been given to do something fun. That’s what matters.’
Lastly, it seems like a lot of people are searching for ‘Is Pharrell Williams a vampire?’ on Google. Are you a vampire?
‘No I am not. I’m willing to go on record as saying that I don’t drink people’s blood. How do I stay so young-looking for a 40-year-old? I wash my face.’
The Blues Kitchen Shoreditch
This Curtain Road venue is close in style and sentiment to its big sister, The Blues Kitchen over in Camden. Expect, then, a restaurant, bar and music venue with a hefty Stateside influence - from its bourbon and its barbecues all the way to its blues. Music does have a big part to play here. There's live artists pretty much every night of the week, with everything from rock 'n' roll to swing, motown, roots and even gospel complementing all that smokey blues. Keep an eye out for nights where food and music combine in happy harmony - think bargain ribs gnawed to a soundtrack of soul. An in-house barbecue, with meats smoked over fruit woods in their own fire pit, is kept busy - orders of beef brisket, smoked chicken, short beef ribs and burnt ends glazed with a beer and hickory barbecue sauce prove popular. Burgers, chilli, lobster, gumbo and a catfish jambalaya also feature.
Venue says: “'Free wing Fridays' between 5-7pm at the Blues Kitchen Shoreditch. Come down and get your wing on!”