Pharrell Williams interview
Music electrifies me
We are talking to a singer, producer and the man behind a string of global number ones. The Afro-American star the planet has been talking about for years. His name is Pharrell Williams and if you haven't heard of him you must be living in a cave ... or on another planet.
Not that he needed you to make his mark. His “Get lucky” and “Happy” are now part of the collective unconscious and, if Google is to be believed, there are no less than 36 million websites dedicated to this mercurial phenomenon. Respect to the artist.
Apart from being how you earn your living, what does music mean to you?
Music? It's my super power. It's thanks to music that I got everything I dreamed of. It's music that opened up all the opportunities in the industry. It's what gets me up with a big smile in the morning. Nothing in the world would make me betray the thing that inspires me and nourishes me. I'd never complain about my job. I’m extremely grateful to be able to do what I do.
Pharrell Williams interview Blush Dream #26
What do you feel when you sing?
Music electrifies me inside! For me, music is the most effective form of expression when you want to get a message across or touch people. It goes straight to the heart and soul of everyone who knows how to appreciate its real value! The most beautiful quality of a singer or artist is to be able to communicate emotion. Without emotion, the job makes no sense. But to keep the emotion, the sensibility, you need to stay in touch with the audience, your fans, people close to you, your audience. I have one fault. I sing all the time. My wife and my son Rocket might say too much! (laughter). What drives them mad is that I never switch off. When I sing, it's not necessarily couplets, it can be La-la-la-la-la-la. or Di-di-di-di-di-di-di. Generally, I start in the bathroom in the morning and finish in the evening before I go to bed. I don't sing in the shower any more since I realised I was swallowing water and could end up drowning. (laughter). Musically, I’m very eclectic. I love early-80s rap because the words were positive, optimistic and less heavy than today. That's probably down to the economic situation. I’ve also loved drumming since I was a kid. Thinking back, it can't have been easy for my parents. I’m sure they cursed me and stuffed their fingers in their ears sometimes.
What is the secret if you want to last in such a competitive business?
’s really just to enjoy what you do. If you don't do it with love that comes through straight away. You have to have a positive attitude, and it has to be real not fake. Be happy. Infuse it with a good energy. After that it’s a question of quality. You have to think that an album, a song, are going to be listened to on a loop. The finished product has to be perfectly smooth. Make sure its flawless.
What do you think we need right now?
More love. More openness to others. Now, more than ever. We are living in a very tough world right now. A world where everybody's struggling. We can never forget how important it is to remember that solidarity, goodwill, love of life opens lots of doors. What our society is also missing is that we are trusting each other less and less. We are pulling back into ourselves. But it's only by opening up, communicating, swapping ideas or life experiences that we create ourselves.
What kind of student were you?
I got a lot of Ds. A few Cs on a good day. I was never a very academic student. I had good teachers who tried to teach me loads of stuff but frankly I could never see the point. I think in fact what I didn’t like was that they wanted to make me conform to certain rules. This wasn't easy for a free spirit like me. I wanted to learn, but in my own way.
My only motivation was music classes. As I didn't want them to kick me out on my ass and miss out on the chance to play an instrument, I forced myself to work a bit on other stuff.
What annoys you most in life? You who always seems “happy”.
You know, negativity is everywhere. It's all around us. You only need to go on the net to realise there are loads of things that are only trying to divide us. You don't need to look hard. That said, it's not all dark on the planet. We are also doing some really cool actions like feeding other nations or sending out aid to people suffering in war zones.
We can also dream when Elon Musk starts talking about his ambition to send people to Mars one day or when you look at this community that lives in space on the space station. Of course, when you see such gaps, such disparities, you can’t avoid the fact that the world is an unequal place. Even so, I think we're getting there. I don't know if we can change the minds of older people. I love them and like lots of them. But those who have let themselves get infected by negativity, that hurts, and I really don't know if we can change their outlook. I think ultimately we’re in the women’s century and it's time they played a bigger part in our society. Over the last few centuries, who was it taking the mad decisions? Who started the wars? Not the women. I’m a man, I’m happy to be one, but you know what? It's time women had a chance to take the most important decisions. I know some people won't appreciate what I just said.
You think women are more gifted on environmental issues?
Yes. Don't we say Mother Nature?
Girl, your old album, was also a homage to women and their condition
Yes. In a way. I have a deep respect for them. I admire their courage, their capacity to cope and juggle several things at the same time. They work both in and outside the home. They take care of their family without ever looking down on it. And without them we wouldn't be here today, because they give life. And plenty of times they bring us up. I think our institutions, our governments, our companies are horribly short of women. The problem is that there is a real imbalance. This album is a love statement.
Hence your eternal modesty. It's true, you never show off.
That's life experience I guess. I would add that every morning I tell myself there are seven billion people on this planet who could easily have been in my shoes. I can never get over being this lucky. I particularly never forget that life, you career, your fate can turn on its head tomorrow. Nothing is sure in this world.
It seems that you have never had a mentor or someone to show you the way...
Yes, I never had any coach or mentor, like a superstar I could follow. I had something better than that. A superstar, you know, you see him coming, he makes a lot of noise, waves his arms around. That's kind of overblown. The people who guided me are everyday folks, who saw something in me that I couldn't see yet.
So you were “guided” by nobodies?
You know, I come from Virginia Beach, Virginia. One thing that means is that Broadway and Hollywood, it’s not exactly next door. When you’re born or grow up in New York or Los Angeles, you develop in cities with a lot of artistic potential. You have a critical mass of people who live their art in these big conurbations, who put on shows and help each other out. Personally, I never benefited from the influence of these places...
That doesn't stop you being the most hyped singer of the moment and being celebrated as one of the artists of the decade. For instance, you got a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
This is a great honour, I agree. But I wouldn’t have got there, if all my music teachers hadn’t encouraged me. None of them knew each other but each in turn told me “You know, you’ve got something and you should go that way”. They didn't even know themselves which way that exactly was. But they were sure of one thing. I had talent and they had to feed me a bit of compost and enough water so that it would grow and eventually flourish. If I take a step back, I’d say that they are the superstars, they are my coaches, my mentors, all these music teachers....
You also mentioned your grandmother once as a source of inspiration.
It's true she had a big influence. She was always scolding me because I would steal her spoons and pots to mock up a drum kit in the kitchen. Since she got sick of these metallic noises, it was she who went on to buy me my first drum kit and that’s how it all started.
What is the biggest thing you have found out about yourself in recent years?
Whoah! It’s getting hyper-smart this interview. We're getting into metaphysics. But I’ve got an answer for you. The best thing that happened to me is to understand that I was a guy who in the end knew what he was doing. For decades, I had the feeling that I had lost my compass. I was looking for myself. It was only at 30/35 that I finally found myself. Above all, I understood that the worst thing for a man is ego. I finally managed to vanquish mine. It took a while, but I did it.
Pharrell Williams interview Blush
You’re nearly 50 without a line in your face. What's your secret?
Water! I drink gallons of the stuff. I don't stress out either.
You became a megastar on social media. Could you drop these media tomorrow?
No. (laughter). It's as if I said “could you buy a house without water or electricity?” Today, the internet, cellphone, computers they’re all part of our everyday life and lifestyle. They’re now essential and you can't do without them.
Since “Get lucky”, the worldwide hit with French duo Daft Punk, you get the feeling you've fallen in love with France. Am I wrong?
What I can say is that the French have been very good to me. They’ve all been extremely kind. When I say that, I’m not just talking about the audience, I mean all the creative guys I've met in France. For instance, it's in France that Marc Jacobs gave me the chance to work with Vuitton. There’s also Colette who followed me from the beginning, and I worked on a project with Luc Besson a dozen years back. Every time, the French were extremely generous creatively. When I worked with people, I always had my eyes and ears wide open. In that way, France was a great school for me. In the end, I can't even remember when it all started, but anyway it's still going on and I’m very happy about it.
Do you think you are a prima donna?
I’m not a prima donna. I don't have weird demands when I get to a hotel. I don't make people do stupid stuff. I start from the principle that everyone knows their job and it's not down to me to give lessons or judge anyone. There is one thing I am very careful about, though, and that's cleanliness. As I am very OCD, I don’t put up with badly folded or badly washed linen.
What does Pharrell Williams's closet look like?
It's a kind of Ali Baba's cave. You can find anything. Plenty of accessories picked up here and there. My wife thinks I’m a slob. But it works for me and that's the main thing. (laughter).
You have how many shoes for instance...?
I don't do that kind of accounting. But I can tell you that my feet are spoiled for choice. (laughter). Plenty of basketball shoes.
What tends to grab you when you’re choosing shoes or clothes?
It's a question of the vibe. Also, I have to see something original in it. Fashion is a way to stand out and not follow a movement or trend.
You also started a new fashion. And in an unusual move for a singer, you started a fashion label. If you hadn't done music would you have been tempted to be a fashion designer?
Presentation is always important, in the sense that we’re all human and there's always going to be a bit of vanity in us. This is what makes us different from the animals. The desire to seem, to cover your tracks, to want to change your image. This drive is inevitably more palpable when you're in a business like show biz. And for fans, there’s always a certain curiosity about the artists. The fans will always try to find out what their heroes do, how they dress, make up, etc. There's unquestionably an identification process at play. Somewhere, music and fashion are a bit like space and time, two worlds that live together and one can never work without the other.
But could you have become a 100% creator?
I’m very happy with what I've got. Music is my clothes. It envelops me like a soft coat that feels good to slip into. Now, there's always this nice gap between the media and me. If I was in fashion, if I was a great couturier, I am sure that you’d be asking me if I’d rather be making music. (laughter)
Why did you decide to launch your own fashion label one day...
It's very simple. When you can’t find the clothes you need. When you are desperately looking for a style, an original look, the only solution that occurs to you is to launch your own label. I’m still convinced that you’re never better served than by yourself. (laughter)
You pride yourself on your “eccentric” side?
I don't pride myself on anything. I’m just trying to feel good. To be happy with what I’m wearing.
I’m very sensitive to the aesthetics of things. And not just in fashion. For instance, I love architecture, particularly Frank Gerhy buildings.
You also know a lot about ecology...
You're talking about the partnership I just signed with G Star and Bionic Yarn. Yes, it's about making jeans from waste picked up from the ocean. Particularly plastic waste that we recycle. This stuff is all over the place unfortunately. You only need a mask and snorkel to find out the sea-beds are totally covered in a pile of stuff that suffocates animals and plant life. I find it really interesting to “divert” this bad stuff into making something useful. In this instance, jeans.
Before you met your wife, do you think that fame was a plus when it came to picking up girls?
That's kind of the big problem for celebrities. They never know whether someone likes them for what they are or what they represent. (laughter). I was lucky enough to never come across gold-diggers. I should add that I’m like Spiderman, I have a sort of inner alarm that goes off inside whenever I’m in danger.
What is the most ridiculous thing a fan has ever asked you for?
It was a girl fan actually. She asked me to sign an autograph across her chest with a marker. At first, I thought she was joking. Until she lifted up her T-shirt.
What did you say?
Errrr, that I didn't have a pen on me. (laughter)
What's the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
I go into my kids’ room. I love seeing them sleep or wake up. Then I try to find the kitchen to make a black coffee.
You always seem cool. What could make you lose your cool?
Evil, ignorance, condescension.
Not at all. (laughter) I don't think you could last or make it in this industry if you’re tagged with even one of those labels.
Interview conducted in Los Angeles by Frank Rousseau, our USA correspondent.