Interview: Pharrell Williams

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After a year in which no one could go anywhere without hearing Pharrell Williams’ voice or beats, the producer, songwriter, singer, rapper, multi-instrumentalist and fashion designer speaks to Ben Sin about closing 2013 with a big Hong Kong party 

When Pharrell Williams appeared alongside Jay-Z in a commercial for the latter’s album, ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’, this past 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 sung vocals, was just two months old, still at the peak of its ubiquitousness. Williams’ crooning of ‘I’m all up night to get lucky’ could be heard just about anywhere and everywhere.

Had Williams’ year ended with just the Daft Punk and Jay-Z collaborations, he’d already be a major part of the 2013 pop culture story. But the 40-year-old music renaissance man was just starting. 

Just as Get Lucky finished its run at the top of the charts and music streams, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, which Williams produced and co-wrote, picked up steam and turned into the song of the summer.

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 this 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. This year also saw Williams design a down jacket for French fashion label Moncler and team up with internet giant eBay for an online venture involving celebrity curated collections. In December, he hits in Hong Kong to headline – and ‘curate’ – BLOHK Party (read our preview here), a new urban culture festival also featuring the likes of his high school friend Pusha T, Steve Aoki, Europe’s Ed Banger crew, and a slew of local acts like LMF, 24Herbs, Josie Ho and Edison Chen. 

Indeed, Pharrell Williams is everywhere. And as he prepares to jet into Hong Kong for the festival, Time Out chats with him about his curatorial role, being a style icon and his increasing relationship with Hong Kong. 

Hey Pharrell, it’s nice to speak to you. So, tell us about your involvement with BLOHK Party. How did this collaboration come about? 
It just kind of happened. Kevin [Poon] and Alex [Ng], they had a conversation with me, telling me about this thing they’re organising, and I just wanted an excuse to party. I mean, I love Asia, man, Asia’s been so good to me and [Chad Hugo]. So I wanted to come out, to be with the Hong Kong community, with my people.

You’re being billed as the show’s ‘curator’. What exactly does that mean?
Well, as the curator, it means I’m helping to pick the people who’s going to be on there. But to be honest, I don’t really like the term ‘curator’, because it makes me have to explain what my role is. I really just want to be part of a team, rather than be a captain of the ship. 

Well, it’s hard for you not to be the captain of the ship when you were responsible for the two biggest songs of the year. 

I’m just part of the equation, man. There are lots of other factors for why the songs got big.

You were in Hong Kong last year for the international culture conference Liberatum, and then later you appeared in a Gap ad campaign with model Angelababy. You seem quite familiar
with Hong Kong. What’s your impression of our city?
Hong Kong’s energy is very resilient and driven. You guys are a very worldly place and, for some reason, when I think of Hong Kong, I think of numbers and math. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of the business market. As for Asia, I just love that corner of the world. It’s so beautiful and the culture is so unique.

You’re part of the two biggest songs of the summer, probably of the year. 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 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 Beyonce, arguably the most powerful and influential couple in pop culture today. Jay in particular, you worked with this year on Magna Carta, and you also worked with him 10 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.  

We want to talk about something we’ve noticed in fashion with black youths. Back in the 90s and 2000s, black youths dressed in baggy jeans, oversized jerseys – the so-called gangster look. But now, people like the slim cut, skater/hipster style, like what Russell Westbrook is doing. You’re kind of like a pioneer of all that. What’s your take on this?
I think that everybody’s style should be unique to their own and people should be able to wear what they want to wear. You should dress from the inside out. 

How do you determine your style?
For me, it’s three things: how I feel, where I’m heading and what the climate is going to be like.

You’re helping Hans Zimmer score The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and you helped him with Man of Steel this 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.  

What new sound is interesting to you right now?
I like Diplo, Flying Lotus. Kendrick [Lamar]’s producers.

Anything else you want to add? 
Hong Kong, here we come. We’re gonna have fun.    

BLOHK Party West Kowloon Cultural District, Sat Dec 7. Tickets: $1,288-$788; hkticketing.com.

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