Willow Smith Learned to Play Guitar Because of Michael Cera

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Willow Smith is training to be a savant. She slips this in casually, and with conviction, over the phone while on a break from touring with Jhené Aiko to chill with “the fam” and friends for a few days. That “fam,” of course, is one of the most famous in the world: Her father is Will Smith, her mother is Jada Pinkett Smith, and her older brothers are Jaden and Trey. They’re an entertainment dynasty, but Willow, the youngest, plans on eclipsing their stardom with dreams that are literally astronomical. In a few years, after releasing another musical project, which will become the follow-up to her recent Tracy Chapman–indebted sophomore album The 1st, she’ll take an even longer break to do the opposite of chill. She dreams of going to MIT to study physics and, yes, music, so she can call herself a savant, a designation she feels she could’ve easily earned at age 10. “I can have the best of both worlds,” she says. This week, she let Vulture into her world, telling us how Michael Cera inspired her to learn guitar, being born into celebrity, misogynistic rap, and what she would’ve done differently with “Whip My Hair.”

The 1st is not actually your first album, but does it signify some new, internal beginning for you?
One-hundred percent. It’s both in my artistic development and also my emotional and mental development just as a human being. I started playing guitar and that really set my path in a whole different direction. It taught me things about myself and art that I never realized. I’ve grown up and realized what womanhood means to me. It’s the first step into another chapter of my life.

At 17, what kinds of things are you learning about womanhood and your relationship to it?
I feel like because women are such empathic beings — our superpower is love and is cleaning up the darkness within ourselves and, hopefully, the darkness in our world with our love, light, and nurturing energy. I realized that time and time again we see this being abused by unrealistic expectations of women physically and also expectations that women have about the dynamics between the sexes that are fed to us at such a young age. As I grow up, you know, my mom [Jada Pinkett Smith] and I would always read bell hooks and all these very influential feminists for my entire life. But as I’m starting to grow up, have experiences, and see the world in a new way, I’m starting to realize how real these problems are and how deep they’re ingrained. It’s interesting going from this theoretical understanding to face-to-face understanding.

Are you self-taught on the guitar?
I had a whole bunch of different teachers when I first started for little periods of time. Then I just stopped getting teachers because none of it was working. I got myself to be able to change chords more smoothly by myself, and I thought I was going to be self-taught. But then a person came into my life who was just … it was meant to be. Now, they teach me. But every single song on The 1st, except for “Lonely Road” and “Awkward Life of an Awkward Girl,” I composed.

How did you pick up that craft, aside from the obvious genetic talent?
It’s so weird because for my whole life, my parents always told me, “You should be doing guitar lessons, you should be doing piano lessons,” and all these different things. Being young and not knowing what’s good for me, I ignored them and didn’t do it. Now I’m just starting to realize, “Whoa, they were so right.” They told me so much and I didn’t acknowledge them. But it’s so funny and random because I’ve listened to so much music in my life, but the thing that really pushed me to start playing guitar was Michael Cera’s album True That. It’s so insane. He’s not even — he’s definitely a musician, but he doesn’t put himself out as a musician. So the fact that he was the one who inspired me to start playing is just so random. I can’t believe it.

Does he know that?
No, I haven’t told him. He keeps to himself. I admire that.

As do you. I don’t see you running in a lot of circles the way famous teens of famous families often do, especially in that Calabasas bubble. You go dark for months then release a body of work. Is that an intentional process?
That’s how you can get more work done. All of that other stuff is a distraction. There’s probably so much art that Michael Cera has under his belt that we just have no idea about and that’s just because he spends time on his art.

For so long, the word “woke” has followed you. You’ve been labeled a leader in this generation of woke teens. I think the term loses meaning the more it gets branded and commodified in this way. To be clear, do you identify with “wokeness” and does it even mean anything to you?
It doesn’t mean anything, that’s the thing. It’s a label that we’ve created to describe awareness. And awareness should be innate. The real sad part about it is it’s not. But the more that we start making awareness a trend, the more people are going to start to realize that it’s not. We have to go through the extremes, the [imitates a Valley girl voice] “Oh my god, this is so cool. Like caring about the world is such a cool thing, like, wow. I just need to post on my Instagram about these things just so people can know that I really care.” That’s becoming a thing.

It becomes performative.
Yes. It’s a performance. When it gets to a height, that’s when the polarity is going to shift and people are actually gonna start realizing the truth in all of these things that they thought were just to be cool.

Do you resent the “woke teen” label? It might be meaningless to you, but it’s a responsibility that means a lot to your peers.
The amount of responsibility that you feel is up to you. That’s what people don’t understand. That’s what I’m starting to understand and didn’t understand before. All of the pressure that I could be feeling, and sometimes do feel, is really up to me. The outside world is always gonna be the outside world. People are always going to be sus. Sussness is a part of life. And until the moment when humanity can 100 percent accept the sussness, that’s when it’s going to start to balance.

When you and Jaden first started putting out music, there was all this fuss about how wise beyond your years you both were and still are because of your open passion for philosophy and science. How do you feel about your age now? Do you relate to other 17-year-olds?
I’ve decided that just as much as I am a part of this generation, I’m not. Even the language that kids nowadays use, I’m just not used to it. I use some of it and I understand some of it, but it’s starting to evolve in a way that I’m just not connected to.

What kind of language?
Such casually degrading language and words that don’t come from an intention of upliftment. It’s coming from fear. Really, I honestly feel like it’s coming from rap music.

Hmm.
That’s especially starting to come through in texts. Sometimes I read people’s texts and just the form of communication, how it’s evolving, is just so interesting to me. And it’s not just because of rap. Time goes on. But that’s a big part of it, because it’s what most people are listening to right now.

What kinds of rap are you listening to? Besides your brother.
I listen to rap that’s not misogynistic, like Jaden’s raps, and rap that’s actually rhythm and poetry. Rap can be amazing and I’m glad that Jaden is holding space for conscious rap because that’s so important. I just have to be aware, we all have to be aware, and not let those other things creep in.

Do you rap?
I want to. I can. But I wish that I could really rap because every time I rap, I’m joking. But I feel like I could do it.

I want to talk about your upbringing. You were born into celebrity. Do you think it’s altered your perspective even more than most with no comprehension of that lifestyle would assume?
One-hundred percent. When you’re born into it, specifically for me, I constantly felt as though there was something I had to do because of the resources that I was given. That personally shifted my perspective in all situations because I always felt like I had to take the high road and be the helper. I still do. We need those people on earth to do that. If the people with the resources don’t put all of their energy into uplifting, then what is gonna happen? That’s what we need to do. There’s really no choice. It’s an everyday communication with your destiny.

Your dad told a beautiful story about you in one of Jay-Z’s footnotes for 4:44. He said he hadn’t considered your individuality and need to carve out your own path in this industry until you shaved off all your hair while on tour for “Whip My Hair” so you could go home. You were maybe 10. Do you remember that?
That’s so insane. That was a crazy night, I remember it. I was very nervous because it was like, “Dang, am I gonna miss my hair?” But then I didn’t care. I really could not have cared less. That was such a transformational point for me.

Looking back on “Whip My Hair” and your music now, would you have done anything differently? You’ve since updated it pretty significantly live.
I would have started guitar lessons when I started singing lessons. And I would have not shown my face. I probably wouldn’t have made music at first. I would’ve trained and trained and became a savant first, and then I would’ve allowed myself into the public eye. That’s what I would’ve done differently, but everything happens for a reason. And I’m gonna become a savant now so I can have the best of both worlds.

What’s a typical day in your life like when you’re not on tour?
I wake up, feed my dog, do my hour of guitar exercises, go to school, do my guitar lessons, then I do my schooling — my English, my math, my physics — then sometimes at night I have a physics class where I invite all of my friends and we ask questions about the universe. Then I probably go to sleep around 9:30 p.m.

What are you questioning about the universe right now?
We have a college professor who teaches physics. So he comes in and we’ll ask astronomy questions. This week, we calculated E = mc^2 and how much energy was held at the mass of our bodies. Then we found out how much energy went into powering a house and, if the science was up to par, what part of our body could we use to power a house or a town. We do crazy equations. Like if I’m in Canada and my friend is in Beijing, with our masses, how much gravitational pull is there on each other across that distance? What’s the exact amount?

Are you still thinking about attending MIT?
Every day of my life. I know that at one point in my life, I’m going to go to college for both music and physics. I’m gonna need to block out time in my life. Right now, I’m going HAM on my music and I really need to focus on this. I think after I put out another album or something, I’m gonna block out a couple years of my life to put all of my energy into learning physics.

You’ve described your relationship with Jaden as twin-like. I’m curious why you two don’t collaborate more in your music. Or maybe you do and we just haven’t heard it yet.
We’re very, very different artists. The way we work is very different and the style of music that we do is very different. I definitely think one day we’ll put out an album that is a collaboration of both of us, but right now in this point in our lives, we’re both really figuring out who we are. In general and in our careers. In that process, we’re very individual. It’s a beautiful thing that we can have the best of both worlds. We see each other all the time when we’re not working.

I know you’re a voracious reader. What books have inspired you lately?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac. And I just finished Into the Wild [by Jon Krakauer]. I’m so enamored of both those books.

What’s the best book you read this year?
Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Willow Smith Learned to Play Guitar Because of Michael Cera