Pharrell is inescapable. He’s the soundtrack to a night out, the cheerful jingle in animated children’s films from The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water to the Despicable Me series, and the voice of political ire in serious films like Hidden Figures. He’s been a force in fashion since taking a shine to the designs of A Bathing Ape founder Nigo. The two paired up for Billionaire Boys Club and ICECREAM, luxe streetwear brands that spread the producer’s playful approach to music to shirts, shorts, and accessories. This year, he revealed a capsule collection with Chanel and a unisex athleisure line with Adidas. Last month, he had an art collaboration with Japanese legend Takashi Murakami called the Simple Things on auction at Christie’s in Hong Kong as he announced plans to help design a midtown Toronto residential building called “untitled.” With a mind whose creativity spills over mediums and a taste for art that unites cultures and traditions, Pharrell Williams seems beholden only to the limits of his creativity.
Williams’s art is both unique and instantly recognizable. His clothing is loud and colorful. His beats traffic in offbeat textures and elaborate melodies. His hooks offset jarring tones with smooth, pleasing notes. As one half of the production duo the Neptunes, a member of the pop-rock outfit N.E.R.D., and a solo artist when he’s not workshopping music for rappers, rockers, and pop stars, Pharrell has dominated music for over 20 years, starting with clattering, synthetic-sounding ’90s tracks like N.O.R.E.’s “Superthug” and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money”; continuing through innovative hits like Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and the Clipse’s “Grindin’”; and barreling along through a string of lush, organic-sounding smashes in this decade, including and certainly not limited to “Happy,” “Get Lucky,” and “Blurred Lines.” The latter song has been the source of some strife, as a lawsuit introduced by the estate of Marvin Gaye accused the Robin Thicke single of borrowing from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” and the singer and producer were ordered to fork over a chunk of the song’s over $16 million haul. The producer has since distanced himself from the tune, listening to complaints about chauvinist themes in the “Blurred Lines” lyrics.
I spoke with Pharrell on the phone just before Thanksgiving as he spent time in Miami, where he recently made a surprise appearance to speak to students visiting the “Happy!” exhibit at Fort Lauderdale’s NSU Art Museum and attended a gala for the Playing for Change Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting musical education around the world. I wanted to know where he finds time and inspiration to pursue so many different projects at a time and how he managed to stay on the cutting edge across the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump years. What ensued was a lively conversation about music that touched on every era of his art, how he sees himself, what inspired him about the life of the legendary music-industry fixer Clarence Avant (subject of the Netflix documentary The Black Godfather, which enlisted Williams for a song on the soundtrack), how he gets the best out of his collaborators, and what he maybe regrets. Talking to the man about art was quite like trying to catch up with a comet.
You made songs that soundtracked this decade: “Get Lucky,” “Happy,” “Blurred Lines.” At what stage in the development of a song like that do you know you’re holding onto one that’s gonna blow?
The closest notion that I come to is when [it] just feels like something I want to hear repetitiously. Where I’m anticipating parts. I’m like “Ah!” It’s like tension-release. Different emotional colors that feel good to me. When I want to distill that, because I feel like that song delivers it in its own unique way, that’s when I know it’s something. But I never know … I can’t personally determine what that’s going to be or how far that’s going to go, because that’s [up to] people.That’s the listener.
How do you approach writing for visual media differently than you do a standard pop project?
With a movie, you’re working with the intention of whatever that scene is and what the director wants out of it at that moment, whereas with a song, it’s more based on the person that you’re working with and what they need out of it, what they’re trying to convey on the song or what you’re trying to personally convey. The film is its own entity.
What drew you to the story of Clarence Avant?
The opportunity to do something for him was super intimidating because this is a guy that’s owned his own record label and [released] songs that impacted America and continue to impact America. How do you do one song that’s going to represent that? I checked out the documentary, and when I saw it I was just so blown away by the concept, the notion that I really only know a tenth of this man’s history and the kind of things that he perfected, not only in the music world, but also in politics and activism. Privileges that we seamlessly enjoy today, he was one of the main architects behind a lot of it. I just couldn’t believe that. I was like, “Okay, this guy is so much more worldly than I had thought.” So whatever we did, it needed to feel big and open.
The openness is where it started. And there needed to be something very climactic about the chorus. When the credits first came on, in the very beginning, they showed different people in the shape of a circle, and then they would show all these lines that would connect all these people to a nucleus, which was [Avant.] Watching the film, I realized there were many times where he had ideas and concepts about things, and he was a really talented galvanizer. He could get the people to congregate behind something he thought was important. I noticed there were two kinds of people. There were people who knew him and trusted what he thought, and they could see where he was going with it. He had gotten them to unify in an accord, into a single note. And then there were other people that distrusted him. They might not have understood the futuristic viability of his way of looking at things. But he got them to unify into a single note.
I needed to have choirs. When I saw the doc, it was like … [sings the melody from “Letter to My Godfather”]. There was no sound, but that’s what I was hearing. Representative of the people coming together was the choir. Coming together for this culmination of ideas that half of them saw coming and the other half distrusted was this harmonious chorus — this big, climactic feeling of people uniting, notes coming together to form a chord or harmony.
There’s a moment in the documentary where Clarence lobbies for Sammy Davis Jr. to get some stage time at his Save the Children Festival. This was the era when Sammy was supporting Richard Nixon. He was in the middle of a backlash. He gets up onstage, and people are upset, and he starts to sing “I Gotta Be Me.” I just couldn’t help but think of Kanye. Do you think Kanye’s in a Sammy Davis moment right now?
Kanye’s moment is unique to him because he is his own person. He is no doubt a genius. And you’re not always going to agree with genius. And genius is not always going to agree with genius in the way that you would assume. And that’s what makes individuality so important in this world. The respect of individuality. We don’t always have to agree, but we have to live and let live. And that’s what this is, you know? It’s his moment. It’s his personal expression. We have to respect each other’s right to an opinion.
Sammy Davis, that was one of those moments where the audience is looking like, “Well, why is he up here?” Right? But they trusted Clarence’s vision. That whole audience. They trusted his vision, and they witnessed it. So when Sammy’s saying “I Gotta Be Me,” he first told everybody, “Look, you can disagree with my politics if you want, but you cannot deny the fact that I am black.” And that opened it up and proved that Clarence knew what he was doing, because that crowd went from booing to cheering for this man’s right to his opinion and individuality. That is the magic of Clarence’s career. Not everybody agrees with what it is that he was trying to do when he put people together. But they went with it because they trusted him.
In the last four years you’ve made records with Ariana Grande, with Beck, Justin Timberlake, Little Big Town, Solange, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. You’ve done all this while designing clothes and shoes and running a label, all of this as a family man. I feel like I should ask about time management. Is your day very tightly regimented? How does that work?
I’m a creature of habit, but I’m also a creature of energy and curiosity. And if I’m interested in it and I’m curious about it, then I’m there for it. And I suppose I just don’t have time for anything else. I love God. I love my family, and I love my work. I’m interested in God. I’m curious about God. You know, I’m interested in my family. I’m curious about my family. I’m interested in my work, and I’m curious about my work. And those things keep me so close to it because they’re ever-expanding experiences. Like, the universe itself, it expands in every direction. I’m like that about God, I’m like that about work, and I’m like that about my family.
The Little Big Town album was a daring collaboration at the time. Country was embracing hip-hop sounds, but not so much the players. But everyone moved on from the record really quickly, I thought. And then three years later, “Old Town Road” mixing hip-hop and country became the story of the year in music. Did you feel like you arrived a little bit too early to that party?
It’s a gift and a curse, my friend.
A lot of musicians come to you at a point in their career when their art is about to turn a corner, and you help point them in a different direction. Is it a challenge getting someone with a solid track record of hits to think differently about themselves? Or, like with Clarence Avant, is there just an unspoken trust?
The trust really isn’t in me as much as it’s in their willingness to see themselves differently. For example, take selfies. They’re 99.99 percent shot from the same angle. That tells you so much about the delusion that we have. We think we take different selfies because we’re wearing different outfits in different environments, but it’s, in fact, the same exact angle. That tells us that we found a particular angle that we like, and because we show that to ourselves every day, we think that’s how people see us. So when people take pictures of us, if it’s not that angle, we go, “Oh, I hate that fucking photo! Argh!” We can’t really explain it. Some people who have thought about it a little bit will say, “It’s not my good side.” What’s a good side to your face?
My job is not so much to get you to trust me. It’s to get you to be open to the idea that there’s a whole other side to your face that you never use because somewhere in your life you convinced yourself that that wasn’t the better side. With your voice, it’s the same way. You sing pretty much in one state because that’s where everyone told you to. It’s what you convinced yourself is your brightest and most beautiful place to sing. Sometimes [my job is] keeping them in that same place, or getting them to try other keys. Use that same part of your voice but a different key. Or it’s part of the writing. Your personality. People are like, “I like when I rhyme like this, or when I express myself in this particular way.” And my job is to say, “Hey, you know you can also do it down here. Hey, you know you also could write from this point of view.”
I just worked with Beck. And Beck is like … stream of consciousness. He writes amazing songs, and he has a style that is like a mosaic of all of his emotions. I said to him, “Hey, you could make great rap records, but man, you should make a singer-songwriter album. Your pen is so amazing.” And he was like, “Huh, okay.” And now his most recent release is a singer-songwriter album. He didn’t see himself that way, but that’s what I heard. Or like when I worked with Mystikal for the very first time; I knew him from the No Limit days, but I always noticed that when he raps, even though he’s rapping fast, his voice is a lot like James Brown. So when we went in the studio, I was like, “What would James Brown do over this beat?” That was “Shake Ya Ass.” Or, you know, the clean one, “Shake It Fast.” Working with Miley Cyrus, who’s an amazing talent who’d been known for Hannah Montana for so long, when I heard her sing, I was like, “Yeah, you can do songs like ‘The Climb’ really well, and you got ‘Party in the USA,’” and she went on to make Bangerz. But man, you listen to when she sings “Rooting for My Baby,” and she sounds like Stevie Nicks.
There’s definitely that rasp to it.
I think people are pluralist, not just in what they can do in life but also in the way that they can express themselves. Doesn’t mean they have to do it for the rest of their career. But just try something different.
You worked with Mac Miller at a pivotal point in his career on his Pink Slime project. I met him a few years after that and watched him in studio sessions. He told me that he was profoundly affected by watching the way you worked a session. What do you remember about working with him?
I just remember him being a fan of music and wanting to go deeper and challenge himself. He was really independent in the rap game, but he liked Tribe and all the jazzy shit, and he liked a lot of the stuff we did that’s jazz-influenced, rap records that had those kinds of colors and chords. And he wanted to know more about it. He wanted people to know that there was way more to him than his indie-rap success. He wanted people to know the layers and the depth of his potential. But I would always tell him, “Who cares that they know? Why is it not an amazing gift that you know this about yourself so much so that you do these things?” And that was the question he could never answer. It was the question I don’t think he was gonna be able to answer. He was so focused on that quest that he really didn’t have time to answer. He wanted people to know and I think people knew, but there was no way of saying it in a really unified, loud way that would make him go, “Oh, okay, so you guys get who I am. Okay, cool, great.” The albums did well. It’s not like they weren’t telling him then, but I don’t know if he was ever gonna hear it.
You’ve been a hit maker in three different decades. Next year, it’ll be four. How do you keep up with the space and speed of art and fashion, music, and film, and also continue to evolve to match it?
At a certain point you realize it’s okay to march to the beat of your own drum, being careful that you’re not on a planet of one. As long as you can figure out what you do very well and continue to tackle different subjects and continue to go on new frontiers, like in Star Trek, you just go. I don’t know! It’s not a plan. I’ve not planned to do this. It’s just that I’ve been so intensely distracted by new worlds, new music, and new experiences.
I’ve wondered for a long time if it was always in your mind that you were going to be a solo artist. Was branching out on your own always in the cards for you, or did it just kind of happen?
I don’t know that I’m a solo artist as much as I’m … I feel more like a Method actor. I just go into the zone, and I’m able to express those things more than I am myself. ‘Cause I don’t know what myself is. For other artists, when I’m working with them, I’m more like a mirror. I’m just holding up a mirror for them to see other sides of themselves. But I don’t know what my own sound would be. It’s like a mirror looking into a mirror. There’s no image.
Let’s go back in time. Were you in the studio when N.O.R.E. came up with the hook to “Superthug”?
We sent that beat over, and when we heard it we were like, “Whoa!”
He says he was just in the studio yelling at Nas and some other people and that sorta became the chorus. It’s profound to me. That song is, like, the Bill Withers unwritten verse that becomes the verse of rap songs. Like, it’s a non-thing that just became perfect.
What was the Bill Withers song?
“Ain’t No Sunshine.”
How did he do that?
You know the second verse in “Ain’t No Sunshine” where he goes “I know, I know, I know, I know”?
That verse was a placeholder that stayed on the record because people loved it.
Wow. That’s that Virginia.
Here’s another one: One of my favorite videos of rappers in the studio comes from the doc where VH1 was trailing O.D.B. when he got out on parole in 2003. They caught some sessions for his song on the Neptunes’ Clones album.
We deserved more years of O.D.B. His presence is one I see mirrored in a lot of younger artists. Talk to me about what it was like to work with him, because you made a very good team, the Neptunes and O.D.B., though an unlikely one.
He was a very colorful … his mind was just different. His music was just something else. Listening to his verses, you realize you’re getting a glimpse of how his mind works. His verses were basically remnants and tidbits of these organized thoughts of his in the form of verses. When you listen to “Brooklyn Zoo,” you’re hearing the anger, the energy, the excitement, the happiness, the feeling of something breaking through, giving you this amplified feeling of this, like, angst, you know?
“Brooklyn Zoo” is a perfect, unrepeatable performance.
It’s just as angry as a punk record. There are rap records that can do that. Public Enemy records can do that. Some Wu Tang records can do that. “Shook One” did that. Any one of those records, when they’re that powerful — you can take a punk video from CBGB and put “Brooklyn Zoo” under it, and it would make sense. You could take a Sid Vicious record and play it under the “Brooklyn Zoo” video and it would work, too. Dirty just had that kind of thing. He even had an amazing name.
Part of your revolution, and the instrumentality you’ve had in hip-hop and beyond, has been crossing those wires, getting the punk and the rock stuff into hip-hop audiences and vice versa. Getting people thinking outside the box of genre. What made you want to open those boundaries?
Well, that was always my thing, you know? Mixing things that hadn’t previously been mixed together before. Music is the same way. If you notice, that happens in all art forms of our sub-modality. For example, you’re talking about mixing genres together, right? Well, it’s the same thing with food. Believe it or not, there was a time when no one had ever tasted peanut butter and jelly. Or chocolate and peanut butter, like a Reese’s cup. There was a day when that did not exist, and people who were chocolate purists would be like, “Never.” People who ate peanut butter would be like, “Get the fuck …” But those two together, Whoa! What is the difference in fragrance?
Or streetwear and high fashion.
Same! Any art form you name, when you mix two things that seem like they don’t go together and do well, when you do it in a really profound, prolific way, it becomes timeless. The Reese’s cup is timeless. The idea that rock and rap could come together is timeless. You look at all the rap records right now. It’s a lot of pop-punk melodies in there. Timeless. Run-D.M.C., 30-something years ago. Timeless. Like you said, streetwear and high fashion. It’s timeless. Always been that.
Let’s talk about your producer signature, as people have called it. A lot of your beats start on a four count. I think the first time I heard you do it was the song “Frontin’.” How did that come about?
Sometimes you put a count in so you can start on a beat versus just doing a metronome. If you want to sing at the top of the song, sometimes you just end up leaving it in the song. But I never meant to. I didn’t even realize until someone pointed it out. I was like, “Oh yeah!” I wish I had some kind of profound answer, but I’m really a feeling guy; I don’t always look at what it is that I’m doing on paper conceptually.
It can be strange asking people about the thought processes behind things they made instinctively 15 years ago, but it’s fascinating even when there wasn’t necessarily a thought process. Maybe that makes it more magical. I do think, though, that the cult of the In My Mind album is going to riot when they see you say that you don’t necessarily feel like a solo artist.
Yeah, no. You gotta understand. At the time, I thought I was. And my perception of being a solo artist was not really what a solo artist is. A solo artist is just, like, a single artist, a person, a single entity. And for me, there was so much built into that. I looked up to Jay, and I looked up to Puff. So I felt like I was making a record that would posture next to them. In My Mind wasn’t Reasonable Doubt, and I didn’t think it was. But I thought that was the guy I needed to impress lyrically. I don’t know that I did. I have no idea. And when it came to being musical, giving people music they could feel, I thought I needed to impress Puff. But that wasn’t really for me. That’s not what being an artist is really about. When I put that album out, I realized I didn’t feel fulfilled because there wasn’t really enough in it for me, personally. It wasn’t me really living out all my dreams, as much as I was just living out what I thought were my dreams based on the people I looked up to. It really had nothing to do with me. It was like, “Look, I can do it, too.”
You literally made it a song.
Now, that was probably the closest to who I was on that record. I wanted some kid named Tyler to hear that and know that he could do it. And he did. So in that sense, I felt like I achieved. I got something done. But it really wasn’t me. It’s always been what I needed to prove and explaining myself within the linguistic confines of materialism. But now I know who I am. I know that I’m a channeler. I know that I don’t really have an image. I know that, and I’m comfortable with that. And I know that my image is meant to be more like a chameleon. I get that. I understand that.
Do you feel like you had to make that record to learn this?
Yeah! I came out of it, and I was down, because what did I just do? Who was that for? But I question. That’s what I do. But looking back, I realize I was channeling. That’s who I am. I was never really meant to make a super personal record. I was always meant to channel. That’s what I’m good at. A lot of songs that I ended up doing for myself are songs that I wrote for other people. They were better songs when I was thinking of those people and not myself. When I think of myself, I can’t really be creative. I feel like I say the same things over and over again, and I feel like there’s too much judgmental gravity on the work that prevents it from ever being free to develop interesting freeform concepts. Whereas there’s less gravity on other people’s planets, so I’m able to grow.
Has the way the “Blurred Lines” trial shook out made you think about recording and collaborating any differently?
That’s good to hear. So, there are two full weeks left in the decade. You’re now designing condos. Your Takashi Murakami collaboration is auctioning at Christie’s. Are you done surprising us for the decade?
I don’t even know if there’s an answer to that. All I know is that I’m just so grateful to be inspired and so grateful that I have fans. Will they ever be done inspiring me?
This interview has been edited and condensed.