BRIAN GRAZER: Hello! It’s BG.
PHARRELL WILLIAMS: What’s up, man?
BG: I’m a little jet-lagged. I just got back to Los Angeles from London late last night because I’m producing The Da Vinci Code there. When you fly west, the goal is to stay up as long as possible, so I was up for 20 hours. But I’m really excited to do this with you. You’re coming out with your first solo album now, and you’ve worked with all these great people in music, across all these genres. First, though, I want to get into how you go about things. With all these opportunities and forks in the road before you, how do you make decisions about which way to go?
PW: The simplest way to say it is that I think we’re all dealt these cards in life, but the cards in and of themselves don’t read one way or the other. It’s up to you to home in and cultivate whatever you’ve got in your hand. Most of the time, I see what I see, I search my feelings, and then I make my decisions based on my gut-and I don’t always make the right ones.
BG: What informs your gut? What information do you bombard yourself with in order to inform your instincts so you’re not just a dilettante?
PW: Well, whether we know it or not, everything we look at is intake. We take in a thousand times more things than we think we do. We see everything, but it’s up to us to realize what’s actually there. That, to me, is how you find the truth in things and, hopefully, what you’re really looking for.
BG: Are there any specific environments that you like to be in that really help clarify things for you? It could be a coffee shop or anywhere, really.
PW: Bookstores. I like to browse and just hang in bookstores.
BG: Alone? Or with people?
PW: Alone. Another would be when I am listening to music on the iPod. And a third would be when I’m flying on charter jets. [Grazer laughs] I don’t know if it’s the air pressure or whatever, but being that high in the air just seems to make things super clear. Maybe it’s just psychological. Another place where I get a lot of work done is in the shower.
BG: So, how do you decide who you’re going to work with and who you’re going to give your creative essence to? Because I’m looking at the people you’ve worked with, and I see Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, Usher, Nelly, Snoop Dogg-all these people from all these different cultures.
I don’t see everything in the world as all positive. But it all has the ability to be. You don’t know what the sunshine is until you kind of get caught in the rain.Pharrell Williams
PW: It’s just a gut feeling. I always remember that music is something I’m very lucky to be able to do. Teddy Riley’s studio was literally two blocks from my high school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He left New York, and out of all the places in the world he moved to Virginia Beach, which is not a music industry-type place. So I got involved in the music industry, and it was only a few months ago that I really realized how fortunate I am. I do something that people can’t see and touch. You can hear music, but you cannot physically stick your hands out and feel it unless you’re standing in front of a speaker, which is a transmission and a simulation, but not the real thing. It’s like God or the wind.
BG: God, wind, and music.
PW: You can’t physically touch any of them, but you can feel all of them.
BG: When you listen to your iPod, is there any music that you like turning on that guarantees you’ll get into a good space?
PW: That would be A Tribe Called Quest.
BG: Really? Can I ask you which album?
PW: Either their first, People’s Instinctive Travels . . . , or their third, Midnight Marauders . That group is just brilliant.
BG: I think I rode around with Q-Tip once in Russell Simmons’s car. I’ll have to get those records.
PW: It’s pretty strong stuff.
BG: So, is there anyone you haven’t worked with but you really look up to or that you would love to work with?
Pharrell the person is never going to change, but before the shell becomes too popular, I like to switch it up.Pharrell Williams
PW: I would love to collaborate with Prince. I’m not even much of a collaborator, though. When I do something, I just do it. I think me and Eminem could do something crazy together. We haven’t done that yet. I don’t know him very well, but we met a few times.
BG: I got to know him a bit while we were working on 8 Mile , and I loved him. I thought he was really responsible and cool, and you guys have a similar work ethic. In deciding who you want to work with and the projects you choose to take on, do you ever think about staying relevant? Does that thought ever enter the equation?
PW: In a very weird way, I think my skin just sort of changes every few years. Pharrell the person is never going to change, but before the shell becomes too popular, I like to switch it up. Like, a Ferrari is a Ferrari, but they won’t keep the same body style beyond three years. I want to express myself, but I never really want to express myself in the same way over and over again.
BG: Do you see a lot of movies?
PW: Sure. I try.
BG: Would you ever want to act?
PW: No, I don’t think so. I aspire to be the Wizard-I don’t think Dorothy was meant for me.
BG: [laughs] So, your new album, In My Mind [Star Trak/Interscope]-is there some sort of a heartbeat idea or theme that is embodied in the record?
PW: Well, there is a reason I named it In My Mind, because in my mind I could do seven hip-hop records and seven R&B records all on the same album. In other words, if people gave you red paint and blue paint and a canvas and paintbrush and said, “Paint me something,” they’d probably expect demons and a smurf. [Grazer laughs] But why can’t I just mix the colors together and make purple? Or why do I even have to use the brush? Why can’t I finger paint? Or why do I even have to use the canvas? I just think that people expect us to be limited in our thinking, but I don’t like to look at the world that way. I see a world of blurred lines and limitless creativity. That’s where evolution comes from. That’s where natural selection comes from. That’s just learning and gathering information and taking things to the next step. Don’t get me wrong-I don’t see everything in the world as all positive. But it all has the ability to be. You don’t know what the sunshine is until you kind of get caught in the rain.
BG: When we initially met a couple of years ago, skateboarding was something I was interested in, and I know it’s also something that’s part of your core identity. What role has skateboarding played in your life and music?
PW: It was just a strong part of my growing up. I was in the projects until age 7, and then my family moved to the suburbs. And all my friends were skating. So by the time I turned 13, I had a haircut with, like, a billion parts cut in my head and checkerboard slip-on Vans so people would know I was into both hip-hop and skating. I was walking around saying “rad,” and then the next sentence would be, like, “word.”
BG: So you lived comfortably in both worlds.
PW: Well, in their own individual ways, everyone lives in multiple worlds. They just don’t realize it. Everyone in the suburbs knew Puffy’s “It’s All About the Benjamins,” and everybody who grew up in the ghetto knew “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. People just get programmed by what the media puts out in terms of trying to cast people as one thing or the other.
BG: But you also need the media to help magnify an idea and bring it into the culture.
we have this energy within us that makes us mobile and makes us aware of things, imagine all the things that we can do if we can just harness it.Pharrell Williams
PW: That’s right. So I don’t have anything against the media, but I’m just saying that at times they collectively move in a direction that’s not healthy. You know, it’s a business. And I’m just a guy doing a job and making things from my perspective. My work isn’t the biggest, it’s not the best, but it’s mine. Me and my partner, Chad Hugo, we’re blessed guys.
BG: How long have you guys been working together?
PW: I met Chad when I was 12.
BG: And you guys have had all these hits in all these different genres, which really blows my mind. But beyond your creative accomplishments, what struck me most about you the first time we met a couple of years ago was that you’re really centered and calm. There doesn’t seem to be any anxiousness in you. How, then, does fear factor into your life? Because I know it factors into mine.
PW: Fear is not a good thing, so I try not to experience it. [laughs] It’s like a strait-jacket on your creativity. I always think that I would probably be better off using the energy I’d put into being fearful to think of something incredible to create.
BG: See, I grew up with tons of fear, and I’m always dealing with fear, so I’m sort of polarized. On one hand I’ve got a ton of insecurity, and on the other hand I see the world very optimistically, and I’m really curious and want to challenge myself so that I can continue to be relevant. I’m constantly wrestling with these competing forces of fear, optimism, and curiosity.
PW: Well, interestingly enough I read a piece in some magazine where the president of Pixar was talking, and he said that their policy at Pixar was to exercise all ideas. No idea is bad. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but at least you got it out, and you can move on to the next thing. So for me, I make a habit of just sitting down at the piano and playing, and if I don’t love what I’m playing, then I don’t go and record it. But at least I got it out.
BG: So, you try to free yourself up of things that can diffuse your vision?
PW: Yeah, because I could be missing something. I’ve found at times that I turn things that bother me into songs, which is super-therapeutic. You know, Einstein said something to the effect that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only conjured. Those weren’t his exact words, but if we have this energy within us that makes us mobile and makes us aware of things, imagine all the things that we can do if we can just harness it. I hope that doesn’t sound too bizarre or too crazy.
BG: Don’t go Yoda on me.
PW: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t want to go that way. But there is a lot of energy out there, and it’s up to each of us to use it. Music just happens to be my channel.