Pharrell Williams: ‘Life without music would be like a human being without sense’

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The singer and producer on his devotion to De La Soul, his bad acceptance speeches – and the secret to his pearly whites.

A common feature of the early Neptunes sound was the clavichord. Did you or Chad Hugo introduce this, and can you recall the first song you made using it? Rochase

Man, you’ve put me on the spot, but it was me. I’ve always liked different sounds – like how Picasso’s eras were defined by his influences. The clavichord was a way to express Middle Eastern note patterns and chord progressions, but to also be raspy like a guitar. You can hit the 50-yard line between Middle Eastern and traditional guitar licks, like in [the Neptunes-produced NORE song] Superthug.

I remember you losing it to a Gary Bartz tune on Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM show many moons ago. NERD remind me of the Mizell Brothers, who produced a whole lot of soul/jazz artists, including Bartz. If you could work with anyone from that golden era of 70s jazz and R&B, who would it be? Bauhaus66

That’s a tough question, like asking: ‘What’s your favourite section of the Milky Way?’ or: ‘Pick a planet out of the entire universe.’ When you talk about the 70s, you refer to a whole swatch of souls who were born in the 40s and 50s, learned how to express themselves in the 60s and then got busy in the 70s. There’d be many people I’d want to work with from the yacht rock, soft rock, soul or funk part of the 70s. And that’s without getting into Burt Bacharach or Stevie Wonder vibes. How would I possibly choose?

Your discography reads like a who’s who of collaborations. How do you pick who you’d like to work with, and who is at the top of your wishlist? VerulamiumParkRanger

It’s always based on a vibe. I like Playboi Carti. I think we’re overdue.

How do you look so eternally youthful? VegansRuleThePlanet

I have been dealing with my dermatologist for 26 years. It’s a combination of things. One is understanding that I needed to be curious about how my skin works, what works for it, and then coming up with some sort of regimen and being committed to it. That’s what led us to stepping into skin health [Williams launched a vegan skincare range called Humanrace in 2020]. Once you understand that you have to be curious about how your skin behaves or conducts itself, that’s when you realise there’s a routine for you. Then be committed; that’s when you have success. The second part was just through experimentation – trying everything out, from over-the-counter to prescription.

Should female artists have more agency? CubanPete81

Things have evolved because society has evolved, but not enough. Female artists don’t have enough agency and the idea that women only make 70¢ on a man’s dollar is still unacceptable. There’s something nice about celebrating woman as an individual species. If the Academy Awards combined best male and female actor, that would be cool, because that’s something that needs to happen as a response to patriarchy and gender favouritism. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the gift that is the feminine aspect of women.

Parrell Williams with his collaborator Chad Hugo
Williams with his longtime collaborator Chad Hugo. Photograph: George Ruhe/AP

You always look great and have informed a generation’s sense of style. Who inspired you? Matt08

I’m a people watcher – so regular, everyday people. My mind works like Google: you see all the different versions and get the most popular answer. Except the less popular is always an interesting step down. I’ve never really given my stage performances a look. That’s the nature of a pluralist – sometimes you miss the mark because you’re doing so much. I don’t spend the time that, say, Gaga would spend on her stage costumes. I’m more worried about hitting people with a new song than showing off some new jacket or T-shirt.

I look back on my music the same way. I’m not a good historian on my own music. If I had to choose a playlist of my own music, I’d suck. I only know how to look forward and don’t like looking back. I don’t know where any of my awards are – I think they are at my mom’s house. I’m appreciative in the moment – I’m always shocked and surprised, which is why my speeches suck, because I never expect anything. I just love that I get to do what I do and celebrate that to a fault.

What album, past or present, does everybody need to hear? saintpellegrino

All of De La Soul’s stuff is being rereleased [on streaming services]. Everybody needs to get 3 Feet High and Rising and De La Soul Is Dead. Even when they were going through all their stuff [a protracted dispute over the rights to their catalogue], Damon [Albarn] from Blur put them on the Gorillaz albums, because he gets it. He knows those guys are responsible for making so many of us misfits feel like we actually fit. The De La tribe were the forefathers and founders of the way we see things. I was nearly 16 when 3 Feet High and Rising came out. It was a total gamechanger. It changed my life, period. Would I like to work with them? I would do anything for them, they know that. If they don’t, they should.

What would be a dream film franchise to score? As a famous Trekker, would it be Star Trek? NostalgicNZer84 and Jay_Murpheus

I am a Star Trek fan, but scoring is a whole other thing. It’s not for me. Scoring is a different speed. There are all kinds of races: relay, marathons, cross-country, sprints. A film is a marathon. Every step has to be pencilled in to take people on a journey. A 15-second jingle would be a sprint. My speciality is the three- to five-minute race. I don’t have the mental endurance to stay on something as long as a film score. There’s a reason Hans Zimmer has two Oscars. I’m not an actor, so the only thing I would ever consider would be a Wes Anderson film, because I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan. I have very peculiar tastes to how I like to escape, so I would completely lose myself and be any character he asked.

Who is the greatest music producer of all time, and do you agree with Friedrich Nietzsche that life without music would be a mistake? Valdarez

Quincy Jones, obviously! Life without music would be like a human being without sense. I was always making music as a kid, but never thought I could do something with it. I always knew I was going to do music, I just never knew what – whether I would end up as a terrible music teacher or an art teacher who was always asking his friends to come over and play on the side. But this was how it was written and I give thanks every day.

Great teeth. What’s your secret? toptramp

Invisalign, my friend. Invisalign.

Are you as happy as your songFlashbleu

I am more grateful than anything. Happiness is not always guaranteed, but gratitude is something that you can have every day.

How many hats do you havereddonkeyham

Oh, I don’t know. What I have is a wealth of gratitude. My vibration comes from the inside. What I vibrate the most is gratitude, because I’m not in control. I’ve never known what the future holds. I just wake up doing something I love and would do for free.

Source The Guardian
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