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Interview with Pharrell Williams

In the space of a few short years, it has come to represent much more than a name; shorthand for a universe of tireless creativity and innovation. Pharrell Williams is a revered musician, record-breaking singer and outlandish producer – responsible for hits by Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z and Daft Punk, to highlight but a few – and a fashion designer turned fashion icon. Who hasn’t desperately wanted one of his signature ranger hats? Reading this interview will likely only enhance his appeal. 

2017 started with a Golden Globe nomination for the soundtrack of the hit movie Hidden Figures, which he also produced. The film received three Academy Award nominations and has so far earned $229 million at the box office worldwide. More recently he was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts from New York University. As part of his acceptance speech, the overwhelmed recipient stated: “The days of being anonymous activists or participants are over. How can we inspire [other people] if we are only behind the scenes?” For Williams, inspiration is a defining theme. 

He is no longer just an artist but a distinguished role model – the epitome of coolness and style and an exemplar of what it means to be a man in the contemporary era. For his fashion label G-Star Raw, he launched a denim collection made from recycled plastic salvaged from the ocean; mere clothing line it is not. His agenda reveals countless interests and activities, from education to art, from new technologies to social media. And all his projects seem to reflect his unique personality.

In his private life, Williams has an equally wonderful story to tell. In January, his wife Helen Lasichanh, a former model, gave birth to triplets – siblings for eight-year-old son Rocket. The singer of Happy (for which he was Oscar nominated in 2014) speaks in relaxed, pleasant tones and is steadfastly self-effacing. He looks a good decade younger than his 44 years.

Pharrell, you seem able to master many kinds of creative endeavours. Have you always had this kind of artistic gift?
A lot of my creativity is a gift, but without discipline you're never going to get anywhere. I'm lucky that I've always felt free to do what I wanted. When I've been obliged to work within constraints imposed by others I've decided to quit those projects. I can't work according to parameters laid down by other people – that just doesn't fit my personality. I need to follow my own instincts and I've learnt that this attitude is always going to take me where I want to go as an artist.

How would you describe the process of making music?
I draw inspiration from everything. Usually it starts with a feeling or impression that puts me in a good frame of mind or mood. It can be just a word or an image that makes me think of something and then it takes off from there. When I'm working the music always comes before the lyrics. Then little by little, one by one, come the drums, the melody, the guitar and everything else.

Where do you usually write your music or come up with the original idea for a song?
The best songs I've ever written have started with an idea or impression that has come to me while travelling or while running. I've even come up with songs while taking a shower!

Do you still consider yourself a musician, given that fashion design is now such a huge part of your career?
Music is my main interest and passion. It's meant so much to me and it's still very important. I love exploring fashion but music will always be my primary focus.

Why are you so interested in fashion?
Fashion is great. As a performer, you're on stage wearing a lot of different outfits and there's always been a connection for me. I love the way fashion helps people express their individuality. It's great when I see guys come up with their own looks or when I see someone wearing an item I've designed and match it with other designers' creations. That's where the real power and excitement of fashion come into play and you see people creating their own distinctive style and identity.

Hidden Figures really changed people’s perception of civil rights and so-called Girl Power. Was it that aspect of the story that convinced you to get so involved?
I had a connection to the story that I didn't find out about until I read the script. When I spoke to my mother about this project, she told me that I had actually met Katherine Johnson [one of the three women whose story is dramatised in the movie] when I was a kid. I just went, "Whoa!" I was so glad that my mother reminded me of how our family friend had been the first African-American woman to make a major contribution to NASA and the US space programme in the Sixties. I was very proud to help get the movie made and tell her life and that of the two other black women – Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who were also pioneers in an era when segregation was still in effect and blacks had to struggle for their place in society.

You recently said, as part of the graduation ceremony at New York University: “We need to lift up women”. Do you think that a ‘female issue’ still exists today?
I think women deserve to be recognised as equal participants in society. They still have a long way to go in finding their place. But I'm so glad that movies like Hidden Figures could point out that there are so many talented women out there and that they can play an important role in every field.

Do you consider yourself a political activist?
I try to be a politically engaged citizen and do my best to face social injustice. I hope through my music I can also offer support to those who need it and do whatever I can to fight for important causes. I'm not a huge activist but I try to participate and play my little part. I also want to encourage my fellow artists to get involved. Our species needs to work harder to make the world a better place. We should all condemn hatred and prejudice and those who promote it. I don't think that there's any reason for anyone to inflict harm on anyone else. I want to help create a society where we can all support each other and love each other.

You famously named your son Rocket. So you were channelling your inner spaceman?
We named our son Rocket for a thousand reasons. A rocket is a man-made machine that is meant to soar. But it was also a personal way of paying tribute to Elton John's Rocket Man and Herbie Hancock's Rocket: they are two of my favourite musicians of all time.

What kind of father are you?
I'm both tender and strict. With Rocket, Helen and I try to explain as much as we can because he's very curious and understands everything. I want him to be able to see the world as it is and discover for himself who he wants to be and what he would like to do in his life.

You’ve said music is still the biggest part of your world. If you could summarise what it means to you, what would you say?
Music brings people together. Music is a force that reaches people wherever they are and at any time. Nothing gets in the way because it's able to fill up all the space around us. Music is an incredible power and I am deeply grateful that I can write songs that communicate with people all over the world.

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