Time Out's man of the year on how he put a smile on the world's face
Turn on the radio right now and you are sure to hear a string of hits by Pharrell Williams. Chances are, if the song isn’t actually sung by Pharrell, it was written or produced by him. The 41-year-old singer, songwriter and producer is thought to be responsible for no less than 60 percent of the current wave of pop music, and with a string of hits featuring him on vocals, including Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ and the global sensation ‘Happy’ – it’s easy to see why.
As well as being a musical influencer, Pharrell is also in with fashion’s elite, having recently starred in Karl Lagerfeld’s short film Reincarnation alongside a waltzing, singing Austrian royal played by supermodel Cara Delevingne. He also penned the track ‘CC The World’ about the legendary Gabrielle Coco Chanel. It seems like everyone wants a piece of Pharrell. And right now it’s our turn.
It’s Saturday November 22 when we meet the hit maker at Emirates Palace a few hours before his performance at the 2014 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix After-Race concert. But it’s his headlining performance at #DXBNYE at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on Wednesday December 31 that we want to know more about. Stepping through a set of huge double doors, the most talked about man in music is surrounded by a posse of security guards, publicists and managers – so much so that we feel like we’re in the presence of royalty (as surely only a head of state would require such a team of people).
Then again, Pharrell has long been in demand, having achieved success with Justin Timberlake’s first solo album, Justified, which he co-wrote and co-produced, as well as hits for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Jennifer Lopez. After being ushered into a large, regal room, we are seated next to Pharrell, who is dressed in one of his signature colourful Adidas tracksuit jackets and layered with diamond-encrusted chains. Sadly though, the handsome Miami-based musician hasn’t worn his Buffalo hat (the Vivienne Westwood-designed skyscraper creation that has become his trademark). This is just the first sign that there is more to Pharrell than meets the eye.
While we didn’t expect him to be enthusiastically dancing and clapping along to ‘Happy’ during our interview (okay perhaps we had hoped he would), we had sort of expected him to be a little more energetic, but he appeared to be in a state of zen. Understandably if you put a seven-time Grammy Award-winning artist into a room with a journalist surrounded by ten publicists in suits armed with iPhones and tablets, each with a hard, death-like stare, you aren’t going to have the most relaxed atmosphere. With that in mind we start slowly, by asking Pharrell how it feels to have had such a successful year. ‘I’m just grateful,’ he says.
And what is it like having two songs compete for the number one spot at the same time – ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Get Lucky?’ After a long pause he says, ‘It’s not my doing, I think my only business there is to just be thankful to the people because I don’t make the songs number one, two or ten. They do the calling, they are the ones who vote for songs or they are the ones who press the spacebar for the video. I don’t do that. The only thing I can do is remain grateful to the people.’
Of course, growing up, you have credited people like your grandparents for your success, we say. At this point, having received two rather brief responses to our opening questions, mixed with long pauses that became awkward silences, it’s hard to tell if Pharrell is just tired or bored of doing press or if he’s actually being genuinely humble.
‘None of those things are my decision. As a musician the only thing you are responsible for is writing and performing your music because that’s what you do. Everything else is beyond our control. We can’t control most things, we can’t even influence them. You can Tweet and Instagram all you want but you can’t make people like something they don’t like. So as an artist I just remain grateful to the people, it’s an opportunity to do it over and over again,’ he says in a softly-spoken voice.
Having grown up in Virginia the son of a school teacher and handy-man, Pharrell says music was always around him at home, where he listened to everything from Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder to Steely Dan.
‘A few days ago someone asked me how I stay grounded. I think you should surround yourself with people who are far better than you, and everyone around me is so creative and so talented, so you sort of float and levitate in my eyes. It’s easy to remain grounded because everyone else around me floats,’ he says.
Pharrell met his producing partner Chad Hugo at summer band camp in seventh grade before forming hip-hop and R&B group The Neptunes in the early ’90s. They were signed to Virgin Records as a duo and after a string of successful hits they brought in childhood friend Shay Haley to form another group, N*E*R*D, in 2001. While Pharrell enjoyed success over the years producing and writing tracks for major recording artists, he was never really in the forefront.
When we ask him why he now thinks this is his time to shine, he looks intently and says, ‘You’d have to ask the people. I’m not responsible for it so I really don’t know. When we do interviews like this I’m pretty sure there are a lot of artists that will tell you, “Yeah I did this and I did that”, but I was lifted to such a height that I was made to realise none of this is me.’
Then, perhaps sensing he needs to clarify himself a little, he leans in close and says, ‘If these answers are dry or vague to you, it’s only because I’m understanding something that I’m hoping and praying other people will begin to understand.’ Which is? ‘We’re not really responsible for our success. That’s why I’m not sitting here saying, “Me, me, me and I, I, I” because me didn’t do it, nor did I. Me and I is not possible. You gotta have a lot of money to buy that many records and you gotta have a lot of time on your hands to watch a video that many times. We aren’t responsible for our success, we are only responsible for the spark but the fire burns with the people,’ he says with a slight smile.
It dawns on us then that he’s not being rude and egotistical, and that he is in fact, a very polite man (having continuously addressed us as mam throughout). While some stars of a similar calibre to Pharrell could be accused of diva-like tendencies and self-serving behaviour, the American star seems to have his head screwed on – which is perhaps why he managed to cause a singing and dancing frenzy across the globe with ‘Happy.’
The singer penned the upbeat track as the soundtrack to Despicable Me 2 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. With more than ten million copies sold worldwide, the song has become one of the bestselling singles of all time.
‘I think happiness is achievable by anyone who has an open mind and an open heart. If you can just allow yourself to feel, there are a lot of bright sides to life,’ he says.
A self-confessed fan of Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist – a story about personal discovery and following your dreams – Pharrell’s outlook on his success and his desire to spread happiness is quite touching and certainly admirable.
‘Even for someone who is terminally ill, some of them have a tough outlook on life and you can understand that but then there are some of them that realise, that every moment that they live another second is beating time again. So happiness is right there in front of you if you want to see it. And it might not be the lightest form of happiness – in other words it may be heavy. Like when someone you love passes, and they’re gone. That’s heavy happiness because they are no longer in pain but they’re no longer able to talk to you and that’s tough, but there are a lot of forms of happiness and it’s attainable by all – you just have to be open to it,’ he says.
Having listened attentively to his thought-provoking views on happiness, we’re given a signal that our time is up. Before leaving, we ask Pharrell one last question about that book (The Alchemist) that he told Oprah Winfrey changed his life. Having triggered his interest, he suddenly becomes excitedly animated and suggests that we go out and buy a copy immediately before saying, ‘I hope you understand everything I was trying to say to you.’ And with that we depart – perhaps with more questions than when we started, but feeling happy nonetheless.
#DXBNYE Taking place at Meydan, #DXBNYE will feature live performances from Pharrell Williams, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Busta Rhymes, Paul Oakenfold, Charli XCX, Sky Blu and Seb Fontaine. The multi artist show will be broadcast to over 130 countries globally, another first for Dubai. Dhs395 (advance), Dhs495 (on the door), Dhs1,495 (party pit, advance), Dhs1,695 (party pit, on the door). 7pm. December 31. Meydan Racecourse, Nad Al Sheba.