Pharrell Williams helped make two of 2013's biggest songs: He sang on Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and co-wrote Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." He received seven Grammy nominations, in some categories competing against himself. His song "Happy" was featured prominently in the film Despicable Me 2. Morning Edition's David Greene spoke to Williams about growing up in Virginia Beach with his producing partner, Chad Hugo, what happened when Teddy Riley opened a studio next to Williams' high school, and his three-part process for writing songs for pop stars like Justin Timberlake. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Pharrell Williams, thank you for coming on the program, we appreciate it. Welcome.
Thanks for having me.
So your musical career, if we trace it back, goes to Virginia Beach, where you met your songwriting partner Chad Hugo in middle school. Can you tell me about that community? What was it like?
Well, it was like any other, you know, music program. What that life was like, I think, is pretty much the same for any other musician, except for the fact that we just were given some opportunities afterwards to sort of follow up with all the things that we had learned in music. I would say that's probably the only difference.
Our ambitions were the same as any other kids that were studying music and being classically trained. You do it because you love it, and, you know, there's a genuine curiosity to want to know more and see how things work. Some of us get a feeling when we hear music and we feel music, and you want to figure out how to continue to feel that. And so, in band, that's essentially what it was about for us.
Band is the music program you're talking about. And your grandma persuaded you to take band, is that right?
Yeah, because I used to take all of her little pots and cake batter pans and the whisk and the soup spoons ...
Ah, that's how your drumming skills came about?
Yeah, yeah. And I used to set up my little makeshift drumset. And she just said, "You like the drums, so why don't you learn?" And that's where it started in seventh grade for me.
What I've read about Virginia Beach — I know it's a Navy community and, as I understand, brought a lot of different cultures together, people from a lot of different backgrounds. Did you feel that there?
Yeah, yeah definitely. It was definitely a mixed community, but I feel like that's what sort of made us, too, you know? That's sort of why our interests were what they were, because your environment is a huge influence on what you do or what you don't do. There's definitely a huge effect either way. It was definitely multiculti, so I'm very thankful to Virginia for that as well.
That multicultural feel — how did that shape you early on?
Well, just, you're exposed to so many cultures so you're learning a lot of stuff. You're learning a lot of things, and whether you think that those details are gonna end up — they will help eventually to shape the frame of your life, or not, whether you know it or not, it definitely does. Everything that we experience every day leaves a long-lasting impression.
Where did you come from and where did Chad [Hugo] come from? Tell me about you kids.
He was from Kempsville, the area of Kempsville, and I was from the area of Princess Anne.
And different backgrounds?
Yeah, I mean, he was — well, I hate to look at things like that, but you asking me that question, he's what they call in the Filipino culture a Pinoy. His family was from the Philippines. My family, you know, we're black American.
It gave you pause that I'm asking about this. I'm wondering why it's not something you want to talk about. It's really interesting.
Well, because it did have a direct influence on who we were as people, but we kind of — I think Chad and I have been the same since we were young. We're universalists first. We're sort of, like, there's room under the sun for everyone. So we didn't really think about things in that way. We were too busy going inward and thinking about what music did to us. Just being kids and just asking ourselves, like, "Man, do you feel this like I feel this?" Like, "Does this take you over?" You know, "When you hear this Tribe record, are you blown away by these chords like I am? Does this do this to you?"
That's A Tribe Called Quest, right? And that was the first album you bought?
That was the first record that I bought, yeah. Yep. But, you know, that's — we spent more time doing that than, "My family eats pancit." "OK, well, my family eats turkey." I mean, it's not that we don't know those details. And like I said, every element in your environment has some sort of direct effect on you. So, yes, it had an effect, but I think we placed most of the emphasis on our similarities.
Listen, the differences that I felt are definitely what makes everything awesome, but I think we spent more time on what we felt like we connected on. And that was the dreamy characteristics of music and the stickiness of, like, music that felt sublime. That's where we connected and continue to connect, and I think that's one of the strongest parts of our core and our friendship still to this day.
You used the term "universal." It strikes me that that's a very important part of your career and who you are.
That's because the career that the people have given me and the career that the people have supported has allowed me the creative freedom and license and actually the personal encouragement to continue to just sort of mix things. The people have allowed me to — they've respected my choice of wanting to be like, a little, you know, a baby alchemist, and just trying to mix different cultures together and things that I think are interesting.
It's like getting dressed. I share the same philosophy in music as I do with everything else, including getting dressed.
What do you mean by that? Do you feel like your clothing brings together different styles?
Yeah, I mean — but that's the case with most people until it becomes a common thing. But at one point in recent history, wearing sneakers with a suit was, like, an interesting thing. Or wearing — girls 30 years ago wearing dresses with, like, Converse, you know, Chuck Taylors or Jack Purcells. It's something that people do all the time now, but when girls were doing it in the '60s, it was just kind of like, "What?" But that's the thing — you do it for that reason. Because there's something interesting there in the juxtaposition.
If you look all throughout history, those are always the things that work. Elvis Presley singing black country songs or black R&B songs, or Eminem being the rapper that he is — white boy from Detroit at a time where people doubted that that could ever happen. He actually ended up being one of the greatest of all time.
And I'm serious, you can jump through anything: Andy Warhol using the style of the negatives from a filming process but actually giving those things color — he took the negative and made it superpositive. Or taking the Campbell's soup can, the packaging for that and just lining them up, and all of a sudden you realize that it was actually really genius. Or, like — and I'm gonna go really to the furthest extreme — like food. Like the Reese's cup. I mean, that's a genius invention. But someone had to take that bold step in order for the rest of us to experience the benefit of that great idea.
Speaking of bold steps, how did you and Chad get started writing songs?
We started dissecting Tribe records and trying to figure out like why those beats did those things to us. And then we started making our own tracks. Meanwhile, we're still in high school or whatever. Once we get discovered, we're just given the shot to sort of go in and do what we would do naturally, for free.
And you were discovered at a talent show by Teddy Riley, a big-time producer then.
Yep. He had a couple of A&Rs go over there and check us out.
A&Rs — what are they, for people who don't know?
Oh, people that represent record companies. The equivalent of a talent scout who will help, in some cases, develop an album or develop an act. They're just people who find talent or whatever.
And you guys had a band. You were playing music, and they see you and they just saw something special?
I don't know what they saw. But I can tell you that we never dreamt in a million years that on the other side of that curiosity for what music was to us and what it meant to us, was, you know, all of this. We never — come on.
Oftentimes I'm asked, like, "Did you ever see that this is what you were meant to do?" And you never know that when you're in the driver's seat, because you're at the present, right? The present is a malleable moment that dies every second and is rebirthed every moment you get a chance to move forward. So you never know.
You don't know until you look over your shoulders, and then you see this very clear path. So, for example, you're asking me about when we got discovered. Right, so, my high school, just so you know, is a five-minute walk from where Teddy decided to build his studio. He's from New York City, and of all places to leave in the '90s, New York City, where you gonna go? To other respective music industry areas, and regions known for music. Districts like Detroit, or L.A. or even Atlanta.
Not Virginia Beach.
Miami, but not Virginia Beach. And of all places, he moves his studio a five-minute walk, which is literally next door. There was our high school, and in the parking lot of our high school, there was an adjacent church, and literally right on the other side of this little small, small bridge was his studio.
And this is by chance?
Well, that's what I'm saying. In most of my interviews I would say, "by chance," but really is it by chance? Because, guess what? He didn't build his studio five years before I was in high school so that we would be that close. He didn't build his studio and set up his whole operation five years later. I'm sure there are people who graduated five years later that would go, "Man." Or five years earlier would go, "Man, I would have been right there." But it was right during that time.
And that one thing — where he built his studio — gave us the access to meet him and therefore have an in in this, the world of the music industry. You fast-forward from that particular moment of when we got signed to now, you realize there was definitely a purpose. When I look over my shoulder, it almost looks like things were just sent my way.
It's pretty amazing when I look at it — I look at how blessed Chad and I have been — and I know I seem like I'm at a loss for words, but it's hard to quantify and it's really hard to articulate. Like, you were meant to be where you are, you're meant to be given the choices of today, because that's gonna help you, it's gonna take you to the next step tomorrow. And I know it sounds all philosophical, but quite honestly I really do believe this for everyone.
Speaking of success arriving, your first big hit, you wrote some of the lyrics to this song I want to bring up right here, "Rump Shaker." I mean, how old were you when that song hit the radio?
I do not know.
A teenager, right?
What was that like?
Unbelievable. We're from Virginia Beach, Va. Wonderful place, but it's not Sunset, you know, it's not Broadway — it's another world. It's Normalville, USA. I have to say, I think it's a part of the main ingredient for what it is that we do. There wasn't a huge outlet there. The city — they didn't necessarily promote that.
But all those kids there are so talented, way more talented than me. And you know. You already see how genius Chad is and you see how genius Timbaland and Missy — there's Nottz, there's a lot of really, really talented people not too far way from us. Chris Brown, D'Angelo was from Richmond. There's a lot of talent in Virginia, and the thing is, is not necessarily having an outlet at the time just sort of created this huge energy.
So much came out of there because we didn't have a place to put it, but we were being given this opportunity, so the only thing we could do was go to New York and make noise and always wave the flag for Virginia to let everyone know. And now you see all of those Virginians are crawling out of the woodwork, talent everywhere, and I'm just so happy to see it.
Like something was in the water, maybe.
There might be.
Was "Rump Shaker" — did that really whet your appetite? Is that when you really felt it, and sort of felt like, "I could do something big here"?
No. Because, like I said — what do you mean? How can you quantify what is big when you don't come from a music industry or movie town? We don't know what big means. All we know is everyday life, which is, you know, I like what's on the radio or I don't.
And at that time, almost everything on the radio was just unbelievable. The fact that this guy lived in our town, and was working in our town, was like an alien had landed. Was a completely different thing. Like, no one knew how to deal with that. Those guys would show up in their super flashy cars — and we'd never seen Ferraris before. We were like, "What is that?" Ferrari — for me, it wasn't even a prestigious thing. I just knew it was something that Tom Selleck drove. I don't know that that was a big deal. If you asked me at that time, it was like Robin Leach, you know, because I just had like this very bad perception of the way things were.
But that kept us pure, because we only cared about what made us feel good. We weren't caught up in any of the other stuff, and I'm just so happy that Virginia gave me my roots. And I'm not saying that I've not had ostentatious moments. I'm sorry, I totally have had some distasteful moments. That's what happens when you go through your formative years and you figure out what's important and what's not — we all go through that. But I'm just saying, the root of, like, who we were as producers was all based on the fact that we didn't have a lot, and the only thing that really matters is what was real and that's what you could feel. I attribute that 100 percent to Virginia.
I want to understand the sound that we do feel. You and Chad established yourselves as The Neptunes, and you started producing these huge hits in the '90s and past the year 2000, and one of the songs is "Drop It Like It's Hot." Can you describe the sound that you guys created?
It was a sound that sounded like spray paint.
What do you mean?
It was a sound that's on top of it. That "ssss" sounded like a spray paint, so.
But more in general, what was the sound and the vibe that you guys were creating that was so appealing?
The vibe? There was just — I was just really into a minimalism thing. So it was kind of like, the least amount of sounds we could use, the better, because it's the sparseness that, at the time, that I felt like would make one react. It was like, "Whoa! It's not much there but drums. Yeah." And then Chad would come in with the crazy change.
How did you come to realize that minimalist was something that people were looking for at that time?
You don't know what people are looking for. What you know is what you feel like might be missing. It's up to the people to agree with you or disagree with you, and you'll know in their reaction.
And you thought what was missing was a certain simplicity in a song like this?
Yeah. I mean, I just thought everything was so heavy at the time, so I was like, "Oh, you know what? I'm gonna completely do the opposite." Not for the sake of doing the opposite but just because that's what — when I use the term curiosity, that's what I mean. It's that search, you know, that search for something that feels different, and then you want to hear it over and over and over again.
Can you walk me through the process? I mean, when a star hired The Neptunes to produce a song, how does the process work? How do you guys work with musicians?
When someone walks in, it's three things. They walk in asking for — they have a request or a suggestion for what they might want to do, A.
B: They also walk in talking about their latest experiences. Most of them do, right, because that's who they are. They're the star of the room, so their story is the most important story of the room. It is, because that's what we're there to do, right? And that could be a cab ride, that could be a breakup, that could be a feeling, that could be anything. Whatever they're talking about and whatever the vibe or the energy that they walk in with, right, because that's important — that's B.
And C is where I sort of look at their voice and what it sounds like and what would be an interesting juxtaposition in terms of a texture. So it's kind of like being like an interior decorator, if you will. The chair looks like this, so it'd be better in this room.
The musician is the house, let's say, and you're the interior decorator who figures out how to basically play to its strengths.
I'm trying to. All the while making sure that the musician understands that they are the Mona Lisa, the picture, I'm just gonna try and find, like, the right backdrop, in an interesting way.
So when Justin Timberlake comes out of *NSYNC, was it your role to kind of figure out how to play to his strengths as a solo artist?
That was my attempt. And, by the way, that was Chad and I's attempt — that's what we tried to do. That's what we always try. It's those three things.
So it's basically what the artist may have in mind, A, B, the energy they walk in with, and C, trying to find an interesting juxtaposition with their tone.
And tell me how that all applies to, let's say, Justin Timberlake, and what was your thinking with him?
He struck me as a — he's a pop star, which is interesting because we got to use all of that horsepower. But at the same time, he was an ambitious one and wanted to do things differently. And so I was able to use his strong pop presence and the strong fan base that he had to, sort of, usher in new sounds and new directions. And that's the way you do it. When someone is gigantic then that's a responsibility, because you have enough people listening, then you're supposed to be ushering in change. If you're not ushering in change, then you're just riding a wave and, as we know, all waves have a beginning, they have a peak, and then the sun sets.
It feels like you gave someone like Timberlake more respect as a musician. Is that something you were looking to do? Some gravity.
I didn't give him anything. And that's what I'm saying. I didn't give him anything. If anything, all I tried to do was fix the frame to fit the Mona Lisa. I didn't paint him. I didn't create him. He co-created himself with God and his life and his experiences. The only thing I tried to do was just frame and add some interesting colors behind him. That's all I'm ever trying to do is shadow and help create the landscape of a backdrop.
Like, I'm never — I never want to change anyone. I may tell a person to turn their head slightly to the left because the sun's shining brighter from that vantage point, but other than that, I can't tell them who they are, what they are. I'm a framer. That's it.
You talk about your mind working like a painter. And I wanted to ask — you have a medical condition called synesthesia. What is that?
First of all, let's dispel the connotation behind the phrase "medical condition." Most artists have it. It's no big deal. And there's a lot of people who are not necessarily — they're undiscovered artists, and they have it, too. And all it is is where — when you're born, your nerve endings are, sort of, all melded together, if you will. And then they prune, right? So all of your sensory nerve endings are kind of connected, as I understand it, and then they sort of prune when you're, like, 1.
Sometimes some of them stay stuck together, and for a visual and auditorial synesty, it just means that the visual nerve ending and the auditorial nerve ending are still connected. So they send ghost images to each other.
What do you mean? What is that like? What are you experiencing that I might not be?
So when you're hearing music, you see it in color.
You're seeing colors when you're hearing sounds?
Yeah. Now, to some people, it's like, "Oh, that's crazy." But let me explain something to you. You have no idea what you're seeing in your mind if you don't really take the time to talk about it.
If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you're gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That's the power of the mind. People with synesthesia, we don't really notice until someone brings it up and then someone else says, "Well, no, I don't see colors when I hear music," and that's when you realize something's different.
But if you go up and you look, you'll realize that most genius mathematicians, they're synesthetes. If you ask them what their process is, especially people that can add or divide 10-digit numbers, it's because they see those numbers in colors, or sometimes the sizes will vary. That's called a grapheme synesthete. That's one who sees things, sees numbers or characters in a different way.
If you just take the time to ask supergenius people, you'll notice that they, their learning process, the way they process information, is slightly different. None of this is to say that I belong in that category at all. I'm just telling you most musicians and most visual artists and most academics, they sort of have that thing, and if you ask them, it's really interesting to see the people who do and the people who don't.
I want to know how it helps your mind work in a way that we might feel with the music that you create.
It's the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn't. Or it feels different and it doesn't feel right.
You can tell that something's the same key because it's the same color as something else? That's really interesting.
Yeah, but I'm saying to you, I'm not special or different. You ask any musician — there's three kinds of people. There's people who have perfect pitch. Then there's somebody that has a relative pitch, and that's where you sing the melody and that person will sing the melody back the same but in a different key — it's because they have relative pitch. And there are people who just are completely tone deaf. There's a fair share of everyone. But for the most part, most people have perfect pitch. That's not a condition and that's not a rare thing. That's a lot of people.
I want to ask you about this year. This has been quite a year. At one point this summer, you had the No. 1 and No. 2 songs on the charts with "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines." What has this year been like for you?
It's awesome. But, by the way, the people did that. When you say, "You did," and, "You have" — no, no, no. The people did and the people gave. The year that I've been having is the year that people have given me. If they don't vote for the songs, request the songs, stream them, purchase them, or share and talk about them with their friends, then there's nothing but a demo in your head or a demo that you're shopping around to people. But people saw something in the songs, and they did more than listen to them. They actually took the extra step and did one of those five things, if not all five. And it's just been a blessing, because I couldn't have done this myself at all.
You're being a little modest saying it's just the people that create these things. I mean, you were doing something.
Let me make it very clear. Look at the hits or those views and recognize that it wasn't me.
What do you mean?
I didn't watch the video that many times; I don't know if it's humanly possible. Every view that you're seeing is a person that cared. Every single that you see was purchased, that was another human being — it wasn't me. So, look, let's think about this, though. Let's look at it from a mathematic point of view, right. Almost 7, 8 million singles later on "Blurred Lines," that's 7, 8 million people versus me and Robin.
Yeah. So you tell me where the gravitas is. It's with the people. That's what I'm saying, so I'm not being modest, I'm just — and you know what, that's so funny about society. We have such twisted views on the power of the people that we never want to give it up to the people. Like, you see how you're saying I'm being modest? I'm not being modest. The truth of the matter is, it'd be different if I paid for all those singles and I said, "Oh, well, the people did it." Then I would be being modest. But instead, I'm being honest and saying to you, you look at those "Get Lucky" singles, you look at those "Blurred Lines" singles, and you have to give it up to the people who paid for them and the people who put all the energy into those songs. That's a lot of energy, man, so, for me, I'm thankful.
I have to ask you, because one of the reactions to "Blurred Lines" was some controversy. There were some people who felt like the lyrics touched on what a woman wants and doesn't want, some feared it could even encourage rape. Did any of this occur to you when you were working on that song?
There's always gonna be sensationalism, man, with what you do. And unless your song is completely perfect and has no — is not sexually suggestive, anything sexually suggestive is open season for coming under fire, and I understand that. But very clearly — two things: No. 1, in the song, it says, "That man is not your maker." I don't know anything that could be more — I don't know anything that could be more clear about our position in the song.
What point do you think that lyric makes?
"That man is not your maker?"
That whatever man that it's in reference of the moment is not your maker. Whatever guy's standing there, that guy is not your maker — he didn't make you. You made yourself with God.
How does that respond to some of the criticism, do you feel like?
I think it's very clear. There's nothing misogynistic about it. It takes the power from whatever "man" — if you're looking at the lyrics, the power is right there in the woman's hand. That man — me as a human being, me as a man, I'm not your maker, I can't tell you what to do.
"OK now he was close / He tried to domesticate you." Listen to what I'm saying: "He tried to domesticate you / But you're an animal." And then they say, "Don't call women animals." OK, so what are we? Are we not a part of the animal kingdom? We're at the top, but are we not? So the word is not Homo sapiens? OK, cool. That means that every human being — yes, we're civil but we still have feral instincts, one of which is not to be dominated. So that man is not your maker. You understand? And, secondly, as for the visual, well, that was written and directed by a woman. And it was her concept.
Do you think that should make it acceptable to some of the people who are offended?
I'm not saying that. I'm just giving you the facts. I'm just telling you it was written and directed by a woman.
Do you regret anything about that project and that song?
I am so thankful to this planet and all the people on it that supported the song. And I'm only making those two points because that was the whole thing. The thing is that people missed the message because they got it — their first time seeing it was with that visual. That visual was supposed to be a moving editorial.
This is the visual — women who were topless in the video?
Yeah. There are so many high-end fashion magazines where women are topless and there's nothing there. But you know what it is? There's not a song that feels good and that is saying — taking a step to just say what it's gonna say. And so that ruffles people's feathers sometimes.
I love women. I've made all kinds of songs. Let me just make it very clear — for those people that got really upset about it, I love women, man, and as far as I'm concerned, there's not a human being on this planet that doesn't benefit from the fact that a woman agreed to have you. We come through the conduit of a woman's body and her willingness to say, "Yes," for you to be born. That's how I feel. And that's not the totality of what a woman represents to me — I'm just saying that's where it starts. So me, personally, I'm comfortable because I know what women represent to me.
And I don't want to spend too much time on this at all.
Sure. I just didn't want you to think I was running from you.
No, but you recognize why some people read it in the way they did and were critical.
I challenge us all to have a really open mind. My intention with that record was just to get everybody up. Believe it or not, now it sounds like I'm making it up, but two years ago it wasn't about dancing. It wasn't about getting up and dancing. Even if you look at the EDM movement, it wasn't really about dancing, it was about being up and being out and sort of celebrating. But it wasn't really about how are you dancing and what are you trying to express. I wanted to make dancing fun again, where people wanted to dance with each other.
And did you know it was gonna be such a hit, such a dance hit when you heard it the first time?
No way. No. The only thing you go into it thinking is, "Man, let's make something that feels fun."
You also made a song for a movie, Despicable Me 2, and it's the song, "Happy."
What is the process like and how is it different when you're writing for an animated film?
It's different because there are already pillars of intention. There is what the writer, the screenplay, what the writer of the script intended.
Yeah, there's a lot laid out already.
Yeah, for sure. Then there's how the director — what the director's intention is. And then there's the actors and actresses, their interpretive element as well. So you gotta follow suit with that, right, no matter how cool you think a track is for something. If it becomes a deterrent, then it throws the whole scene off.
You're a little bit more boxed in with what you can do.
Not necessarily. I mean, you just know what they need, and within the confines of what they need there's all sorts of flavors — that's a whole entire different dimension and world. It doesn't have to be limiting, it's just there's certain things that they definitely need for it, and you can decide whether you'll give them — I'm speaking in colors, but, you know, whether you're gonna give them the red version or the blue version.
Months after this song came out, you did a 24-hour video for the song. Why did you do that?
When they first brought the concept up — and I have an amazing team, the i am OTHER team. Just so you know, none of this would be happening right now if it weren't for them — an amazing support base and they're so creative. But when the idea came up, it was so ambitious, we were like, "I think we kinda have to do it."
We kind of gotta do it 'cause the premise was perfect with the song, "Happy," and if we can help people rediscover happiness within themselves — and notice, we're not trying to make anyone happy, we're just trying to, like I said, help people rediscover it within themselves. The 24-hour thing just kicked in perfectly. I mean, it was actually a gift to the song, seriously. The We Are From L.A. guys had that concept and it just — once we told them what we wanted to do, videowise, those guys were like, "We have this other thing as well."
There was a simplicity to it. It's just different people we recognize dancing. And was that the goal? Be happy?
The goal was to try and give a visual depiction that sort of matched the intention of the song. And then that was supertough because when Chris Meledandri came to me and said, "Hey, I know we have this big, huge thing we have created called Despicable Me, where the character is always upset and really grumpy — so this time he's gonna be happy. OK? Cool." And it's kinda like, "Well, whoa, how do you do that?"
When we were working on it, I think I might have turned in between seven and nine different attempts. And that's the ego, by the way. And not a negative side of the ego, but the ego's based on what it is you know and based on memory and things that are established as fact, right?
It sounds like the perfectionist when I hear someone who's doing one take after another to get it right.
Well, no, not one take. What I'm saying to you is different songs. I mean, seven to nine different actual full songs of trying to get that scene right.
So "Happy" was just the final product. You created a bunch of different songs trying to get the right one.
Right. So what I'm saying to you is the ego is based on what you know and established facts, right? And so sometimes we become really cocky about things like that. We do that in science a lot, by the way, and then someone discovers that the whole entire field is wrong. That's the thing. You can never be too sure, man, because life is constantly rewriting itself and rewriting the rules. So I'm going through all the — each song is basically representative of an idea that I just swore out was it.
With "Happy" I went through everything that I thought was possible in my mind based off of what I understood about Gru and what I thought the people needed in terms of what the studio was looking for, and none of it was working. It was only until I was tapped out that I had to ask myself the fundamental question: they're asking for a song that's happy. They're asking for something where Gru is in a good mood, and that's when I realized that everything I needed was right there. I began to ask myself, "What does feeling like a good mood feel like?" That's where "Happy" came from, and that's how that happened. And it would have never happened if the studio wouldn't have kept telling me, "No, it's not good enough. No, it's not good enough."
So all the no's actually brought about a product that you're really proud of.
Brought me to a place of zero, and that nirvana, that place of that stillness of nothing is when you can ask yourself a clear question and get a clear answer back. I just wanted to give that to all the listeners, because that in itself, man, when you feel like you don't have anymore answers, I want you to know that you're the closest to the best thing you'll ever do in your life. There's no ego in it, and you're just asking a clear question. You don't know where the answer's gonna come from, and that's when the answer comes. I just wanted to share that.
Because honestly that song called "Happy" and every lyric came out of that place. I'm just so thankful that all the factors and all the circumstances pushed me in that direction, because I would have never written that song on my own. I owe that song and that moment to Chris Meledandri and to the Illumination animation house. 'Cause I can't take authorship for it. The moment wrote that. That's all.
You used the word "universal" and we've talked about, from your youth, being able to blur lines, and I wonder if you're blurring the lines between different musical cultures and different musical sounds — is that always a good thing, or is there a risk that we might lose some of the distinctive parts in the musical world?
I honestly don't think about those things. When I'm mixing things together, it's because it's about the feeling. I know that's a very vague answer, but honestly ...
What do you mean?
You're not thinking about it. You're just doing what feels right. You go back and listen to it and go, "Whoa, did we really just put a lion's head on a 808?" I'm thinking that way because we were in the studio with Busta yesterday, and we went down this whole West Indian path. The imagery that we were discussing and how that transformed itself into an actual track was just a cool little experience. But my point to you is that you don't think what you're mixing together as you're doing it. You're just like, oh, I think this'll sound or this'll feel good, and then you kind of go do your analysis later.
I'm just so struck because you talk about these humble beginnings in Virginia Beach and you've become a part of this elite group of musicians who can in many ways do whatever you want to do and sort of drop content out there and a lot of people will sort of rush at your mercy and we want to listen to it. I mean, do you worry that if so much power and influence is concentrated in one place that it can almost become dangerous in a way?
I don't think about those things. That's very unhealthy, because thinking about it that way — there's no reason for you to not subconsciously start to believe that, A.
B, I'm not a part of anything elite. I've been doing it for a long time, and some might confuse endurance for elitism. That's not what this is. If anything, I haven't controlled and made this career on my own. The people have given it to me. When they stop supporting you, that's it, just so you know. You can keep making music, and that's a wonderful thing. And I suppose that's part of what's kept us here, but, you know, the people have done this. There's nothing elite.
No. 3, you said we're the few that can just do whatever they want — well, that's an illusion, too. Everybody can do what I do. Actually, there's so many kids that can do it way better. It's an illusion that they keep selling you that you need to be in the music industry to make your music and take over the world.
It's an illusion to think that you need to run around Hollywood to put a film out. I'm living proof that, like, you can do whatever it is you want to do. Just believe it and just do it. That's the thing — stop thinking about it and go do it. You're gonna make music so much better than me, so much better than anything I could ever do, and that's it.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're going to hear now from a producer who certainly left his mark on music this year. He helped make two of 2013's biggest songs, singing this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET LUCKY")
PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) She's up all night to get some. I'm up all night to get some.
GREENE: And co-writing this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
GREENE: Pharrell Williams received seven Grammy nominations this year, in some categories competing against himself. He got started in music early. In the late '80s, he and his best friend, Chad Hugo, were teenagers growing up far from the recording industry in different neighborhoods around Virginia Beach.
WILLIAMS: He was from Kempsville, and I was from the area of Princess Anne.
GREENE: And different backgrounds?
WILLIAMS: Well, I hate to look at things like that, but you're asking that question. I mean, you know, his family was from the Philippines. My family, we're black American.
GREENE: It gave you pause that I'm asking you about this. I'm wondering why you feel like it's not something you want to talk about.
WILLIAMS: Because Chad and I have been the same since we were young. Like, we were universalists first. We didn't really think about things in that way. We were too busy going inward and thinking about, like, what music did to us.
GREENE: Universalists first. Pharrell and Chad did have an instinct for sounds that could cross barriers and enjoy wide appeal. They formed the Neptunes, a production team whose sound helped define hip-hop and R&B in the new millennium, with hits like this one from Snoop Dogg.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DROP IT LIKE IT'S HOT")
WILLIAMS: I was just really into, like, a minimalism thing, the least amount of sounds we could use the better, because it's the sparseness that I felt like would make one react.
GREENE: How did you come to realize that minimalist was something that people were looking for at that time?
WILLIAMS: You don't know what people are looking for. What you know is what you feel like might be missing.
GREENE: And you thought what was missing was a certain simplicity in a song like this.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I mean, I just thought, like, everything was just so heavy at the time. So I was, like, oh, you know what? I'm going to just completely do the opposite.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DROP IT LIKE IT'S HOT")
GREENE: When a star hired The Neptunes to produce a song, how does the process work?
WILLIAMS: It's three things. It's, like, they walk in asking for, you know, they have, like, a request for what they might want to do, A. B: They also walk in talking about their latest experiences. Most of them do, right? And C is where I sort of look at, like, their voice and what it sounds like and what would be an interesting juxtaposition in terms of a texture, all the while making sure that, like, the musician understands that they are the Mona Lisa, the picture.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK YOUR BODY")
GREENE: Williams has helped a lot of artists become Mona Lisas, among them, Justin Timberlake. The former member of *NSYNC was trying to move beyond his boy band past.
WILLIAMS: He's a pop star, which was interesting, because we got to use all of that, like, horsepower. But at the same time, he was an ambitious one, and wanted to do things differently. And that's just kind of, like, the way you do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK YOUR BODY")
WILLIAMS: When someone is gigantic, that's a responsibility, because you have enough people listening, then you're supposed to be ushering in change. If you're not ushering in change, then you're just literally riding a wave, and all waves have a beginning, they have a peak, and then, you know, the sun sets.
GREENE: As you can hear, Pharrell Williams talks about his creative process in visual terms a lot: the cresting wave, the sunset, the Mona Lisa. It's not a coincidence. He has a neurological condition that's called synesthesia.
WILLIAMS: The visual nerve ending and the auditorial nerve ending are connected. So, they send ghost images to each other.
GREENE: What are you experiencing that I might not be?
WILLIAMS: So, when you're hearing music, you see it in color.
GREENE: You're seeing colors when you're hearing sounds and hearing music?
GREENE: I want to know how it helps your mind work in a way that we might sort of feel with the music that you create.
WILLIAMS: Well, it's the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. You know, I know when something is in key, because it either matches the same color or it doesn't. Or it feels different, and it doesn't feel right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
GREENE: This summer, Pharrell Williams helped turn singer Robin Thicke into a household named with "Blurred Lines," a song that became ubiquitous and notorious. There was a version of the video with topless women, and also lyrics like this...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
GREENE: One of the reactions to "Blurred Lines" was some controversy. There were some people who felt like the lyrics touched on what a woman wants and doesn't want. Some feared it could even encourage rape. I mean, did any of this occur to you when you were working on that song?
WILLIAMS: Anything sexually suggestive, it's open season for, like, coming under fire, and I understand that. But, you know, very clearly, two things. Number one: in the song, it says that man is not your maker. I don't know anything that could be any more clear.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRED LINES")
GREENE: What point do you think that lyric makes?
WILLIAMS: I think it's very clear. The power is right there in the woman's hand. That man can't tell you what to do. And then secondly, as for the visual, well, that was written and directed by a woman.
GREENE: This is the visual - women who were topless in the video that...
WILLIAMS: Yeah. For those people who got really upset about it, I love women, man, and as far as I'm concerned, there's not a human being on this planet that doesn't benefit from the fact that a woman agreed to have you. That's how I feel. So, I'm comfortable, because I know what the female species represents to me.
GREENE: Now, this more recent project had far fewer objections.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")
GREENE: It's the big hit from the animated film, "Despicable Me 2." Williams said it wasn't easy to write. He sent the producers seven different songs. They rejected every one.
WILLIAMS: None of it was working. It was only until I was tapped out that I had to ask myself the fundamental question, like, man, what does feeling like a good mood feel like?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")
GREENE: So, all the no's actually brought about a product that you're really proud of.
WILLIAMS: That stillness of, like, nothing is when you could ask yourself a clear question and get a clear answer back.
GREENE: He just keeps moving from one huge success to the next. We spoke to him a few hours after his latest project landed: Beyonce's new album. We asked Williams if he has too much power over people's tastes. He had a more humble take.
WILLIAMS: Everybody can do what I do. And, actually, there are so many kids who can do it way better. It's an illusion that they keep selling you that you need to be in the music industry to make your music. It's an illusion to think that you need to run around Hollywood to put a film out. I'm living proof that, like, you can do whatever it is you want to do. Just believe it, and just do it. That's the thing, to stop thinking about it and go do it.
GREENE: And that's when his handlers came in and whisked him away to whatever was next. Pharrell Williams, thank you so much for the time. We appreciate it. It's been nice talking to you.
WILLIAMS: OK, OK. Cool. Thanks, man. Thank you, and thanks everybody out there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")
GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.