Ahead of The Voice finale, Pharrell Williams discusses his own start in music and why the smash-hit success of “Happy” was actually humbling.
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“All of this has been a shock,” says Pharrell Williams, about the astounding success of both “Get Lucky”—his Grammy-winning collaboration with Daft Punk—and his Oscar-nominated worldwide sensation “Happy.” “I didn’t think I was going to make my own music until a few years ago.” The 10-time Grammy winner’s rise to international stardom came after years of producing others—Nelly, Jay Z, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, and the Neptunes (Pharrell’s duo with Chad Hugo). In addition, he’s a coach on the hit TV show The Voice and an artist-designer who’s worked with, among others, Louis Vuitton, Uniqlo, and his own Billionaire Boys Club—and was just named the C.F.D.A.’s fashion icon of the year. Here, he talks with Lisa Robinson about music, his optimism for the future, and that hat.
Lisa Robinson: You grew up in Virginia Beach—did you need to leave to pursue a music career?
Pharrell Williams: I started moving around—New York, Los Angeles. I was in hotels a lot. But, along with a residence in Miami, I still have my place in Virginia—it’s still home. There are a lot of incredibly talented young kids in Virginia Beach who are creating their own future. There’s magic in the air there.
What music influenced you growing up?
Hip-hop, hair band music, and grunge. The Treacherous Three or Grandmaster Flash—those were like black punk bands. The system made you feel like you had to check a box; if you weren’t listening to Sugarhill Gang, you were probably listening to Black Sabbath or Styx. But for me, growing up in Virginia, I got a chance to get exposed to all that stuff. Now, especially with the Internet, these kids are smart—which I love. They’re very open-minded; they’re not going to be censored or put in a box.
Do you ever worry that the Internet causes people to be more disconnected from each other?
Well, that’s the downside. But the upside is “Je Suis Charlie.” It’s an amazing time to see humanity standing up for itself.
Why are you and all the coaches on The Voice so nice?
When you’re already under pressure, if I come and make you feel more pressure, you’re going to explode; you’ll have a nervous breakdown.
When did you decide to make your own music?
I did a record in 2006, but it was just an experiment. It was too braggadocious and self-centered. A few years ago, Columbia Records asked me to do “Get Lucky” with Daft Punk, and that’s how that happened. “Happy” had been out for eight months with no radio airplay because it didn’t sound like an EDM song—and that’s all radio was playing. That song would never have been the same song if it had been for my album, but because it was for an animation <Despicable Me 2>, the only thing I could do was to put pure emotion into it—make a song for a man just walking down the street with pure happiness because he fell in love for the first time.
How did you feel when it got so huge, with thousands of people doing their own videos for it?
We shot a video for it, and then the song became everyone else’s. When you see that many people rallying behind an idea, and you realize you were used as a vessel to communicate, that’s humbling.
That hat has its own Twitter account. When did you start wearing it?
My friend Ronnie Newhouse bought it for me six or seven years ago. It’s so funny, because I wore it for an MTV interview then didn’t wear it again for five years until I wore it the night of the <2014> Grammys.
You’re the creative director of the June 18 Live Earth concerts to promote awareness of climate change. What’s your concept for the concerts?
There are over 190 countries involved with the U.N. participating, on seven different continents, with about 20 different groups. We’re going to do a pentatonic harmony—five different notes to make a chord, like a choir—in different places at the same time. I wanted to make the world sing together. That’s how you make humanity harmonize all at once.