Return to Transcripts main page

Talk Asia

Interview with Pharrell Williams

Aired December 20, 2013 - 05:30   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, CNN HOST (voice-over): Saturday night and music lovers in Hong Kong are getting down to the city's first block party, a music festival headline and curated by this man, Pharrell Williams.

Know as much for his powerful performances as his behind-the-scenes mastery, this Grammy award-winning producer-musician is electrifying Hong Kong with some of his biggest hits, among them, two of this year's chart- topping singles, hitting number on the Billboard charts with this Robin Thicke collaboration.

And number two on the Hot 100 with the French house music duo, Daft Punk.

These are just two of a cascade of Pharrell's hugely successful genre- jumping collaborations.

He co produced Britney Spears' hot success, "I'm a Slave for You," as well as Shakira's dance track, "Did It Again.

And he's featured on Jay-Z's first song to make it to number one on the Billboard chart.

But aside from co-producing superstar artists with the other half of his production powerhouse, Chad Hugo, Pharrell performs with his own band, N.E.R.D., works on film scores, including making the soundtrack for the animation, "Despicable Me," cofounded clothing label and groups all his creative endeavors under (INAUDIBLE) umbrella company called i am OTHER.

This week on TALK ASIA, Pharrell Williams sits down with us in Hong Kong and we find out why he's the man that everyone wants to work with.

PHARRELL WILLIAMS, MUSICIAN, PRODUCER AND ENTREPRENEUR: My job is to come in and create all of the artists that I work with, like you know, the way da Vinci was looking at Mona Lisa.


RAJPAL: Pharrell Williams, welcome to TALK ASIA and to Hong Kong.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

RAJPAL: You're here for this block party music festival as a curator.

Tell me what goes into putting together something like this. I mean, what kind of experience do you want your audience to have?

WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, thanks for having me.

Second of all, I think -- there's a lot that goes into planning festivals. And I think the most -- for the most part, what we try to do is just try to keep it eclectic, you know, because the world is at a place where like people don't want one thing; they want many flavors.

And quite honestly, when you're spending your money, you deserve that. So we tried our best for this first installment to just give people like an array of talent from different genres.

RAJPAL: You've worked with so many -- some of the best artists, musicians, singers out there right now. Some have described you as having this unique perspective. And that's why they want to work with you.

What do you think it takes to bring out the best in someone, bring out their version of the best?

WILLIAMS: I'm a fan of music, first and foremost. So I do things from the perspective of a fan. I'm like, man, what if we could do -- ?

Some people say there's nothing new under the sun. I still think that there's room to create, you know. And intuition doesn't necessarily come from under this sun. It comes from within.

And the more I can make a person comfortable in their environment by taking my ego's hat off and leaving it at the door, then they can dive deep within themselves and we can pull out something interesting that people have never heard before. It's the stuff that's -- that no one's ever heard before is really interesting.

Those are the things that -- those are the things that stick is -- but you got to get it right.

RAJPAL: How do you do that, though? How did you learn to put your ego aside?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I've produced a large body of my work with Chad Hugo. And together, you know, we're The Neptunes. And we were just so happy to be in the room with all these people. Like we looked at those guys like deities. And I would say, wow, there's Busta Rhymes. Is that Jay-Z? Whoa. You know? And we still, you know, I'm still like that.

And you learn as you work with people the more comfortable they are, the more they'll give you their best.

So when a person walks in the studio, I'm looking at three things. I'm looking at what they say they want. I'm looking at what they -- the energy that they bring in. And then the third thing is what I may find interesting with their voice.

So what I try and do is try -- I try and mix the textures. Like, OK, your voice sounds like this. And you come from this genre. But what if we mix a little bit of that? I find that it always works when you find the interesting friction, the interesting alchemy between two things, the juxtaposition that, to me, makes for very interesting music.

RAJPAL: What gave you the courage, though, to forge ahead with that kind of thinking, that --

WILLIAMS: I didn't have much. So I didn't have anything to lose.

RAJPAL: There are those that would say the pressures of say, an industry, a record company, that says, well, you know, we really want a number one hit. We want this kind of music because that's what apparently sells.

WILLIAMS: I would say don't sign to a record company that's talking to you like that. There are some really good record companies out there. And then there are some out there that like, you know, they chart chase. And as much as we appreciate the charts, what is the chart without the art? Right?

Like, you know, it's the music that people feel. I really honestly -- I'm so happy to be involved at a time where music is honestly changing for the better.

You have Lorde, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift, Tyler the Creator, HAIM, Pusha T, you know, all these artists are just doing music that feel good to them and they're not really worried about what the industries think, because they know that they don't make music for the industry or the business. They make music for the people.

And people are -- it's resonating with them. And it's so awesome. I mean, look at how -- look how that song, "Royals," just cut through everything. You know, and it was because she was --


WILLIAMS: And I'm just so happy that like humanity is stepping up to the plate and they're just taking control of these things. And they get -- once again, I attribute that to the Internet, you know. It's just giving the power to the people, their power -- there's number -- there's power in numbers. And the Internet proved that.

RAJPAL: Would you say you could divide your life into pre-Ralph Lauren Silver jacket?

WILLIAMS: Where are you getting this from?


RAJPAL: To where you are now?




RAJPAL: There's also something to be said about the sense of acknowledgement and recognition that one gets because of what they do, because of the fact that they are doing their own thing, whether it comes in the form of awards, nominations, Grammy nominations, winning awards.

Do you think a moment for you like that was perhaps Britney Spears, "I'm a Slave for You," with The Neptunes' worldwide number one?

When you heard that, was that -- do you think that was a moment of recognition for you?

WILLIAMS: All of these moments are recognition. You know, it -- I consider them, you know, an acknowledgement from like the people, because you know what -- when people say something is big or successful or huge, what they're really saying is that the people reacted.

So when a person hears a song, they can just listen to it and walk off. But the gift in it for us as musicians and what we like, what we live for, is when they do a little bit more than just listen to it, when they share it with a friend, when they purchase it, when they stream it, when they request it, when they vote for it. You have to acknowledge that.

And for me, I want to acknowledge it and just say, "Thank you." Listen, one of the -- you know somebody that I'm super proud of is Miley. Look at Miley, you know, lived her whole life in front of the camera.

And yes, she's come under some scrutiny because she's pushing the boundaries. And I know you didn't ask me this question, but I just want to say I'm very proud of her because she stayed the course. She did what she wanted to do.

RAJPAL: Does that overshadow someone's talent? Does that overshadow -- ?

WILLIAMS: Sure, it can, because the media is going to -- you know, the media will fire it up whatever the way that they see fit and whatever way that makes sense to them.

RAJPAL: So what's your role in all of this?

WILLIAMS: I'm a producer. I'm a musician. And my job is to come in and you know, put -- you know, I treat all of the artists that I work with, like, you know, the way da Vinci was looking at Mona Lisa, you know, there's an interesting backdrop.

Like the backdrops tells a really big story. But it can't get in the way of the main subject, which is the artist. When I'm working with a Jay-Z I can't do something that is a distraction to his creativity. If anything, I have got to get out of the way and let him just be.

RAJPAL: I've heard you describe the way you do produce is Warholing it. Andy Warhol, putting your colors on it. And I've -- the reason why I bring up colors is you talk a lot about synesthesia, I read an interview with a professor of neuroscience and psychology. And you --

WILLIAMS: Ramachandran.

RAJPAL: Yes. And you had an interesting quote.

You said, "So many people just have that innate thing that allows them to express themselves in a way the majority can follow. That's when you're affecting culture."

That innate thing that you're able to do, which is to affect culture, is to combine all these things, these elements in pop culture, whether it's art, whether it's collaborate with Louis Vuitton, that's as in fashion or art with Takashi Murakami.

Give me an idea about that sense of being able to see things in a way that perhaps others, not that they can't, but maybe they don't know they can.

WILLIAMS: You know what? These opportunities are not afforded to many. So when I'm presented with them, I -- the only thing I can do is concern on what is going to feel so cool to do.

The other thing that I need to point out is that I'm only as good as my collaborators. Vuitton is a, you know, prestigious fashion house and Marc Jacobs never -- he never had to say yes. I'm just dealing with a lot of really nice, talented people.

RAJPAL: Would you say you could divide your life into pre-Ralph Lauren Silver jacket --

WILLIAMS: Where are you getting this from?


RAJPAL: -- to where you are now?

No, I read that you worked very hard to try and save money for this Silver Ralph Lauren Polo jacket.

WILLIAMS: Yes, it's true.

RAJPAL: And then the moment you got it --

WILLIAMS: Yes. The moment I got it --

RAJPAL: -- things changed?

WILLIAMS: -- it was kind of like, OK. I see I can do something, even though my manager at the time, he's still my brother, Rob Walker, he used to joke me all the time about how obsessed I was with the foil style, you know, Ralph Lauren. It was double RL. I mean, excuse me, it was RL 2000, which was a ski collection.

And I just -- I don't know, man, you know, Polo has always been a staple in my community. It's just something that like aspirational and you know.

RAJPAL: Didn't you save money by working at McDonald's, that you worked -- you didn't do very well there? The irony of that story though, Pharrell, is that you end up producing their most iconic jingle. "I'm lovin' it."

WILLIAMS: I never thought about that. I never put the two together.

RAJPAL: The irony!

WILLIAMS: (INAUDIBLE) got fired all three times.

RAJPAL: But the irony is that song, that everyone recognizes, you're responsible for, The Neptunes are responsible for.

WILLIAMS: Well, Chad and I, we're very thankful for that opportunity. And we also had to thank Steve Stout (ph), who got us that opportunity.





WILLIAMS (voice-over): I am different. I am weird. You're right. I don't fit in your world. You want to know why? Because I'm OTHER.

Salutations. Thank you for tuning in. And while we're here is because you're now on the OTHER channel.

And what OTHER is is it's a place where you could just be yourself. You know, we celebrate, you know, individually, people who want to be appreciated for their differences and people who celebrate being different.

If there was ever going to be a box that you ever fit in in your life, it's the OTHER box.




RAJPAL: Is that true that that was born out of a conversation with Lauren Hill?


RAJPAL: That she wanted OTHER from you?

WILLIAMS: Your research --

OK. You tell them I used to do (INAUDIBLE) interviews. This is awesome. Thank you so much.

RAJPAL: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: It's an awesome experience.

Yes. And no, I never got a chance to work with her, but that's what she said to me. She was like, you know, she was like, you know, brother, I like I need, you know, I like what you do. I like what you and Chad do. You know, you guys are The Neptunes. You have The Neptunes sound. But you know, I - me, I'm -- you know, I need other. And I was like, wow. She said she needed other. And that stuck with me.

And so when it was time to sort of push the reset button for myself and you know, for my working family, I just wanted to make a statement. I mean, we really wanted to just call it OTHER. But it just seemed like we needed to make it a statement, like i am OTHER.

And it's been awesome, because I feel like so many more people identify with it, because it's being placed in a sentence (ph) so you know what the intention is. So actually the name of our company is an intention and not just a state of being. It's an intention, which I think is a little bit stronger because it welcomes the person who reads it and says that aloud. It welcomes you in like the other, be different.

RAJPAL: Tell me about your partnership with Chad Hugo. You both seem to have this love of music, not just the sound of it, but the physiology of music, every single element of it, whether it's the chords or the way it's put together.

WILLIAMS: I heard the first A Tribe Called Quest album and that just like -- I just didn't understand why it was so good. So we began trying to deconstruct these songs to figure out why it did that. And then like in figuring it out, it was like, OK. We have to do this.

And so every day after school, we used to go to -- Chad and I used to go to this little gifted program called Old Donation Center for the Gifted and Talented. And every day after school, we would just like jam and learn, you know, and our teachers taught us like so much.

RAJPAL: Now as a father, do you see -- what do you hope for then in your child's education?

WILLIAMS: I don't want to be esoteric. We get inspired by like things we see or hear or things we encounter, experiences. But then there are moments when those things run out, when you have nothing else and you're tapped out. That is the best place you could ever be, because now the only thing you have is intuition.

And for me, I can go and shower or listen to running water or on a plane. Your imagination just wanders off. That's the gift. And in school, some of your teachers are talking and it's like Charlie Brown's teacher, like, "Wah, wah, wah." That kid that's daydreaming, that's the next book or chair or building. That's where all the great stuff comes from.

And that's the thing that I don't think that we -- they don't -- I don't think that they teach our children that. I mean, I didn't get -- I wasn't taught that. When my mind wandered off, it was like, OK. He's not paying attention. Dr. Ramachandran, the guy that you referenced earlier, he said the apes and the monkeys reach for fruit. But man reaches for stars.

And that's the difference. That's the difference. And everything that we joke about and we say is crazy and totally impossible, we end up doing 10 years later, you know, like the moon is a real thing. We've surpassed that.

RAJPAL: What has been for you the closest to the stars and to the moon in terms of wanting to reach for something and grabbing it?

WILLIAMS: My family. It's awesome.

It's awesome. I love my son. I love my wife. I love my family. I love my friends. And I'm not perfect, far from perfect. I'm learning. You know, if anything, I'm a workaholic and this is the thing I can't get enough of. You know?

There's a book that I love called "Neurolinguistic Programming." And what they say in that book is that if you can find -- if you can determine what your hobby is, in that hobby, a good litmus test is like to ask yourself would you do it for free if you could at least survive and be OK?

Right? Once you determine what that is, if you can find a vocation in that area, then you'll never work in your life, a day in your life, because you're just having fun and getting paid for it.

And if you can find a way to service humanity in there as well, well, then now you're doing something significant for mankind.

And while I don't equate myself to any of that and I will work the rest of my life to try and do that, I am happy by the response to a song that we -- in a video that we just put out called "Happy." And I've never gotten this kind of response. And especially with me at the forefront of the song, it's like, hello, are you guys paying attention? It is me.

But it's been amazing to see the people's spirits being lifted in a way that has like I'm humble.


RAJPAL: Speaking of "Happy,", are you happy?

WILLIAMS: Yes. Come on. I just found out -- and I don't know how this is possible -- I just found out that like I have seven Grammy nominations -- seven . You have to know I've been pinching myself all day long. And when they told me, I think I ran around the mall like I may have embarrassed myself. I was just so excited.

RAJPAL: It's recognition for your work.

WILLIAMS: Dude, (INAUDIBLE) how to do it. But --

RAJPAL: OK, you can dude me. That's fine.

WILLIAMS: Ma'am --


WILLIAMS: This has been amazing. And you know what? As always, you know, if I don't win one of them, it's all good because I got the acknowledgement like, man, someone was paying attention. And I'm -- it's awesome and I just continue -- you know, I intend to just continue to be loyal to what feels good musically.

And it's not always going to work. It's not always going to work. But when it does, man, thank you guys so much, seriously. I'm humbled.

I'm 40; I never dreamt in a million years I would ever, you know, work in music and even in animation, Chris Meledandri and Illumination, and all those guys, you know, working with America Ferrera (ph) on "Despicable Me," like I never thought, you know, when I was -- when I was 10 percent of my age, when I was 4 years old, I loved music and I loved cartoons.

I'm 40 now, and this is what I get to do. I'm eternally grateful. You can always see me saying thanks.

RAJPAL: Well, we thank you. And we're grateful to you for your time.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

RAJPAL: It's been a pleasure.

WILLIAMS: Oh, my God, this is great energy.

RAJPAL: Thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: I never look at my interviews because I always look like a goofball. But I have to say, like, I'm going to make sure like -- I'm going to make sure everyone watches this one.