Pharrell Williams on producing, humility, and why access for all is vital

By Eliza Williams

Artist, producer and all round music superstar Pharrell Williams has joined the startup ROLI, known so far for a number of new musical instruments and devices, as the company’s Chief Creative Officer.

This may generate a few eyerolls from those who who have watched a number of brands join forces with big name stars – see Lady Gaga with Polaroid, with Intel, Alicia Keys with Blackberry – with no obvious creative results beyond a marketing and PR hit.

But the Pharrell-ROLI tie-up feels slightly different. Introduced at an event at the Hackney Empire in London last week, the musician chatted with ROLI CEO Roland Lamb, and revealed that his interest in becoming CCO was prompted in part by plans that the company have for an educational initiative that chimed almost exactly with an idea Pharrell had had previously. “The only difference was we had two different names for it,” he told the audience.

ROLI CEO Roland Lamb talks to Pharrell, the company’s new CCO

Details of the programme have yet to be announced but it’s clear that its aim is to use tech to help music education be available to all. Pharrell railed against Trump during the talk – at one point evocatively saying he existed in “a snowglobe of hubris” – and particularly took issue with his administration’s stance on education, and the cuts being introduced.

“In my country, we’ve just defunded $9.2 billion in education,” he said. “But we’re going to make sure that technology is in schools, in both hardware and software. And it’s important because you just never know, in the areas where there’s limited access or there’s no access, you just never know who’s there.

He went on to make the point that talent can easily be lost in areas where there is little hope or opportunity. “In the area that I was from there were guys that would gamble,” he said. “Those were the guys that had a propensity for numbers and watching numbers and watching the odds. They could have had the ability to maybe work in the city or work on Wall Street…. Or the guys that are preparing drugs … those guys could probably have got a job in GlaxoSmithKline. If they’d had access. Think about it.

“Or the people who can sing but just don’t have the access, or can play [instruments] at school but don’t have the access outside of school,” he continues. “People who have musical propensity, we want to give them opportunity, we want to give them access so they might end up doing something else with [their lives]…. We need people to consider the idea that these kids have latent talents but they just need the opportunity for someone to recognise that there could be something there, scratch the surface a little bit and give them some hope…. We need that.”

In addition to talking about his work with ROLI, Pharrell revealed some of his own inspirations, and also some of the techniques he uses as a producer to encourage the best out of the artists he works with.

“People would ask me ‘what inspires you?’, and I would always say ‘that which is missing’ or that which I’ve never felt before,” he says. “I mix things together all the time. You know, ‘what would feel like or what would that sound like if these two things got mixed together?’…. That’s what the world gives me as a person who makes music and things. I’m funny about being called being a ‘creative’ as it’s kind of pretentious.

“As a producer I am much more like a mirror,” he continues. “I just hold up a mirror to show them the unique sides of them that they’ve never seen…. I go ‘hey, try this out’. That’s the first job that I have. And the second job is to encourage you to have confidence in the other side to your personality.”

Pharrell cited his work with Justin Timberlake on his first solo album Justified as an example of this process. “I recognised that he had a nice falsetto and he didn’t really use it a lot,” he says. “I’d just done some songs for Michael [Jackson] that he didn’t use, and it was knowing that Justin had another side to his voice that allowed us the opportunity [to do the songs] for Justified.

“That’s really what it boils down to – find a unique side to a person’s voice, and a unique side to their personality that they’re not expressing and giving them a comfortable space to express those things.”

Pharrell has of course enjoyed phenomenal success as a solo artist, though interestingly finds it hard to apply his skills as a producer to himself. “I’ll be able to see something in someone else that I can’t see in myself, I’m just blind within,” he says.

Perhaps even more surprising is hearing how humbled he has been by his solo success. He admitted to suffering from “young hubris” in his 20s and much of his 30s but that his individual stardom has had the opposite effect. “I spent so much of my career being a producer, then I had these big global songs and it’s ‘why me?’,” he explains. “That will humble you…. I’m a producer that’s having records like an artist – you can’t explain it so it humbles you. You ask the universe ‘why me?’”

“The only thing I can do is humble down and say ‘thank you’, and stay in my lane and just respect the fact that I get to chase that which is missing every day.”

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