Pharrell Williams On Juxtaposition And Seeing Sounds : The Record The Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer breaks down his three-step writing process, recalls his history in Virginia Beach with Chad Hugo and Teddy Riley, and says anybody can do what he does.
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Pharrell Williams On Juxtaposition And Seeing Sounds

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Pharrell Williams On Juxtaposition And Seeing Sounds

Pharrell Williams On Juxtaposition And Seeing Sounds

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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.


PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) She's up all night to get some. I'm up all night to get some.

GREENE: And co-writing this.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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...


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.


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.


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?


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.


GREENE: This is NPR News.

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