Square Mile
Menu Search

Pharrell Williams: audience with a musical genius

Fashion designer, philanthropist, innovator and movie producer… There’s not much Pharrell Williams can’t do. but at the heart of it, music still makes his world go round

If you’re a person who finds there’s never enough hours in the day to do everything, perhaps you need to be more like Pharrell Williams; he not only covers the workload of around seven reasonably accomplished men, but he does so in immaculate style.

Naturally, like most Hollywood types, Williams can count on his team of helpers, but unlike other celebs who will glibly endorse anything for a wad of cash, the popstar’s plethora of projects are all intrinsic to his own distinct – and high-calibre – lifestyle.

View on Instagram

Take his advisory and investor role at burgeoning tech start-up MIXhalo. Founded by Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger, the company aims to transform the way we listen to live music by developing a way to distribute sound to the audience that claims to be even better than what the musicians hear on-stage. See also his YouTube channel ‘I am OTHER’, which has grown into a multi-media creative collective and record label.

Having built up his brand, it’s fair to say that attaching Williams’ mononym alone to a product is enough to guarantee a certain level of attention, but not necessarily success. So is it down to luck, or just inherent artistic talent? “A lot of it is a gift, but without discipline you’re never going to get anywhere. I’m lucky in that I’ve always felt free to do what I wanted, and the few times I’ve been in situations where I’ve been obliged to work within constraints that were imposed by others, I’ve decided to quit those projects,” says the 44-year-old firmly.

“I’m very precise when it comes to knowing what I want to do creatively. I can’t work according to parameters that are laid down by other people – that just doesn’t work for me. I need to follow my own instincts and I’ve learnt that that is always going to take me where I want to go as an artist.”

The term ‘genius’ may be thrown about a lot these days, particularly in an industry which often sees men branded as brilliant while women are cast simply as their pliant puppets, but in a time where our musical heroes are dropping like flies it feels appropriate to pin the title onto someone like Williams who has come from humble beginnings to rise and conquer.

Born in the Virginia Beach resort city in Virginia, he is the eldest of three sons of Pharaoh Williams, a handyman, and Carolyn, a teacher. It was at a seventh-grade summer band camp that Williams met his Neptunes collaborator Chad Hugo: two unassuming, young and geeky musicians – Williams a drummer, Hugo a tenor saxophonist – who would go from playing jazz standards to producing some of the biggest hits of the 21st century including Britney Spears’ ‘Slave for You’, Snoop Dogg’s ‘Beautiful’ and Kelis’s ‘Milkshake’.

I don’t think there’s any reason for anyone to inflict harm on anyone else. I want to help, to create a society where we can all support each other and love each other.

Though hardly the most rock’n’roll coming-of-age tale, Williams’ past has proved mythical enough to garner the attention of Fox, which has purchased the rights to Atlantis – a ‘Romeo and Juliet-style story’ inspired by his childhood. No doubt hoping to emulate some of the enormous success Lionsgate has enjoyed with La La Land, Atlantis will have a musical element and will be the studio’s second project with Williams following acclaimed hit Hidden Figures, which he produced and scored.

Based on the story of three brilliant black female mathematicians who made a major contribution to NASA and the US space programme in the 1960s, Hidden Figures was nominated for three Academy Awards – including Best Picture – along with a Golden Globe nomination for the soundtrack which Williams co-composed with the legendary Hans Zimmer. “I was very proud to help get the film made and tell the story of these amazing black women – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who were also pioneers in an era where segregation was still in effect and blacks had to struggle for their place in society,” explains Williams.

“I’m so glad that this film has been able to point out that there are so many talented women out there and especially those who have made important contributions to mathematics and engineering.”

Sincere as this statement seems, it may not be the sort of thing one expects to come out of the mouth of a hip-hop star whose music videos often feature a bevy of scantily-clad babes – in N*E*R*D’s appropriately-named ‘Lapdance’, for example, or his comeback collaboration with Robin Thicke, ‘Blurred Lines’, which took that genre staple to the extreme.

Regardless, when earlier this year the 11-time Grammy winner and his model and designer wife Helen Lasichanh announced the arrival of triplets to join their eight-year-old son Rocket, Williams proved where his priorities lie. Indeed fatherhood has revealed his softer side – on 2010’s Despicable Me soundtrack he snuck in a tribute to his young son with the track ‘Rocket’s Theme’. When it comes to parenting, Williams says he is “tender and strict” and encourages his son to “discover for himself who he wants to be and what he would like to do in life”.

As for the somewhat unusual name, “We named our son Rocket for a thousand reasons, but one of the big ones was to name him after a man-made machine that is meant to soar,” Williams beams. “But it was also a way of paying tribute to Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ – they are two of my favourite musicians.”

Meanwhile, Williams has been expanding on his philanthropic endeavours, building a $35m afterschool centre in his hometown of Virginia Beach, along with his From One Hand To AnOTHER Inc foundation which strives to provide educational tools and motivational support for underprivileged kids. And of course, not forgetting his recent appearance at a Humane Society gala where he blew guests’ minds by auctioning off backing singer spots for his performance that night. “I’m not a huge activist, but I try to be a participant and play my little part,” he says with a shrug.

“I don’t think there’s any reason for anyone to inflict harm on anyone else. I want to help, to create a society where we can all support each other and love each other.”

His priorities may have changed, but the singer is still as sharply dressed as ever. Weeks before the birth of his three new children, a time when most fathers would be preparing to wipe vomit off their lapels, Williams was showing his off on the Chanel catwalk at Paris Fashion Week in a natty tweed and black pearl combo. Having long accessorised with the French fashion house’s iconic costume jewellery, Williams was seen as the perfect choice to become the first male to appear in a handbag campaign for the brand, with head honcho Karl Lagerfeld saying he wanted to show that the bag can be “worn in many different circumstances”.

He knows all too well how it feels to be in the shade of failure: there was a period where his profile was considerably flagging

Though hardly a ground-breaking campaign, Williams undoubtedly brings a much-needed edge to a house too often associated with Russian socialites. And let’s be honest, if anyone can convince men that it’s OK to rock a man bag, it’s Pharrell.

“Fashion is great. As a performer, you’re on stage wearing a lot of different outfits and there’s always been that connection for me. I love fashion and I love the way fashion helps people express their individuality,” he explains. “It’s great when I see people come up with their own looks and I especially love it when I see someone wearing something I’ve designed and matched it with other designers’ creations. That’s where the real power and excitement of fashion comes into play and you see people creating their own style and identity.”

View on Instagram

With his slender frame and androgynous flair, Williams has long been a poster boy for the geeky, Japanese-inspired, streetwear-meets-tailoring style often worn by the more intellectual and alternative rap stars. And long before Tyler The Creator launched his Golf Wang brand, Williams had founded the Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream with Japanese icon and founder of A Bathing Ape, Nigo. He also has a long-running collaboration with Adidas, which included last year’s extremely popular Pharrell x Adidas NMD Human Race trainers – Williams recently sent sneakerheads wild when he teased three infant-sized pairs of the shoe on Instagram.

With so many strings to his bow, it’s difficult to know how to refer to this prodigious polymath: musician? Designer? Visionary? “Music is my main interest and passion,” he insists. “It’s meant so much to me and it’s still very important to me. I love exploring fashion and other things, but music will always be my primary focus.”

It’s just as well, considering he is currently reported to be working on a new N*E*R*D album for a projected summer release, along with collaborating with Justin Timberlake on the 20/20 pop star’s forthcoming LP, his first in four years. As always, his enthusiasm when working with other people shines through.

“Song-wise, I think we’ve got a good solid six tracks that are like, ‘Whoa, what was that? Play that again.’ I would pay Justin a huge compliment to say he’s just discovering who he is now,” he says. “If you’re able to really screenshot your own vulnerability, and frame it properly, and colour-correct it, then it becomes something that every human can relate to. And I think Justin is in the place where he’s mastering that right now.”

Success can turn the nicest man on Earth into a monster, but all evidence suggests that Williams remains a sincere, generous and hardworking artist. Perhaps it’s because he knows all too well how it feels to be in the shade of failure: there was a period between his solo album In My Mind and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ where his profile was considerably flagging. Or perhaps it’s because he simply believes in the power of his art.

“Music brings people together. It is a force that touches people in a completely open way that reaches people wherever they are and at any time,” he concludes, adding: “I am deeply grateful that I am able to make music that reaches out to people all over the world.”

Follow Square Mile on Facebook and Twitter

Loading