Grammy Award-winning artist Pharrell Williams reteams with composer Heitor Pereira to produce the soundtrack for Despicable Me 2, the sequel to the 2010 animated comedy adventure. Williams wrote three memorable new songs for the movie: “Happy” and “Just a Cloud Away” to complement the reprise of one of his songs from the first film, “Fun Fun Fun” and “Scream” which is performed by CeeLo Green. The film stars Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, and Ken Jeong.
At the recent press day, Williams talked about what inspired him to write “Happy”and take audiences to a lighter place for the second film, why Gru is his favorite character, the philosophy behind his creative process, how he strives to produce colorful and original music, how he harmonizes his music with the filmmakers’ intentions to complement what’s happening on screen, why it’s challenging to put humor into the music, why working on this was a cool learning experience, how growing up in Virginia Beach influenced his music and development as an artist, and why this is a movie everyone will enjoy. He also discussed the influence of The Neptunes and being parodied on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Hit the jump to read the full interview.
Question: The music in this was great and it complimented and worked so well with the movie. Can you talk a little bit about your process of writing? In particular, I loved the song Happy. How did that come about and what inspired you to write it?
Pharrell Williams: The process is usually the same. They usually do one of two things. They tell you, “Oh, well you know what? We’ve just written this new scene and we need X, Y and Z.” There’s your criteria. You have directives. Or sometimes they’ll already have temp music where the tempo works and the feeling of the song works, but the song is just overplayed. Or a lot of it is right, but they want something new and fresh. And so, there’s a criteria, and then there is your motive and inspiration. Ingeniously, the writers and the director chose a different overarching theme for this one which was in a much happier place. I feel like they were smart. They predicted that this is where the world will be right now at this moment. The internet has been responsible for so much connectivity with us as a species, humanity, but at the same time, with all of the connectivity, there are a lot of great things you see and then there’s a lot of shock. People are becoming desensitized at this point. One day, there’s a train off the track. Next week, there’s another train off the track. It’s weird all these things. But again, you’re dealing with math. You’re dealing with seven billion people, so things are bound to go wrong. But what about the happier side of things? People have become so desensitized to all the tragedies and travesties, that as a species, we needed to go to a lighter place. These guys ingeniously predicted that that’s where this would go, and they used Gru, the guy who was least likely, if you look in your yearbooks, to ever be happy about something. They chose him to be the main guy with a good mood and attitude. I was so happy, pun intended, to express that for him. It’s been really cool because you wouldn’t think that that would work, but it did. Those guys are super-genius, and I was so lucky to be a sticker on that rocket ship.
This is your second time doing Despicable Me. Which character or situation in this film was the most fun for you to create some music for this time around?
Williams: Again, it was the overarching theme. My contribution to the first film was more like the songs came from things that different characters would say, or their behavior, or the things that they would do. This time I chose a different approach. I thought, “You know what? I’m going to go with the overarching theme.” I still consider myself a novice because filmmaking and scoring is a comprehensive job that takes a lot of years and experience to get to an expertise level. I’m far from that, but man I got to learn so much on the job, like working with Heitor Pereira and Chris (Meledandri) and his extensive super crazy team. I got to learn that there are many different approaches to get to a destination. There are many different routes. And so, with this one, I chose the overarching theme which wasn’t specifically about anyone else as it was so much about the air of the film. The continuity was honestly based on lifting people up emotionally, and they did such a great job. I was happy to have my music harmonized with their intentions.
Who’s your favorite character? Who do you like in the movie the best?
Williams: I like Gru’s humor. I love that dry humor. The funniest things that he says are under his breath. I just think that’s so genius and so relatable.
How much of your past influences your music and how much of it will influence your future endeavors?
Williams: You learn from experiences, and I suppose that’s where I color most of my music, from experiences. Part of it is reaching into oblivion for things that don’t exist, like what the writers did when they were creating the story for Despicable Me, like what is a Minion and what does it look like? They were reaching into oblivion. Most of my work is colored by experiences.
When do you think you’re going to put out your next solo album?
Williams: I’ve been concentrating on Despicable Me and all of the other production. I’ve just been concentrating on this.
The Neptunes has become the defining aesthetic of hip hop and pop music in the last decade in terms of reducing it to its purest, catchiest essence. How much do you push yourself to go beyond the aesthetic that you guys are able to apply so effectively to so many different artists?
Williams: I follow the same philosophy. If someone asks me what inspires me, I always say, “That which is missing,” because I don’t want to copy everything that’s already happening. I feel like when you copy, you blend in, and when you blend in, you get lost. When I make music, I try to make something that is super colorful and something you’ve never heard before, so when you hear the whole album, it’s a good feeling. Musically that’s what I aspire to do whenever I’m making an album.
How do you decide what you want to do, what’s right for you, and why is Despicable Me something you chose to do?
Williams: I mainly go with a feeling of if it sounds right, but then I have a super incredible, comprehensive team that sometimes sees things before I do, and they’re like, “No, you’re bugging. You need to do this.” But this was not something that they needed to twist my arm to do. It’s animation. As a child growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I was always obsessed with cartoons. When my aunt used to watch me, it was like a real serious tug of war. She wanted to watch General Hospital. I wanted to watch The Flintstones. It was a real thing. So now, being a grown-up and being able to afford my own television and my own satellite service, Boomerang is on all the time. As far as working with these guys, like I said, it’s animation. Who turns down that job? It’s not afforded and offered to many people. I know that I’m blessed. I know that I’m super fortunate. What I try to do is repay it with diligence, research, and going super hard, and just trying to find things that are so sticky, but that feel good, because there is a stickiness that pisses you off, too. Like those songs that are annoying and you can’t get them out, but they’re sticky. I try not to bore you guys with the wrong kind of glue.
Williams: What’s that guy’s name? Carl Stalling?
Williams: Yeah. He’s the king to me. That’s partially the soundtrack to my life as a child. And then, there is Randy Newman, the guy that takes every Oscar for Best Original Song in animation. He must have a vitrine and just lines them up like cars. He’s genius god. He really is.
Maybe you will give Randy Newman a run for his money this time around because that song you wrote, Happy, is so great and memorable.
Williams: I hope so because he is the king.
Is it easy to meld humor into music? It seems like not a lot of people really try it. For you, is it hard to try to have the music reflective of funny things that are happening?
Williams: I wish I could just sit here really cool and go, “Oh yeah. It was so easy.” It’s so hard. It is so hard because so much of what we do doesn’t really have humor. That’s what makes videos fun, because now you’re able to add humor on top of something that’s slightly a little bit more serious or festive. Even when they’re festive, you’re not having a lot of fun. You’re having fun, but it’s a different kind of fun. It’s not very humorous. The visual is usually where that comes into play, but what you’re asking is from the inception. Putting humor into my music was very much a challenge for me because I had never done that before. Again, I also say that working on this film is a learning experience.
Williams: I have not, but he does almost every Johnny Depp film and all of those brilliant Disney films that they do over there, and his music is like… He kills it. That Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was amazing. I mean, he blended so many things together. It was like, “Whoa!”
Has it focused or hindered your creativity going from writing songs for yourself to writing for productions where you’re given notes like, “This is the type of theme that we want. Now go”?
Williams: The funny thing is that when I’m given directives, I’m usually learning on the job, but I’m also being pushed into a different place. It’s kind of like being in high school again. You have electives, different courses that are requirements, that you may not be interested in, but they’re making you do it, like Home Ec. But then you grow up and you realize that you now know how to make chocolate milk. That was a joke. But those things do come in handy. And in the same way as when you have requirements in high school, when they’re giving us these directives to go into places that I would have never imagined going, I’m now learning something. I’m now adding it to [my experiences]. It’s a new experience and I now get to say I know a bit more about this sound or that sound. And there are other things that I’ve taken an interest in on my own that I was never able to apply, like listening to the arrangements of mariachi horn sections. It’s like, “Wow! Now I can actually do this in a film.” It’s both, but I consider it all a learning process. I’m thankful.
Williams: Timbaland. He’s the Beach. We went to the same church together. Timbaland is a genius.
How did growing up in Virginia Beach influence your music, and as an artist, how do you feel your roots helped develop you?
Williams: I think because there weren’t a lot of outlets. It’s normalcy. It was kind of like Leave It to Beaver land. It’s very normal. “Good morning, Dad.” “Good morning, son.” It’s that. Whereas, if you look at New York or LA, a child is more likely to see a basketball player walking through the mall or some start-up internet company dude walking out of a restaurant. We didn’t see that in Virginia as much. We did have a lot of star football players and basketball players, but they eventually go play for their respective team. You didn’t see them until they came home. Like Allen Iverson or Joe Smith. We used to have so many incredible dudes like that, but for us and the music world, there was virtually nothing until Teddy Riley moved his studio. It was a five-minute walk from my high school. So yes, we were terrorizing them. We were over there all the time, knocking on the door and being turned away. And then finally, when he discovered us at that talent show, it gave us an option. But not having anything there, I think that’s what did it. It’s like there weren’t the same outlets. As a kid, I always had a super vivid imagination, like “Man, I like those shoes, but they should’ve made them in purple” or like, “Man, I wonder how people make songs.” There was a little bit of it there, but the industry wasn’t there. I personally attribute it to not having an outlet. You have all those ideas and all of those little dreams built up inside, and then when you finally get the opportunity to do it, you just burst. I love Virginia, man. I wouldn’t change anything about it. Obviously, things have changed tremendously since then. There’s a huge budding music scene there now, but when I was there all the time, it wasn’t. I don’t know, man. Virginia made us all. Some people will say, “Is it something in the water?” I’m like, “Yeah. It’s Virginia Beach.”
How was it being parodied on Jimmy Kimmel Live in that hilarious “Blurred Lines” music video with Robin Thicke? Did you enjoy hitting Kimmel over the head with that chair?
Williams: I was horrified. And they only had one chair to get it right. It was like, “One shot, kid!” And the camera is rolling. It’s Jimmy Kimmel. I’m swinging a chair. It was weird because I did it, and I was so timid about doing it that I didn’t want to make a mean face after I’d done it. You needed to make a mean face like you meant it. I was uncomfortable.
As a parent, have you taken your son to see the movie?
Williams: Not yet. He’s only seen the first one.
This is such a great family movie. Do you think he’s going to like this one?
Williams: He’s going to love it. I don’t know what he’s going to say though. I mean, he surprises us all the time. This movie is going to make a lot of children happy just because that’s what their intentions were. It’s awesome, too, because there’s a lot of parents that will go, and they’ll get something out of it, too. There are jokes for two-year-olds. There are jokes for 80-year-olds. That’s what Illumination does so well. Illumination is a different kind of animation house. They make films for people. It’s so awesome that they do that, that they make films like that. Let’s face it, as parents, you want to go watch a film, and it’s like, “Oh God, this is ridiculous,” but the kids love it, whereas these guys have a completely different approach. I think all of our families will be happy.