Pharrell Williams wears a lot of hats these days -- from his upcoming return to The Voice to his role with next week's June 30 debut of Apple Music to an extensive product line with Adidas, a creative director role with November's Live Earth concert in Paris and a busy production roster that includes recent releases with Snoop Dogg, T.I. and fellow Voice coach Gwen Stefani.
But how does he keep the next hit coming? Nearly two years after the initial release of "Happy," the surprise global hit that took home the Grand Prix award at last summer's Cannes Ad Lions for its "24 Hours of Happy" campaign with Coca-Cola and Beats, Pharrell returned to the Palais des Festivals on Tuesday (June 23) for a keynote conversation (sponsored by iHeartMedia) with fellow multi-hyphenate Ryan Seacrest, who caught up with Billboard afterward to share a few more tips and tricks to their creative productivity.
Billboard: You just mentioned onstage that “Happy” was the result of 10 rejected ideas for a song that was written for a scene in Despicable Me 2.
Pharrell Williams: It never even entered my mind as a possibility because it didn’t seem like one. Who knew? Which is what I didn’t get to say on stage, what was so humbling was that I didn’t think that at all. I didn’t think it would turn into this. No way.
Are you more creative when you have boundaries like you did? Do you produce better results when you’re writing to a brief or a prompt?
Pharrell: Each situation is different. I wish there was a formula, but I don’t. Formulas don’t work for me.
With your new song “Freedom,” which you debuted with Apple Music earlier this month, what inspired that song?
Pharrell: That just... came out.
[Seacrest joins the conversation]
We were just talking about how you stay creative when you have a lot of different duties.
Ryan Seacrest: I’m 100% better with a little bit of controlled chaos. I just know if I have three things to do, or nine things to do, I’m just better at them if I have nine.
Seacrest: What I love about the environment we live in and we work in, is that there are no boundaries anymore. We can do a lot of different things. It keeps us going.
When you’re in the studio, are you only focused on the project at hand? How much can you compartmentalize your creativity?
Pharrell: It’s funny, you do work on many things but you compartmentalize them. When you’re working on the Kardashian show, that keeps your radio show fresh. Your radio show keeps any of the things that you’re working on…I’m drawing a blank at the moment.
Seacrest: It’s OK, you don’t have to know my resume.
Pharrell: But the countless things you see his name on, I guarantee you those things – each thing keeps the other idea fresh. It’s like a plate of fruit, the banana is just as important as the apple, the apple’s just as important as the orange, the grapes are just as important as the cherries. They are all fruit, meaning they’re all his projects, but each one is distinctive and has a purpose. And the purpose of one is realized by him being reminded of what the purpose of this one is about. So it just creates these incredible partitions that allows all these things to be under his umbrella, but nothing blends in a way. The ethos is always consistent.
Seacrest: There’s a curiosity that one has to have to be able to do what Pharrell does everyday as well. And I find each project, although it’s compartmentalized, informs me in some facet. I wake up everyday wanting to be informed.
Pharrell: Intake is everything. And that is, that’s where you start to realize your ego has no business in our business. Once you think you know everything, it’s only a matter of time. So I will forever remain a student.
Is that why you’ve been so prolific as of late – what’s kept you focused?
Pharrell: Curiosity. What’s new, what’s next, what’s that new emotion, what’s that new feeling, what’s that new sound, what’s that new intention.
You’re about to wrap your first tour as a solo headliner, which has taken you around the world several times over with your full catalog. What’s that experience been like this far into your career?
Pharrell: Awkward. You know, I’ve always been used to being the guy standing next to the guy. And with N.E.R.D. it was so compartmentalized, there’s that word again. It was our little thing, and I didn’t expect that I would ever do anything beyond that. So I’m still going “Whoa. OK, time to go on? OK.”
And Ryan, you’re about to have a little more time on your hands next year with the closing of Idol. How are you bracing for that change?
Seacrest: It’ll be emotional because it’s been a part of my life for 15 years.
Pharrell: Wow, congratulations.
Seacrest: Thank you. It’s been an incredible journey you never thought would happen to you. And it’s not even about being a host it’s about looking at all of the different people we met and and all the different stories we told and all the connections we had with kids, teenagers and parents over the years. When I look back at it, that’s what’ll be special to me. And I have a feeling that after we say goodnight that last night it’ll for me. I’ll feel a void.