Gather six of Hollywood’s top singer-songwriters and what you get, not surprisingly, is more like a symphony than an ordinary conversation. Each of the celebrated artists on THR‘s first-ever Songwriter Roundtable — Alicia Keys, 35 (who composed “Back to Life” for Queen of Katwe); Justin Timberlake, 35 (“Can’t Stop the Feeling!” for Trolls, in which he also stars); Tori Amos, 53 (“Flicker” for Audrie & Daisy); previous Oscar nominees Sting, 65 (“The Empty Chair” for Jim: The James Foley Story), and Pharrell Williams, 43 (“I See a Victory” for Hidden Figures, which he also produced); and 2015 Oscar winner John Legend, 37 (“Start a Fire” for La La Land) — has a unique voice that came through loud and clear as they shared their artistic and political passions. On Nov. 7, the day before the election, they all were hopeful for a Hillary Clinton victory and concerned about the bruising campaign. “It’s dangerous for us to be complacent” in the face of Trump’s divisive rhetoric, Legend said. But he also noted this group’s place in fighting that complacency. “Part of the power of art and music is that we are able to transcend those boundaries.”
At what point in your life did you first fall in love with music?
ALICIA KEYS I was about 4 years old. I remember the moment that it happened. It was somewhere between Cookie Monster, when he sang this song —
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE “C Is for Cookie”?
KEYS No. “I Left My Cookie at the Disco.” And on the other side was “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”
JOHN LEGEND Oh, I love that song.
KEYS So that kind of cross-sectioned with a teacher that I had who was really a big music lover and encouraged us to do theater and songs, and I learned “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And that all gave me my moment to learn how to sing and see what it felt like. And it felt like this feeling I couldn’t describe and I still can’t describe it now.
PHARRELL WILLIAMS I thought everybody was in love with music. I thought we all had those things where that one part in the Stevie Wonder song or the Earth, Wind and Fire song or the Steely Dan song, the bridge, was the thing that made everybody say, “Yeah, that part!” I thought everyone did that. And then you get in junior high school and you start saying those kinds of things and then …
KEYS Nobody knows what you’re talking about.
WILLIAMS And then they start giving you that look, like, “I knew those pants were weird but … (Laughter.) Yeah. It’s more than just your pants.”
All of you have had huge hits. And Justin, the two directors of Trolls said you came onto the movie and said you’d write a song for it and they were blown away. And then you said, “And it’ll be a hit.”
TIMBERLAKE That is not true!
KEYS You know you said that.
LEGEND You definitely said it. (Laughter.)
TIMBERLAKE That is not true. That is the director trying to make the story sound like it was f—in’ worth something more than it was. Pardon my French.
Well, you did end up with a hit in “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” When you write a song, do you have a sense of whether it’s going to be a hit?
LEGEND I’m in love with all my songs right when I finish them. That’s my problem. ‘Cause part of the joy of writing is that completion where you feel like, “Oh, this feels good.” And I feel that every time I finish a song. So I can’t trust that because a couple of months may go by and then I realize which ones really stand out.
WILLIAMS People who say, “This is going to be a hit” are as unsuccessful as those who create hashtags. You know? Let’s do a hashtag call for action. It never works. But then when some seemingly random person who isn’t really random has something that really means something to them, they say it, that becomes the greatest hashtag. So just like a hashtag and just like a hit, we have nothing to do with that. We just ideate. People don’t have to respond. It’s not guaranteed that they will.
STING The biggest compliment I receive as a songwriter is when someone says, “I fell in love to one of your songs,” or “When we brought our first kid home, your song was on the radio,” or “We buried Uncle Charlie with one of your songs.” That means more than nominations, Grammys, BMI or whatever. Basically by accident creating the soundtrack for people’s emotional lives, that is a huge privilege.
So how do you go about channeling that into a song for a movie?
WILLIAMS I’ve tried to say, “OK, we’re going to do a song called such and such, and it’s going to be about such and such.” It almost always falls flat for me. It’s better to chase a feeling and a direction and allow the automatic flow, the intuitive part of you to take over. If you allow your intuition to go into that blank space and listen to the things that come back, a really exciting title comes out.
TIMBERLAKE Yeah. I think everyone at this table would probably agree that there is a level of blacking out when you write. It’s like this tug of war, a great tug of war between the conscious and the unconscious brain for me.
LEGEND Part of what is interesting about writing for film is that there is at least some direction. Because when we write for our own albums, we could write literally about anything. And it is helpful to have a script, a feeling that you’re trying to capture.
Tori, when you were doing the music for Audrie & Daisy [a documentary about sexual assault], you said you disappeared, your day-to-day responsibilities had to go away while you wrote the songs.
TORI AMOS Well, this is a documentary, and it’s a tough watch. Audrie isn’t with us anymore; she killed herself. Daisy is with us; she tried to commit suicide a few times. They were both sexually assaulted. High schoolers assaulting high schoolers. So the responsibility was: How do you hold the energy of Audrie’s light flickering out, extinguished too soon, yet acknowledge that Daisy, although the light was flickering, was able to find it and has become a phoenix out of the ashes?
TIMBERLAKE You feel a different level of responsibility with a documentary because these are not characters, these are people.
STING I was asked to do a song for a film about Jim Foley, the American photojournalist who was murdered by ISIS very publicly. And I watched the film, a lot of footage of him, his colleagues whom he was imprisoned with, his family. And at the end of the film, I said, “I can’t write a song about this. It’s just too emotional, it’s too intense. I think you’ve got the wrong guy.” And then I went home and sat with my family around a table, and it was Thanksgiving. And I thought, “What would it be like to have a member of my family in captivity or to be that member in captivity? What would be the thing that could unify us?” And I thought, “Well, we’d leave a chair empty for that person.” And as soon as I thought of the empty chair, that is a metaphor that is very specific to this situation, but it’s also universal. And the next day they had “The Empty Chair.” It’s such an intense, emotional film that you need something to help you on with your coat as you’re leaving the theater, to face life. And it’s actually quite an uplifting, religious feeling at the end of the movie. So that was my job, to get people out of the cinema who had been affected emotionally.
Pharrell, you wrote songs for Hidden Figures and you also produced the film. How did this all come together?
WILLIAMS My producing partner, Mimi Valdez, took a meeting with Donna Gigliotti, who had found the script about three African-American women in the early 1960s who played a huge part, an integral part in the math that it took for us as the U.S. to make it in the space race. And this is a story that’s been around this entire time but these women were victims of era and circumstance; not only was your contribution discounted if you were African-American, but on top of that, you’re a woman. We heard a lot of crazy rhetoric leading up to this election, but I think the one good thing in it is that it has raised awareness of gender bias. We can no longer deny that women are treated the way that they are. And I think that this film will be one of many instrumental tools to change not only America’s mind, but the world’s mind.
KEYS For Queen of Katwe, the song “Back to Life” was about identifying with this young girl from Uganda who happens to stumble upon a teacher who is teaching the community how to play chess, and it’s mostly boys, a few girls, and she ends up being the champion. So it’s the concept of what happens when you’re given a chance at life and how difficult it is for women around the world to have the opportunity to be in that equal footing. Here in America, anywhere.
Speaking of gender bias, you’ve recently created a lot of news by not wearing makeup.
KEYS This was just a personal thing that I was exploring and expressing as I’m growing as a woman. But the most important thing about it is that for women, there is a really ridiculously high, unrealistic standard of what beauty is, and it’s heavy. It’s heavy, it’s hard. We’re so brainwashed even as women that it gets confusing. It gets really confusing as to what’s inner beauty, what’s outer beauty? What’s the dance between the two? But the most important thing, obviously, is that you honor yourself and understand what is important to you as a person, and that has nothing to do with makeup — wear it, don’t wear it. Do what feels good to you as a woman, as a human being. Express yourself. And don’t judge each other so much. Whatever this person chooses, that’s beautiful, too.
TIMBERLAKE That’s something that got me to commit to Trolls. I have a son who’s almost 2. But my best friend has two daughters, so I have two goddaughters. And I think I was afraid to go into Trolls because I was like, “Well, there’s probably going to be more frivolity to it than substance.” But then I looked at the story and I’m like, “Wait, hold on, we have a female protagonist that has a belly, crazy hair” — and thinking about my two goddaughters and what women must go through from such a young age of being ashamed of their body and their appearance. And I’m like, “Wait, she’s a troll!” For young females to get to see that, I was like, “Whoa, that’s not frivolous at all. That’s so important.” And what a cool way into getting them into the theater — “I wanna be like Princess Poppy, not Barbie.”
Tori, were there moments when people were trying to guide you to be something different than who you felt authentically you were?
AMOS Little Earthquakes was rejected when I turned it in.
TIMBERLAKE That album changed my life, man. So f—ing good.
AMOS They wanted to take all the pianos off and replace them with guitars.
AMOS Oh, yes. This was recommended by someone who — I respected his work, he was a great arranger, and he couldn’t hear it. Because he was part of the record industry, he was trying to look for something that had already happened. Tracy Chapman had already happened [so he was chasing that]. But I looked at Doug Morris [then-co-chairman and co-CEO of Atlantic Recording Group], whom I love, and I said, “You are not touching these pianos. Sell me to Gary Gersh [then a top A&R exec at Geffen Records].” And he looked at me and goes (shakes head no). I said, “Why not? You guys have been selling us [women] for thousands of years. Sell me to Gary ’cause you’ll get your money back ’cause he knows what to do.” He said, “Tori, I’m not selling you. If Gary wants you, I want you. I’m keeping you. Who do you want to produce it?” I said, “OK, so you’re bringing in another man again? Is that what you’re doing?” And he looked at me and he goes, “What, are you going to produce?” I said, “And why not?”
WILLIAMS Another man again or another mannequin?
TIMBERLAKE Another mannequin, that’s what I heard, too! (Laughter.) Whoa! You know what? I was going to hold on to that because I was like, “Let me just access that when I need it, when I’m writing another song,” but (to Pharrell) you just ruined it, so no. I’m kidding.
AMOS I wouldn’t charge you for it.
So what is your advice to young artists? How do you stay true to your conviction when every voice, when every Doug Morris is telling you you’re wrong?
WILLIAMS All of us have gotten invaluable advice, and we look back, and we go, “Man, if I would’ve just listened, you know?” But you are who you are, and you have your own GPS, and the ether is always going to read very differently to you than it will to anybody else because all of our experiences are unique to us. We can try and give them advice, but I’d say the best advice is to stay loyal to the muses. That’s where the term “musician” comes from. One who listens to the muses, is channeled into the muses.
AMOS And to be fair, when I went off with [producer] Eric Rosse to make more songs [for Little Earthquakes], I discovered songs like “Precious Things,” and Doug got it. He said, “Tori, once I got it, I got it, you gotta give it up to me.” I said, “That’s fair enough.” (Laughter.)
LEGEND We have to have a bit of humility, too, because a lot of times we’ll tell people, “Just be yourself.” What is yourself, though? Because you’re discovering things as you go and part of who yourself is now may not be yourself in five years. And part of who yourself is is determined by what you listen to and by whom you listen to, what kind of advice you take in, whom you spend time with, whom you write with. I don’t want kids to go in there thinking, “I exist as who I’m supposed to be right now and I’m great.” I want them to think, I may have a spark, I may have something special, but maybe it needs some cultivation, maybe it needs me to be humble, but also confident in the fact that I’m going to get there, and I need to work hard to get there.
KEYS I would say, just be aware of the illusions. We have so many things that we learn from other people, and then we call that our truth. Well, that’s how I feel because someone told me they felt like that and then — damn, which one is my truth? That’s another thing I want to be more in touch with — that ping, that zing thing.
John, you had a memorable moment at the 2015 Oscars. We’d gone through a generation where you weren’t supposed to make a political statement onstage and you talked about the incarceration of black men. What was behind that?
LEGEND I wouldn’t have gone up and made that same statement if it wasn’t for the fact that my song was written for a film, Selma, that represented an important moment in American history. We’re writing a song for Selma, Dr. King and all these people who went on Edmund Pettus Bridge and risked their lives. Some of them actually died, some of them were beaten, and all of them did that for the right for all of us to be more free. And then we live in a country that is failing to make us more free because we’re locking up so many people. And so I could not walk up there and receive an award and just thank my wife and my producer and this and that and do all the traditional things that people do. I had to honor the movement that the song and the film represented, and I had to honor the movement that was in the streets. Because the people were in the streets at that moment, protesting Ferguson and all the other police shootings in our communities. And I was not going to get up there and not say something about it.
And now I feel like it’s dangerous for us to be complacent. It’s dangerous for us to think that it couldn’t happen to us like it happened to Germany in the ’30s and ’40s. Trump is saying Hitler-level things in public. The world and America have done some atrocious things in the past, and we could do it again if we had the wrong leadership and if people of conscience don’t speak up.
AMOS We all have to deal with the DSA, the Divided States of America. We have to deal with the emotions.
What’s the greatest thing a fan has ever said to you?
WILLIAMS What Sting said earlier, when someone walks up to you and tells you something about your song and how it got [them] through high school.
LEGEND Saved my marriage. I get a lot of that with “Ordinary People.” That it saved their marriage. They listened to the song and thought about what it means to struggle in a relationship, have ups and downs and decide that we’re going to work on this and get through it. And I was like, how is that even possible? How can this song mean that much? But it does mean that to some people. That’s what we’re able to do as songwriters. It’s a beautiful gift.
AMOS And we collaborate with the people that come to our shows. Sometimes they don’t even know it. They’re talking about a song, they are telling me about their story, and then all of a sudden the muses are sprinkling and a new song is starting and they have no idea that they are co-creating. That’s the collaboration, the love affair that we have with them.
What does it mean to be a crossover artist? Is that a necessary part of becoming a star?
LEGEND I hate that term. (Laughter.)
WILLIAMS Yeah, because what are we crossing over into?
TIMBERLAKE I don’t think we see the world that way.
LEGEND I’m not one of those people who believes that people should be color blind or not aware of race or not aware of racism, because racism is real and people are experiencing it every day. And there are differences among the races in how they are treated and how they experience America and how they experience the rest of the world. So I don’t want to minimize those differences. But part of the power of art and music is that we are able to transcend those boundaries. We go and play everywhere in the world: China, Europe, South Africa. “All of Me” was my first song that really got a lot of radio play on pop radio and that’s the music definition of crossover, but my audiences have always been diverse and music has always been universal.
WILLIAMS A hundred percent. And [the people who title these lists] love to put things in really specific silos, but thank God there’s no blue-eyed chart or no Afro chart. Or tall chart. Gay chart. Thank God there’s not that. There’s just music is music, and yeah, there are some subtle descriptions, but I’m black and so proud of being black, and I love my culture but do not put me or my culture in a box. Because we have been proven to do a lot of things.
All of you have had huge commercial success. Does it make you more or less free as an artist?
LEGEND It can go both ways. It can go both ways, because once you’ve had a certain amount of success, then the expectations around you are different, and so if you don’t have a hit the next time, then some people in your world may be disappointed. But I have always felt free in the studio. When I go in the room I really just think, “Man, how do I make the most beautiful thing I can make? How do I make a song that makes me feel something inside and makes me proud to be able to sing it?” And I know the label wants a certain thing, but I can’t let it infect my mind. I have to go in there and do what feels right. If I do that, I feel like I’ll find a way to sell it. We’ll figure it out. As long as I’m in love with it and feel free in that room, it’s going to come out fine.
TIMBERLAKE Essentially you have to sell it to yourself, right? What’s the quote, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it pays for the pursuit”? (Laughter.) Which is a great, comical way of looking at it. But at the end of the day, it really can’t buy it for you. You have to access that on your own.
What is your favorite movie soundtrack of all time?
LEGEND I don’t know that it’s the best, but the Love Jones soundtrack meant a lot to me in that moment because I was at a certain age. I was in college or just about to graduate. I was thinking about my musical identity and that just really spoke to me at that moment, and it just felt like this is the vibe that I want to live in right now. And that was a really good vibe for me.
WILLIAMS I’m going to have to go with Purple Rain.
TIMBERLAKE I don’t know that it counts as a soundtrack, but because I was so young when I saw it: John Williams’ score to E.T.
AMOS When I was losing my way in L.A. in the ’80s, I went to see Amadeus 11 times. Tears. You know? I couldn’t stop. And I realized then that the best thing that ever happened to me was I got kicked out of the conservatory when I was 11. But my father was devastated. So for him, the dream was over because I was a failed concert pianist. And so there was a death happening for me. Something was dying, and the muses were saying to me, “Lift up your heart, little one.” You have to stay open, stay listening.
STING I would say Hard Day’s Night. One, they were British, the Beatles. (Laughter.) They came from a northern industrial town like I did and that visceral excitement of a band at the beginning of their life totally enraptured me, and I thought, “Well, if they can do it, why not me?”
KEYS Lady Sings the Blues. It was an incredible recounting of an incredible life, but in such a way that was really unforgettable, and that music was part of it. I was discovering that music at the time and it was an older film that was before my time, tapped into the love I had for Motown.
What one word describes the key to longevity in the music business?
TIMBERLAKE Yes, yes!
KEYS That’s good, that’s good.
Tune in to the full roundtable when it airs on SundanceTV Feb. 26, 2017.