I CAN'T TELL if I've gone deep with Pharrell Williams, or if I've only scratched the surface. It's difficult to fathom if he's playing along, brushing me off, or laughing at me. His eyes, those windows into his soul, are hidden behind dark glasses, ostensibly because of the “luggage” – get it? – or so he deadpans, pausing for effect and polite laughter.
The larger-than-life personality, responsible for so many radio hits it would take this whole article just to name them all, is extremely lowkey in person, hunched in his seat at the On Pedder store in Central a couple of hours before he begins a book-signing session for his tome. The Places and Spaces I've Been is a collection of Interview-style conversations between Williams himself and various collaborators or friends: musicians such as Kanye West, Jay-Z and his partners in N.E.R.D, Chad Hugo and Shae Haley; visual creators such as Takashi Murakami, Zaha Hadid and Wonderwall's Masamichi Katayama; and general-interest personalities from Buzz Aldrin to Anna Wintour and Hans Zimmer.
Williams, I feel, likes to please people. His opening remark to me is to compliment my footwear, and then to pay due respect to their designer – a savvy move that shows both media training and a desire to deflect attention from himself. The compliment stands at odds with the idea of celebrity, the concept of being in the spotlight. It's at odds with his preference to maintain an air of enigma, which results in clipped responses – a preference that shows a clear desire to avoid the PR game of selfpromotion. And so what ensues is a strange and surreal conversation, one which traverses the meaning of friendship and the future of music, his greatest fears and his thirst for knowledge, in the most succinct way possible.
After it all, when he offers that he hopes that I've “gotten what I need”, I can't say I've come out of it knowing him any better. But I do understand exactly why, in The Places and Spaces I've Been, he chooses the role of interviewer. For the man whose life is firmly in the spotlight, there's a constant struggle between soaking it up or turning it away – and this book is his way of doing both.
What was your vision for the book?
Something to make sure it's not just about me. The book was more like a written ode to everybody that inspires me, so it's me just tipping my hat to all those people.
How did the format of the conversations come about?
We tried to pick subject matter that we knew would give colourful interviews, so that once you read the interview, you could go back and experience the person's work. Somewhere in between what they were saying and how they were saying it and their work, you can see what it's like to be in their mind and see how they think. So the places are those I visited and ended up working in and was inspired by, and the spaces are the mental spaces that they put me in.
One of the more unusual personalities was Buzz Aldrin, whom you talked to about space. What is it about space that fascinates you?
The vastness – it's vast, it's abundant.
Given the title of the book, space obviously is a place that you haven't yet been. Is it somewhere you would like to explore?
Yeah, by camera. But I don't want to go.
I'm scared. Well, my imagination can go there, and that is the fourth dimension – your mind can go anywhere.
Where do you see music going in the future?
In the future I think there will be more science put behind the stimuli, that aspect of music. And pretty soon I think we'll be able to grid it, turn it up or down just like we do bass or treble.
What are you working on for the next year?
My company, I am Other, which is a creative collective – from music to film, tees, merch and all of the various other projects, and producing for all of the other artists I'm working with.
You also have the YouTube channel I am Other. How involved are you with it on a day-to-day basis?
I put together a super comprehensive team of people who are much more talented and much more experienced than I am. Overall, I contribute to the tone but it's a collective. It's not about me; it's about…the others.
What do you Google? What's the first thing you look at?
I mostly look at historical things and everything; once in a while there's something new that I'm interested in, and I Google it to see what it's about, in terms of technology.
What was the last thing you Googled?
What did you learn?
I just wanted to do a basic recap on the history. He's a huge theosophist but more than anything has a lot of philosophical views. I just like researching different people. I like to know a little bit about everything.
You also have your hands in a little bit of everything. Do you every get tired of exploring new areas and new realms?
The only thing that's exhausting is interviews – because you kind of repeat yourself. You want to give enthusiasm to every interview, so that's probably the only thing that pains me, because I always want my interaction with people to be fresh and inspired by the moment.
I think as a journalist I kind of understand that. Before our session I asked how many interviews you'd done today, because you know if you're fifth in line, you're screwed.
I try to mix it up, but it's not the easiest thing in the world, especially if you're experiencing delirium from jetlag.
How many interviews in a week do you give?
I usually turn them down, but the book was such an incredible opportunity, something I see as prestigious that is not afforded to many people, so I think it's important to make a communication about that. But usually I let my work speak for itself.
We interviewed you back in 2007, during which our writer trailed you on shoot for six hours.
I hope I didn't bore him.
You said that you don't like to give interviews because you like to maintain a bit of mystery. How do you maintain mystery when so many parts of your life are overexposed?
No social life.
Is that by choice?
Yeah, totally, so I just do my work then I spend my time with family. I let everybody else party.
What do you do to kick back then?
Chill out with my family, watch old cartoons.
What's your favourite cartoon?
At the moment, Spongebob [Squarepants].
Do you have a best friend?
I have a couple. One is super special; the main one is super special. I can tell her anything.
I feel that in your kind of position it's hard to make friends.
Yeah, if you're looking to go out and make them every day. But you have that rhythm for someone, and usually for me that's a girl.
So you are kind of a girl's guy?
I'vee always been, but there's one main best friend that I can tell everything to. That's why we end up doing a lot together because you have nothing to hide.
What do you think you'll be like as an old man?
I hope, wise. Learned and grounded in spirituality.
Is the pursuit of knowledge important to you?
It's the ultimate, the pursuit of knowledge and happiness. The ultimate.
What makes you the happiest?
So the pursuit of happiness equals happiness.
Yeah, and the appreciation of it, it's rare. So many people are easily distracted and find happiness a huge feat, but I'm thankful that I understand what happiness is about.
What to you is the point of life?
The pursuit of knowledge and being happy. And I mean that. That wasn't a bland answer, that's the truth, that's really what I think it's about. While we're trapped in matter, we're spirits. The ultimate is to be able to recognise that's what you are, but so many of us become trapped in the matrix of life – where the media leads us, where all that curated information leads us – you forget that we are actually individuals. So when you're able to remember that, you take a second and find within one of your hobbies something…like if you said, “What would you do for free?” like if they wouldn't pay you, you'd still do it. Then when you find that thing, that's a good thing. Then the next good thing is when you find a way to service humanity with it, and the ultimate is when you can make money from it. That way if you're rich or poor or whatever, and you die, you die doing what you love to do, and you die happy.
Do you think that everything you do, you would do without the money and fame?
Yeah, I mean, it's what makes me tick.
And how do you get to that point where you know that?
Sort of unplugging from everything and allowing yourself to figure out what makes you happy.
Hong Kong is a place that you visit quite frequently, so we can assume it makes you happy. Why?
First of all there are gorgeous women everywhere, you never get tired of seeing that. Second of all, it's a completely different culture. And I like the culture here. It's really hard in words because the Hong Kong way is the Hong Kong way. That's what makes it specific and its own distinction is based on the culture, the tradition mixed with modernisation mixed with the business mixed with the appreciation for aesthetics.
How many other stops do you have on this tour?
I have no idea. It's easier to keep up that way. It's overwhelming the other way. And by the way, I did this to myself. I signed up for all this stuff.
So you don't mind it.
I did, but you know, it's something I can't make sense of, but the juxtaposition is necessary.
I don't know, but the day I can answer that question is the day I do something different.