In September 2014, Pharrell Williams’ Happy was named the most downloaded song of all time in the UK. It has been streamed 500 million times on Spotify alone and has become a staple at weddings, school discos and family parties. The official video has been viewed 956 million times on YouTube.
But speaking at creative conference Brilliant Minds in Stockholm, Williams said he had no idea the track would become so popular. In fact, it was his tenth attempt at creating a song about fictional character Gru falling in love in animated film Despicable Me 2.
Williams said he was asked to write a song about Gru – who was grumpy and unhappy for most of Despicable Me – falling in love and becoming more cheerful in the film’s sequel. “I didn’t wake up one day and say I know, “I’m going to pick this five letter word,” said Williams, speaking to Spotify founder Daniel Ek at the conference. “Gru was a character who’s always agitated, he’s like this deadpan, Grandpa humour, he’s always in a bad mood. And so the whole of the first film was about him being always in a bad mood, and it was very funny. For the second film they popped this on me like, ‘hey, Gru’s in love and he’s very happy’ and I was like ‘what?'”
“So [the challenge was] how do you make a song for a guy that’s perpetually in a bad mood? Always irritated? And he’s now just fallen in love. Who’s just happy and nothing can bring him down?” said Williams. “These were the questions and nine songs in, they were like ‘this isn’t right, this doesn’t work’, so I’m bummed out … my ego is shot … but we get to the tenth one and at that point I had nothing else.”
Williams created another song – his tenth attempt – and sent it off to Meladandri and the team. They were sceptical at first – “they didnt think it was right,” he said but Williams asked Meladandri to listen to it a few times before making up his mind.
“When I do a song, if my wife is there at the studio with me, we’ll leave and then we’ll listen to it one time when we’re out. So we listened to [Happy] and we ended up driving round for an hour and a half [listening to it] and we were like, I don’t know what this is, but it feels good,” he said.
“So I called Chris [Meladandri, founder of Illumination Entertainment, the company behind Despicable Me] and said I know they think this isn’t right, it’s the tenth one that isn’t right, but my wife and I just drove around listening to it for almost two hours. Do me a favour: it’s Friday. When you’re done, get in your car and listen to it twice back to back. If I hear from you on Monday, that means it’s not right and I got much more work to do. If I don’t hear from you I’ll know you’re still listening to it and we’re good to go. So Monday he texts me and says give me a call I’m like [uh-oh], and he said, ‘not only did I listen to it all the way home, but I picked my wife up and we drove around for another hour listening to it’. He said I can’t explain what this is, it’s different.”
The film was a huge hit, making almost $1 billion in box office takings – but Williams said the song was not an instant hit. “At that time, EDM was big even in urban music. It had moved from alternative to dance to pop even in urban. And some rap artists were doing EDM records … so they put it in [Despicable Me 2], I loved it, I was tearing up when I saw it in the theatre and then the movie came out … but none of the radio stations wanted to play it because it didn’t sound like anything that was going on at the time. So we wrote it off,” he explained.
Six months later, however, when it was time to release the DVD, Williams said he was given a budget to create a video for the song. The result was a music video that showed various people dancing to the song and an interactive featuring 24 hours of footage. Users could log on and see different footage depending on the time – and what time zone they were in.
“It was just going to be a little promotional thing … we shot this video, we put it up [on YouTube] in November and a week later it was number one everywhere, all around the world,” said Williams.
A few months later, Williams did an interview with Oprah Winfrey, who showed him videos that people from all over the world had made of themselves dancing to the song – footage that made him cry.
“That is why I was crying – I was like … I completely did not know [it would have this effect],” he told the audience at Brilliant Minds.
Williams came to work on Despicable Me and its follow up after contacting Kathy Nelson, President of Film Music at Universal Pictures “I was super jealous of [Jack Johnson], the guy who did Curious George … and I was like, ‘well I would love to do something like that’,” he said.
He “begged” Nelson to let him know about any future opportunities and when Meladandri got in touch with the idea for Despicable Me, Nelson set up a meeting with Williams and Hans Zimmer, who produced Despicable Me’s score.
Williams went on to compose the score for the first film with Heitor Pereira but said it was a challenging experience: “I recognised how hard and tough and comprehensive [it is] and how much genius is required when you’re working on a score versus a soundtrack.” Williams said he felt more comfortable composing a “song score” and worked with Pereira to create a series of original tracks for Despicable Me 2.
Speaking to Ek, he also discussed his role as a producer and said he avoids telling artists what to do – preferring instead to guide them gently and let them figure things out in their own time when recording tracks It’s a skill that every creative leader has to learn – and one that requires letting go of egos, he said.
“I’m mostly a mirror [when working with artists],” he said. “I’m like hey, there’s a lot in here that you’re probably not using, look at this … and it’s like holding a mirror up to them. They all appreciate that – they get to see different sides of themselves. That’s really the key for me – [and it] requires that you have zero ego,” he added. “That’s the thing you have to wrestle with, you have to be prepared to take ‘I know’ out of it, hold up a mirror [to artists] and they’ll go, ‘oh, OK, that’s right, that’s true’. Because when an artist is allowed to discover something for themselves, they feel even more empowered.”
“[As a producer], it’s like, ‘how can I get you to be the best version of yourself, if you’re too busy combating with me?’ I’m in the way,” he continued. “I’ve got to take myself out of it to allow you to see what it is that you need to see on your own, in your own time.”
“Sometimes it’s not that day, it’s the next … and they’ll say “I slept on it, and I think we need to go the other route”. It’s not “you’re right” – but that’s completely fine with me because I just need you to be the best version of yourself…. When we’re recording songs, we’re recording not only the melody and the words but how you felt that day, your state of mind and where you are at that time.”
Williams’ creative output is diverse – as well as making multi-million selling singles for the Despicable Me franchise, he has produced music for Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake and Snoop Dogg, and released four studio albums with N*E*R*D partners Chad Hugo and Sarah Atyat Williams. He also runs his own record label and production company, I Am Other, has designed clothing and trainers for Adidas, collaborated on art projects with Takashi Murakami, and was executive producer on the film Dope – a comedy about a group of high school pupils who are chased down by criminals and drug dealers after a mix up at a party. He was also a producer and co-composer on Hidden Figures – the Oscar-nominated film about three African-American women who played a vital role at NASA in the 1950s and 60s.
Asked about the diversity of his musical output, which ranges from hip-hop to pop, Williams said: “I’ve always prided myself on being a student and I think it’s easier to get in rooms when you’re seeking knowledge and enlightenment versus walking in saying “I know”.
“The other [thing] is I never understood it when people saw me in a box,” he added. “I never saw it, so I guess that was an advantage, because I could never understand the partitions … marketing and the media makes its money from being able to grid everything and put everything into a box, so they can understand how to market to it, but that doesn’t mean that we as individuals need to – they may look at us that way, but we don’t have to see ourselves that way. I grew up listening to so many different kinds of music, I just didn’t understand [the idea of being confined to one genre]. I knew I couldn’t walk into these different worlds being an expert – but I knew that you can’t turn down a seeking student.”
Pharrell Williams was speaking at the Brilliant Minds conference at Symposium Stockholm