Willow Smith is finally having fun. It's hard-earned joy, an emotional and creative development that shines through her latest release, a pop-punk record by the name of lately I feel EVERYTHING. Even though the 20-year old artist, known mononymously as WILLOW, has been creating and releasing music since she was nine, executing her pivot to alternative rock came with no shortage of resistance and insecurity.
As a child, WILLOW watched her mother, Jada Pinkett-Smith, endure racism and sexism while on tour with the latter's nü-metal band, Wicked Wisdom. Her main takeaway? Black women weren't allowed to do rock, much less metal. Not because they were incapable of performing the music or understanding the scene, but because its white guardians said so.
So WILLOW, who'd loved this music since her youth, kept punk on the backburner. She stayed in the lane assigned to her, but dropped hints at the sounds inside: a drum-heavy beat in her debut single "Whip My Hair" and a rock-adjacent album with producer Tyler Cole, 2020's The Anxiety. That same year, WILLOW, along with Cole, put on a performance art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. After the performance, during which they experienced a 24-hour anxiety attack trapped in a cube, WILLOW found herself captivated by sounds that shape her fourth solo studio album.
Trained in the sonic traditions of R&B and pop, WILLOW initially struggled in her experimentation. In between her art and herself stood an invisible but rigid barrier: a desire to create the perfect, traditional pop-punk record to prove her worth to gatekeepers of the genre. With lead single "t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l," featuring Travis Barker on drums, WILLOW found the formula for balancing her inspirations and her distinct sound. On lately I feel EVERYTHING, she uses alternative rock as a launchpad, lifting different components — the angsty punk of Bikini Kill, the softer side of shoegaze and, naturally, the pop punk of her childhood — and refits them to her strengths. The result is an infinitely fresh sound that succeeds through its unpredictability: she layers harmonies over shredding guitar, interpolates Kanye West on a track that features indie-rock band Cherry Glazerr, alternates leading instruments, shows off vocal chops to shout and belt over melodramatic bass lines, and builds soundscapes that seamlessly welcome features from Tierra Whack and Avril Lavigne.
In our conversation, WILLOW offers a glimpse into her creative process, sharing thoughts on experimenting with traditions of alternative rock, growing as a songwriter and healing to find the strength to create lately I feel EVERYTHING.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
LaTesha Harris, NPR Music: With lately I feel EVERYTHING, it feels like you're reaching backward, calling on sounds of your youth, to heal your inner child, but at the same time, it also feels like you're reaching out to your mother and meeting her in a genre that's formative for both of you. Throughout researching and exploring the genre, were there any revelations about creating pop punk?
Willow Smith: At first I was like, "Oh, [the album]'s gonna be purely pop punk, no other inspirations." And then I realized, that's just not who I am. There needs to be a little bit of darkness and moodiness in there. It can't just be all power chords and puppy dog tails. In a way, that made me scared because I was like, "Oh, no, am I gonna really be able to do this?" And I realized, yes, you just have to do it like you. You have to do it like WILLOW. It was pretty tough. It was a lot of demos. I tried to do things in a way that I thought they should have been done instead of doing it the way that I naturally would do it. "t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l" was the first song that hit a balance where I was like, "I'm feeling the intersection that we are in right now, and we need to stay on this energy." That song informed the sound of the whole album.
That makes a lot of sense because when I listen to this album, I hear a blend of different elements. You're paying homage to the pop punk idols of your childhood — Paramore, Avril Lavigne, Blink-182 — but at the same time, the music is so boldly Black. You're rapping, even biting Kanye West, you have standard R&B melodies and these soulful harmonies and runs.
I wanted to mix those things! I wanted people to hear me doing these runs and these harmonies on songs they usually wouldn't hear them on. And "LIPSTICK" is a super hard song, but personally, I haven't heard major seventh chords used in such a harsh way. That was the intersection and balance I wanted to create: The dark, shoegaze-y, emotional, very atonal sounds like Autumn's Grey Solace and "Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star. I wanted to mix that with this harsh, angsty, pop-punk sound.
I can hear that because of how expansive it is. In mixing these different sounds, it feels like you're connecting the dots between the white pop-punk musicians you listened to as a kid and their Black rock forefathers. How did it feel realizing that your training as a R&B singer was an advantage for experimentation?
It was scary. I thought people were gonna think it was lame. I had to suck it up and be like, "This is what naturally came from you. And if you love it, then you love it. And you need to stand by it and stick to your guns." That's the most powerful place an artist could be because they're always getting told they need to look like this or sound like this or dress like this or make a song with this person to be popular. We're always told that whatever we are is not enough. We're constantly trying to bend to the will of the masses. [Laughs.] As artists, in order to change the world like we want to, we can't do that. That's not how revolutions or change happens.
You sound like a grounded individual.
This is the thing. [Laughs.] I'm doing so much healing right now. It's crazy. So much healing, so much learning. And it's really all because of how I approached the creation and the release of this project. Even though that's an external thing, there's so many internal traumas that I needed to overcome in order to take the bull by the horns as much as I felt like I needed to.
I see that most in the growth of your songwriting. Your lyricism is less cerebral and more raw than your previous records. It's still poetic and introspective, but what was it like getting out of your head?
I know, I know. I'm so glad that you expressed it like that because when you're only reading books and you have no life experience, your music is going to be extremely cerebral. But this album, I went through a lot of growing up. A lot of real-life issues really showed me the things that I need to improve about myself. And that was deeply frightening, but also such a joyous experience; hence, lately I feel EVERYTHING. I want to shout out Tyler [Cole], because he was spearheading the production aspect of the album while I was spearheading the lyrical and melodic aspects. I usually don't work like that, but our musical partnership is getting to such a point where we know what our strengths are, and how we can help each other in the best way.
So was the process mainly like, Tyler had all the instrumentals going on and you had all the lyrics? Did you bounce ideas back and forth?
On "LIPSTICK" and "don't SAVE ME," it was just me playing bass, drums, singing, writing everything. But on most of the other tracks, Tyler would lock himself in the studio — like, not eat — and crank out like instrumental demos. And I would just go in there and just be listening like, "No, no, no, oh, let's change that bass line on this. Change that bass line here. Put a keys part here. Okay, great. Now let me start writing." There were so many songs where he's playing guitar, I'm playing bass, he's playing drums, I'm playing keys. It was just us. And that's a beautiful experience, because I have a lot of anxiety about working with producers that I don't know. I'm just super grateful for the fact that we can just make music so efficiently together. And our strengths are equal and opposite.
You've mentioned in earlier interviews that your first experiences with music were intertwined with the racism and sexism your mom experienced while touring with Wicked Wisdom. Did pivoting to punk help you unpack those internalized frustrations?
It was less of an internal fear and more of preparing for the fact that there are a lot of people who think that a Black girl like me shouldn't be playing punk or pop punk at all.
Black musicians, especially our queer family members like Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, invented rock music and had a significant role in shaping this alternative genre. Do you have any thoughts on how historical erasure has separated you from a genre that was created by people like yourself?
Black youth get taught that we belong in R&B and rap spaces, and we don't do the research. We're not given the truth. There's no way that we would be able to follow that example, because we don't even know it exists. I want to tell all the Black and brown, young girls that they can scream, they can growl, they can cut their hair, scoop it to the side, dye it. They can do whatever they want. They can make any kind of music and do it better than anyone they've seen. I want to give girls like me that confidence and that feeling of power and beauty. That's the only reason why I do anything.