LOS ANGELES — Pharrell Williams pauses, takes a breath and considers how the past year has unfolded for the R&B producer and singer: four Grammy Awards and three mega-hit singles including a song that has galvanized countless fans to express how they're “happy.”
And the key, says the 41-year-old known simply as Pharrell, in the midst of a career second act, has been tapping into audiences' thirst for sincerity and heartfelt personal stories.
“I think we've entered a new singer-songwriter era, regardless of the genre or music,” said Pharrell, who produced and performed on Robin Thicke's “Blurred Lines,” the raunchy R&B hit that was last year's top song across the U.S. Billboard music charts.
“People want a story. They want a story they can connect to,” he said while promoting a concert this week from New York's Apollo Theater, which was live streamed and directed by Spike Lee as part of American Express' “Unstaged” series.
“It's not about what you have or what you don't have, it's more about your journey and your perspective that's important to people,” the musician told Reuters.
Pharrell said he noticed a shift in audiences' tastes over the past year in particular with the runaway success of “Happy,” his up-tempo song from the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack that received little fanfare upon its release but has turned into an international viral hit.
Countless videos populate sites like YouTube with people from Portugal and Macau to Abu Dhabi and Iran singing and dancing along to the song with the exuberant chorus that declares, “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof ... clap along if you know what happiness is to you.”
After seeing how far his song traveled, the singer broke down in tears during a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey.
“It isn't how great the execution is, it's the level of intention, it's the level of connotation that you put behind it,” Pharrell said.
“It's just encouraging to people who have something to say, something to express,” he added.
Pharrell has cemented himself as a master collaborator who was behind hits with rappers Snoop Dogg and Jay Z a decade ago, as well as with his own hip-hop band N*E*R*D.
This year, he won the Grammy award for best non-classical producer for his work with Thicke and French electronic music duo Daft Punk on their album “Random Access Memories.”
The success over the past year has demonstrated to Pharrell that people are searching for personal and emotional links, perhaps as an antidote to reliance on mobile devices in the virtual age, he said.
“People want to feel. They're over-inundated with thinking,” the singer said.
“We're a different species we were 15 years ago,” he added. “The only thing we have left that reminds us that we are humans that cannot be duplicated is feeling. It's the most important thing ever.”