Pharrell Williams’s Extraordinary Gift

His knack for writing music worth millions stems from his synaesthesia – an ability to “see” what he hears. Find out what it’s all about ...
October 2012 By Maureen Seaberg

If not for Pharrell Williams’ colour synaesthesia, many superstars would have to find a new hit-maker. “I’d be lost,” says the award-winning producer, performer and entrepreneur. “It’s my only reference for understanding. The ability to see and feel (this way) was a gift given to me that I didn’t have to have. And if it was taken from me, I’m not sure that I’d be able to make music.”

Natural Synergy

Pharrell, 39, who spent time as a child in a housing project and grew to be named “The Best Dressed Man in the World” by Esquire magazine in 2005, can’t remember a time he didn’t associate music with colours he sees in his mind’s eye. “It’s always been this way. But I thought all kids had mental, visual references for what they were hearing.” He clearly has a remarkable relationship with music – something Madonna and Britney Spears, both of whom have drawn on his songwriting ability, would attest to.
 When Pharrell moved to a new school and met an inspirational band teacher, he knew music was for him. “It stuck out in my mind. And I could always see it. I don’t know if it makes sense, but I was visualising what I was hearing. It’s like … weird colours.” He was just 19 in 1992 when a song he helped compose, “Rump Shaker,” went double platinum. He followed that up by earning millions per track on Justin Timberlake’s album Justified and went on to write and produce some of his generation’s most popular songs.
 The young man whose name is derivative of his father’s (Pharaoh) and who says he has Native American and Egyptian heritages, introduced a new generation to the condition by naming his third album Seeing Sounds. He’s open about his synaesthesia, raising public awareness and adding his glamour to the gift.

The Real Purpose

Pharrell has become more expressive with colour, as well as music, as he has matured. He has designed clothing and accessories in riotous shades for his Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream fashion lines, and has helped create six Hermès bags, each a different colour and outfitted with solid-gold hardware. He has also turned his eye to furniture, putting a surrealistic spin on classic pieces, and even designed jewellery for Louis Vuitton. For all the riches Pharrell has acquired, he believes seeing colour is neither a marketing tool nor a form of expression. Instead, he believes the synaesthetic imagery he sees is a connection to a higher power.
 “For me, synaesthesia is a conduit to God and the collective consciousness – the mind and the spirit,” he says. “It’s in us, and it has the ability to go beyond us and the flesh. Most people are raised to be very attached to the flesh and think that nothing can happen without the flesh. But today we’re seeing that a lot of the products and technology we create don’t serve us well, and we’re coming closer and closer to realising that the mind is essential.” 

Imagination made visible

Pharrell’s creative process is accompanied by a vision of colours floating by. He says it’s like riding a moped: You have to peddle first to fire it up. “I meditate in the shower. I can use sensory deprivation – when one of your senses is being blocked, it allows your mind to wander. The water blocks out sound, and that allows me to imagine different things. The same thing happens to me on aeroplanes and when I’m underwater. And that’s why, when I’m around water, I can be a little bit more creative.”
 Pharrell says he first found this technique – of blocking some of his senses, and freeing his mind – in ancient wisdom handed to him through his family, and that it’s becoming more and more necessary in an increasingly technological world.
 “There’s a saying among African-Americans in the South that calm waters run deep – if you would just sit still, the answers would come to you – and it holds true today. We’re so distracted by all our senses that our minds have to keep up with all that’s going on outside us. But when your senses shut down, the mind does something else.
 “We think ideas come to us, but it’s just a moment where your mind was freed up a bit. There are people who know what purple tastes like – and it’s not grape.”

By Maureen Seaberg

Image credit: Courtesy of Ray

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