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Pharrell Williams Channels Sixties Spirit on N.E.R.D.'s 'Nothing'

"It sounds crunchy, but our album doesn't sound granola and Birkenstocks"

July 2, 2010 2:25 PM ET

Pharrell Williams is one of pop's most in-demand producers, but for his upcoming musical projects (a new N.E.R.D. album and a soundtrack to the movie Despicable Me) he's putting his ego in check — and picking up some new tricks. "I don't want it to be the Pharrell show," he tells Rolling Stone. "When you're in the studio, you're having a ball, but when you look over your shoulder and see how much you're all over it, I don't like it so much."

Williams' newfound humbleness inspired him to make some bold creative moves in the studio. N.E.R.D.'s fourth album, Nothing (out September 7th), is heavily inspired by Sixties counterculture and the music of the Doors and the Beach Boys. "It sounds crunchy," Williams says, "but our album doesn't sound crunchy and granola and Birkenstocks." Williams and partners Chad Hugo and Shay Haley have succeeded in their psychedelic mission: Opening track "Help Me" fuses hip-hop grooves with riffs evoking Waiting for the Sun-era Doors while other tracks echo Jefferson Airplane's classic Surrealistic Pillow and the hot funk jams of Sly & the Family Stone. The band slaved in the studio to get the resulting album: Williams and Hugo recorded an album titled Instant Gratification with an additional singer, Rhea Dummett, but shelved those sessions and started from scratch. "We had 27 tracks, and they were great, but they weren't unforgettable, you know?" Williams says.

Nelly Furtado, who appears on "Hot-N-Fun," and other lady pals and musicians helped sculpt the album so it would connect with the group's female audience, too. "It's hippie, but it's a different kind of hippie," Williams says. "I love flowers as much as I love Ferraris. I'm not telling you to not buy a Ferrari. Buy it with the rims, kid. But it's about being alive and not just this person in the Matrix. I used to not realize that currency is not your money. Currency is time, currency is love, currency is education. What would happen is we spent more time enriching those aspects of our lives?"

Before N.E.R.D. drop new tunes, Williams will release the soundtrack to the Steve Carrell animated movie Despicable Me. And while cuts like the minimal, electro-pop title track have a futuristic vibe, Pharrell says they were inspired by another '60s cultural juggernaut: James Bond. "I worked very hard to get rid of my signature," says Williams, who co-produced the score with soundtrack legend Hans Zimmer. "That's why musically I try to diversify so much, and try to find new incarnations for sound. I haven't achieved that yet, where I can just give people great tracks and they don't know yet it had anything to do with me. But I aspire to it."

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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