Q&A: Justin Timberlake on How Acting Shaped His New Album

Grammy star gives candid interview to two high school students

Justin Timberlake
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS
Justin Timberlake in Los Angeles.
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(Ed note: During Grammy week, Justin Timberlake sat down with two high school students, Cameron Capers from Atlanta and Allison Spice from San Diego. The two students are alumni of Grammy Camp, a music industry program for students from around the nation. Timberlake, a big proponent of music education, spoke with Spice and Capers for 35 minutes following his Grammy rehearsals on Friday at L.A.'s Staples Center.)

You could do any interview, why speak with us?
Because I like talking to people who love music. I don't necessarily do a lot of interviews anymore because a lot of times, a writer will interview you for an editorial piece and – this happened to me when I was younger – you end up reading the article and it becomes more about them than it even is about the subject. So you feel them projecting those thoughts on you or whatever objective they have. Sonia [his publicist] brought it up and I said, "Yeah, I'd much rather talk to somebody who is younger than me that was excited about music and wanted to talk about music rather than have to sit around and answer questions that have nothing to do with even the Grammys or anything." It's like, "So what's your favorite pasta? What you do in your free time?" "Stuff that I don't want to tell you, like private stuff; you know what private means, right?" I come from a humble beginning, but when you spend that much time in the business, you realize that there's a whole other thing going around you that really has nothing to do with you.

And for me, it's always nice to talk with young people who really love music and are interested in the expression of it or the art of it. You'll see; the older you get, the more you realize people come in and out of your life and you realize that person changed or that person wasn't exactly who I thought they were. And I found with friends, close friends that have come and gone in my life, they're like, "Oh, you changed." Everything else around you changed, you're still the same person. If you want to say that I didn't have to worry about a paparazzi following me around in my car has made me change, then yeah, sorry, I've changed, but I didn't know what that was like before. I was just a young person trying to express myself. It's just a crazy world that we live in. I don't want to paint a picture that's jaded or anything because I'm super happy to be back and doing it and I have a great time wherever I go. But the things around you change the older you get and that's just life.

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What made you come back now?
This is one of those times when stuff gets projected onto you. I would have taken a break regardless of if I would've done films or not because my last record was all-consuming and to go on tour like that, for me, I will not be the type of artist that puts out 10 to 15 albums. That's just not who I am. They're really special to me. I write music all the time, but until you really feel that desperate need to shout from the rooftops and express yourself in that way, I just kind of keep it to myself. I enjoy making music so much that if it doesn't come out, that's okay. If I get to listen to it in my car by myself, I'm just as happy because I get to hear something that I made. I'm not so caught up in the fact that you have to be in the center of attention. For me, when I do have something that I'm ready to express, I'm gonna burrow through whatever to get it heard. But for me, the journey along the way is really the most fun part; it's not about the outcome. It's really about making something that feels authentic. That's the one place you can do that.

What does making music mean to you?
[The studio] really is one place that you can still go to that you can be completely free, at least in my opinion. You can lock yourself in a room and make a whole other world. I'm 32 and I still love it as much as I did when I was 18, so that should tell you amazing how it is.

Can you give us a preview of the new album?
There are 10 songs on this one, but the average length of each song is seven, eight minutes. We made it to listen from top to bottom. It's not so much a narrative or a story, but sonically we really made it to listen from top to bottom.

Would you say you and Timbaland have the same perspective?
My relationship with Tim is a relationship that I have with nobody else in the world. We're like brothers, really. You have friends like that, friends you don't have to say much to, but you know they just get who you are. That's the relationship I have with Tim, where we go in the studio and kind of don't even speak to each other. He'll start tinkering around or I'll start playing some chords and start tinking around with some loop of something and that'll give him an idea and then we'll start looping it and then I'll start humming a melody and then we just ping-pong an idea back and forth. And I have that relationship with Pharrell a little bit as well. But my relationship with Tim is very unique; we share the same perspective that we always want to make something that reminds us of music that we love, but at the same time is something we've never heard before. You talk about making this record; we encapsulated ourselves in the studio and I didn't tell anybody. I was just like, "Let's make some music without all the hoopla of, like expectations. Let's just make something that feels genuine from us." And I'm glad we were able to do that way because, for me, it's the best stuff I've ever done.

What is some of the music that has that timeless appeal to you?
If "Superstition" was to come out right now, it'd be fresh. You'd be like, "Who is this new artist?" Same thing with Prince and Michael too; if those guys were to come out now, Marvin Gaye, if those records were to come out now, you'd be like, "Whoa, it sounds so fresh." That's something you have to think about [when] you make music. I work very closely with Tim and that's what we do and especially on this record, brought in all our stuff and put it on top of the sequence stuff that Tim is so good at naturally. That's the best idol to have – if you're in production, that's the deepest (Quincy Jones). He's one of the best of all time.

How has your acting affected your music?
In some ways, it's made me take a slightly different approach to storytelling in some of my songs. I'm gonna put a lot of music out over the course of the year and some songs have become really concept-driven; some songs have become a simple idea that turns into something big. And songs, you write them different every time; you get an idea for a song and you go, "Okay, I want to turn this idea into something." And then you wait until you feel like the accompaniment that you're creating or sometimes you take a completely different approach, where the accompaniment starts first, the arrangement starts first, and you're like, "Oh." It gives you a melody idea and then for some reason the melody you start singing starts turning into words, like "Push Your Love Girl." I look back at my last album; to me, that was a character. I don't wear three-piece suits every day (laughs); I'm not always on my suit and tie. There's a time and a place for everything, but when you hear it and you see it, all of a sudden the visual comes into place.

I would say they're actually more alike than people would think. I try to explain to people who Robert Zimmerman was; a lot of people don't know that's Bob Dylan's real name. I'm not gonna speak for Bob Dylan – he's one of my idols – but from my perspective as a fan, it seems to me that he started creating music that made him feel like another person and that's what it should do. You should be able to create another world that you can live in. Music is for dreamers, I think. So he changed his name. Can you imagine right now creating something and saying, "Oh, I'm gonna completely change my name from who I am right now?" So, for me, even with Justified, I learned a lot during that process working with Tim and Pharrell and people that are better than you.

With the second album, I saw a character in my mind when we started creating music, so I think doing films it gave me more confidence and insight. You spend so much time developing a character when you do a film; so much of your work is done before you get set to shoot because you've been working on the character: the way he walks, the way he talks, what might upset him, what might make him happy. So you let those things play out when you get to set and that's kind of the same as being onstage. Once you get there, you just kind of go, but in playing different characters I think it changed my songwriting a little bit where I felt like I cannot just play a character with a statement. Because "SexyBack," to me, is just a statement, I didn't see it as something for myself. I saw it as something that when people were out in their cars or they were out in some club, any place that song probably gets played the most, they would feel like they were that character. And it's a simple thing; I'm not even singing that much, but it's more like a state of mind.So, for me, it's important that you say 'I,' not 'we,' 'cause you want it to be individual to the listener. For me, with a song like that, it was just a simple statement. You could've said anything else after that, it didn't matter, because when the person who was listening to it said, "I'm bringing sexy back," you felt it. It's a weird thing, but it makes you feel like you're a different version of yourself, a more confident version of yourself.

But now I feel like I can encapsulate a whole world for that character, not just a statement. Now I can really paint a picture for people 'cause being involved in the film process, you get to see the writing change, you get to see the direction change, you get to see all those things change. But you get to see those things change and you go, "You can really do this with music, too." You can play a character but you can also write the world that you want your character to live in and then what does that world sound like? Are there more strings in that world? Are there more horns in that world? Is there more percussion in that world?

Who has taught you the most to make you who are today?
Honestly, my parents. They're just two great people. My mom said two things to me that I'll always remember. One of them was if you put out a hundred and 15 percent, if you go past whatever you think is a hundred percent, that you can expect a good outcome. And when I was younger, I always sang – I've always been into music – and she goes, "I want you to know that I think you have an extraordinary gift, but it's a gift; it was given to you." And she said, "I'm gonna say two things to you about it. One, if you don't cultivate it, then what are you saying about how you receive the world?" I was like, "Wow." And then the second thing was, "Just because you have this one gift doesn't make you better or bigger or different than anybody else. You just have this one gift; you still put your pants on one leg at a time." Of course, two days, I tried to jump into my pants just to mess with my mom, but just that thing of just because you have a gift doesn't mean you get to slack off in the person that you are; you still have to be a good person. So I think that's helped me a lot, because what I was just talking about before: some things go misunderstood with your career and how people perceive things. Some things are blatant lies, some things go well, but at the end of the day, good or bad, you wake up the next day and you're like, "Alright, what do we got? What is life throwing at me? And how can I make a song out of it?" That's just how I attack it, man.

What's the concept behind the album cover?
We're talking about The 20/20 Experience, what it was like to have perfect vision, and I have some songs on the record that allude to vision [including] a song called "Tunnel Vision." So I'm really bad at coming up with album titles, really bad at it. Sometimes I don't even know what to name a song when I get done with it and I'll let somebody else tell me what I should call it because it's whatever stuck in their head. And with FutureSexLoveSounds I just looked at the sequence of the songs and I was like, "A lot of songs about love and sex." And I remember Tim saying, "No, man, you gotta make something that sounds futuristic." So that's why I put those words together, it wasn't really that thought-out, which I probably should think about it more. But my best friend came into the studio and he was listening to some of the songs, and it's that thing we were talking about before where you feel you can encapsulate yourself in that world and not just be the character, but create the whole world around that character, and he goes, "I really feel like I can see where I am when I'm listening to these songs." I said, "What does that mean?" He said, "I just feel like the music is very visual." And I said, "Keep going." He goes, "Well, you know, it sounds like a score to this beat and it's going." And I don't know that "Suit and Tie" is indicative of that, I don't know that fully describes that – hopefully this will make sense when you hear the rest of the record – but he said, "I feel like I'm in a movie. I feel like I can see the music; I feel like I can see different colors for different songs." I said, "No, that's really cool, music that you can see, not just hear. That's a real experience. What if I just called this The 20/20 Experience?" And he's like, "That sounds cool." I said, "Cool, I don't have to worry about that anymore." So then the idea for the album cover just came out of that.

What advice would you give to young musicians, 'cause you started when you were pretty young?
I did, I've always approached things like an athlete and there are a lot of good values in team sports. So if I could borrow one from them: practice does count. Rehearsal and practice does the same thing. It's one of those things where you can have never too much knowledge. When I first started acting, Kevin Spacey, who's obviously a great actor, told me, "Do your homework." And I said, "What do you mean by that?" He said, "Just watch as many movies as you can. Watch what each actor does." And I think about music in that same way: listen to everything you can, even if it's a style of music you don't respond to. Listen to everything you can because you'll find out later on, it will remind you of things, it will inspire things. Music is one of those very interesting things that can inspire, remind, can help you escape depending on whatever the song is. Sometimes it just can help you get through rush hour traffic. So that's what I would say: you can never have too much knowledge. Listen to everything, digest it, take from it what you will. You can never have too much music knowledge.

(If you'd like to go to Grammy Camp and have a chance to attend Grammy week next year you can apply at Grammyintheschools.com. Deadline to apply is March 31. Check out more info at http://www.grammyintheschools.com/programs/grammy-camp)