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

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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)

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