Willow Smith turns 17 today, and to mark the occasion she is releasing her most personal album to date, The 1st. It’s a raw, emotive piece of music from the teenager who has proudly and gracefully musically matured in front of fans’ eyes and ears since debuting at a precocious 10 years old with the pop-meets–hip-hop hit “Whip My Hair.” As she reaches the edge of adulthood, Smith embraces the earthy, emotive sounds of a decade that ended just before she was born: the Nineties.
While en route to a cabin in the wilderness for a birthday celebration, Smith spoke to Rolling Stone about the hard lessons and sometimes surprising influences that inspired her latest collection.
How would you describe the musical journey you took to get to this album?
When I was younger, I loved to sing all the time. My parents would always tell me, “We really should do some piano lessons,” since I was already doing singing lessons. They would always tell me [to learn an instrument] so through my younger years I rejected that idea because it was so potently put onto me. I rejected it until two years ago when I realized that what I want to do musically and as an artist can’t have limits. I need to learn music theory. Even with my voice, I had gotten to such a place of comfort with my voice, but then I realized that if you want to keep evolving for the rest of your life, you have to make yourself uncomfortable.
I’ve been trying to put myself in more uncomfortable positions musically and this is really the first step.
Is that the origin of the album name, The 1st?
That’s definitely a layer, but it’s not 100 percent the meaning of the name. It’s the first time I’ve put myself in these musical situations that I’ve never experienced and also these human social situations I’ve never experienced. Relating to people, in a way that’s what not we’re taught. We’re taught that love, when you’re younger, is caring for somebody and wanting their presence around you. As you start growing up, you’re like, “Dang, that person can possess you.” Me doing this album was me realizing my own craving for other people or certain reactions … I realized that freedom is love. Real love is giving someone 100 percent freedom. The 1st is me realizing not what love truly is, but getting closer to that [realization].
How did you go about learning music theory?
I literally knew nothing so I just picked up a guitar and started to move my fingers around to learn different sounds. That was really frustrating, though, because when you want to express yourself but you don’t have the skills with the instrument, it’s a constant battle. At first it was really rough, but then I started talking to other musicians and finding out what different chords and notes sounded like. I started learning intuitively then putting names to them.
It’s so funny because I listened to Michael Cera‘s album [True That], and his guitar playing, voice and lyrics inspired me to start playing. He doesn’t put himself out there as a musician, but the fact that his music is what inspired me to pick up a guitar was so random.
It seems like with this album, your voice is really starting to complement the instrumentation. Your vocal performance reminds me of Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos …
Thank you! They are literally my icons. Alanis Morissette sings with this abandon that is so inspiring, and I try to implement that in my live performances as well. You can tell when someone’s singing from their heart. You just look at them and see that they’re feeling it.
There’s also a lot of theatricality in her performances and in yours, too. Like on “Human Leech,” it sounds like you’re really channeling a lot of deep passion and anger. How did you access that?
You know, what we think is love entails a lot of confusion. You ask yourself, “Why am I acting this way? I need to sit down and analyze myself.” That song was me looking into myself and realizing my tendencies to latch on to somebody and suck their energy. That anger that you’re hearing is me being angry at myself. That’s what the song is really about.
It’s like the whole hypocrisy of relationships. Have you ever had someone do something that you think is negative and you’re like, “Ugh, this person is so sus”? Then you’re thinking about it in your head and you’re like, “Wait, I do that too. I need to really start being more aware.”
Are you talking about love in purely the romantic sense or about non-romantic love too?
This is love in all forms. Mostly self-love because when you love someone else, it’s so interesting because you start to see how you treat yourself. When you are really in love with somebody, how you treat them and what you want to do for them is how you should be treating yourself. It shows you how you need to be your own best friend. It’s a counter-intuitive process.
Did you find that playing music helped you gain more clarity on your journey to self-love?
Through the feeling of your fingers burning and just trying to keep your fingers on the strings and spending hours sitting and trying to get one riff or one change of chords, you feel like you’ve climbed a mountain. You feel like you’ve accomplished so much once you get it. It’s like a sixth sense of competence. And through that sense of competence you get confidence. It’s a cycle of tracking the progression of your competence and the growth of confidence. Each time the kinds of experiences are the same but the feelings are different. Like for each song you go through, “OK, I’m learning this. I’m learning this a bit more. Now, I get this.” You start to become friends with the process.
Have you experienced many moments in your life of not feeling free? And when you do, how do you regain your sense of freedom?
It’s so funny because when we start to feel like we’re losing freedom, that’s when we become less OK with the consequences of us being 100 percent honest. For me, that’s what it’s like most of the time. When I start to feel constricted or less free, my comfort with the outcome of my honesty is not there. It’s not an external thing. Every time I feel constricted in any way, I’m like “OK, is there something that I want to do or something that I want to say that I haven’t done or said because I’m afraid?” If that’s the case, I try my hardest to do or say what I need to do or say. If I still feel trapped after that, I have to go deeper.
Finally, as you look toward your 17th year, what are some resolutions you have?
I want to rocket my knowledge and intelligence about specifically the science of music. The art of creating music is one thing, but the science of it is a completely different world that I want to become more comfortable with. I’m such a right-brained person that coming at me with logic rooted in creativity takes time for me to get comfortable with that and understand the logistics of my creativity.