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Thirty years ago when Robin Thicke was 16, he recorded his first album with R&B star Brian McKnight. But the music wasn’t epic.
“[The label] was willing to put it out, but there wasn’t going to be a lot of promotion money behind it, so I said, ‘Let’s shelve it,’” he recalls.
While still recording his own music, he went on to develop his musicality by writing and producing for others, including Michael Jackson, Usher, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Jordan Knight, Brandy, Raven-Symoné, 98 Degrees, Marc Anthony, Mya, Color Me Badd, Guy Sebastian, Brownstone, Will Young, Kevon Edmonds, Ron Keating, Chante Moore and others.
But he needed to get back to making music for himself, so the early twentysomething decided he wouldn’t cut his hair until he heard his song on the radio.
“My hair grew down to my shoulders, and I ended up meeting Andre Harrell, who changed my life and taught me about artistry and connection and culture,” Thicke says. “We made this first album together. He was my executive producer. And I really just wanted the first album to be something that no one had ever heard before — originality and musicality was my No. 1 goal.”
That album, A Beautiful World, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Thicke is honoring the project by putting out unreleased tracks: “High School Man” will be released on May 5; a Jadakiss-featured remix of his debut single, “When I Get You Alone,” will be out on May 12; and “Bittersweet” will drop on May 19, the same day the album’s deluxe edition will be available.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Thicke — who is a judge on Fox’s The Masked Singer and recently released a new single and music video with Yo Gotti called “Brown Liquor” — talks about writing for the King of Pop, turning a real-life bank robbery into a song, remembering late music executive Harrell and having his ex-wife and then-girlfriend, actress Paula Patton, appear on his debut album’s cover.
The songs that you and Brian McKnight made — where do they live? Are they on a hard drive somewhere?
Yeah, they’re on a hard drive or archive or a CD or something that no one has the ability to play anymore. I think it’s digitally somewhere. I have them somewhere down locked in a vault.
After deciding not to release that album, were you feeling free when you were going into A Beautiful World? Because that’s what it sounds like.
I think it was just years of growth that I went from being a teenager, at 16, and what happens over the next five years, from 16 to 21, is a lot. It’s a lot of new information. And I had a lot of new influences that I started to listen to. I listened to more Beatles and Queen and the Police, and I got into older catalogs like Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. And so that started to change my sonic desires.
At 23 years old I had a lot of experience in the studio writing and producing for other people. I was with Jordan Knight working on his album, and he introduced me to some of the best producers in the world: Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Walter Afanasieff. I got to work with all these incredible different producers like Timbaland and be in sessions with these guys. By the time it was time to make my own album, I had a lot of information. I had years at university, you know?
Where were you when you first heard “When I Get You Alone” on the radio?
I was leaving my house, my home studio up on Blue Jay Way in the Hollywood Hills, where I lived for 20 years and recorded most of my albums. I’m driving down the hill from that studio and I turned on Power 106 because they told me they were going to play the song around 3:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m. And I heard the song. And I went and got a haircut.
How many years did you spend growing your hair?
Some of the timeline is a little fuzzy 20 years later, but I remember starting my album and deciding I wouldn’t cut my hair until I heard it. And then I think about three years later is when I finally heard it, and the album was released, and the song was on the radio.
The music video is classic, with you riding your bike all around New York City.
It was the first time a white guy with long hair was ever on BET every day. And to be totally honest, BET supported me from the beginning. They played that video way more than any other outlet.
“Oh Shooter” opens the album — was that inspired by a real-life situation?
It was. I was in the bank when it got robbed. I was literally standing at the teller and guys came in with guns and said, “Get down on the floor.” So those lyrics (he starts to sing) are real and pretty much that story is word-for-word.
Where were you? How old were you? And were you scared?
It was in the Valley. I think it was on maybe Van Nuys Boulevard, Bank of America. I was about 18 years old. I was getting some cash out to do a little weekend with my girlfriend at the time. And that girlfriend ended up becoming my wife, Paula. I’m at the teller and they say, “Get down the floor.” I get down on the floor. I’m looking back at them as the guy jumps over the counter, just like I say in the song — “My hands up, my hands up,” because they were like, “Put your hands up and then get down on the floor.” So it’s very literal to what happened.
And that’s why, at the end of the record, you’ll hear all the police cars, and the drums sound like guns being shot.
Lil Wayne reworked the song for his Tha Carter II album. How did that happen?
I was a huge fan of his “Go DJ” song. It blew my mind. And I’m telling all my friends, “This guy’s the next biggest thing.” And then out of the blue, out of nowhere, I get a call, “Lil Wayne loves your ‘Shooter’ song and wants to do something with it for his Carter II album.” I was like, “Absolutely.” So he ended up rapping in between all the places that I sang. He just picked all the other spots and rapped there. And it ended up being amazing and changed the path of my career. It was great.
A lyric from the title track “A Beautiful World” stood out to me. “And I don’t know if living is worth the time, ’cause sometimes I just don’t.” What was going through your head when you wrote that?
There’s a bittersweetness to the journey of life. And sometimes you just don’t feel like trying, or you don’t feel like giving. You just don’t feel like it. And then you’re reminded of what a beautiful world it is.
Let’s talk about shooting the album artwork cover. It’s a beautiful photo of Paula Patton. Take me through that shoot.
It was beautiful. It was with Sante D’Orazio, one of the most amazing photographers ever. And we were in New York City. Once again, one of Andre Harrell’s best friends, growing up in New York. Sante is very professional and amazing and makes people feel very comfortable. And Paula just ended up playing with the curtains and the sheets and stuff like that. And then they captured a really beautiful photo. And that’s why I put her on the cover because to me, a beautiful world is love, it’s partnership, it’s family.
On “Vengas Conmigo” you are singing in English and Spanish, which is common now but not 20 years ago. Do you speak Spanish?
I speak a little bit of Spanish. I think it was, in that case, maybe the production style reminded me of some great Latin funk records, and there’s the Spanish guitar that we were playing with. So once I got to the chorus, I wanted to do something different from the other records, and I figured, “Let’s sing in Spanish and do something different.”
You shout-out Andre Harrell on the song and he’s obviously been such an important person and music executive in your life. How did he help guide your career?
Nobody had ever seen the possibilities of my abilities the way he did. I believed in myself. You have to have the core belief in yourself to even take a shot at this stuff. So I believed in myself, and then suddenly my friends started to believe, and then my lady believed, and then Andre came around and just said, “No, no, no, no, no. I don’t even think you realize how big you could be as an artist.” Because I still hadn’t released an album, so I was sitting on whatever talent I have. I was sitting on it. And that type of belief, that type of support, that type of, “No, you’re bigger than you think you are” — man, every artist could surely use that.
The track “Cherry Blue Skies” opens with the line, “White man’s killing a Black man,” and 20 years later it is still relevant. What inspired you to write that song?
That was written right after 9/11. Andre was sitting with me, and I had this groove. Andre and I would love to sit down while I had instrumentals or grooves I was working on, and we’d like to talk about what people were feeling, what the streets were going through, what conversations he’s hearing at the dinner table, what women, his female friends, are saying, what his buddies are saying.
We would share perspective about what was happening right now. And when 9/11 happened, we sat down, and we talked about. That’s why the line, “War in these streets, no talk about peace, the dogs off the leash under pressure.” That was America’s response. And the chorus being, “But it’s never too late to get on the same side” was my idealistic desire, post-9/11, to stay away from more war and more carnage.
A Beautiful World wasn’t a best-selling album, but it has resonated with fans. How do you view it?
Some things are ahead of their time, some things are right on time. Maybe if it was way too successful, maybe I might’ve spun out of control. Maybe humility was very good for me. Maybe humility was very good for me because the second album was all about connecting as opposed to showing off.
When you started writing for other artists, was that a conscious choice?
I think subliminally I just hadn’t found my own artistic identity yet. I was a songwriter and a singer and I’ve always got a lot of love and praise from people. But I hadn’t found an identity as an artist. I was just this nice kid who wrote nice songs. There’s no edge. It’s no coincidence that ever since the first album, it’s always, “We need some edge. You got to find the edge in here. We got to be more edgy.” So I think that little period there, I wrote and produced for other people as I figured out who I truly was as an artist.
And I still made records. To be honest, I still made records. I have a whole album actually, pre-A Beautiful World, that’s also very eclectic and artistic and very similar to the records on A Beautiful World. But the influence of Andre changed how my music sounded.
You co-wrote Michael Jackson’s “Fall Again,” which was recorded in 1999 but released on his box set The Ultimate Collection in 2004. Were you in the studio with him?
No, but it’s a good story. When Ricky Martin performed “A Cup of Life” (“La Copa De Vida”) on the Grammys and became a superstar the next day, Tommy Mottola called Walter Afanasieff and asked if he had a song for Ricky Martin and Madonna to do a duet because Madonna wanted to do a duet with Ricky apparently. This is what I was told.
And then Walter calls me and says, “Remember that song we started, ‘Fall Again’? I think we should finish it because I think it’ll be good for Ricky Martin and Madonna.” We finish the song in my studio and he sends it to Tommy. The next day, Tommy says, “I want to send it to Michael Jackson.” A few days later I’m in New York writing for Sony for 10 days. That’s when I wrote for Marc Anthony and a few other Sony artists in that 10 days. And Michael was next door cutting ‘Fall Again.’ I wasn’t allowed to go in the session, but he was literally in the wall next to me while I was writing with Marc Anthony.
You also wrote for two of the biggest debut albums — Christina Aguilera and Brandy’s first records. What was it like working with Christina for “When You Put Your Hands On Me” and Brandy for “Love Is on My Side”?
Both of them were just vocal behemoths at such a young age. And Brandy was 14 and I was 16 when we cut and released that album, which was crazy. And I remember recording her vocals as a 16-year-old, and she’s 14. Pretty cool. And then with Christina, Ron Fair played us a demo when I was actually looking for a record deal. I didn’t really have the songs yet, but I went into a meeting and was looking for a new deal. And instead they pitched me Christina. And immediately my partner Pro Jay, who I’ve made all my music with for 25 years, we both were blown away by her voice. She came up to the studio, we did a couple songs, and we just all knew she was going to be a star. We just all knew.
How’s the new album you’re working on coming along?
I’m actually very excited because my house burned down in the Malibu fires four years ago, so we’ve been on the road and we’ve had two kids since then. And not having a home or a base has been challenging, so to finally be back in our property and be in our brand new home, and it’s built for the kids, and it’s built for me, it’s really nice. So I’ve been so creative again these last six months; just been really feeling the creative juices again and having a good time.
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