Paul Williams: From Soft Rock Hitmaker to Daft Punk Collaborator (Q&A)

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Williams is in the running for best original song for "Still Alive" from the documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive."

What's it like to record with robots? "They were really amazingly easy to work with," says the veteran songwriter and current ASCAP president of the breathlessly hyped French electronic duo.

At five-foot-two, musician-actor Paul Williams is admittedly a diminutive presence. But professionally, the songwriter behind “We’ve Only Just Begun,” The Muppet Movie’s “Rainbow Connection,” and even The Love Boat’s theme song is a bona-fide titan. (Upon receiving an Oscar for Best Original Song -- for 1976’s A Star Is Born theme “Evergreen” -- he famously quipped alongside its star Barbra Streisand, “I was going to thank the little people.”)

His rich legacy was not lost on French electronic duo Daft Punk, who recruited the 72-year-old to contribute lyrics and vocals to “Touch” and “Beyond,” two tracks on their breathlessly hyped No. 1 album Random Access Memories. The Hollywood Reporter called Williams, who can now be found advocating songwriters’ intellectual property as president of ASCAP (or, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), to talk to him about his unexpected career turn and his pivotal role in shaping Daft Punk’s comeback. 

The Hollywood Reporter: Daft Punk has said that “Touch” really influenced the entire album’s sound. How did it come about?

Paul Williams: At the very beginning, the question was, “Who are we writing about?” Somebody that’s coming out of a coma? Somebody who’s been put in suspended animation while he travels across the heavens? A visitor from another planet? A robot that is becoming human? I don’t think we ever actually said that it’s about a robot, but that’s kind of what it’s rolled into. What was interesting about the first meeting with them was that Thomas [Bangalter, one half of Daft Punk] handed me a book of stories about people with life-after-death experiences, where people had died and come back to life. And I was like, “Oh, my god! I’ve read this book! I know this book.” He sat down, and Guy-Man [Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Daft Punk’s other member] played the melody to what I called “Touch.” The lyrics just came out of me, and it began there. I took it home and wrote the [rest of the] lyrics. And then they gave me the second song [“Beyond”], and off they went. They disappeared for long periods of time, and then they’d come back.

THR: Did you ever realize that “Touch” would be a blueprint of sorts for the entire album?

Williams: No, I don’t think I did. It was fortuitous that we started writing at the beginning of the project together. I think I was the first person that they asked to come in and work with them -- or one of the first ones. And you never got the sense that you’re being brought in to provide wallpaper for a house that had been built. I was, like, part of the entire process.

THR: Pharrell Williams said that they’re very specific in what they want -- perfectionists. Doesn’t that make for difficult collaboration?

Williams: They were really amazingly easy to work with. I was given music and asked to write words for it. I could tell the level of acceptance by the speed at which the two of them would speak in French. I’d read a line, and there would be this machine-gun sample of French, and laughter and whatever. [In a French accent] “We love this! We love this!”

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THR: I take it you don’t speak French.

Williams: Not a word! This is the second time that I’ve had that kind of experience. In 1970, I went to France to work with a composer named Michel Colombier on an album called Wings. I would sing the lyrics. And he would rattle off to the band in French, and they would laugh.

THR: In that same interview, Pharrell also anointed you one of the best writers of all time.

Williams: Wow! I have been singing “Get Lucky” for the last three weeks and am just so enamored by his vocals and his gift. That’s a phenomenal quote.

THR: Do you have any plans to work with him?

Williams: No, but let him know that I’m sitting by the phone and waiting [laughs]. ... I’d really love to work with him.

THR: Did you actually know who Daft Punk was before they reached out to you?

Williams: I had such little awareness of … I had seen Daft Punk on the Grammys when they made their exit from a pyramid. I was fascinated with them. I needed to get to know their music when they reached out to me, so I spent a little time listening.

THR: When they first introduced themselves to you, did they geek out over you starring in the 1974 futuristic musical-fantasy Phantom of the Paradise -- which they’ve cited as a big influence? Their helmets are even a nod to the movie.

Williams: I didn’t realize until the project was over that they had seen it over 20 times. We had talked a little about the fact that they worked behind the masks, and I love that. As somebody who was essentially a little media whore and did everything I could to get my face out in front of cameras in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s wonderful to meet somebody who chose that anonymity. So rather than concentrating on them, we would concentrate on their work. I have great admiration for that.

THR: From a technical standpoint, I read that 250 tracks comprise “Touch.” True?

Williams: It is 250 tracks. And as I think Guy-Man said, it’s an album about getting away from the computer to the human touch. But without a computer it would have been impossible to have made this record! I think it’s an amazing bit of time travel that Daft Punk chose to take their listeners on, you know?

THR: You recorded at Henson Recording Studios, famous for many seminal records, including several by The Carpenters. Was it like coming full circle for you?

Williams: I stood with them in the hallway after hearing “Touch” for the first time and said, “You know, this studio is where I recorded a song called ‘Out in the Country.’” The producer asked some of his friends to come and sing background on my song. Some of his friends included Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne -- it was this gathering of eagles. That was in 1972.

THR: Was it difficult to keep the project a secret?

Williams: Oh, yeah. About the time that I heard I couldn’t be talking about the record, I had already mentioned it twice. Little interviews or whatever. So there was a bit of a leak that I was responsible for. But once I got the word, I kept it zipped.

THR: Did they ever let you try on a helmet?

Williams: They didn’t let me try on a helmet. But you know, I’m expecting one in the mail any day now.

THR: Seriously?

Williams: [Laughs] No, no -- I’m joking.

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THR: Has working with Daft Punk prompted anyone in pop or indie-rock to work with you?

Williams: The awareness has been largely increased by the release of this record. There’s a lot of people I’ve talked to about writing with. But we’ll see what happens. I’m also in the middle of two big projects [with director-producer Guillermo del Toro]: co-writing songs for a movie called Book of Life, and we’re just at the beginning of adapting Pan’s Labrynth to the stage. And I’m co-writing a book called Gratitude and Trust: Recovery Is Not Just for Addicts with my friend Tracy Jackson, the screenwriter [Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Guru]. I’m 72 and have been in recovery for 23 years.

THR: How bad was your addiction?

Williams: Long before I realized I had a problem, other people were painfully aware that I was in trouble. Addiction is the only disease I know of in the world that tells you that you don’t have it! I was beyond denial. I thought everybody started their day with a glass of vodka in the shower.

THR: The 2011 documentary Paul Williams Still Alive delves into that dark chapter, but also chronicles your huge following in the Philippines. How do you account for the rabid fans there?

Williams: You know, there’s something about the Philippines -- they are wonderfully sentimental there. There are songs that were hugely successful in the Philippines that were not big hits here, like “Save Me a Dream.” They are the gentlest and sweetest people in the world. I’ve had an amazing career, and the success I’ve had has always made me hit my knee and go, “I am the luckiest man in the world. Thank you, Big Amigo!”

THR: Fate was really on your side. Like, you technically just wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun” for a bank commercial.

Williams: It had all the romantic beginnings of a bank commercial! Crocker bank. When we wrote the first two verses of that song, we were convinced it’d never get recorded. But just in case, we finished it and made a full-length version. And then an angel sang it: When Karen Carpenter sang “We’ve Only Just Begun,” the world responded.

THR: You also have a fervent geek following from your TV and movie acting projects. How often do genre enthusiasts recognize you for that work?

Williams: Phantom of the Paradise, the Batman series, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes has generated more requests for autographs than most of my musical career combined. Sci-Fi and fantasy fans are the most loyal and enthusiastic of the lot. Terrific. I appreciate the attention.

Twitter: @THRMusic