Much of Willow Smith’s musical journey has been informed and supported by a wider journey to self — one she’s rarely, if ever, shied away from discussing.
In fact, interviews with the young artist around the releases of her debut and sophomore albums, ARDIPITHECUS (2015) and The 1st (2017), depict a curious and hopeful girl in search of knowledge, wisdom, and truth to share with the world. At 12, she made headlines after bowing out of a role in a feature film adaption of Annie (an “intuitive” decision) to pursue a simpler version of reality, opting to go to school and avoid the pop stardom she was groomed for as early as her 2010 hit “Whip My Hair." Over the years, Willow has impressed fans and critics with a creative blend of existential inquisitiveness, healthy skepticism, natural ability and teenage angst.
With each release, it seems Willow grows more assured of herself, both musically and spiritually. There’s a fullness and maturity that shines through on her third album, WILLOW, out last week (July 19). Lyrical complexity, rich production and genre-bending sensibility demonstrate Willow’s dedication to developing her artistry, and reveal an obvious intent to expand her range as a musician.
Drawing inspiration from an eclectic amalgam of influences (The Cocteau Twins, crop circles, “breatharians”), Willow’s third album is a dreamy, experimental expression of self-acceptance and growth. She’s chipper and excited over the phone with Billboard in the week leading up to the album's release. Read our conversation with the 19-year-old artist below.
Your new album is self-titled. What went into that decision for you?
This is the first album that I feel like is truly 100% me. Not [to say] that my other albums weren’t, but my other albums were kind of like me trying to figure out like, "OK, do I want to produce? Am I a producer?" Like with Ardipithecus. My first album was like, "OK, I’m gonna spit and I’m gonna try to produce this." [I was] trying to figure out where my creativity was lying within me. My second album, The 1st, was like, "OK, let me learn an instrument. Let me see how this works for me. Let me explore where my creativity lies within me with this acoustic album."
This one was like, "OK, I have these two repertoires. Now, let me try to put them together." So there’s a lot of guitar influence, but there’s also a lot of synth (Moog bass) and electronic sounds that were the production inspiration for that. I felt like bringing those two worlds together was a whole vision of who I really am as a musician.
You worked with your friend Tyler Cole to co-produce this.
Yes, this was the first time… I’ve worked with other musicians and stuff, but this was the first time I’ve ever had someone co-produce something with me. It was such a beautiful experience.
Had you worked with Tyler before?
We’ve known each other for quite a long time, so we’ve made songs together for fun and stuff. But this was the first time that we were like, Okay, we’re making an album. This is for real. That’s the first time I’ve done that with any other artist. I usually produce all of my music on my own and then bring in other musicians to come play the parts that I can’t play. But, I usually have no help in the creative process, so that was such a new, awesome experience for me.
What would you say this album means to you, aside from the musicality of it? Where did you find the inspiration to put this album together now?
I have been listening to a lot of ‘80s ambient music, like the Cocteau Twins, and then Autumn’s Grey Solace. The Cocteau Twins and Autumn’s Grey Solace were really the biggest inspirations for this album. I wanted to bring in a psychedelic rock vibe to it while also bringing in those ambient harmonies — lots of harmonies — to really bring that divine, almost spiritual, energy to the music.
But, you know, this album is really just a new chapter of my life. Personally within me, the last two albums that I did were both made in very confusing times in my life. I feel like those albums were a way of kind of culling that confusion. This album was actually made at one of the happiest points in my life. I feel like that’s what really makes a difference for me, and really what makes the content different as well. A lot of the lyrics in my last two albums were expressing that confusion, and this album is more about adventure and joy and excitement and the acquisition of truth.
On WILLOW, you have a song called “Female Energy, Pt. 2”. How does this song relate to your earlier release, “Female Energy”?
For me, female energy [is] acceptance of nature and this joy that comes with accepting the duality of nature. The production is completely different [from] the first one, but it still has that underlying foundation in the content — of acceptance and that joy of letting go. Even in the original (“How you feel is not my problem”, [meaning] I really want to love you, but I’m not responsible for your emotions) that feeling in the last song [is] of letting go. Then for this one (“I’m falling into the arms of naked truth”), I am not resisting the beauty or the destruction of what life has to offer. I am going full-fledged in it with compassion at my core. I feel like that’s the [connection] between the two.
You spoke about nature, and that made me think about the images you’ve been posting on Instagram to promote this album. I want to know about the concept behind those.
So, I’ve been loving @cupidsvault on Instagram. That is the young man who did my makeup for those pictures (the ones where I was like a tree). We were talking and I was like, “I really love what you do.” He came up with this idea [asking], “Do you like crop circles? How do you feel about crop circles?” I was like, “I love crop circles.” He was like, “I wanna put crop circles all over your face.” I was like, “I’m so down for that. I’m going to be a living crop circle, I’m so down for that.” He was the one. I’m going to co-sign him for that because he came up with that.
In announcing the album, you’ve been calling out to “light eaters.” Who are light eaters? What do those words mean to you?
A long time ago, I read about these people called “breatharians,” where basically it’s these people who have reached such an enlightened state that they can live just off of breath and light, like a plant, (and water). They literally photosynthesize and eat light like a plant, because they’re at such a high level of consciousness.
And that’s my goal. I want to be at such a high level of consciousness that divine energy and literal light — I can hold that within my body. I feel like music that holds an intention, a spiritual intention, holds that divine light within it and people who can spot that and who can understand that are the light eaters.
Between the Red Table Talk show you do with your mother and grandmother, and playing a role on your brother Jaden’s recent album, it’s clear that you are very close with your family. Can you about your relationship with them and how it influences your art?
I think when people feel accepted by any community, whether its their blood relatives or their friends or any community that they value, I feel like it automatically imbues them with a sense of confidence, because they feel like they belong and they feel loved. I think that automatically translates into the freedom of expression that is required. I find that people who don’t feel understood, or don’t have a community that they feel like they belong [to], it’s a little harder for that expression to come out. I would definitely attribute my confidence and my freedom to express 100% to my family. That’s so important to me.