WILLOW’s pop-punk revolution: “I’m in love with the weirdos and the people who don’t conform to conventional societal norms”
Willow Smith’s first act of punk rock rebellion came when she was just 12 years old.
By then she’d already been famous for her entire life; first as the daughter of Hollywood megastars Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith; then as an actress in I Am Legend and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa; and then, most all-encompassingly, as the precocious 10-year-old singer of global hit Whip My Hair.
She toured the world singing the pop‑R&B song, performances of which would, inevitably, involve following the title’s instructions to the letter. Until, finally, she decided to shave her trademark long tresses off.
“I just needed to feel like I had control over myself in some way,” the 2021 Willow Smith smiles. “If I couldn’t do that, then I just was living for everybody else. That was me being like, ‘Damn, I just need some sort of control – and if it’s only over what I do with my hair then so be it…’”
Almost a decade later and Willow Smith – now 20 years old and known professionally as WILLOW – is very much in control, of both her hair and her career. But the acts of punk rock rebellion continue. Because her new album – incredibly, already the fifth full-length of her young life – moves her idiosyncratic talent into a whole new genre: pop-punk.
“Will some people always see me as the Whip My Hair girl?” she muses, Zooming in from a baking hot Los Angeles. “Totally. But this is the thing: you can’t worry about that stuff because, in reality, I’m not the Whip My Hair girl, I’m WILLOW. If people don’t want to see that, then that’s all good. But I see that – and that’s the only thing that matters in my eyes…”
You see, WILLOW has always been a rocker, whatever her previous records sounded like. As a child, she went on the road with her mother’s brilliant nu-metal band, Wicked Wisdom. Aged eight, she was obsessed with incendiary metalcore band Straight Line Stitch, fronted by Alexis Brown, a rare black woman in ’00s rock’s white male world. In high school, she flew the flag for Paramore, My Chemical Romance and blink-182 and made a pilgrimage to the Vans Warped Tour. And she’s genuinely thrilled to be appearing in Kerrang! for the first time (“I’m honestly so honoured. Y’all only deal with the real real, so I’m really happy I got to be a part of this”).
After the Whip My Hair frenzy subsided, she got used to making music “under the radar” and came to terms with the fact that, “I made a little too much music, a little too young – there are some songs where I wish I would have waited to be a little bit more mature, so I could have had more of a bird’s eye view”.
Even so, her career has long dropped hints that there was more to her music than the box the industry tried to put her in. Her second album, confusing titled The 1st, featured grunge anthem Human Leech, while last year’s The Anxiety collaboration with boyfriend and co-writer Tyler Cole also went heavy on the fuzzed-up guitars.
Still not convinced? Well, if ever there was a record to establish some serious rock credentials, it’s Lately I Feel EVERYTHING (aka LIFE – “I had to put all of my emo cards on the table,” she laughs). If you’ve been anywhere near TikTok lately, you’ll already know the single, t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l, featuring pop-punk maestro Travis Barker and rapidly becoming one of the biggest rock hits in years.
But the album has plenty more where that came from. Forged in the year-long lockdown that gave her the confidence to experiment with a sound she’d always loved, LIFE veers from the ramshackle riot grrrl stomp of Fuck You to the shimmering industro-shoegaze of Lipstick to the riotous teenage dirtbagging of Come Home, all powered by WILLOW’s blazing guitar playing. Not that any of that prepared her for working with her childhood hero, Travis…
“Honestly, I literally was shitting my pants!” she roars with laughter. “He came in, listened to the song once all the way through, then went in and did it perfectly. I was sitting in the control room trying not to shed a tear, like, ‘What is going on?’ I needed to keep myself together, but it was so inspiring to just see him do it perfectly. Who does that? He’s such a professional, he knows his instrument so well and it was such an honour to work with him. I was beside himself.”
Travis was also, she acknowledges, “the co-sign I needed”.
“For him to even want to listen to it, that was enough for me,” she says. “Even if he was like, ‘Yo, I think you should get so-and-so,’ I would have been like, ‘Great.’ But he was like, ‘This is fire and I want to do it.’ And, besides Avril Lavigne, there’s no-one who’s more of an icon in the pop-punk world than Travis Barker…”
And if that wasn’t enough for her teen self, the album also features Grow, an irresistible old-school pop-punk banger featuring – you’ve guessed it – the one and only Avril.
“If I was going to do pop-punk I had to go far and beyond,” WILLOW says. “I had to go the full mile. The fact that Avril has been doing pop-punk music for so long gives her the power of just killing it. Like, there is no world where this is not going to be fire. So that was super-inspiring…”
Plus, of course, while Avril might be iconic now, that wasn’t necessarily the case when she first burst onto a cynical scene with her skinny ties and tales of Sk8er Bois.
“Totally,” says WILLOW. “Because rock is not only predominantly a white area, it’s also predominately a male area. So even though Avril isn’t of colour, her being a young female talking about love and power and all the stuff she was talking about, it was intimidating for them. So that makes a lot of sense to me. There are a lot of intersections between us…”
WILLOW has her own disturbing stories about a lack of acceptance from the supposedly inclusive rock scene. But pop-punk is changing, with a new breed of acts such as Meet Me @ The Altar and Pinkshift bringing some much-needed diversity to the genre, just as a host of names already famous in other areas – WILLOW, Machine Gun Kelly, Olivia Rodrigo – are taking the pop-punk sound back into the mainstream.
“I really am so happy for this new pop-punk revival that’s happening because, honestly, that was some of the happiest times in my life,” WILLOW grins. “Some of the best music I listened to was during the early 2000s. I’m really excited to bring that back in full form.”
WILLOW believes the genre is reconnecting with people again because it offers authenticity and familiarity in a fabricated, uncertain world. But is it just another passing Rock Girl Summer-style trend?
“For some of the people who are now partaking in it and listening to it, 100 per cent,” she nods. “But we can’t be too precious with it. You can’t gatekeep expression. People take it really personally, but the only things that truly matter are that you’re talking about some real shit, that you truly enjoy it, and your heart is in it. And that goes for listener and musician alike…”
And WILLOW is definitely in this for the long haul. By rights, she should be a supremely jaded celebrity by now, yet she positively fizzes with enthusiasm for her new rock role. She talks passionately about the hidden psychological depths to her lyrics (t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l, far from calling out the snakes in her life, is actually about how, “I can talk shit about other people as much as I want, but at the end of the day I’m the person that I need to reflect on, heal and change”). She vows to use her platform to push new, diverse artists to the fore (she’s particularly keen on Beabadoobee and K! favourites Nova Twins right now). And she dreams out loud about taking her live show to rock citadels from Download to Reading & Leeds and winning people over.
That’s despite the horrors she witnessed on the road with Wicked Wisdom at Ozzfest, when her mum faced down racist and sexist abuse and even had to deal with death threats.
“There were so many people that hated that my mom was there, just because she was a black woman,” she sighs. “It was intense, people really didn’t want her to be there. There was a moment where she was so stressed that all the lymph nodes in her body got super-agitated and she thought she had cancer – but it was just all the stress she was experiencing. But she kept going, she didn’t let them stop her – and that was such a beautiful thing to see.”
WILLOW says a life spent around celebrity has left her somewhat “desensitised to the haters”, and she’s had plenty of advice on coping with fame from her supportive parents. But she was still taken aback by the abuse she received after putting a video of her playing the riff from System Of A Down’s B.Y.O.B. online last year. SOAD bassist Shavo Odadjian was impressed, reposting her seven-string shredding, but when WILLOW went to thank him in the comments, she found Toxicity wasn’t confined to System’s second album.
“I saw a lot of older white men who were just angry,” WILLOW remembers. “They hated that I was doing this and they hated that I thought I had a place in it. They were saying a lot of nasty things… And that’s okay, because you can’t do something revolutionary without a little bit of pushback. It hurts but at the same time it’s like, ‘I understand where this comes from.’ But I want to be an agent of smashing the patriarchy and all the racist, homophobic people that think they can tell everyone what to do. Because that’s just not the case…”
Those reactionaries would be well-advised to get out of her way. WILLOW has always followed her own path, even in the face of bullying in school from people who told her she shouldn’t be listening to emo rock, simply because she was black.
“There were definitely some white kids who were coming down on me and talking shit,” she says. “But it hurt the most when the black kids would be like, ‘Yo, stop doing that, that’s so suss, don’t do that.’ But I realised that black kids are the ones that are internalising the trauma the most.
“That’s a testament of how much we’ve been indoctrinated and how much we’ve been conditioned to believe we are only valuable in certain categories artistically,” she adds. “That’s why more alternative and creative black people need to link up.”
And WILLOW is determined to make a difference. She’s refreshingly open about her bisexuality and her mental health struggles, and she’s determined to open doors for those that follow, just as Alexis Brown and Fefe Dobson did for her.
“My little part is just doing what I want to do, in the face of people saying that they don’t like it,” she says. “That’s a tiny part to play but I hope it inspires other people to do the same thing.”
And you suspect it will. Whether the pop-punk revival only lasts for this summer or runs for as long as in its ’90s heyday, WILLOW is surely destined to be a rock star for decades to come.
“I was so young when I started,” she muses. “I told my parents I wanted to sing and that was pretty much it. I didn’t quite know how, I didn’t quite know what. I just had a raw desire and, over the years, I’ve gotten better at figuring out how I want to do this, the kind of artist I want to be and how I want to conduct myself. Now, I love expressing myself in different ways. We’re human, we’re musicians, why limit yourself?”
And where that takes her is going to be intriguing to watch. She maintains she can turn her talents to any genre – noting that she’s already made a Sanskrit devotional album alongside Jahnavi Harrison. But as well as plotting her first full-on rock shows (promising a pop-punk version of Whip My Hair that will “be awesome at a festival”), she also plans to finally record the full-on metal record her head-shaving younger self would have loved to make (“It’s going to be pretty heavy. There’s going to be some growling, some chugging, some djent vibes…”). But most of all, WILLOW is planning on blazing a trail for individuality.
“I’m in love with the weirdos and the people who don’t conform to conventional societal norms,” she grins, as she prepares to step out into the LA morning. “I’m trying to be like Björk; she is insanely creative, does exactly what she wants and has a strong cult following. Her audience knows and loves her for all of her weirdness and all of her uniqueness. I’m definitely strange, I don’t stay in the same box, I talk about weird and different shit that most people don’t talk about – and hopefully the fans love me for it…”
It’s been a long, strange trip from whipping her hair to banging her head but, rest assured, WILLOW is just getting started.
Lately I Feel EVERYTHING is due out on July 16 on MSFTSMusic / Roc Nation via Polydor in the UK.
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