WILLOW covers YUNGBLUD's The Funeral in the Live Lounge
Watch WILLOW's stripped-back performance of YUNGBLUD's The Funeral
WILLOW is leaning forwards and enthusiastically standing up from her seat. Between her index finger and thumb she holds an imaginary item, and she happily places it delicately, mid-air, onto precisely nothing.
“It was,” she says while this is happening, “the cherry on top of a cake that I have always wanted to make.”
Given her natural versatility, you could imagine that the 21-year-old is actually a pretty great baker. But the young star – real name Willow Smith – isn’t literally telling Kerrang! all about a lovely dessert. WILLOW is in fact referring to her excellent new (fifth!) studio album, <COPINGMECHANISM>. More specifically, she’s animatedly chatting about the song Perfectly Not Close To Me, featuring experimentalist Yves Tumor – the record’s only guest star. For someone so synonymous with killer collaborations, particularly in 2022, it’s a big statement to have just the one. But it’s a show of confidence for very good reason – not to mention that sweet, final touch she had been seeking.
“I only had one feature on my  self-titled album, too, which was Jaden [Smith, WILLOW’s brother], and it was like, ‘This is my flesh and blood, and that’s how we’re rolling,’” she grins of this very deliberate artistic choice. “I love Yves Tumor with all of my heart, and I feel like he’s such an agent of change in the culture, and having him as the one feature on this album made me cry with joy. I get so giddy and excited; it just feels like such a strong move. He’s another black rock star who’s just killing it right now, and he’s so different and out of this world. He’s so inspiring to me.”
Reclining in a swanky London hotel room in the week following her main stage debut at this summer’s Reading & Leeds, it’s hard not to get swept up in the “giddy” thrill of it all. Not just her latest collaboration, to be clear, but <COPINGMECHANISM> in its entirety. It’s been a busy day for WILLOW and her team when we meet, but once she settles in and begins to talk about her latest work, the room service ordered (a burger and fries) remains untouched on a table nearby. Even while battling jetlag and a hectic schedule, she laser-focuses when discussing music, taking tiny pauses to consider each question before positively bursting with thoughtful and excitable answers.
“This is an evolution,” WILLOW begins, proudly. “I like to think of my new projects and albums as an evolution of myself. I kinda don’t like the word ‘reinvention’, because I’m always gonna be me, and the core me is always gonna be the same, but what emanates from that core can be so many different things.”
Just don’t call it pop-punk. Last year’s brilliant lately i feel EVERYTHING full-length was often pigeonholed within the genre and labelled as being at the forefront of its considerable resurgence, despite the album dabbling in everything from indie to emo and alt.rock. This time around, WILLOW was intent on not letting that happen again.
“I didn’t want to be boxed in by this idea of pop-punk,” she admits. “I grew up listening to so many different kinds of rock, and I feel like because pop-punk was the focus, it was almost like people forgot that other kinds of rock existed. People called lately i feel EVERYTHING a pop-punk album, but it’s not! I’m listening to, like, LIPSTICK, which is very anthemic and it almost gives Evanescence – it gives this anthemic, big thing… it doesn’t scream ‘pop-punk’ to me. I think the only songs that were more pop-punk were Gaslight and G R O W. Even t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l has its own world; the bridge has this weird psychedelic rock feel.
“Moving from that to this new album, I just embraced the fact that I’ve listened to so many different kinds of rock in my life, and I want to explore those sounds – and not just think about ‘pop-punk’.”
On an even broader level, WILLOW wants to shift the conversation about heavy music as a whole, and how there’s “so many different kinds”.
“Rock is coming back and it’s such a beautiful thing,” she enthuses, “and I want to be one of the people to be like, ‘Hey guys, not only pop-punk is a thing! There’s also classic rock, and then there’s psychedelic rock, and then there’s metal, and then there’s like this electronic metal that’s happening…’ I was listening to a lot of classic rock and metal while making this new album, and I feel like the harmonies that I’m doing on this album are very, very different to what I was doing before. It’s a little bit more operatic, I would say, and the hard parts go really hard!”
She’s not lying. From Deftones to Radiohead, WILLOW wears her darker influences on her sleeve this time around; meanwhile, she peppers our 40-minute interview with mentions of everyone from Lamb Of God to Crowbar and Primus. And then there’s Straight Line Stitch, one of her long-time obsessions.
“The main singer of that band is a black woman, which I really, really love,” she grins. “There’s so many beautiful metal albums that I love.”
As WILLOW also points out, this music has pretty much always been there in her discography – from the “rock-leaning” stuff on debut album Ardipithecus (which was released when she was just 15 years old), to the seven-string guitars on 2017 song Human Leech. Nevertheless, she’s still experienced gatekeeping, as well as doubters seeing it as the latest trend to hop on. Thankfully, she seems to be able to brush it all off effortlessly.
“I just feel like if you’re trying to gatekeep it, are you thinking about the beauty of music in general, or are you thinking about an egotistic desire?” she asks. “And I think, most of the time, when it’s in that negative vein, it’s more about ego.
“Rock has always been in my mix, but I think people just chose not to focus on that. But I love music. And any kind of music that I find inspiring, I want to make it.”
In all honesty, WILLOW actually didn’t really fancy working on another album so soon after lately i feel EVERYTHING. It was something she told herself “religiously”, in fact, deciding instead that she should wait in order to “just live some life and figure out what the new thing is”. Then she crossed paths with producer Chris Greatti, and her plans did a total 180.
The pair met while in the studio working on YUNGBLUD collab Memories, and hit it off instantly. “We got each other’s numbers, and we started recording,” WILLOW smiles. “The first session I kept telling him, ‘I’m not making an album, I’m not making an album…’ and then the second session happened and we made such an amazing song that it was like, ‘Okay, now I guess I’m making an album!’ It definitely was not planned.”
It went something like this: WILLOW would head to Chris’ home studio in California. Neither of them had any music. Then together, they would make “everything from scratch, right there”.
It was, she says, “daunting”. But it was also “inspiring”, and saw WILLOW stepping out of her comfort zone as she pushed herself in new artistic ways. The singer and producer would begin by playing riffs and piecing songs together, before Chris would move on to production and WILLOW would keep writing. She knows her music theory (“I’m not as smart about the notes as he is, but I would be like, ‘Let’s do a major 7 there!’ or, ‘Let’s put a sus9 there!’”) but also found that Chris was on her wavelength when it came to some of her more out-there, fantastical ideas.
“I’d be like, ‘Make it sound like rain in the distance…’” she chuckles, “and he gets that. A lot of people don’t – they’d be like, ‘What note is that?!’ He gets my weirdness! He’s such an artist in his own right that I didn’t want to micro-manage him – because usually with producers I do. But Chris didn’t need that – I feel like he knew me well enough, and he knows music beyond fucking any comparison, and I just trusted him.”
It helped that WILLOW had plenty she wanted to get off her chest. Now five albums in, she shrugs off the notion of writer’s block, insisting that where she may struggle is just deciding if something is actually worth saying.
“I could say something and figure that out and make it sound good, but should I?” she ponders. “That’s more the question.”
In the case of <COPINGMECHANISM>, though, she says there was a “no-holds-barred” approach.
Indeed, from the dazzling urgency of recent single Hover like a GODDESS to high-octane album closer BATSHIT!, it’s an emotionally compelling listen on every level. Honing in on her more metallic tendencies, she pairs those sounds with one of the album’s key emotions: anger.
“I was sad, but I was also angry, and I feel like that’s the dichotomy of going super-metal and then having these crazy operatic sections,” WILLOW explains of her headspace at the time, and how it impacted the music that her and Chris were conjuring up. “Even on Hover like a GODDESS, that part before the second verse where everything drops out and I have that little section, I feel like you’re in the midst of the anger and the confusion, but then you have these moments of touching a really beautiful part of yourself… and then (clicks fingers) you’re right back in the shit again. I definitely think that was the cycle of my emotional state.”
The title-track also brilliantly reflects this pattern of uncertainty. The song’s creator pulls out her phone to play it back in front of us, holding it up to her ear and listening along as she passionately explains where the lyrics came from.
“While I was writing it, there was one specific line and it just came to me – I don’t know why I said it, but I was like, ‘I’m the worst, it’s true / I learned it all from you / Now I need a coping mechanism every night,’” she says, proudly. “The song’s lyrics kinda sum up the space that I was in when I was really, really heartbroken. You know, some days I would just cry on the couch – those are the lyrics in the first verse. And I feel like it just encapsulates this feeling of something being broken and you don’t know how to fix it. And that anthemic chorus just kind of brings it all together in a very title-track way! I definitely would say the song speaks on some of the core themes of the album.”
And then, of course, there’s WILLOW’s unmistakable, iconic vocals, holding it all together spectacularly. The singer herself modestly jokes that her voice “really snapped” this time around.
“People will ask me, ‘Do you think you could have made this album a year ago or two years ago?’” she says, more seriously. “And I couldn’t. My voice definitely couldn’t have done those things. I’ve been training really hard – even before I started recording this album. I was training with my vocal coach really intensely, just trying to get to that next level of what I know I’m capable of doing. And now I’ve had those hours on the treadmill and those long days of singing these songs over and over again, I just feel really confident. My voice can do different things now.”
It was all such a positive, cathartic experience that she felt “a little sad” when work was done on <COPINGMECHANISM>. Sad, but also incredibly satisfied.
“It was like, ‘Damn, I’m not gonna have that thing of getting to go to the studio every week!’” she recalls. “It was really nice to know that I had such a cohesive body of work; I’ve never felt like any of my albums have been this cohesive. I can’t wait for people to have their own thoughts and opinions about what I’m saying, and what the themes are. I just always love hearing that from people.”
For all of WILLOW’s chattiness, there’s only one moment during our conversation that seems to actually stump her. Given her level of celebrity, having quite literally been famous since birth, how easy does she find it to block out outside noise – of which there’s plenty – and just focus on her art?
“Uhhhh…” she pauses for a while, before her usual free-flowing answers resume. “I think I’ve accepted that the noise is gonna be there, and I’ve kind of accepted that I’m an anxious person and so the noise is going to be make me anxious anyway. I try to just use it, and be like, ‘You know what? This is the world, and this is how I react to the world, let me try to make that work for me in some way.’”
One particular technique is her outwards confidence. It doesn’t line up with some of the more negative feelings on <COPINGMECHANISM>, but she insists that being a total badass while also feeling insecure or inadequate is something that “co-exists” within.
WILLOW has a simple explanation for this…
“Me!” she laughs. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I was talking to my friend the other day, and I was like, ‘I feel like I have this weird mixture of being overly confident but also cripplingly insecure and anxious, and I feel like they feed one another.’ Like, the downside of this one is the upside of this one, and they just keep going back and forth. It’s very strange! But I feel like I’d rather have both intensely than just one of them intensely, so I like to think of it like that (laughs).”
Then, of course, there’s the added layer of going through all this in a scene that, despite making some progress in the last few years, is still very white male-dominated. Once again, though, WILLOW simply just has her eyes tunnel-visioned on doing her own thing.
“I feel like the biggest pressure is the pressure to just be authentic,” she responds. “Because no matter what I do, if I stay authentic, and even if it’s not what someone likes, that truth is going to cut through and they’re gonna be like, ‘Well, I might not like that guitar solo or the melody that she chose to sing on that verse, but for some reason this is iconic!’ You know what I mean? I felt that way about so much music in my life, and I just chalk it up to the fact that the artist was in the studio putting it down in a real way, and being vulnerable.”
And with <COPINGMECHANISM>, WILLOW has certainly achieved just that. From her vocals to her songwriting, the musician calls the 11 songs on the album the “best representation” of who she is as an artist today, with the former in particular giving her the most amount of pride. “One hundred per cent,” she nods cheerfully of her performance in the studio. “It’s undeniable. When I listen, I’m like, ‘Wow.’”
And there’s still much more to be done. At Reading & Leeds, she told the audience from the stage how she hoped to make a “rock opera” one day. Meanwhile, she reveals to Kerrang! that another musical aspiration is playing the cello, which she’s started learning. And down the line, even more albums will surely follow.
“I wanna be like [U.S. singer-songwriter] Ani DiFranco; Ani DiFranco has, like, 20 albums!” she enthuses. “She has such a cult fanbase, and the core of her has always been her musicianship, and her love for the craft, and I just think that’s so sustainable and authentic, and how it should be. I really love Ani DiFranco, and I aspire to have a discography as expansive as hers one day.”
Any and all kinds of music, then, is WILLOW’s future.
“I thought I was going to do something different for a while – after I stopped doing the Whip My Hair stuff, and I was just going to school and I wasn’t really in the studio, I was just being a regular kid, I really thought to myself that I might just do something random,” WILLOW admits. “But then music kept coming back to me and I was like, ‘Darn it! I can’t say no this time!’
“It’s just stuck with me.”
WILLOW’s new album <COPINGMECHANISM> is out on October 7 via Roc Nation / Polydor
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