Willow Smith’s almost-grown angst
On her new album The 1st, the introspective musician is wise, but she knows there’s a lot left to learn.
Illustration Sharon Gong
Willow Smith on the far-out angst of her soul-spilling new album Photo by Christopher Polk / Getty Images

Willow Smith turns 17 today. And at the start of her new year, she’s welcoming her growing pains with open arms — and a charged new album. On The 1st, she gets explicit about the realizations that she’s had on her burgeoning journey to womanhood. For example, on the stripped-down lead single, “Romance,” she sings: “Stop leading girls to the clouds above / It’s so distracting / We can’t focus on self-love.”

It’s a shot at the delusional ideals that society says we should uphold in order to successfully secure a significant other. For Willow, the feeling of completion has nothing to do with external factors; instead, self-understanding and individuality are paramount. On the album, she also sings about her own new experiences with love. The young artist addresses the complexities of dealing with leeching lovers, and picks apart the challenge of staying grounded despite the inclination to get mindlessly lost in the whims of a beau.

Over the phone, Willow talked about learning how to play the guitar while making the The 1st, a life with zero attachments, and why she doesn’t believe in relationship titles.

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It's been two years since Ardipithecus, what have you been up to?

I'm just trying to get my music theory game up. My parents told me when I was younger, "You need to be taking a guitar class or a piano class," and I never did it but as I'm growing and realizing that I enjoy real music, I have to learn the science of it in order to really know it. That's what I'm on — just trying to learn the science of my art.

When you say real music what do you mean?

I mean instrumental, like learning how to play an instrument. Anyone can go on their computer and bring up a drum kit and make a beat. But it takes so much more time and concentration to sit down and play an instrument. To feel the pain in your fingers and the vibration on your chest. To hold your music and make it. It's so different to feel the vibrations of those strings, there's nothing like it and that’s real music.

Have you been able to access that while making The 1st?

Oh yeah, this is the first little dip of the ocean of Willow, the first little dive. I was learning how to play guitar while recording the album so it was difficult to change all of these weird chords that I want to play but just don’t have the skill to yet. I had to do it over and over to get it sounding the way I wanted it to sound. With Ardipithecus, I went in and spent the time producing and didn’t write anything down. I just freestyled. For this album it was the complete opposite and I really wanted to be organized and put in my intentions and not be so vague in my lyrics and to write them before I went into the studio and mull over these ideas and marinate on them.

It was difficult at first because I wasn’t used to it but I got the hang of it and really started to enjoy writing. I hated writing and whenever I tried to write I would feel so contrived. I’d go in and do a whole bunch ot takes of different lyrics and whatever lyrics I liked the best I would pick those. It was super fluid and vague because it was my truest emotions at that moment and awesome but in order for me to grow as an artist I needed to spend more time and really compose.

“This is the first little dip of the ocean of Willow, the first little dive.” —Willow Smith

What type of growth have you encountered and how has it influenced that specificity on the album?

I realized after Ardipithecus who I really wanted to be. And it’s so crazy because I think I’m solidified and self-realized and I am. But me playing guitar and going into this new world is super new so it’s going to take some time but at least I have the right footing. Really what The 1st is about is me experiencing love and confusion and relating in a way that I have never known. It’s scary and it’s exciting and it’s a life. I’ve just been doing so much growing up, I’m really just becoming a woman. Damn. I’m really a woman. Seeing how my thought processes have changed over the years and how my observations get keener. Everything is getting more clear but also I’m starting to see the spectrum of life in such a new way. It’s so grey and uncomfortable and joyous. It’s the first time I’m seeing life and experiencing relating to human beings in a completely different way.

And what way is that?

You know how people, in this time, are super obsessed with making a vibe of their relationship on social media? Just specifically from this area because it’s not just about romantic love, but all types of relating. It’s the area where most people can relate. But I’ve realized that giving real love is giving complete and utter freedom. You say you love this person but then you’re doing all of these things that inhibit their freedom because of your insecurities. That’s not only in romantic love, that’s in friendships and everything. I just realized that the actions that I was taking weren’t reflective of what I’m saying. I saw that in myself and others, and as much as we want to hold on to these people, love and relationships you have to enjoy and release. Let things go where they need to go. Don’t hold on because when you hold on you kill love. As soon as you say, “This is mine,” or “This is my boyfriend” or “This is my girlfriend,” you’ve massacred your real relationships.

So do you think there’s no need need for labels in relationships?

I feel like they hold weight that’s unnecessary. It puts so much stress and discomfort where there doesn’t need to be. People want to be in relationships because they don’t want to be alone but at the end of the day, relationships are mirrors for you to see your trauma through someone else’s and to learn from that. It’s not fun and games. Relationships are meant to break you so you can be stronger without that person. On your own two feet, by yourself. They’re here to teach you about how to understand each other without making each other feel wrong. It’s learning how to relate with others completely confident in your individuality. But it’s just so hard. [Laughs.]

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Was there a specific situation that opened this up for you?

So many. I’ve seen throughout my entire life, how the media takes these other people’s relationships and makes it something that’s so ridiculous. Anyone’s relationship is nobody else’s business. How you choose to conduct your relationship and your life is no one else’s business. What I really want to put across is acceptance of this process. Acceptance of yourself leads to knowing that you don’t need anyone else. You just become so grateful. Everything becomes an art piece, every relationship becomes not something that you’d want to hold onto but something that you’re looking at with clarity and you’re putting your heart and soul into every single second even if you are only relating with that person for a little while. It could be a song that you’re listening to together or a look across the street. All of these things are art and intimately beautiful and we don’t dive into the ocean of simplicity enough. We’re always wanting and asking others for more because we’re not seeing the abundance that lies around us. I know that seems freaking cliche but it’s just so true.

You have such a strong sense of self but you deal with these feelings that all teenagers have when you come in contact with various situations and new experiences. Are there any times where you feel less in control or more vulnerable?

Oh yes, bruh. When you really start having insights, you start to realize just how much you don’t know. That’s why I feel like people don’t want to delve into these ideas and don’t want to go into the more uncomfortable parts of themselves. Through understanding that, a whole new can of worms is open that you thought never existed and it’s even deeper. It’s even more dark in some senses but even more light in others. It becomes more intense as you start getting closer to yourself you start to understand others more but, the depth and the darkness and the light just get more potent — because it’s both sides. Everything grows exponentially, as you start getting closer. So, you do start to understand but you also start to be more confused. It’s just the spectrum. You’re never done learning.

On the single “Romance,” you dismantle the cliche idea of this feeling or quality. What inspired that?

Just looking around and seeing people living in illusions and trying to make it real. I’m just like, Come on. Aren’t you seeing that you’re pretending? This is something that you’ve seen in movies and because you think this is the right way that you need to be having this relationship, your actions are absolutely inhibiting the freedom and passion of this relationship. I see so many girls who are like, “You can’t go out” or “Text this person” and it’s literally just because they’re insecure that they sometimes put too much of their self-worth into it. They can’t fathom the thought of this person seeing someone else as beautiful or more beautiful, God forbid.

We see it so intensely in both genders and usually on the male side it becomes more violent. It makes me so sad because life is about learning and connecting but when we put a filter on it, literally, it just kills it all. We’re just masquerading around and specifically in my relationship that I’ve experienced, I’ve struggled with this ideal. And even opposite! It’s so crazy but because I’m so aware of the sickness that I try hard so hard to combat it and not do that, that it becomes a sickness within itself. Being this way creates a whole other issue and it’s another cycle. Self-acceptance and self- understanding and relaxation are the most important things. Through self-acceptance, you accept others. Through self-understanding you understand others and through relaxation you can communicate in a way that’s efficient.

Willow Smith on the far-out angst of her soul-spilling new album Photos by Tyler Cole / Christopher Polk/Getty Images
“When you really start having insights, you start to realize just how much you don’t know.” —Willow Smith
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We live in this world where visuals are reminders of what people are doing in way that is so pervasive. On “And Contentment” you talk about the role of personal experience versus comparison. Can you talk about that?

Happiness and contentment come from zero comparison and 100% personal experience. I’m going to go back to the guitar here but when you’re someone who is a perfectionist and you want to be great to push your message even farther, you can’t shrink yourself next to someone else. You have to be your own best friend. Until you’ve experienced something, you really don’t know. That’s why when I’m giving advice I’m like, “I could be 100 percent wrong because I have never experienced it but I’m going to try my best.”

In this day and age, we take people’s words too much and their perceptions. The internet is so wide people read and they say, “It’s probably true.” Some people get annoyed with me when I’m like, “That could be true.” I’m starting to shift my basic language into more of my intention. We say so many things because we have the anxiety to reply — things we don’t even mean. We just want to say them so that we can be talking. People will be mad at me because I’ll take long pauses and it’s just because I want to think about what I’m going to say before I say it. We have to take everything with a grain of salt. Never be attached 100 percent to any person, any idea, or anything. That’s my goal, to have zero attachments whatsoever and to just be a bringer of joy where I go. Non-attachment is so far away from what we’ve created this world to be.

Is there a reason why you’re releasing The 1st on your birthday?

Yes, I wanted to release Ardipithecus on my birthday but because of my disorganization I couldn’t do it. But for this time specifically, this album is stepping into my womanhood as a musician and as a person. It was built to release on my birthday, symbolizing another year of growth and being alive and learning. So having it come out on my birthday really just solidifies the vibe of evolution and womanhood and growth.

Listen to The 1st on iTunes now.

Willow Smith on the far-out angst of her soul-spilling new album