Willow Smith, now just WILLOW, has, because of her very famous parents, been in the limelight from birth. Her identity, for the most part, was thrust on her. And from the outside looking in, most would say she’s been living a charmed life. At her core, though, WILLOW seems to get that she’s just another human being floating on a rock in the middle of space with billions of other rocks and balls of cosmic energy — and that nobody knows shit about anything.
WILLOW’s been on a soul-searching mission since her debut album, Ardipithecus. It’s been virtually impossible to scroll through TikTok the last few years without hearing the lyrics to the album’s second single, “Wait a Minute!”: “Hold on, wait a minute / I left my consciousness in the sixth dimension,” she screams.
Since then, she’s become more self assured. Once floating, WILLOW is now sinking into the deepest parts of self and sound, revisiting bands like Crowbar, Lamb of God, and Radiohead and creating music with producer Chris Greatti, best known for his work with Poppy and Pussy Riot.
On the heels of a tour with Machine Gun Kelly (featuring Avril Lavigne, Trippie Redd, and Travis Barker), she’s been diving back into her punk aesthetic. She’s challenged her voice and emotional threshold in the process, especially during the making of her 5th studio album, COPINGMECHANISM, out tomorrow. As powerful as she sounds on her latest single, “Curious/Furious,” it’s clear her soul searching hasn’t quite ended. And this time around, she finds herself face to face with old demons.
A week before the new record’s release, WILLOW told me she was in her villain era. She also opened up about detachment, growing pains, her new recording process, and how sparks of neon energy helped her pushed through the black void of heartbreak.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: How was you performance at the Grammy Museum yesterday?
WILLOW: I was so stressed. I was amongst such beautiful musical iconography, and I felt really unworthy in the moment. But then I was just like, “You know what? You’re here and you’re gonna put your heart on the stage and that’s all that matters.
What did you see that sparked those feelings?
There were so many iconic outfits and so many beautiful videos on loop all around me. I was trying to keep my mind right and I didn’t want to go down the black hole of “Oh my gosh, I’m not iconic at all,” so I went into my room and did a little meditation, did my vocal warm up, and [got] myself together.
Do you usually meditate when you’re feeling like that on the road?
I have to — to keep my anxiety in check and to keep my gratitude. Gratitude carries me through everything. When I’m feeling like things aren’t going well or like I could be doing better, I always [try to] tap into the fact that I’m grateful to be able to do music in the first place, and that people care at all. That always brings me back to my center. My mantra is: “I accept everything that comes to me, good and bad, with equal love.” I always try to say that to myself and be in that neutral, compassionate state.
“Curious/Furious” dropped this month. I’m hearing themes of duality and transmutation. What life experience birthed this track?
I’ve always been so curious about the underlying truth of life. Even in my older music, when I was super young, I was talking about just spirituality and wanting to know the source of all things. The furious part comes in when these painful experiences come into your life in order for you to learn — to fully realize that underlying truth of reality. I’m super curious about those things, but when that pain comes in, I’m like, “Do I really want to learn this lesson?” But obviously I do. It was that dichotomy of wanting to know these things but also feeling like the pain is so great to actually learn these lessons.
What lessons are you learning right now?
Detachment. We do so much work in our lives and our careers and our relationships, and there’s a part of us that wants it to be permanent, but it isn’t. And that’s the beautiful part about it: We build these sandcastles, and we should have fun building them, but the ocean is always gonna come, and you’re always going to have to make a new sandcastle. That’s a painful realization, and it makes me furious. But I’m curious how I can learn to adapt to and flow with that nature.
What songs on the album were the most interesting to record?
“Coping Mechanism,” the title track, came a bit later and was hard to sing. The chorus took a lot of vocal dexterity. All of the songs came super naturally, but this one, I really had to think: “Okay, let me tap into that technique, because if I don’t, this is not gonna go as well as I want it to go.”
The first lyrics of that song: “Fun fact, I’m so sick of myself / My mind is a breeding ground for unhealth / The walls are talking and the voices in my head are screaming out loud.” I wouldn’t say that going into those deep dark parts of me is hard, but I haven’t delved into them in the past. I wanted to look more into the light: “What can we do to be better?” And this is still what’s at my core, but shadow work is really important sometimes. We can’t be afraid of the shadows. We have to accept them and make them our friends in order to bring them into the light.
I want people to feel seen and heard and cradled when they listen to my music or consume any art that I make. I want them to feel seen and not alone.
I didn’t want to start making an album so soon after lately i feel EVERYTHING. I just wanted to chill out. The first song we made was “WHY?” And I kept saying, “I’m really vibing this, but I think we should just keep it chill.” And then we made “maybe it’s my fault,” and I was like, “Oh shit, I want to make a full album that’s just little babies of this mother song.”
That’s always how it goes for me: I always have to make one song that encapsulates the feeling of what I want to create. And “maybe it’s my fault” was definitely that song for me. There were a lot of feelings coming up in the studio, and that anxiety and uncomfortability went into the production: I was like, “Can we go harder? Can we put more bass on that guitar? Can we get it to rip?”
“maybe it’s my fault” is really melodic, but it gets pretty metal. The dichotomy of that super soft melodic feeling [and] slam dunking the metal guitar just sparked inside of me, like, “This is the sound.”
What’s the process between a simple melody or a lyric and a full-on therapy session?
When I was working just by myself, without a producer, it was very different. But working with Chris [Greatti] every day, it was a new thing. He would never send me tracks and be like, “Hey, do you like this? Are we gonna work on this in the new session?” We came into the studio and created something from scratch every time. We’d sit down, and he would pick up that guitar and we’d just shoot the shit. It made me feel like I had much more control over the process.
Most of the time, it wasn’t in chronological order. He’d play parts, and I’d say “That sounds like a pre-chorus” or “That sounds like a bridge or a breakdown.” We would piece the guitar parts together like a puzzle. And then after they were all in their spots, I’d start thinking “Okay, what do I want this song to be about? What does this make me feel?” I’d start writing, and while I was writing, he’d try out different drum parts and I’d try out different rhythms. Me writing while he figured out the drums was amazing because the rhythm of the lyrics completely informed the rhythm of the drums, so it’s important for those two to be symbiotic.
What pop-punk or alt-rock music were you digesting before recording this project?
I was listening to a lot of Radiohead and a lot of metal bands like Crowbar, Lamb of God — this really soft, melodic, spooky sound mixed with this hard, dark sound. That very complex melodic feeling to Radiohead and Deaftones… That’s at the core of what I love about music. But this new, seven-string, dark sound was something I hadn’t explored before. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Primus, which has been informing a lot of the new ideas that I’m having.
I can see you — hoodie on, rocking out.
Rocking out but also crying. Radiohead really brings you into that emotional place.
I feel like you have a sacred relationship with crying. Sometimes you post these selfies with tears — full-on crying sessions — and I’m like, “It’s giving performance art, but she’s also being very vulnerable here. This is real life.”
I like to show people I’m in pain too. I was talking to one of my cousins… and she expressed to me that she thought that I was happy all the time and that things always went well. I’m like, “Yo, no, no, no, let’s sit down. Let me tell you, this is not always easy. I’m so grateful to be able to do this, and it’s a beautiful thing, but sometimes it’s really not great. Sometimes I get really, really sad.” I had to express to her: “Bro, I’m human and you can always talk to me. Don’t ever think I’m above it all.” It was a great bonding moment for us.
What’s your coping mechanism when things do go wrong?
While I was making the album, I was going through a lot of heartbreak, and my coping mechanisms at the time were not healthy: lots of weed, lots of alcohol. But also, being in the studio was my coping mechanism. Making the album was my coping mechanism. It’s ironic: I had so many coping mechanisms, I couldn’t really focus on one. But the music should always be the coping mechanism. After making the album, I’ve been sober. I’ve been vibing it out and trying to get my emotional self back together and find more healthy coping mechanisms. We’re all on that journey, and I want to inspire people and let them know that they can find better coping mechanisms, and that it’s okay to not be okay all the time.
Let’s talk about the visual identity of COPINGMECHANISM — this textured neon pink and blue and this interstellar black.
When I listen to the album and close my eyes, I see it existing in a dark void with pops of neon color. While I was recording, I kept seeing this vision. In the “maybe it’s my fault” video, where I’m far away sitting in the window sill with the void all around me, and also in the “curious/furious” visualizer, where I’m a bright flame in a dark area, that was my psyche at the time. There was so much darkness around me, and I had to work so hard to push these intense bursts of color in order to make everything make sense.
I know it sounds abstract and weird, but that’s the best way I can describe it, and I like that. I’m repeating a motif that’s very indicative of my the emotional state, and I don’t think my aesthetic has ever been this consistent. It’s giving retro, but it’s also giving futuristic. It’s a very authentic expression of my emotional state.
Can we expect to see the same motifs in more music videos?
Yes. You’re gonna see more darkness with bright neon flames of creativity, anger, sadness, and confusion in the void of just the unknown.
I haven’t seen you explicitly say this, but I’m thinking you’re in your villain era. In your own words, what era are you in right now?
Let’s be real: I’m in my villain era. I saw a meme that was like, “No more character development because my character is gonna develop into a villain,” and I was like “Yo, yes.” There’s been heartbreak, and you can either take that as a signal to become better or to go into the darkness. I was struggling with that while making the album. I’m experiencing so much pain, so much insecurity, so much confusion, and I’m really, really reaching for the light — hence the void. I’m in the darkness, but I’m really, really reaching for the light.