Beyond the Boys’ Club is a monthly column from journalist and radio host Anne Erickson, focusing on women in the heavy music genres, as they offer their perspectives on the music industry and discuss their personal experiences. Erickson is also a music artist herself, recently releasing the song “Eternal Way” with Upon Wings. This month’s piece features an interview with Willow Smith.
Many music acts take an entire career to churn out four studio albums, but Willow Smith has already achieved that feat at the age of 20. If you count her collaborative LP (The Anxiety) with Tyler Cole, then it’s five albums, plus a handful of EPs.
Willow recently released a rock-inspired new album Lately I Feel Everything, featuring a raw, alternative vibe with heavy guitars, punky rhythms and powerful vocals. The new effort features some notable guests, including Blink-182’s Travis Barker on the single “Transparent Soul” and Avril Lavigne on the track “Grow.”
Willow will support the album with a 2021 US tour, followed by a support slot on Billie Eilish’s 2022 North American outing.
For Heavy Consequence‘s latest edition of “Beyond the Boys’ Club,” Willow checked in to discuss the new album, her mother’s influence on her, touring with Billie Eilish, and much more.
On Travis Barker’s involvement with the song “Transparent Soul”
There were a couple of weeks in quarantine where I was just trying to experiment with this new sound and find a middle ground between that moody, ethereal feeling and angsty, hard rock vibe. So, there were a couple of weeks where my co-producer, Tyler [Cole], and I were working on that song and trying to find that balance. Once we wrote the hook and figured out that it was going to be “Transparent Soul,” Travis was the first person to pop into my mind. It was kind of a fever dream at first, because he’s such an icon. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to convince him to get on the song. But, it ended up working out, and I’m just so honored. I’m so grateful.
On the message behind “Transparent Soul” and why she released it as the first single
I kind of wanted to set the vibe. I wanted to set the precedent for the feeling of the rest of the album. When I make a project, there’s usually one song that encapsulates the sonic landscape that I want. “Transparent Soul” was definitely the song that encapsulated the the landscape of the album. So, I wanted that to be the first song, so that it set the stage for the vibe of the rest of the album. Talking about the content, I feel as humans, we are constantly in situations with people who maybe don’t have our best interests at heart. That song was really just about being like, you can’t fool me. I have cleaned my soul. I have cleaned my mind and heart to such a level that I can see right through you. And, the only reason why I can see right through you is because I can see right through myself, and I’ve done the necessary work within myself in order to see what your intentions are. I’m just glad that it’s getting so much love, because I never expected for it to pop this hard.
On working with Avril Lavigne on the song “Grow”
Unfortunately, because we were recording when COVID was kind of still — I mean, it’s made a resurgence — but when COVID was first starting to make its way, we couldn’t get together in person. But, we ended up meeting for the first time on the set of the “Grow” music video. She’s just such an angel, so sweet. You can tell that because she’s been in the industry for so long, she is so sure of herself and so aware of who she is and what she wants to offer. That was just really inspiring to me.
On how growing up and watching her mom, Jada Pinkett Smith, front the metal band Wicked Wisdom
Seeing my mom use her voice as an agent of activism in the metal world was extremely inspiring, because it showed me that music wasn’t just music — it’s an agent of change. That inspired me to explore so many different kinds of genres and explore what those genres would bring out of me, content-wise. I think that’s really the foundation of my curiosity about doing other kinds of genres.
On surprising her mom on the Mother’s Day edition of Red Table Talk by recruiting her Wicked Wisdom bandmates and performing one of their songs
She was crying! I mean, that time in her life is so special to her. So much was happening during it. It holds a lot of history and weight. You know, she really showed me what it meant to put your big girl pants on and what being a woman really is about. I think that symbol of that time in her life is just a real bonding moment for us, because she really turned on her goddess light and really just showed me — she was the example. She lived the example of a strong, independent, creative, wild, divine woman. So, I think we just really connect on that time in her life, with me being her daughter.
On transitioning to more of an alternative-rock sound on Lately I Feel Everything
I have always had a deep affinity for rock music in general. On my second album, I had a song called “Human Leech.” There was a seven-string on that song, and my mom was growling on that song. It was really, actually, metal vibes. Then, on my first album, I had a song called “Random Song” that was like kind of this really intense, grungy bass sound. And my co-producer Tyler and I put out a full rock album called The Anxiety before I put this album out. So, I’ve been dabbling in and honoring and loving rock music since I was a young’un.
I just had parents who were extremely encouraging and supportive when it came to art and expressing yourself. Because I grew up in a family of entertainers, I feel like my mom and my dad were just waiting to see what my skill would be. I think it was just bred into me, like, I was just made to be an artist.
On what she’s looking forward to on her upcoming tour with Billie Eilish
Billie is just so uniquely and unapologetically herself. To be to a woman, and to be a young woman, in this industry who has just taken it by its horns and been like, “I’m going to be who I’m going to be, and I’m going to inspire other women to hold themselves with a sense of pride and a sense of power and a sense of creativity and divinity.” It’s just so beautiful to be alongside her, because that is the service I feel we bring to the world. I’m just honored, because she’s just such a beautiful person. I’m honored.
On whether she feels like she’s in good company when it comes to the number of women in music
I think that it’s starting to become way more accepted, and I think that women are starting to feel way more confident and be like, “F**k this, f**k you. I’m going to do what I want to do.” That’s the energy I live for.
On whether she noticed any sexism watching her mom in Wicked Wisdom, and how that influenced her
One-hundred percent. It’s just a very white male space. They just didn’t want her there, and they made it very, very clear that they didn’t want her there.
It’s really not even about, “Oh, I need to stand up against these men.” It’s really about feeling like I need to stand up for the women — for the women and the people of color and any marginalized group of people who have been oppressed and told that they can’t express themselves the way that they want to. So, I try to take my focus off the people who are doing the hating and put my focus on the people who need the voice.
On previously mentioning that she used to get bullied in school
Even how I tried to dress. It was tough there for a moment. But, people only inflict pain on people if they’re in pain. I strongly believe that. So, all those kids who said, “You’re black. That’s not what you should be wearing. That’s not what black girls do. That’s weird. That’s not your thing.” All the people who said that, they probably had some sort of trauma they were going through that they felt like they had to say that to me in order to feel better about themselves. So, it still sucks, and I would tell them that’s not fire and that they shouldn’t do that. But, I would also say, I understand, because life is not easy, and it’s very hard to come at situations sometimes with a mature mindset. So, obviously, it’s not OK. I would tell them that they need to reevaluate their values and figure out why they said that. But, also, it’s like, we’re all suffering. I’m going to send you love regardless.
On the advice she has for girls and young women looking to get into music
Don’t worry so much about the business aspect and don’t worry so much about the music theory aspect. I would say pick up an instrument, whatever that instrument is, and just get familiar with it. Play songs on your phone — just play along with the song. What makes music and a musician special is when they go into their own world and create from a space of no rules. When you can cultivate that by yourself with your instrument without thinking of any of those things, the logistical music theory stuff will come later. The logistical business stuff will come later — but, you have a strong foundation and relationship with your instrument, whatever that instrument may be. So, that’s going to carry you through a lot of situations and a lot of uncertainty when you have that strong relationship with your instrument.