EW 100 honoree Justin Timberlake is putting his own projects on the backburner as he prepares to launch his new label and lends his production skills to new records from Madonna and Duran Duran
Credit: Eamonn McCormack/WireImage

In the midst of traveling around the globe promoting Shrek the Third and playing sold-out venues on his worldwide FutureSex/LoveShow tour, Justin Timberlake took time out to call EW.com from Cologne, Germany, to share some of the other projects he’s somehow fit into his schedule. In this revealing chat, the artist talks for the first time about his sessions with Madonna, reveals the artists he’s signed to his new label, and explains why he’s taking time off from his own release schedule.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You and Timbaland have been writing and producing songs for Madonna’s next album. How’s that been going?
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: The records that we’ve done so far are really exciting. There are some dance records, there are some mid-tempo ballads, there’s all types of different stuff. But I don’t want to gas it too much. People might like it or people might not. I don’t want to say, like, [carnival-barker voice] ”It’s going to change the world!” You know what I mean? But we like it.

How about the songs you’ve recorded with Duran Duran for their new album?
It’s crazy to be sitting in a room with people that you admired as such a young kid, and now they’re looking to you for answers and suggestions and opinions. Literally, I’m just a fan.

Let’s talk about the label you’re starting, Tennman Records. Would you say this is something you’ve always wanted to do?
It’s funny. Things that are this ambitious, it’s not something where you sit around and say, ”Oh, I’d love to do that one day.” I kind of stumbled upon it. And then when there was so much interest from the people that I admire in the business, I thought, ”Well, maybe I can do this.” It just feels like a good time to do it. I’ve run the gamut on things I can do for myself [as an artist], and it seems attractive to me now to sit in the back seat.

How did you decide to sign 18-year-old Netherlands resident Esmée Denters as your first artist?
Being in the business for 10 years now, you look around and some people got it and some people don’t. I saw her on YouTube, got wind of what was happening — ”Hey, there’s this girl in Holland who’s got a phenomenal voice.” And the word ”phenomenal” in front of ”voice” doesn’t come often. Usually you hear, ”She’s pretty good, but there’s this great song,” which is usually a bunch of bulls—. And so I turned on YouTube and I was literally blown away — not only by her voice, but also her ear. I love the opportunity of discovering a talent that’s so raw. And now I can just kind of sit back and help her mold herself into a superstar.

Have you signed any other artists?
The second act that I’ve signed is a good friend of mine, his name is Matt Morris, and he’s actually a co-writer with me. He’s kind of like Ray LaMontagne meets Elton John meets Stevie Wonder meets Rufus Wainwright. With digital downloading, now more than ever it’s time for the birth of the hybrid artist. I’m anxious to create an artist that all the press has trouble labeling. To me, there’s two kinds of music: There’s good music and there’s bad music. So what we’re going to do is try to stay away from the latter. [laughs]

When have you worked with Matt in the past?
There’s one song that he co-wrote with me on FutureSex/LoveSounds. It’s the last song on the record. He’s written songs for Christina Aguilera, he’s written songs for Kelly Clarkson. He’s an amazing pop songwriter. But he also has this folk side to him that fits in for his own voice, and that’s how I hope to introduce him to the world. I’m actually looking forward to, after this initial press break, not talking about the label so much and just getting the music out of the artists — so people invest in the artists and not the fact that it’s our label. I mean, a label’s a label, but if you don’t have talent, you don’t have good songs, it really doesn’t mean s—.

What’s the timeframe for introducing these first couple of artists you’ve signed?
The first step with Esmée is to just get her in front of a crowd. Natasha Bedingfield is opening for me right now, but I’m going to put Esmée in front of her and let her come out and sing two or three songs. It’s funny, because I get a rep for being a person that’s gotten extremely lucky, and I do believe that as well. But man, I’ve been on stage and had bottles thrown at me. I’ve shown up at festivals and played and gotten booed. So I feel like it’s something that everybody needs to go through. [But] I have great fans and a great crowd that comes to our show, and I think they’ll be excited to hear her.

When do you think you’ll have time to record some of your own new material?
Ah, man, I don’t even know. That’s one of those things that when it hits you, it hits you, and you jump back in. That’s how I did this last [album]. You know, I don’t want this to come out the wrong way at all, because I’m only 26 years old, but I’ve been on tour for 10 years. You know what I mean? I just feel inspired to give someone else a chance to have what I’ve been lucky enough to have. That’s where my head is right now.

Complete this sentence for me. ”I’ll retire when…”
[Laughs] It’s gonna have to take something pretty apocalyptic. I’m just constantly inspired by new things. It might sound like horses— to you, but now more than ever I feel a shift and my career changing, and I don’t know that I’ll ever retire. I’ll just find new things to inspire me.