Voice Notes: Willow Smith's winding road from pop to pop-punk
Voice Notes is a column where we ask artists how they developed their approach to singing.
Though many are still surprised to hear Smith's vast departure from dance-team anthems, in an interview with EW, she counters: "This isn't new for me. I have been doing this for a very long time. I just think maybe people didn't pay attention to that side of my music-making, but that's always been an inspiration for me. I've always loved rock, and I've always had rock inspiration on every single one of my albums."
In advance of her new record Lately I Feel Everything (out July 16), Smith walks through her vocal transformation and what it's like to find a sound that works for you after you've become a successful artist.
As she preps the release of her new album, Smith is reflecting on her now-decade-long career in music — and how she arrived at her current sound. "I honestly had the freedom to figure out what felt right for me," she says. The downside? She had to do most of it after her debut single, "Whip My Hair," dropped in 2010 and immediately shot up the charts. "It was so fast that I didn't really know what kind of musician, let alone what kind of singer, I wanted to be." Smith says that she began as a pop R&B artist because "my voice was trained to sing that kind of music. It was not a conscious thing. And then I kind of woke up and was like, 'Is this the kind of music I want to sing? What do I want?' I had to figure it out all over again."
Becoming a musician
As she matured — and began listening to artists like Radiohead, Goldfrapp, and Hiatus Kaiyote — Smith had a revelation. "I was an artist, I was a singer-songwriter, but I didn't really think of myself as a musician," she admits. "I knew that I had to create that for myself because all of the music [and] artists that I was inspired by were proficient on an instrument, and I just knew that's what I needed to do." But, she clarifies, "I definitely feel like the voice itself is an instrument. I just, during that time, felt like it wasn't enough — and sometimes I still do."
Smith notes that singing is one of the most freeing things she does. But it comes with challenges. "It can be very frightening because my voice reflects all of my emotions," she explains. "If I'm having anxiety, or any negative emotion, my voice will reflect it. And I can't help it. I can't not do that. So that's definitely a blessing and a curse. In the studio when I'm writing songs and trying to put the emotion in there, it's very, very helpful."
Smith notes that developing her voice has also allowed her a window into her own life. "In singing lessons, personal issues will come up because it's energetic blocks that are literally blocking the air flow of my voice," she says. "It's very hard to explain, but it's very real." Her experience recording the 2020 Rise EP with kirtan artist Jahnavi Harrison further connected her to the power of her own musical approach. "When anyone listens to any project I do, whether it's metal, whether it's kirtan, whether it's ska, whatever it is, I always want them to feel like they are being grounded and rooted back to their source in a way that feels natural and vibe-y and playful. My aim is always spiritual with my music."
Her journey to pop-punk
Despite the pop intro, Smith notes that as a child she was exposed to a very different genre, thanks to mom Jada Pinkett Smith, who was the lead singer of the nü-metal band Wicked Wisdom. "My mom was so powerful, and the songs that I heard her sing, in the way that she sang them — in my mind there was no way I was going to be able to do that," she says. "The kind of growling she was doing, it just seemed impossible." Once the younger Smith learned to accept that "I can sound like me, and that's good enough — that's punk, that's rock, that's fire," she embraced her personal love of pop-punk, ignited by listening to artists like Avril Lavigne and Blink-182 "That love started to grow and just stay with me throughout my entire life."
Speaking of, Smith actually counts Lavigne and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker among her Lately I feel Everything collaborators — and they had a lot to teach her: "Whenever you work with an O.G. like that, just their presence and how they conduct themselves always teaches you more about your craft and about how you want to more efficiently express yourself in the future because they just have it down pat. They know who they are, they know what they do well, and they kill it every time. So [there's] definitely huge, huge lessons there."
Black girls rock
During her "angsty teenage years" — when she had "the whole side hair swoop, the whole emo vibe" — Smith had to deal with blowback from both peers and strangers. "I always felt like in school, and even on social media because I was super young, people would always be saying because I'm Black, I shouldn't be listening to this kind of music, or I shouldn't wear my hair this way, or I shouldn't dress this certain way," she says. "And that was crazy to me. I just didn't understand that. I thought that was ridiculous."
Staying firm in her identity, despite the naysayers, brought new purpose to her work. "Now I'm just going so hard because the only real Black girl rock inspiration that I had was my mom and [Alexis Brown], the main singer of Straight Line Stitch. Those were the only two women that I could look up to in that way. And so I just wished I had a young Black girl who didn't give a hell, who just was like, 'I see you, and I am you, and I'm going to go out in the world and rep us.'"
A version of this story appears in the August issue of Entertainment Weekly. Order it now or find it on newsstands beginning July 16. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.