GIVEN EVERYTHING THAT’S happened to Robin Thicke in the interim, it seems like decades rather than just two years since the last time we spoke. He was on his way to the Grammy Awards show in New York, a little ditty called “Blurred Lines” was a global smash hit, and Thicke was on just about every magazine, tabloid and talk show in the universe. Thicke is the first to admit that an awful lot has gone down since then, a very public split with long-time wife Paula Patton and a nasty copyright battle with the family of the late, great Marvin Gaye. But all of that is way behind him now. And as I catch up with him this time – in a Greenwich Village hotel, waiting to shoot the video for his forthcoming single – Thicke seems relaxed, at peace with the world, and ready to scramble back up the music ladder again.
His current state of mind is strongly reminiscent of life before “Blurred Lines”, when Thicke was one of the music industry’s most sought-after songwriters as well as a solo artist of no small repute in R&B and soul. Despite an almost endless stream of gold and platinum songs for the likes of Christina Aguilera, Usher, Pink, Jennifer Hudson and others – and his own string of hit albums – Thicke basically flew beneath the radar of broader public recognition.
And he seems pleased to be there again, out of the eyes (and camera lenses) of the paparazzi who hounded him for so long, no longer steady fodder for the tabloids, ready to make his kind of music once more. He’s putting the finishing touches to his eighth album and getting ready to release the first single (“Back Together”) at the end of June. In another sign that Thicke is reaching into his past to jump-start the future, he’s also collaborating with other artists again, most recently with hip-hop superstar Flo Rida.
Thicke was born into showbiz, his mother Gloria Loring an actress and singer, his father Alan Thicke the family patriarch on Growing Pains, a long-running American television sitcom. He showed musical talent from a young age and by high school was writing songs for professional artists and laying down his own tracks. A Beautiful World, his 2003 debut album, didn’t gain much traction. But three years later, a follow-up called The Evolution of Robin Thicke shot to number five on the Billboard 200 and number one on the R&B/hip-hop chart. Other mega-hit songs and albums followed, culminating in the “Blurred Lines” collaboration with Pharrell and T.I. that became one of history’s largest selling singles (14.8 million copies) and the most listened-to radio song of all time.
Coming out of his self-imposed exile from the mass media, Thicke opened up about various aspects of his life and career during his first major press interview in more than a year.
WHAT’S BEEN HAPPENING IN YOUR LIFE SINCE WE SPOKE LAST TIME?
A whole bunch.
I’M MORE INTERESTED IN THE STUFF THAT’S NOT ON TMZ.
Most of that stuff is never true anyway. I just took some time off, you know. Last year – after touring for years and being on the road so much – I just decided that it was best to spend time with my son, take time to be with my family and just take it slow for a while, which I hadn’t done pretty much my whole career. And then after a few months of that, I started writing some new songs and working with some great producers and at this point we’re pretty much done with the new album.
SO WHEN ARE WE GOING TO SEE IT OUT IN THE REAL WORLD?
I think at the end of the month [June] we’re going to release the first single – “Back Together”.
ANY PLANS FOR TOURING LATER IN THE YEAR?
There’ll be so much promotion from now till the end of year, so most of it’ll be spot dates. We’ll also do some radio shows and stuff like that and then plan a tour for next year.
HOW DOES ALBUM NUMBER EIGHT DIFFER FROM NUMBER SEVEN IN TERMS OF BOTH THE LYRICS AND THE MUSIC?
The new album is call Morning Sun. It’s about fresh starts, new beginnings, and the heralding in of a new day. It’s about the last year of my life, the time I’ve spent with my friends and family and especially my son. The album is the first time that I’ve worked with people like [Swedish music producer] Max Martin and [LA hip-hop producer] DJ Mustard. I was lucky enough to work with Pharrell again and Timbaland and this new guy, Ricky Reed, who’s a superstar. I ended up doing four songs with Ricky on the album and was very excited to be working with him.
YOU ALSO HAVE A NEW COLLABORATION WITH FLO RIDA – “I DON’T LIKE IT. I LOVE IT” – WHICH IS SHOOTING UP THE CHARTS.
Yeah, it’s just taken off right and we’re actually shooting a video for it tomorrow. We did a concert yesterday in upstate New York for a radio station and Flo Rida was performing at the same radio show, so it was convenient [to shoot the video now] because we’re both here in New York at the same time.
DO YOU THINK THAT THE LAST TWO YEARS HAS CHANGED YOU AS A SONGWRITER?
No, I don’t think it’s changed anything. I’ve always thought of my music as autobiographical and this album is no different.
I KNOW YOUR FATHER WAS AN ACTOR, BUT HE WAS ALSO A MUSICIAN.
Yeah, he was songwriter and a singer, and my mom was a songwriter and singer also.
SO THAT’S WHERE YOU PICKED IT UP?
Well actually, on my mom’s side there are six generations back of family musicians. We had this kind of Sound of Music travelling family band with concert pianists and violinists and church singers and jazz saxophonists.
IS THAT ALL IN AMERICA OR DOES IT GO BACK TO EUROPE TOO?
From what I know it’s all in America. My mom did the family tree and she gave me this great picture – or I should say frame with about 10 different pictures – of my older relatives all holding different
instruments and stuff like that.
DID YOU EVER COLLABORATE WITH YOUR MOM AND DAD IN MUSIC?
Oh yeah. My first couple songs that I wrote, my dad heard them and helped me out and then he wrote a couple with me. And I’ve performed with my mom a handful of times.
WHAT’S THE FIRST TIME YOU REMEMBER BEING INTERESTED IN SINGING AND SONGWRITING?
Probably when I was six years old. I was a big Billy Idol fan. I was five when MTV started and so all of a sudden there was television and songs and video. John Cougar Mellencamp and Billy Idol and then Michael Jackson and Prince showed up and that was everything to me. I was like: I wanna be like those guys.
BILLY IDOL? SO HOW COME YOU DIDN’T GO DOWN THE PUNK ROAD?
I’ve always liked gospel singers and soul singers. I’ve always liked soulful music. Even my favourite rock songs were by the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles – you know, soulful rock.
DID YOU REALLY TEACH YOURSELF TO PLAY THE PIANO AT AGE 12?
[Laughs.] Well, yes. I had lessons when I was 11. I had like two lessons and didn’t care for it and wanted to learn how to play these songs that were on the radio that I really liked. I think the first song I ever taught myself to play was Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”. I had a crush on a girl and that became our song and I wanted to be able to play it for her. [Laughs.]
SO ARE YOU LIKE PAUL MCCARTNEY – YOU DON’T READ MUSIC?
No, I don’t read music.
TAHT’S AMAZING FOR BOTH OF YOU TO BE ABLE TO WRITE SO MUCH – AND SO WELL – BY EAR.
That’s the beauty. Anyone can pick up a paintbrush and dip it in paint. There’s no law against it.
DID YOUR PARENTS TRY TO STEER YOU AWAY FROM SHOWBIZ WHEN YOU WERE A KID?
Not really. I started making a living when I was 16, so they were sceptical because they know how hard the business is and how many people promise you the world and then don’t deliver and then you’re broken hearted. So they were obviously nervous for me. But once they saw – by the time I was 19, 20 – that I already had a long list of accomplishments, they started gaining confidence in it.
HOW DID YOUR FIRST DEMO TAPE COME ABOUT?
I was in a group with a couple friends of mine and one of the members knew a producer and for $1,000 we would be able to go in and sing three songs. I asked my dad for the $1,000, and I was like 14, and he said, “No, no, no! We’re not starting that. Way too soon!” One of the other guys in my singing group, his uncle is Al Jarreau. So Al Jarreau ended up footing the $1,000 bill to get my demo made. And that demo was heard by Brian McKnight, who got me in the studio and got me a record deal and taught me so much. Being in the studio with a singer-songwriter producer of that talent, I learned so much at the age of 14, 15. Watching his process and learning about engineering and production. It was like a crash course at the age of 15, which was amazing.
WHO WERE THE OTHER INFLUENCES?
My other musical influences all seem to come from gospel music like Commissioned or John P Kee or The Clark Sisters because I love the way they sing. Take 6 was an early influence for me. And so I was listening to a lot of Al Green and Stevie Wonder. Then a couple of years later I got into The Beatles and that blew my mind. I already knew “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Was Just Seventeen”, but then I got into Sgt Pepper’s and the White Album and those two just blew my mind. My first album I was basically trying to make my own version of Sgt Pepper’s.
YOU MOVED OUT OF THE HOUSE AT 17, WHEN YOU WERE STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL. THAT’S A HUGE STEP IN LIFE.
I was making a good living and had a record deal, and school was just getting in the way of me being able to be in the studio and make all my new-found commitments as a recording artist.
IT DOES SEEM LIKE YOU HAD SUCCESS AFTER SUCCESS IN THOSE DAYS.
I was lucky that by the time I was 20 the albums that I worked on were successes. Christina Aguilera’s first album, Pink’s first album, Marc Anthony’s first English album. And Brandy’s first album – that was the first song I ever had placed, when I was 16. A lot of them sold 10 million plus worldwide. Somehow I was lucky enough to be on everyone’s most successful album. [Laughs.]
HOW DOES SOMEONE THAT AGE GET TO WRITE FOR CHRISTINA AGUILERA?
The word got out about this “soulful white kid” [laughs] that sings and writes his own songs. So I started taking meetings with people like Ron Fair, a very talented A&R (artists and repertoire) executive and music producer. He hooked me up with Christina. We were blown away by her voice very early on and it was just a lucky project to get on.
WHERE DID THE CONFIDENCE COME FROM TO GO OUT AND PERFORM ON YOU OWN?
The album I recorded when I was a teenager, it just wasn’t very good. Jimmy Iovine – who has guided my whole career and been my mentor in just about every way – he thought the album wasn’t that great and we should just wait and go back to the drawing board. So I took a few years off and continued writing and producing for other people. When I was about 22, I thought it was time for me to focus on just my music. When I started recording I met Andre Harrell, who was CEO of Uptown Records and then Motown Records when Berry Gordy stepped down. He’s been a mentor to me, to Mary J Blige, Puff Daddy – a lot of us. Andre really changed my scope of music. He was a huge influence on me as a recording artist
WHEN DID PHARRELL COME IN?
Pharrell came in after the first album was released. Jimmy Iovine is always into associations to help new artists get a break – like putting Eminem with Dr Dre or 50 Cent with Eminem or myself with Pharrell. He knows it’s smart sometimes when an accomplished artist puts their arm around you and introduces you to the market, even if it’s a reintroduction. That association was very helpful to me, for Pharrell to say, “Wait, this guy has got some talent, you should check him out.”
HAS HE BECOME A FASHION INFLUENCE ON YOU TOO?
[Laughs.] No, not as much. We have two different styles. There’s nobody like Pharrell. He’s really into colourful and spans all different cultures. I’m a little more meat-and-potatoes kind of guy.
THE PAST YEAR YOU’VE BEEN OFF THE MAP. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN, GEOGRAPHICALLY SPEAKING?
Honestly, I just stayed at home in LA and spent every day that I could with my son, splitting custody. I was just there for him. He’d just changed from three to four and that’s a difficult age. They start understanding more. We just had the most amazing connection as father/son this year and it’s all been worth it. Sometimes things happen for the best. If that last album [Paula] had been a big success, it would have taken me away from him for another year. And the year I got to spend with him was magical.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO TOGETHER?
We do everything. We go to theme parks or museums or ball games or just go to the park on Saturday and sit around and walk for a few hours. Kick a ball and all that stuff that dads and kids do.
SEE ANY MUSICAL TALENT IN HIM?
Oh god, the guy can sing already. The other day he was singing “What A Wonderful World” in his end-of-school-year play. He just loves to sing and stand in front of everybody and hold the microphone and sing loud. He has a great voice.
HOW MUCH TIME AS A KID DID YOU SPEND IN CANADA?
We were there at least twice a year as I grew up. We would go there in the winter to visit my father’s family and we would go there in the summer. My grandpa had a boat and he would take us out boating. Some of my most vivid memories with my family are those boat trips.
WHAT PART OF YOU FEELS THE MOST CANADIAN?
Because I wasn’t born in Canada, what feels Canadian is my family. I feel a connection to my aunts, uncles, and grandfather. They are all so pro Canada. And my dad is so funny. Any time a Canadian accomplishes anything or just pops up on the TV, he’s like “Steve Nash MVP – a Canadian!”
DID YOU GROW UP AN ICE HOCKEY FAN?
I did … in connection with my father. He was friends with [Canadian hockey legend] Wayne Gretzky. Wayne stayed at our house for the summer before he moved to the LA Kings. In fact, my one great sports story was that I answered the phone when Wayne Gretzky was traded [from Edmonton to Los Angeles]. He was staying at our house, my dad was out of town, the phone rang and I answered it. It was Bruce McNall, owner of the Kings. He said, “I need to speak with Wayne.” And I said, “He’s sleeping; can you call back later.” And he said, “It’s very important. You need you wake him up.” So I knock on the door and say [whispers] “Wayne, phone for you.” I go to camp and come back and Wayne is on TV, on a podium in Edmonton having been traded. So that’s my one good sports connection.
CANADIAN HOCKEY FANS MUST LOVE YOU FOR THAT.
Yeah, it was all because of me. [Laughs.] If I had just hung that phone up, Wayne Gretzky would have never left Canada …
PHOTOGRAPHY ERIC MICHAEL ROY
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING PARIS LIBBY
GROOMING CHRIS YU
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS NUNO VELOSO AND JESPER MCILROY
STYLING ASSISTANTS AMBER CHOY AND LIANA CHAPLAIN
LOCATION TAZMANIA BALLROOM