When you listen to the first words of the new song, "Romance," you might think the voice singing "Romance doesn't exist/It's a hoax to trick your mind into thinking perfection exists," is a young Fiona Apple, perhaps — or maybe even a deeply registered Lorde. But then the voice wails more lyrics like "Morality doesn't exist/It's a construct we breed into children who see/We create our paradigms/We create all our lives/Ancient biology/Roman psychologies..." against sweeping, Spanish guitar chords. Suddenly, it's very clear these words had to come from no other than the opinionated, philosophic young Willow Smith, whose sound is all grown up on her new album, The 1st, out October 31st.
The release lands on the singer's 17th birthday, and the rest of her album is just as layered and poignant as "Romance," set to experimental, celestial instrumentation. It's the kind of album you can easily picture as the soundtrack to a dark, romantic film — or swaying to amongst a flower-clad crowd at a music festival.
"The single really came about by me just thinking about the unrealistic ideals that women have about relationships, which are fed to us through the media, our parents, and our peers," Smith says. "As I am starting to grow up and experience more, I’m starting to realize how deep this illusion goes — and how strategic it has been catered to women, specifically."
The romantic feel of The 1st isn't a coincidence, either.
"This album is the first step into me diving 100 percent into my musicality," she says. "For my last album, I spent a lot of time on the computer producing, so this time I was learning the guitar as I created the album and focused more on composing and instrumentation. I was seeking the answer to the question Who am I as an artist, really? I'm so excited for people to hear what's in my heart."
Over the phone as she perused the aisles of the feminist-focused bookstore Blue Stocking in New York City, Smith waxed poetic on gender fluidity, feminism, self-care, and, yes, Donald Trump. I'm tempted to preface this Q&A with a caveat that the teen is ridiculously wise beyond her years, but Smith made it clear that's a phrase she's not particularly fond of.
"Throughout my entire life, everyone’s been telling me 'You’re so ahead of your time, your parents should be so happy,'" she says. "But when people are telling you this all the time, you start to believe it, and then you start condemning yourself for making mistakes, because you already see yourself as someone who should already know everything. But I don't know everything. I'm still growing up."
Okay, then, so maybe not wise beyond her years. Willow Smith is just wise, period.
Your new album is called The 1st. What's something you hope to be the first to do?
"I hope to be the first, well...I bet there are some people who have done this, so I won’t say the first, but I want to be one of the few people who loves myself as much as I love the world around me. Because I feel like that’s enlightenment. What I’m striving toward every day in my life is getting to an area of self-love so I can reflect that onto everyone that I come in contact with. I want to be a moving wand of healing where whoever I touch, whoever I see, whoever I meet, I heal."
You've had a fearlessness from a young age when it comes to expressing yourself, whether that's through gender fluid fashion or revealing music. What advice do you have for anyone trying to find themselves, who didn't grow up in the kind of safe, encouraging space that you did?
"I'd remind them that anyone who is going out of their way to try to put their negativity onto you and make you feel a certain way, that's just a reflection of how they feel inside. I know that’s a cliché, but it could not be more true. Like, recently, I was playing guitar around some girls that were musicians as well, and one of the girls started ripping the guitar right in front of my eyes. I looked at my hands and started feeling so insecure. And then I started thinking negative thoughts about her. But then inside my mind I was like No, this is the poison right here. This is the mental mechanism that I’m always observing and preaching about. I had to stop in that moment to observe that and remember to carry that awareness through my life.
"So now whenever I’m feeling my insecurity trying to latch onto someone else in an effort to try to make them feel insecure, I take a step back and think about how I really feel about that person. And every single time, the answer is that they inspire me, and they’re amazing. When you take that time to analyze yourself and why you behave the way you do, you can start to understand other people better."
You and your brother Jaden have long been at the forefront of boundary-pushing expression, and it seems like the rest of Generation Z has only more recently begun to catch up. Why do you think that's happening right now?
"Because it's important right now, with everything happening in our society. But I've realized that there has to be a yin and yang, for a reason. There are always going to be people on opposite ends of a spectrum. That’s a double-edged sword though, because — let’s look at music, for example. There is some of the most nasty, misogynistic, rap music out right now. And simultaneously, there’s the most creative, beautiful, and unique music coming out right. I use that as a blueprint for what’s happening in society.
"Take the Black Lives Matter movement. There are so many strong, amazing, independent Black people making art and expressing themselves, while there are also white supremacists marching and holding rallies. My guitar teacher told me one day, 'The people who are put on this planet to be the light are put on this planet to be the light — not to let the darkness bog them down." Not everyone can always be a light worker. And if I'm going to be a light worker, I cannot let those in the darkness dim my light. Yin and yang."
The buzz phrases that are often used to describe you are "gender fluid" and "feminist." Are those labels that you embrace?
"Humans are always going to try to find a way to categorize something with language so we can talk about things. There are pros and cons, because it's great to talk about it, but then by giving them a name, like, by saying 'I'm a gender fluid person,' I feel like we’re taking the fun and the spectrum and the microtones out of that beautiful gray area. But all of that goes back to language, which I've been studying recently. I've been thinking a lot about the positive and negative of language and how we speak to each other. We often don't understand the negative context of words because that's just how we speak, you know?"
Oh, man. If only the White House could hear you right now, because they don't pay attention to how much negativity is behind even their most simplest statements.
"It’s all tautology. Politics right now is all just cycles upon cycles of tautology. I mean, Donald Trump is the king of tautology. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced someone talking in circles more my entire life. It’s unprecedented, really."
Indeed. We are truly living in some very confusing, very negative times. Is there any intentionally inspiring message that you hope listeners will take away from your new album?
"I want people to take away that you have to allow yourself to not be you in order to find you. Through making this album, I had so many emotions and did so many things that I never thought I would do. And then I started condemning myself for that. But berating yourself and trying to fit yourself into a box just gives you less clarity. You have to let yourself grow up."
Okay, one last buzzword for you: self-care. You play guitar, you practice archery. What else does Willow Smith do when she needs to hit refresh?
"I go into nature by myself, and I commune with Mama Gaia. I talk to the trees out loud, I tell them my issues, and I explain to them my theories. And then I cry with them, and I cry to them, and I laugh with them, and I laugh to them. It makes me feel like I’m home."