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Synesthetes: "People of the Future"

Pharrell Williams says synesthetes have futuristic skills.

If not for Pharrell Williams' music to color synesthesia, countless stars would have to find a new hit maker.

Wiki Commons; Jazminmillion.
Pharrell Williams performing in Montreal in 2008.
Source: Wiki Commons; Jazminmillion.

"I'd be lost," Grammy Award-winning producer, performer and entrepreneur Mr. Williams says on the phone from London. I'm interviewing him for a chapter in my book, Tasting the Universe, where this interview first appeared. "It's my only reference for understanding. I don't think I would have what some people would call talent and what I would call a gift. The ability to see and feel (this way) was a gift given to me that I did not have to have. And if it was taken from me suddenly I'm not sure that I could make music. I wouldn't be able to keep up with it. I wouldn't have a measure to understand."

Mr. Williams, 34, who spent time as a child in a Virginia Beach housing project and grew to be named "The Best Dressed Man in the World," by Esquire magazine in 2005, can't remember a time he didn't associate music with colors he sees in his mind's eye. "Oh my God, it's always been this way. But I thought all kids had mental, visual references for what they were hearing."

Music and Mr. Williams clearly have an extraordinary relationship - something beneficiaries of his infectious tracks from Madonna to Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Snoop Dog would all attest to.

On a recent episode on ABC-TV's "Nightline" he told an interviewer that when his family moved to the suburbs and he encountered a wonderful band teacher, he knew music was for him. "It just always stuck out in my mind. And I could always see it. I don't know if that makes sense but I could always visualize what I was hearing. It was like...weird colors."

Mr. Williams was just 17 in 1992 when a song he helped compose, the dance hit, "Rumpshaker" went double platinum. That would be followed by earning millions per song doing tracks for Mr. Timberlake's critically acclaimed album, "Justified," Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," Britney Spears' foray into adulthood with "Slave 4 U," Nelly's "Hot in Here," Snoop Dog's "Drop it Like it's Hot," and singing on Madonna's "Give it 2 Me," among other hits.

Though his sound is immediately indentifiable, he has said that he doesn't intrude too heavily on the artist with his track mastering - he simply imbues it with his talent. Speaking on Britney Spears on "Nightline" he said, "I Warhol'd it. ‘Cause she's still Britney. I just put my colors on it."

The young man whose name is derivative of his father's (Pharaoh) and who says he has Egyptian and Native American heritages, introduced a new generation to synesthesia by naming his third album with N.E.R.D. (No One Really Dies), "Seeing Sounds."

And he has been open about his synesthesia in the media, raising awareness and adding his glamour to the gift. He told Remix magazine: "Some people make music and they see things. The condition is called synesthesia. It's when one of your senses gets more information than what's intended. When you hear, your ears send auditory images to your brain. But some people conjure [visual] images to the sound, as well. That's synesthesia...

"Sure, my lyrics are inspired by synesthesia," Mr. Williams adds. "You ask any great rapper or writer or musician, and they'll tell you their craziest ideas come from the shower or the plane because in both places there is sensory deprivation."

Laurie Kennedy, music editor at Remix magazine, was pleasantly surprised by the response to Mr. Williams' description of his gift, which was a cover story. "I wasn't so sure of the topic at first," she tells me, "but after we ran the piece, we got mail from people who are also synesthetes. It's such a cool thing," she says.

Mr. Williams is ever more expressive with color, as well as music, as he matures. He has designed riotous clothing and accessories for his "Ice Cream" and "Billionaire Boys Club" lines and has collaborated on six different-colored Hermes bags outfitted with solid gold hardware. He has even designed furniture, doing a surrealistic spin on old Eames designs. He has designed sunglasses and jewelry for Louis Vuitton.

According to Vuitton spokeswoman Mona Sharf, "Keeping pace with contemporary art and culture, Louis Vuitton delights in opening up to the foremost talents of our times. When it commissioned Pharrell Williams to design its debut sunglasses collection, it dared to reveal the personality and the sense of style of the star of the U.S. music scene." The latest jewelry collection is called, "Blason."

He has also collaborated with Japan's Takashi Murakami on art exhibited at Art Basel in Switzerland.

His sense of style has made headlines as far away as The United Arab Emirates, where The National newspaper said: "Williams is not only a super-sharp dresser, he's also a veritable hip-hop renaissance man, turning his hand to a number of collaborations. Like (Kanye) West, he has worked with Vuitton (on a jewelry collection and a range of sunglasses), and it was recently announced that he would work on some art pieces with the Vuitton favourite Takashi Murakami (he of the cartoon-emblazoned LV bags). His most recent incursion into fashion has been, with the rest of N.E.R.D., the design of some T-shirts for H&M's Fashion Against Aids ...''

When Mr. Williams is not in haute couture, he rocks a skater boy aesthetic right down to installing a half pipe to skateboard on right inside his home. But for all the riches Mr. Williams has acquired and his perceived materialism, he believes color is not just a marketing tool or a form of expression, but a key to his spirituality. And he believes that the synesthetic imagery he sees is a connection to a higher power.

"To me, it is the absolute, direct conduit to God and the collective consciousness, the mind and the spirit," he tells me. "That is definitely the conduit.

"I believe that it's in us, I believe it has the ability to go beyond us and the flesh. But I believe for the most part because most people, because we are raised, in life, to be very attached to the flesh and think that nothing can happen without the flesh. And so that's why a lot of our ideas, and a lot of the functionality of the products that we create and the technology doesn't serve us as well as it will because we are coming closer and closer to realizing, that the mind and the spirit is essential - and scientists are coming around to that and they're realizing that as they're creating all this artificial intelligence.

Mr. Williams believes one day we'll understand that the difference between computers and human beings is soul. "This essence or soul, that interacts and moves through the body, which is the machine, in a dimension which is on this planet here and now, which is time and space....They're figuring this all out now."

Pharrell Williams next takes me on a journey involving harmonics. "Another thing I think has a correlation (to synesthesia) is this,'' he says. " There are seven basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. And those also correspond with musical notes...White, believe it or not, which gives you an octave is the blending of all the colors..." There's such conviction and sense of discovery in his voice.

Mr. Williams also ascribes to a chakra system and feels affinity for color associations in many mediums. "Colors are light in the electromagnetic spectrum. For every color, there is a sound, a vibration, a part of the human body, a number, a musical note...You have all of your chakras, you have the pituitary, the pineal, the thymus thyroid, the adrenal and the gonad and so on (which correspond to colors)."

And he has a unique process to access the music, which is always accompanied by a vision of colors floating by. He says his process is like riding a moped - you have to peddle first to fire it up. "What gives me meditation is the shower. When I get in the shower, because of something called sensory deprivation - when one of your senses is being blocked, it allows your mind to wander and be imaginative. So when I'm in the shower, the water blocks out the sound, so it makes me imagine things.

"And that happens to me on planes, and that happens to me in the shower, and that happens to me underwater. And that's why when I'm around water it's a little bit more of a creative environment.

This explains why he named his successful production company with Chad Hugo, "The Neptunes," for the god of the sea. The Neptunes have won three of 10 Grammy nominations so far.

"Sometimes when I'm in the studio if I'm by myself, I'll tell the engineer to just leave me for a little while, I'll turn on a loop of rain, and I'll turn all the lights out in the studio, and I'll close my eyes and sit back on the couch, and I have like the craziest visions. That's a technique called sensory deprivation and that's what you are doing when you meditate. When you meditate, you let go of the senses and allow your inner essence to just flourish and bring to you images of whatever it's going to do."

Mr. Williams says he finds sensory deprivation rooted in wise old wisdom handed through his family to him, and something necessary in a technologically-laden modern world. "It's an old tale among African-Americans in the South that calm waters run deep and if you would just sit still the answers would come to you. It's because we are so distracted by all of our senses that our minds have to keep up with all that's going on with our motor skills. But when a part of your senses shut down, the mind just does something else. The mind is an antennae.

"...We sit around and think ideas come to us, and no, you just had a moment where your mind was able to....continue to do whatever your body was doing and allow your mind to be freed up a little bit and just get a few images..."

Mr. Williams, who heads a company called Star Trak Entertainment and likes to give the Vulcan split finger salute, believes that synesthetes are people of the future, as are those with Attention Deficit Disorder.

"I happen to have a theory that synesthetes and people with ADD/ADHD will rule the world. You want to know why I think that is the case? Because historically, that is the case."

Mr. Williams assessment of synesthetes has some basis though it's generous. Through history, people believed to have been synesthetes include: Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, physicist Richard Feynman, Franz Liszt, Olivier Messian, and Vladmir Nabokov, among other greats.

The fashion icon said he has known he was a different learner since childhood. "I know for me, when I used to read as a child, my processing - I could read when I had to, but for me when I would start reading my mind and my imagination would just go elsewhere.

He had to go back and focus or sometimes had to read things two and three times. He was an excellent reader at reading aloud, but wouldn't retain the information. "I would be reading, meanwhile reading the faces of the other kids in the room, thinking about this, thinking about that, or ‘I can't wait to get home because it's Friday and my Mom makes hot dogs and French fries and I love ketchup'.

"I was all over the place; my imagination ran wild. However, those are the best directors in film, those are the best music composers, or the best jazz musicians. Because we're able to catch all those things, we're also able to articulate, ‘what is that?'"

Mr. Williams says that kids like him think "27 frames per second" and he believes there's nothing wrong with them, they just have the ability to retain more information. "It's only a bad thing when you can't focus and get things done. Most of the people who multi-task a lot, they have ADD, it's just been properly channeled."

He thinks children's strengths should be played to in education. "I'm a huge NLP, Neuro-Linguistics Programming person; I love NLP. And they tell you that somewhere halfway between a child's hobby, what he does, and his interest, what he'll listen to, somewhere in between there is where that kid is going to be in life and he's going to be good at it...

"I believe there are four corners to success, and the middle is the sweet spot, which is the child's destiny. To the left is the hobby, to the right is the interest, to the front is the teacher and to the back are the parents. In the middle of those four points is the child's destiny."

He believes not only children with ADD but those with synesthesia, need to be educated differently. "Well that's the other thing about NLP because I feel that we need to change the curriculum around the world. Because what they do is find a teaching method that works. But the problem (now) is they assume most kids are visual learners but that's not the truth. The truth is some kids pick things up auditorially quicker, some kids pick things up visually, some kids pick things up kinesthetically and there's also olfactory and gustatory. And there are synesthetes who know more about something by the way it smells or tastes - like there are people who know what purple tastes like and it's not grape."

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