There’s not much that Willow Smith hasn’t done. Actor? Check. Talk show host? Check. Artist? Check. But at 20, the artist who goes simply by WILLOW, is ready to try something new: being a rock star.
But her foray into the genre is nothing less than authentic. Even since the release of her debut single “Whip My Hair” in 2010 — a catchy ode to individualism — her message has been the same: “Be yourself, do it, unapologetically and inspire other people to do it, too,” WILLOW tells SPIN over the phone from an undisclosed location in Malibu. And that has remained as her entire foundation for making music.
If you’re surprised by WILLOW’s pivot to punk-rock, you haven’t been paying attention. Truthfully, rock has run in her family. In the early 2000s, WILLOW’s mother, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, formed nü-metal band Wicked Wisdom, which has been a throughline of inspiration for the singer throughout her life. Then there was the 10-track, rock-leaning album titled The Anxiety WILLOW released in 2020 with her partner Tyler Cole, which was accompanied by a performance art exhibit at MOCA in Los Angeles where the duo endured a 24-hour anxiety attack trapped in a box. Following their exhibition, WILLOW went straight into quarantine and found herself gravitating towards the sound of what would become her fifth studio album lately I feel EVERYTHING (due July 16). “I just knew that I wanted to do something different,” the multihyphenate explains. “I wanted to shake [the sound] up in a different way, and I knew that I wanted to just have fun.”
But as an artist who was specifically trained to sing pop and R&B, it took WILLOW a while to be comfortable singing in a “new” genre. For a long time, she thought her “voice couldn’t really handle the rock world.” “It was more about my voice and less about if other people would accept me,” she notes. Frankly, she was used to being misunderstood, she just wanted to make sure the quality of her vocal delivery was up to her own standards. And as she strengthened her voice, it finally was.
Ultimately, for WILLOW, making a pop-punk album was personal. In a space that is largely white and male-dominated, WILLOW wanted her album to pay homage to the Black rock artists who influenced her like Fefe Dobson, Alexis Brown from metalcore outfit Straight Line Stitch, and of course, her mother. “[They] were the only three, Black rock singers that I knew of, so really I just wanted to make this album as an ode to them,” she says. Furthermore, she added that she wants to be an inspiration to Black girls who want to enter the rock space. “I know that there are so many of us that want to play guitar, scream, growl, but are told that that’s not our place,” she says.
But the faces of rock are changing: WILLOW is now joining a cohort of Gen Z pop-punk-inspired artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Meet Me @ The Altar who are diversifying the long homogenous genre. “There are so many Black and Brown kids that are shelved at labels that want to do pop-punk, rock and metal, but for so long, they’ve just kind of been shelved because [the labels] didn’t know what to do with them,” notes WILLOW. Now, she says, she’s seen a paradigm shift for Black and Brown rock musicians. “Those artists are getting more recognition,” she adds. “Their budgets are getting bigger, so that they can record more music whereas before they weren’t getting that much [money and attention].”
And she’s experienced it firsthand, too. Following the release of “transparent soul,” the angsty lead single from lately I feel EVERYTHING that features Blink-182 drummer extraordinaire and producer Travis Barker, the internet went into a frenzy anticipating her pop-punk phase: She trended on Twitter, was praised by Rina Sawayama and got fans channeling their “inner ‘08 Panic! At The Disco vibes.” But while WILLOW’s forthcoming record has an ethos of pop-punk, she also needed to explore a “moody, darker area that’s not really pop-punk.” “I had to find a gradient, a perfect middle ground that was gonna be authentic to the kind of artist that I am,” she says. So, songs like “Lipstick,” “Don’t Save Me” and “Come Home” enter into the hard rock territory of Deftones instead of the song’s foundational sound.
In addition to “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l,” however, “Gaslight” and “Grow” (the latter which features Avril Lavigne) are purely pop-punk. While WILLOW was on the fence about including them, fearing they weren’t as “authentic,” as she wanted them to be, Cole made her realize she was overthinking it.
“I re-recorded my verse a couple times because I just wasn’t feeling chill about it,” she recalls. “And then I just had an idea like, ‘This is perfect for Avril Lavigne.’” For her, it was “a fever dream:” She didn’t believe that working with Lavigne would happen. But she took a chance: WILLOW reached out and got Lavigne on board. “It was honestly such a beautiful experience,” WILLOW says of working with Lavigne.
While WILLOW was intentional about releasing an album that was more about having “fun” and less about “pondering the meaning of life,” she couldn’t help but reflect on digging into her emotions surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests. With “Naïve,” the singer freestyle the lyrics and ended up depicting what was happening in her immediate surroundings at that time. Her cousin and his girlfriend were shot by rubber bullets at a Black Lives Matter protest, left with green and dark purple bruises spanning across their torsos. “It was intense,” she recalls. “They were really really injured, so I felt like I just had to talk about that.” Not only was it cathartic for WILLOW to share, but it was a way for her to raise awareness surrounding police brutality and encourage people to continue taking action.
That also speaks to WILLOW’s character. Growing up in Hollywood, the artist feels lucky to have had ample resources and the freedom to experiment. But for her, linking art with activism, whether it’s her music career or something else, is an integral part of everything she does. In order to be “worthy,” she says, she needs “to deliver art that’s going to have some sort of cathartic, social or internal shift for people.”
As to whether or not WILLOW will be providing that kind of “shift” in the rock genre, specifically, moving forward remains uncertain, but she does have some pop-punk dream collaborations in mind. “I’m trying to collab with Fefe [Dobson] at this point,” she says. But there are others she has in mind: Brown from Straight Line Stitch, Taylor Momsen from The Pretty Reckless and Hayley Williams of Paramore. Her mother, of course, is on that list, too. “I’m trying to convince her, but she said she was done a while ago,” says the singer. WILLOW is crossing her fingers for them all. “All of the female rock goddesses, let’s get together.” She’ll be waiting.