Willow Embraces Her Pop-Punk Era

Photographs by Lea Winkler
Styled by Willow
Originally Published: 

Willow Smith wears a Louis Vuitton sweater; Cartier necklace.
Willow wears a Louis Vuitton sweater; Cartier necklace.

Last month, Willow Smith—whose performer name is simply Willow—released the first single from her upcoming album. The pop-rock song, called “Transparent Soul” and featuring the former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, took off immediately (its music video already has over a million views on YouTube). But it was just the start of a rollout that will surely be filled with more surprises. Just this week, the musician gifted her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, a reunion with Wicked Wisdom, the nu metal band Pinkett Smith founded in 2002, on their Facebook Watch show, Red Table Talk. And it turns out a metal album might be in the works for Willow, too. For W’s annual Music Issue, Willow discusses touring with her mom and working alongside her early-aughts hero, Avril Lavigne.

You’re a true multihyphenate, acting alongside your father, Will Smith, and appearing as a cohost on Red Table Talk with your mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, and your grandmother Adrienne Banfield-Norris. But you’ve forged your own path with music: After your breakout hit, the 2010 banger “Whip My Hair,” you switched to soulful, experimental alt-R&B, and even shoegaze. Now you’re making a pop-punk rock album. What led you in this new direction?

I always wanted to do a metal album, because my mom was my inspiration as a child. I went on tour with her when I was 7 or 8, when she performed at Ozzfest with her band, Wicked Wisdom. Seeing a strong Black woman onstage singing rock was so amazing—but a lot of people weren’t happy about seeing a Black woman in that space. I saw her gracefully do her thing while so many people were being racist and sexist and just not being nice. But she handled it with such strength. She was like, “Some people are upset, but we don’t focus on that. We focus on doing our best and being strong and doing what we want to do.”

Was it intimidating to try out a new genre?

I never thought I could do rock music, because I was trained since I was 8 to sing R&B. Then I was just like, You know what? Eff it. I got in the studio and started messing around. I was doing a whole bunch of demos during quarantine because I was like, I literally have nothing to do. Why not let me just see if I can actually achieve this musical vision?

Tell me about some of the collaborators you brought in for this upcoming album.

I needed to get that pop-punk cosign. First, I hit up Travis Barker, because I was like, “Yo, I know that you would kill this.” So we got in the studio together, and I let him listen to “Transparent Soul,” and he loved it; I was shaking in the studio, worried about whether he would think it was lame. Then I wanted “Grow” to sound like it was on Radio Disney in 2007, so I hit up Avril Lavigne; I wanted that 2007 Avril angst. When I heard what she did with what I sent her, I felt like I was transported back to my tween days, in the car, just screaming, “I don’t have to try to make you realize!” It was beyond any joy that I could have imagined.

Onitsuka Tiger T-shirt; her own boots.

Hair by Vernon François for Redken at the Visionaries Agency; makeup by Raoul Alejandre at Opus Beauty.

Lighting director: Robert Kozek; lighting technician: Kenny Castro; director of photography: Jimmy Nyeango; fashion assistant: Jensen Edmondson; production assistant: Kurt Lavastida.

Are you planning on incorporating performance art into this release cycle, the way you did for your previous album, The Anxiety?

I don’t think I’m going to be doing any performance art, but there are going to be a lot of cool, creative things that don’t even really have to do with music that I want to explore during this era.

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