Musicians on Musicians: Willow & Travis Barker

·15 min read
rolling-stone-willow-smith-travis-barker - Credit: Dana Trippe; Samuel Trotter for Rolling Stone
rolling-stone-willow-smith-travis-barker - Credit: Dana Trippe; Samuel Trotter for Rolling Stone

Welcome to Rolling Stone’s 2021 Musicians on Musicians package, the annual franchise where two great artists come together for a free, open conversation about life and music. Each story in this year’s series will appear in our November 2021 print issue, hitting newsstands on November 2nd.

Willow Smith has metamorphized. When she shaved her head onstage this summer, she did so while shredding through a rockified version of “Whip My Hair,” the 2010 pop hit that catapulted her to pop stardom — as if to say that her mane wasn’t the only thing she was shedding.

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Today, she’s a rule-defying force who can sling pop-punk hooks with the best of them — not unlike one of her own biggest inspirations, Travis Barker — but her evolution didn’t happen overnight. While Willow (who prefers to be referred to mononymously and turns 21 on Halloween) has long experimented with rock and alternative sounds, the singer-songwriter’s fourth album, Lately I Feel Everything, is her most pointed project yet.

Barker contributed to three of its songs, including its lead single, “Transparent Soul.” Willow isn’t the only artist he’s lent wisdom to; over the past couple of years, the Blink-182 icon has helped guide everyone from Machine Gun Kelly to Lil Huddy into the pop-punk space, while quietly launching his own record label.

Barker isn’t known for his effusiveness, but he sounds joyful as he reconnects with Willow. “I actually hit you yesterday,” Barker tells her on a Zoom call. “I was in the studio with my friend Nick, who goes by Illenium. We were just working on his album, and we wrote this hook and idea that’s just screaming for you to be on it.”

He only needs to do “a few more things” to that track before he plays it for her. “I told them, ‘Willow’s on the MGK album,’” he reveals. “You just went crazy on your verse and added so much in the studio,” he says of her contribution.

Willow: I didn’t even think for a second that you were going to be on “Transparent Soul.” That was kind of like a far-fetched fever dream for me. When I actually got in contact with you, I was so honored by the fact that you were even interested. What about “Transparent Soul” inspired you enough to get on it at all?

Barker: I was so impressed. I was like, “This is what she should have been doing all along, because it sounds so natural.” It sounds like who you are, every time I’ve met you or I’ve been around you. Then, when I got into the studio and added some stuff to it, had an idea for a bridge or whatever, it turned out to be a song I was really proud of.

Willow: Wow.

Barker: And for months after it was released, different people would come in the studio and mention that song as one of their favorite things I’ve done recently. Whether it was Ho99o9, Ryan Tedder, Omer Fedi, or MGK, it was really cool to hear everyone’s responses to it and see that it was so well-received.

Willow: I was actually really surprised at how well-received it was. I was nervous to see how people would respond, because that wasn’t the bulk of the kind of music that I was creating. But I feel you just brought such a special vibe to it. And I love that you’re not just a drummer, that you’re a producer and an artist in your own right. What is your process like when you’re creating music on your own?

Barker: I usually love to work with a guitar player — or I’ll start off something on piano, or with the little guitar that I do play. I love writing about stuff that I’ve gone through, but I’ll also manipulate a situation that I’m in and think of awful things — like “What if it ends?” — and all these different scenarios. Or sometimes I look at a piece of art that I have at the studio and get a great idea for a song.

Willow: It’s honestly such an inspiring space because there’s just so much art around you.

Barker: I love that space. I can’t even imagine not being there. With my old studio, everyone was like, “You can’t leave it. It’s magic.” But it was in a really weird neighborhood. There were dead people in the alleyway. Something told me it was time to go, and everyone else was like, “We don’t care. Don’t leave.” But the new spot is magical, too.

Willow: Mhm.

Barker: But, yeah, I can start something or I’ll approach something like how you guys had a lot of “Transparent Soul” already done. I like both. I like starting something from scratch, but once the blueprint for a song is there, my expertise is figuring out transitions, bridges, and arrangements. I was in the studio the other day, and this song started out completely different — it was a sleeper, and it turned into something insane. That’s the one I’m gonna play for you.

Willow: Yes! I would love that. I love songs that when you start out, you don’t think will end up in the place that they end up in — songs that surprise you and evolve.

“Whatever your most popular song is, or whatever the most popular band you’ve played in is, that is what you are to some people. They’re like, ‘Oh, he’s this — or she’s this.’ No, I’m not. I’m actually a million things that you don’t know about.” — Travis Barker

Barker: A good song is a good song. You can kind of produce it any way you want: It could be a chill song, a pop-punk song, a rap song — it could be anything. Production is everything. Having your gut and the knowledge to know where to take it, that’s the experimental piece. That’s what lets me sleep at night or not. Sometimes I get home from the studio and I’m like, “I didn’t figure out the puzzle.” Sometimes I do, and it’s the best night ever because I don’t go to sleep thinking about arrangements.

Willow: One hundred percent, because when all of those pieces are in the right place, there’s just a feeling that’s undeniable. Once I really, really started getting into producing, my whole relationship with music changed, because I felt like I had full control over how I created. A lot of times, if you’re just a vocalist — or you don’t have that knowledge of production, even if you just play another instrument — you can kind of feel like you need other people to help you make music. Production was such a beautiful gift for me. What’s something that you’re looking forward to in your personal relationship with music?

Barker: For me, it’s the songs I don’t know I can write. When you go to the studio, you don’t know what you’re leaving with. It’s those sweet surprises. I don’t go into a session thinking “I’m gonna try to pitch this to Willow, or pitch this to whoever.” I kind of just go in open to whatever happens. The unknown is what’s exciting to me.

Willow: And just having that freedom to work with different kinds of artists and different kinds of music. I think that’s one of the most inspiring parts of your journey for me. Sometimes I feel like when you’re so iconic — like you are — with one specific thing, a lot of people get locked in that. And you found such a beautiful way of doing whatever you want.

Barker: For sure. I’m sure you had to deal with this, too. Whatever your most popular song is, or whatever the most popular band you’ve played in is, that is what you are to some people. They’re like, “Oh, he’s this — or she’s this.” No, I’m not. I’m actually a million things that you don’t know about. It’s just what I got popular from, you know?

Willow: Totally. Is there anything you would say to your younger self, when you first started playing music?

Barker: From a young age, I knew I didn’t want to be boxed in. I grew up skateboarding, and on skate videos, you had the best punk rock, thrash music, and rap music.…

Willow: Is that kind of how you figured out that you wanted to make music?

Barker: Yeah. Skateboarding was the soundtrack to my life. I didn’t grow up just listening to one genre. We could listen to all that and go skate for the day and feel great.

Willow: Because it was a culture. And it still is; skateboarding is a full-on culture.

Barker: It absolutely is. It taught me how to dress, it taught me what music to listen to. Not boxing myself in from the very beginning [was important] — doing stuff like playing with Lil Wayne at the same time that I was playing in punk rock bands. I think one year I played the Country Music Awards and something else — maybe the Grammys — with a different artist. At the end of the day, we’re musicians. Punk rock is something I’m definitely rooted in and I’ll never grow out of, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sit down and read a jazz chart and be just fine. I enjoy both equally.

Willow: Also, randomly, there’s this interlude on [Lately I Feel Everything]; two of my friends came to the studio one night and they just did this random song. And I’ve been playing the drums and screaming on the mic for like this interlude every night [on tour]. It’s so crazy. I was just thinking about you, because, like damn, this actually takes a lot of work. Playing the drums is really, really not easy, even though I’m doing, like, the most simple groove of all time.

Barker: You mean like you’re tired? Or it’s because you have to think about what you’re doing?

Willow: Just screaming and playing the drums at the same time — not even singing — it’s just crazy. And there was the nervousness that I felt because I’ve never played drums on stage before. I don’t know. It just made me think about you. It was a historical moment in my book. Are you gonna be going on any tours soon or playing any shows?

Barker: So, I did the VMAs with Kells, and then I did the Central Park show. And then, I’ll just play the L.A. shows — just stuff that’s close by. But that’s pretty much it. I live in the studio right now.

Willow: I feel like that’s where I’m most comfortable.

Barker: It’s fun going out and performing what we’ve made. But I love the creative process, I think, more. Unless you switch it up every night, I don’t know. It’s just…

Willow: It’s a little repetitive.

Barker: Yeah. If I’m going to be on tour for a while, I usually start experimenting with drum parts — or making parts that are not half time half time — and extended bridges where there’s more improv. Just to make it fun, because it feels like Groundhog Day some days.

You play guitar every night, and you’re so good too. That separates you from everybody. There’s not many people… and we have this conversation all the time. It’s you. There’s not really anyone else in your space.

Willow: It’s been a struggle, but I feel like — right now, on this tour and this album — I’m starting to learn how I want to do this. Even in ways that aren’t creative, like business and the ways in which I conduct myself within the industry and carry myself in the world.

Barker: I love that you shaved your head.

Willow: Honestly, performing with a shaved head is the freest feeling.

Barker: I agree.

Willow: You know, over the past two years, there has just been so much chaos in the world — with the pandemic and all of the political unrest that we’ve seen, with the Black Lives Matter movement and everything. And I think that’s why pop-punk and rock music is so important during this time. But I want to hear your thoughts about that. How do you think that pop-punk and rock can inspire this generation through these difficult times and moments?

Barker: Some pop music is really good. There’s a bunch of rap music that’s really, really good. But rock — and pop-punk especially — has more feeling in a way. It’s emotional music. It’s super-honest. One of the artists I work with, Jxdn, all he listened to was rap music. Going into him making his own music, I was like, “I grew up on rap music, too.” But he said he was always looking for something else in songs that he could relate to — whether that was being lonely or being heartbroken. And I feel like that’s where pop-punk found him.

“Honestly, to be a Black woman and be able to come on that song and write my verse with my outlook on life — just being able to be authentically me on that song — those are the kinds of things that are going to make more people feel seen.” — Willow

Willow: Totally. Through those dark times and through that pain, music — specifically rock and pop-punk, for me — just hits me in that place of, like, full and utter expression with no filter. Sometimes you need to let out that anger and sadness that you feel for the world, for yourself, and for everything that’s going on, so that you can be like, “OK, cool. I got all of that out. Now, let me try to make a change.” Let me try to do something in my everyday life to uplift this world. Music is such a great tool, and you are such an inspiration for kids who want to express themselves and put love and creativity into the world through their art.

Barker: Thank you so much. That’s super sweet. And I do think that. I don’t think there are a ton of genres of music that can do this. In a time like now, what excites you about making music or the state of music — and what stresses you out at the same time? I mean, it’s exciting that rock music’s back. And, in my opinion, there’s no other strong, talented female that plays guitar that’s in this genre of music or one that comes close to it.

Willow: I feel like we’re going into a new era. This generation is just blurring so many lines and really starting to break out of all the boxes. That’s so beautiful. In order for the music industry and for music to evolve, humans have to evolve in the way that we hear it. Just as you said, rock is back. A lot more people are starting to gravitate toward artists who write and play their own music, who really play instruments and work hard on their craft. That’s exciting.

What’s scary or discouraging is there’s still this strong current of trying to follow the crowd, and be “cool” regardless of morals or any sort of compassion or care for other human beings. Not just in actions, but in the content of some of this music. I personally think that, if you listen to music that has negative or hateful content, that energy is living in your mind and heart. That’s something to be aware of in this generation as well, but I think everything is in divine order.

I’m just so grateful for people like you. Even you calling me and saying, “Hey, I really think you would sound great on this MGK record.” Honestly, to be a Black woman and be able to come on that song and write my verse with my outlook on life — just being able to be authentically me on that song — those are the kinds of things that are going to make more people feel seen. That’s the most beautiful part of music.

Barker: On “Emo Prom,” you shine. Obviously you remember, but when we first sent it to you we were like, “Yeah, we even have a verse written.” And your verse was insane compared to ours. It’s high-risk, high-reward with what you’re doing — or even what we’re doing. When we made Tickets to My Downfall and we brought it to Interscope, they thought we were crazy. They were like, “This is live music. This is guitars. It’s drums. This music is not popular.” And we were like, “No, this is the body of work that we made that we’re really proud of. This is what we’re doing, and we’re sticking to it.”

You making the music you make, and being this strong female who’s fucking talented, writes her own music, and produces her own music says so much in a time that I think we’re just getting out of — when a lot of music meant nothing or had no message. It’s amazing what you’re doing, Willow. I swear there’s nothing I’ve made or I’ve been a part of since “Transparent Soul” that sounds like you — you’re meant to be on it.

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