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Justin Timberlake Interview

interview title: Boy wonder

Interview Date: Sunday October 6, 2002
Interview source: The Observer

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In a violently air-conditioned recording studio in the basement of an anonymous LA hotel, self-styled R'n'B impresario Silas White is introducing the first public playback of an album called Justified . The record is the inaugural solo outing for goldie-bronzed boy-band fave Justin Timberlake. Mini-bar miniatures are flowing, fragrant candles are flickering on every flat surface in the interest, presumably, of ambience, and a bunch of journalists and record industry extras are waiting, semi-expectantly. Silas is spouting evangelical hyperbole.

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'justin timberlake picture image nsync picThis kid,' says Silas, with absolute reverence and no detectable sense of self-irony, 'is one of those special artists who comes along every so often and changes everything. This kid will be one of the greats. This album...' He shakes his head slowly at the magnificence of it all.
You'd give a lot for Silas to be wrong, because he's irritating and desperately earnest and a little smug. And anyway, historically boy-band refugees do not produce good solo albums. Consider Gary Barlow, Ronan Keating, Robbie Williams's nondescript early attempts.

But Silas is right about Justin Timberlake, and right about Justified. Inventive and instant, grindingly raw and sexy, it's a truly great record. It's intensely R'n'B and hip-hop influenced, yet it doesn't sound like anything else. Except maybe Prince when he was very good, or Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life, or Michael Jackson's Off The Wall. Timberlake's voice is honey-dipped and sweet and achingly right, and every song is produced by one of a long list of extraordinarily cachet people - Timbaland, The Neptunes, Bubba Sparx and P Diddy. Ten tracks in, Silas victoriously turns to confront the assembled crowd. 'See?' he asks. And everybody does.

If you know anything at all about Justin Timberlake, it will probably be this. He used to go out with Britney Spears. He may or may not have slept with Britney Spears. Earlier this year he split - in the messy, public way that an intensely high-profile relationship of that variety invariably engenders - from Britney Spears. At a push, you might also know that Timberlake is the main event in *NSync, the US's premier boy band, multimillion-dollar spinning, glossily formatted purveyors of flawless pop.

What you possibly don't know is how extraordinarily successful he's about to become. Timberlake co-wrote every song on Justified, but the album will do more than make him musically credible. It will do more, even, than allow him to bridge the yawning gap between *NSync's target girlie tweeny demographic and the infinitely more economically significant 18- to 35-year-old scene. It will make 21-year-old Timberlake the biggest internationally recognised singer of the moment. Major league and enduring. An Elton John or George Michael for his time. They're calling him the white Michael Jackson.

Timberlake is already intensely famous in America. David Beckham-famous, but on a US scale. And fame has turned his head. His edgy, gratuitously large, designed-to-intimidate entourage insist that he's very normal, the most normal kid. 'I couldn't have worked with the kid if I hadn't liked him,' Silas gushes, before citing a not entirely convincing example of Timberlake's humility, which hinges on his readiness to give a fan his autograph. 'You'll love him,' promises Kim, his alpha PR. 'He's a sweetie.'

In the flesh, Justin Timberlake is many things, but he's not particularly normal, and he's not a sweetie. He's distractingly good looking, certainly. He's tall and broad-shouldered and lean, and clad in Abercrombie & Fitch jock wear. Ostensibly, he is perfectly polite and artfully flirty, but you sense a reservoir of disdain and spikiness sloshing about just below the surface, and you brace yourself against the moment he decides to draw on it.

His composure is extraordinary. 'Do I feel vulnerable about being solo for the first time?' he says. 'No. A little bit exposed, maybe. A little bit... na-kid.' He comes from Memphis, Tennessee and his speaking voice is Elvis lilting and deliberate.

But beyond all this, Timberlake is a little starry, a little petulant. He doesn't like the interview venue. He was supposed to have the penthouse at Ian Schraeger's LA flagship hotel, The Mondrian, which is 15 minutes down the road. Kim got him a private bungalow at the back of the (equally splashy) Chateau Marmont.

'It's just... it's a little...' he stands up, does a circuit of the room, and gestures at the minimal interior. 'You don't have to take it personally,' he tells Kim, when she sticks out her bottom lip sulkily. 'I just wanted you to be comfortable...' she says. 'Well, I am, I am,' he mollifies, unconvincingly. 'Just look at that couch, I could lie right out on that thing.'

'Yes,' says Kim. 'But I'm not sure how appropriate that would be for an interview.'

A lot of influential people are saying a lot of very nice things about Justin Timberlake. 'Justin could've been raised in the black church,' says Pharrell Williams of The Neptunes. 'To say he's got soul is something you'd expect me to say, but it's true... he's a great singer, a great talent. Justin is my boy.' Producer BT, who worked with him on *NSync's last album, Celebrity, is equally enthusiastic. 'The tonality of Justin's vocals and his rhythmic instincts for really percussive singing are very Michael Jackson,' he said, at the time.

The Jackson comparisons are a recurring theme. Indeed, the knowing thing to say about Justified is that it's the album Michael Jackson would have made if he'd fulfilled the potential he showed in the late 80s. 'That's a huge compliment,' says Timberlake. 'But I don't know how comfortable I am being compared to Michael. Michael became his own entity.' (It's worth noting at this point that 'Like I Love You', the first single from the album, is a blatant homage to Jackson, full of staccato squeaks, with a video styled in purest 'Billy Jean' fashion.) 'I just think it'll be different. I think it'll be something a little bit different.'

But comparable in impact, maybe?

Timberlake likes comparable. 'Comparable is a good word,' he says. 'A very good word to describe it.'

Justin Timberlake has groomed himself for his great celebrity experience all his life. When he was two, his mum caught him singing harmonies along to the car radio. By the time he was eight, he was serial-entering TV talent competitions. At 12, he got picked up for children's variety show The Mickey Mouse Club. And at 14, *NSync group founder member Chris Kirkpatrick contacted him through an agent about joining the act which would, in the fullness of time, sell tens of millions of records, pack out stadia and make young girls scream. Yet Timberlake never wanted to be famous, he insists. That was not his motivation. Although he did always love the attention.

'Ummm, yeah,' he says. He smiles. 'It's not that I loved it, it's just that I was more comfortable - no, I am more comfortable - with 300,000 people at Rock in Rio, when we hit the stage, than I am probably right now. It's so funny because, the family... whenever we gather round at Christmas or at Thanksgiving, it's like, "Get your guitar out and sing something." And I'm like, "I don't really feel like it, because there's, like, only about 10 people."'

His people (three vast bodyguards, Kim and a second press agent, one record-company rep and Silas, most of whom sit in on the interview) think it would be better if nobody mentions Britney Spears. The official line on this is that it may upset Timberlake, who is scheduled to do a lot of interviews that week, and therefore should not be unnecessarily distressed. The subtext is that Britney is also signed to Timberlake's record company, and Jive is more concerned about protecting her than him.

For his part, Timberlake seems almost inclined to discuss the residually pink, legendarily virginal Spears. They met 10 years ago, when they (alongside Christina Aguilera and future *NSync band mate JC Chasez) were both Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeers. They had their first kiss on screen and were together from that point on, until this year's monumental split. Timberlake flirts round the edges of the issue constantly, offering up plenty of unsolicited loaded statements. 'I never really feel like I did anything desperate for love,' he says at one point. 'I mean, I just feel like I've made mistakes. Thinking that something was what it wasn't. I just feel like I've made mistakes.' And, 'I'm really not in a very romantic mood at the moment.'

So I ask him directly: Does he miss Britney? (His entourage bristles. Kim's arm comes down violently against the table. Her ring clanks hard against the glass top.)

'Umm, yeah,' he says. 'You know, days will go by when I miss... I miss the good things, I miss the good things. I'll leave it at that. Britney has always surprised me.'

With what? Her honesty?

'Ha! No, no, no, not with that. I think, the size of her heart. She has a big heart, a really big heart. That's always impressed me about her.'

Given his association with Spears, and his saccharine, screamingly commercial pop past, it's not entirely clear how Timberlake got to collaborate, Madonna style, with the most credible names in hip-hop and R'n'B production on Justified . Silas helped, but the collaborators themselves admit that they took some convincing. 'At first, I was like, "He's coming from *NSync, I'm coming from my urban world, how we gonna mesh?"' says Tim 'Timbaland' Mosely, arguably the industry's most innovative and exciting record producer, whose recent credits include Missy Elliot's 'Get UR Freak On'. 'But when we got together; everything was perfect. We worked real good together. It's hard coming from 10 million sales to switch up style on your fans and do something different, but he's just being him. I'm down with taking chances 'cause I'm a chance taker myself.'

One thing that might have convinced Timbaland and the others to take chances on Timberlake is his absolute, uncompromising focus. He demands complete creative control from his record company. It's not something you'd expect in an ex-Mouseketeer. But it's there. 'It's about specifics. My need for specifics,' he explains, rabidly. He pours over data sheets, checking the release dates of the record in obscure territories across the States. He angsts over the precise order of the track listing on the album. 'What do you think about this?' he asks, waving the listing under my nose. 'I don't think it's right...'

That control fixation evolved, he says, in the aftermath of a bloody battle to disassociate himself and his fellow band members from *NSync's original Svengali, Lou 'Big Papa' Pearlman. In 1999, *NSync announced that they were leaving Lou's Trans Continental Management and record company RCA after four years, because they weren't seeing enough of their profits. Pearlman responded with a $150 million lawsuit. *NSync countersued for $25 million. They eventually settled out of court, and the band left RCA, one album down on their original contract.

'That was horrible. That was my biggest low point. My highest low. I went through a tough time. I went through this whole, "I don't want to do this,"' says Timberlake. He is forthright about his reasons for instigating the split from Pearlman.

'Lou. Just him. Lou,' he says. He's truly bitter. 'It's plain and simple. He just had a big misunderstanding of what he thought he should be compensated for. This is how the story goes. We got this group together, we came to Lou, he said he would back us financially. He said, I will dish out the money, and we can all do this, and we can all be a part of this. We were like, "Sure." We didn't have anything . He set us up in a house immediately. We felt like we were on the fucking Real World . He gave us a house! We were like, "He gave us a house!"'

Which, surely, was incredible?

'It was a big rush. But we were the ones who sat around till three in the morning singing together and hanging out together and doing the things that friends do. And the money that he dished out, he got it back within the first six months of our success, and the first record. A few records had gone by since then, and we were still in the same situation.'

He grew up a lot through the whole experience, he says. He was 19 when it happened, and he learnt that control of everything -money, styling, album cover design, performance - everything was crucial. He has no regrets.

'Hell, no.'

For a man comprehensively versed in interview technique, platitudes and well-rehearsed soundbites, Timberlake does say surprising things. I ask him about his vices, and he says he likes ice cream and sweets. I point out that those barely qualify as vices, and suggest he tells me about drink and drugs habits instead. 'They're just habits,' he says. 'That doesn't make them vices, does it? If you like them, and if they're fun for you, and if you have no regrets about them, then they're not vices, are they?'

He mentions Janet Jackson. The two recorded a song together on Justified, and were rumoured to have had an affair. What's the score with her, I ask.

'The score?' he says, languidly. 'Two-nothing, me.'

But equally, there are moments when he's unmistakably 21 years old, and disingenuous with it. He speaks a fluent combination of self-help book nonsense, hip-hop cliché and horoscope philosophy. He'll quote Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus at any opportunity. His favourite book is Conversations With God 'I've read one, two and three! They're big books! Big books!' But he's not religious. Spiritual, but not religious. Although he believes his talent is 'a gift, a blessing', and he knows this because when he sits down to write a song, he can't remember doing it. It's like someone's sitting next to him, telling him what to write.

He thinks fame is just a word, and he lives 'in moments'. He tells me he's good at golf, he's considering writing a book, he's ace at Scattergories. I wonder if there's anything he can't do and he says, 'I can't let go.' He drums his fingers frantically against the table, looks at his feet. 'I can't let go. It's my biggest struggle and I know it's one lesson I'm going to have to learn in this lifetime, how to let go.'

He refuses to contemplate the magnitude of his own celebrity. 'How famous am I? No more famous than you.' Well, no, you are considerably more famous than I am. 'Says who? Fuck it. Kelly Osbourne's more famous than me.'

Yet, while squeamish about his celebrity status, Timberlake acknowledges that it has advantages. His diamond-studded Minola watch, his private jet habit. Also, 'The free swag, I love the free swag. The sneakers, the Nikes, the Ponys...' Until very recently, he had seven cars. 'I think seven... no eight... or maybe nine.' Two of them - a Viper and a Prowler - were given to him by grateful corporations. He's getting rid of them now, though, because he doesn't have time to drive them all.

He's also just brought a $5 million house in the Hollywood Hills, which his mum Lynn (who co-manages him alongside boy-band supremo Johnny Wright) is interior designing for him.

'What's my house like?' he says. 'What's my house like, Silas? It's beautiful. It's huge and still feels homey and small. It's somewhere in between shabby chic and uh, oh man, I got a lot of leather. Somewhere between shabby chic and and... and... art from like, Mexico.'

He hasn't thrown any wild parties in it ('not yet'), but he did organise a board-game night recently. 'We played Pictionary and Cranium, but not Monopoly 'cos that's fucking awful.'

In short, Justin Timberlake acts like the defining 21-year-old boy-band product. He talks like a boy-band product.He's handling stardom like a boy-band product - extravagantly, trashily, flashily. But he's made one of the best albums in years. You therefore have to conclude he is much more than the sum of his boy-band parts. Silas White wants to know what Timberlake will be capable of in two or three years' time, because Justified was effortless for him (the album was written in six weeks). It's hard not to see his point. Pharrell Williams, meantime, has a simpler perspective on the Timberlake phenomenon. 'My boy just is what he is,' says Williams. 'He's got music.' There isn't much arguing with that.

. The album Justified is released on 4 November; the first single from the album, 'Like I Love You', is out on 21 October.


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