At what point in your life did you first fall in love with music?
ALICIA KEYS "I was about 4 years old. I remember the moment that it happened. It was somewhere between Cookie Monster, when he sang this song —"
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE "C Is for Cookie"?
KEYS No. "I Left My Cookie at the Disco." And on the other side was "It's Not Easy Being Green."
JOHN LEGEND "Oh, I love that song."
KEYS "So that kind of cross-sectioned with a teacher that I had who was really a big music lover and encouraged us to do theater and songs, and I learned "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." And that all gave me my moment to learn how to sing and see what it felt like. And it felt like this feeling I couldn't describe and I still can't describe it now."
PHARRELL WILLIAMS "I thought everybody was in love with music. I thought we all had those things where that one part in the Stevie Wonder song or the Earth, Wind and Fire song or the Steely Dan song, the bridge, was the thing that made everybody say, "Yeah, that part!" I thought everyone did that. And then you get in junior high school and you start saying those kinds of things and then …"
KEYS "Nobody knows what you're talking about."
WILLIAMS "And then they start giving you that look, like, "I knew those pants were weird but … (Laughter.) Yeah. It's more than just your pants.""
When you write a song, do you have a sense of whether it's going to be a hit?
LEGEND "I'm in love with all my songs right when I finish them. That's my problem. 'Cause part of the joy of writing is that completion where you feel like, "Oh, this feels good." And I feel that every time I finish a song. So I can't trust that because a couple of months may go by and then I realize which ones really stand out."
WILLIAMS "People who say, "This is going to be a hit" are as unsuccessful as those who create hashtags. You know? Let's do a hashtag call for action. It never works. But then when some seemingly random person who isn't really random has something that really means something to them, they say it, that becomes the greatest hashtag. So just like a hashtag and just like a hit, we have nothing to do with that. We just ideate. People don't have to respond. It's not guaranteed that they will."
STING "The biggest compliment I receive as a songwriter is when someone says, "I fell in love to one of your songs," or "When we brought our first kid home, your song was on the radio," or "We buried Uncle Charlie with one of your songs." That means more than nominations, Grammys, BMI or whatever. Basically by accident creating the soundtrack for people's emotional lives, that is a huge privilege."
Tori, were there moments when people were trying to guide you to be something different than who you felt authentically you were?
AMOS "Little Earthquakes was rejected when I turned it in."
TIMBERLAKE "That album changed my life, man. So fucking good."
AMOS "They wanted to take all the pianos off and replace them with guitars."
AMOS "Oh, yes. This was recommended by someone who — I respected his work, he was a great arranger, and he couldn't hear it. Because he was part of the record industry, he was trying to look for something that had already happened. Tracy Chapman had already happened [so he was chasing that]. But I looked at Doug Morris [then-co-chairman and co-CEO of Atlantic Recording Group], whom I love, and I said, "You are not touching these pianos. Sell me to Gary Gersh [then a top A&R exec at Geffen Records]." And he looked at me and goes (shakes head no). I said, "Why not? You guys have been selling us [women] for thousands of years. Sell me to Gary 'cause you'll get your money back 'cause he knows what to do." He said, "Tori, I'm not selling you. If Gary wants you, I want you. I'm keeping you. Who do you want to produce it?" I said, "OK, so you're bringing in another man again? Is that what you're doing?" And he looked at me and he goes, "What, are you going to produce?" I said, "And why not?""
WILLIAMS "Another man again or another mannequin?"
TIMBERLAKE "Another mannequin, that's what I heard, too! (Laughter.) Whoa! You know what? I was going to hold on to that because I was like, "Let me just access that when I need it, when I'm writing another song," but (to Pharrell) you just ruined it, so no. I'm kidding."
AMOS "I wouldn't charge you for it"
Read the full roundtable at The Hollywood Reporter.