He’s lovin it
Justin Timberlake talks to Craig McLean about making music, why he feels at home in Hollywood and all those rumours about Cameron, Britney and Scarlett
Justin Timberlake is all over the place. He’s traversing the world with the nine-month-long FutureSex/LoveShow tour, an in-the-round extravaganza of singing, dancing, panto sex moves, human beatboxing and tequila-drinking (in the course of the show, Timberlake does all of these). He’s preparing for the European launch of his clothing line William Rast (named after the grandfathers of he and his childhood friend and business partner Trace Ayala). The tune that he and Pharrell Williams co-authored for McDonalds, ‘I’m Lovin’ It’, is the advertising jingle that refuses to die. In collaboration with producer Timbaland he’s been writing for Rihanna, 50 Cent and Jay-Z, and is the secret guest on the recent Macy Gray album. He’s starting up his own record label called Tennman (because he’s a Tennessee man).
And of course, he’s all over the media. The headlines come thick and fast and (more often than not) unsubstantiated. He’s broken up with Cameron Diaz. He’s reportedly seeing Scarlett Johansson, whom he snogged in the epic, quasi-cinematic video for recent single ‘What Goes Around’. Said song, with its lyrics about a cheating girl getting her comeuppance, is allegedly his revenge on former girlfriend Britney Spears. No, wait, he’s not seeing Scarlett, he’s seeing Britney again, giving her comfort in her hour of baldness; a ‘friend’ said so. Ah but, his speech at February’s Grammys, in which he advised against drinking too much (‘you know who you are!’) was his finger-wagging riposte to the troubled Ms Spears.
And so on . . . In conversation, Timberlake, the epitome of Southern manners, is polite and restrained at the best of times. But no wonder he’s super-cagey in these days of spurious, furious tabloid storms. Being misunderstood or misquoted gives him the serious heebie-jeebies. Even superstars get the blues.
‘It’s weird, I gotta be honest with you man,’ he sighs. ‘And it’s funny how much of it gets so blown up, so much of it. It’s interesting to me. And I’ve talked to people about it - I’ve talked to Chris Martin and Jay-Z about it - it’s one of those things, it’s unexplainable, you don’t know how it happens. You do an interview and it gets published and there’s a little piece of something you said that’s been taken from here and moved there . . . You get to the point where you’re like, people hear what they wanna hear. So what am I gonna do about it? I can’t do anything about it.’
Chris Martin becomes defined as the yoga-loving rock guy. ‘Right, exactly. It’s interesting how stereotypical stereotyping is. Oh, “she’s crazy”. Or “she’s addicted”. Or “he’s soft”. “She’s gay”. It just becomes the headline. People don’t read the details, they read the headlines, and they look at the pictures.’
Never mind, Timberlake has plenty other distractions to keep him busy. This year the former boyband member-turned-serious player is all over the movies too. This summer he supplies the voice of the young King Arthur in Shrek The Third. He has been widely praised for his performance in this month’s indie film Alpha Dog, a true story about a gang of drug-taking Californian teens, playing the slang-spouting Frankie. ‘Frankie is probably the biggest “smack” talker in the group, so if that’s not fun to play, then I don’t know what is,’ says Timberlake of the role. Next month the Memphis native goes home, sort of, when he appears in steamy Tennessee-set drama Black Snake Moan, playing the soldier boyfriend of ‘town tramp’ Christina Ricci.
‘The beautiful thing about Justin is that he’s not just some guy who’s come out of music, who is trying acting as a thing to do,’ says Black Snake Moan producer John Singleton (director of Boyz N The Hood). ‘I think he’s really serious about it as a craft, and I love his performance in this picture. Justin really gets the nuances. He’s not dealing in broad strokes.’
‘I feel like I got to get my feet with the right type of projects,’ says Timberlake of these small but notable roles. ‘Not a lot of responsibility, great actors involved.’
How does Hollywood compare to the music industry? ‘You know what’s interesting? I find that, maybe I’m just ignorant and maybe it’s more that the people in Hollywood talk about you more behind your back, but for some reason for me in meeting producers and heads of studios in the film industry, I feel like they at least say it to your face. They show a lot more respect. They’re a lot more respectful. I find that in the music business they’re just a lot more . . . I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve been in the music business so long, I find the music business a little more crass and pompous. But for me the film industry has just been a different experience. They’ve been a lot nicer so to speak.’
Timberlake knows of what he speaks. He’s been performing since adolescence, when he joined the cast of TV show The Mickey Mouse Club alongside, famously, Spears and Christina Aguilera. Then he and his former bandmates in teen pop sensations NSync fought a legal battle with Lou Pearlman, the Florida-based mogul who managed them. Timberlake and co won. Pearlman was recently in the news again, accused of aviation fraud. Was Timberlake surprised by that that? ‘Not at all,’ he says slowly. ‘Not at all. I’m sorry for him, but I think we attract the kind of attention that we put [out], obviously, and that’s too bad.’
Timberlake’s career these days is partly in the care of people he knows he can trust, his mum and his stepdad. Was that whole issue with Pearlman, negative though it was, a positive learning experience, insofar as he got to see early on how venal the music business could be?
‘Totally. It was definitely positive more than negative ‘cause we came out on top - it was a good lesson to get at 17 years old. It’s made the last ten years much better for me. I try to be a realist - and it was definitely a real experience for me. It was discouraging at the time ‘cause you’re 17 and everything’s the end of the world when you’re 17. But when you look at America and [it’s like] people sue people for everything!’ he laughs. ‘It’s kinda like the nature of the world today. It seemed much more grim at the time. I look back at it now and it’s laughable - but I guess it wouldn’t be laughable if I didn’t come out on top.’
Boy did he come out on top. With his debut solo album, 2002’s Justified, Timberlake emphatically threw off his kiddie-pop roots. Aided by master producers The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), equipped with some songs originally written by The Neptunes with Michael Jackson in mind, and co-authoring with them the global hits ‘Señorita’, ‘Like I Love You’ and ‘Rock Your Body’, Timberlake crafted a propulsive pop/R&B album that sold almost eight million copies worldwide.
He followed it last year with FutureSex/ LoveSounds, an equally ambitious album made in conjunction with none-more-hot producer Timbaland.
‘He’s a virtuoso,’ says Timberlake of the man who last year rebooted Nelly Furtado’s career and who supplies some much-needed groove to Björk’s upcoming album Volta. ‘Timbaland will bang on a glass Coke bottle and then he’ll figure out the key of it and put a bass note to it.’ Timberlake’s pretty nifty on a range of instruments, but even he can’t top that. ‘He does weird interesting things like that. The last year of recording with him has been the biggest learning experience for me. There’s one thing I took from him: if it doesn’t feel right to you in the studio, it’s not gonna be right. You’re not gonna transform it into something that feels right.’
The FutureSex/LoveShow spectacular gives Timberlake the opportunity to be all the things he wants to be. He shows off his dancing skills, emulating the bodypopping sinuousness of Michael Jackson, and gets to engage in playful bump and grind with his female dancers. He roams around the multi-levelled stage with his swaggering male dancers like he’s a member of the Sharks or Jets. He sings falsetto and trades licks with his band. He turns cavernous sports arenas into throbbing nightclubs when the techno-funk of SexyBack booms out. He gets his man Timbaland on in the middle of the set to showcase his own new album, and to give Timberlake a 20-minute breather.
And when it’s nearly over, Timberlake slows it all right down, turns off the fireworks, grabs the spotlight and sings his beautiful ballad ‘Another Song’, unaccompanied.
‘That’s what I love,’ he says eagerly. ‘If you can walk that tightrope between juggling all these things for people, then all of a sudden you can just stop and sit down at a piano . . .’ He gives a satisfied sigh. Even multi-tasking entertainers travelling at the speed-of-light occasionally enjoy a moment of hush.
Justin Timberlake, SECC, Thu 3-Sat 5 May. Alpha Dog is on general release now. Black Snake Moan is out on Fri 18 May.