On Saturday, March 16, Justin Timberlake performed at the third and final Myspace Secret Show™ Presented by Chevrolet. It was Timberlake’s first performance at SXSW, and it was an incredibly intimate engagement for the Memphis-born global superstar and Myspace investor. For a little over an hour, Timberlake and his 15-piece backing band, the Tennessee Kids, had the 800 or so people packed into Austin’s Coppertank Event Center losing their minds as he ran through a series of hits past, present and future (“Pusher Love Girl” and “That Girl”), with a couple of rap interludes referencing Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Ni**as in Paris” and Trinidad James’s “All Gold Everything,” thrown in between. The performance capped an eight-day run that began a week earlier with his fifth appearance on Saturday Night Live as the host and musical guest and included a five-night stint as a recurring guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (dubbed “Timberweek”). On Tuesday, March 19, his highly-anticipated third solo album (and first in seven years), The 20/20 Experience (RCA, 2013), arrived, and it is on pace to sell nearly one million copies in its first week of release, marking the best single sales week of Timberlake’s career and the best sales week for any album since Lil Wayne’s blockbuster 2011 release, Tha Carter IV (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal).
After soundcheck and just hours before the show at SXSW, Timberlake took some time to talk a bit about his new album, his upcoming Legends of Summer Tour with Jay-Z and what it feels like to be back in the music mix.
Justin Timberlake: Forgive me, man, I’m sick, jet-legged I got the flu around Grammy weekend, and then we had to go on a promo trip and I’ve just been fighting off exhaustion for like, ever.
Ah, man. That sounds super rough.
It’s a little tough. I’m a little older than I used to be. I don’t bounce back as easily.
None of us do. Busy week. How has the run been so far?
It’s been cool. For the most part, I’ve just been head down, burrowing through, because I’ve just been fighting being sick. It’s fun again. I can tell you that. Like for sure it’s fun again. I can’t remember the last time I got to play a venue a venue this small. [So] that’s exciting. I like doing stuff like that. So, yeah, I’m really having fun with it again. I think that’s probably why I wait [between albums] because the actual schedule can beat you down so much you really do have to take a break from it.
It seems incredibly demanding, physically.
It’s not really the actual shows, it’s just the travel in between. Ask any pro athlete, too. It’s not the games, it’s having to get on the bus, the plane—that’s the stuff that kills you.
I actually saw you play in L.A., after the Grammys.
Oh, cool. At the Palladium. That was our first live gig as a band.
You had done the party in New Orleans during Super Bowl weekend.
To me, that doesn’t count. That’s like a party. That’s a function.
Although Paul McCartney was at that show so that did make me nervous and excited at the same time. But I heard he was standing on a table dancing the whole time.
That’s one of the takeaways I had from the L.A. show. People were asking me how it was, and I told them it makes you want to dance.
Oh, good. You know, honestly, that’s what hit me when I started listening to the songs that I put together for this record. I said [to myself], you know, these are going to be a lot of songs that are going to be fun to play live. It’s a soulful set. It’s reminiscent of all the music I loved when I was a kid.
I really just want to keep it simple. I don’t want a lot of hullabaloo around the music. I just want to go and, like, rip everybody’s face off with some great musicians. And so we just started scouting the best musicians we could find and we found a lot of ’em that grew up in the church, which was so appropriate for the stuff that I wrote for this album. They’re killer. And they make me sound way better than I am. [Laughs] And they’re a great group of people, too, so we have a lot of fun together on stage. I guess that’s where the idea came from—JT and the Tennessee Kids. It felt like a band, and it’s been fun.
I was struck by how tight you guys were at the show. It’s a big band.
You don’t see a lot of sets played like that. Well you do, [and] they’re called the Roots. [Laughs] And that’s what I really wanted to do this time around—I wanted the music to really translate live. You play a song like “SexyBack” or “My Love” or songs from even the first record, there’s certain elements that have those synth elements that have to be put into it, and for me, I just wanted to kind of get away from that a little bit on this record and so it really does translate live. It’s a lot of fun to play.
Watching the show, I was wondering how long you had even been putting it together.
We probably rehearsed as a unit for a couple of weeks?
Well, kudos to you guys. They’re obviously pros.
Yeah, that’s why they’re there. Couple of them had to help me relearn songs from my first record. You know, you write all of these songs… And I had been finishing the mixing of the album when they went in to start rehearsing, so then when I showed up, I was going back and forth from the mastering of the album and everything. So I’m listening to all this new stuff and I’m going back and going, wait, what are the lyrics to “Señorita?” So it was a lot to kind of put together at the same time.
How have you felt about the response of the album so far?
Honestly, I don’t read reviews all that much, but you hear through your team and everything, Oh, this person liked the record, this person didn’t care for the record, but for the most part, I’m hearing that people appreciate that I did something different. That there was a different approach, and I think that if you have the platform, and you actually do come up with something different, then it’d be a shame not to put it out. But it’s not like that was the effort. I didn’t write these songs like, We need to make this sound different from the first album or the second album. These are just the songs that we did. There wasn’t that much thought put into it.
[Saturday Night Live creator] Lorne Michaels said something to me that was very valuable, like the second or third time I hosted SNL. Something happened, I can’t remember what it was, but something didn’t work in the dress rehearsal and so I adlibbed something else [on-air] and the joke went over to thunderous applause, not just laughter. So I was talking to him at the after party and he’s like, “Look, we don’t go live every Saturday night because we have a great show. We go live because 11:30 rolls around and we have to put something on the air.” And so for this [album], I waited long enough, obviously. That’s an understatement, but I feel like I would have taken the break regardless of any other involvement with Myspace or any roles I may have been lucky enough to have in movies, or I probably would have waited this long again, just because you want to be this excited about it. If you’re going to get sick over it, you know touring, doing the promo for it and having to talk about it, make sure you’re excited about it.
But I guess the point I was making was I wasn’t trying to do something different. These songs just started lengthening themselves and I just thought, when vinyl was the only way you could get music, the songs faded out because there wasn’t enough available space. You know? They wrote songs [and] arrangements were six, seven minutes. They just cut them off. Vinyl was the only way you could get music and there was only so much available data, there was only so much available space on a vinyl so they would fade songs out, but when you don’t have to do that, I just felt like these songs would transform themselves into something else. And I thought this is something really special. And then when I started sequencing the album, I still said, You know what? Maybe I’ll cut some of these songs down. Maybe some of these interludes don’t make sense. But each piece of the song didn’t even feel like an interlude, you know? As I went in to start mixing it—you arrange while you mix—I’m pulling pieces out and putting pieces back in as the chorus for the second part of the song is coming in, and I’m going, Why would I cut this? This is the right half to the left half, or the left half to the right half, you know? And so as it started to lengthen itself, it just felt appropriate to me. I just loved the way it sounded and the way sonically, each song crept into the next, but I guess what I’m hearing is people are digging that it’s different.
Yeah, it’s awesome.
Cool. Thanks, dude. It’s ambitious, for sure, but I guess you wait six or seven years, you do something, you know? I think for instance, “Suit & Tie” makes a lot more sense to people now when they listen to it in succession [on] the album. Actually people have said that to me. Friends of mine have said that to me, they’re like, I like the song, but hearing it after ‘Pusher Love Girl’ and before ‘Don’t Hold the Wall,’ I get what you’re doing.
When you think about the legacy of FutureSex/LoveSounds, what do you think? Do you think about that at all?