NEW YORK - At 36, Robin Thicke has been with the same woman, happily, for 20 years. But he has spent his entire creative life looking for love.
"When I think of the artists that I respect the most - Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye - they're all people who found a way to sing about togetherness, about changing the world with love," says Thicke. "That's who I am. I'm a hippie at heart. And that's what most of my songs revolve around: figuring out love, or finding love, or spreading love."
Thicke has also sought affirmation in a more professional sense. "I always wanted legitimacy, or my peers' respect, or my parents' respect, more than I wanted a big radio hit."
Neither of those goals is evident, he admits, on his cheeky, chart-topping single Blurred Lines. And that's just fine with him.
See also: Bill Clinton sings Blurred Lines
"I started out with very lofty ambitions," Thicke admits, in between sips of double espresso. "The guys I admired got more serious as they got older. John Lennon went from Help! to Working Class Hero; Marvin went from Ain't No Mountain High Enoughto What's Going On. I think I'm going the other way. When I watch my new video, I think, 'That's not the guy I set out to be - but you know, that guy may be cooler.' "
Thicke is sitting in the lobby of a chic downtown hotel where he's crashing with his 3-year-old son, Julian Fuego, while plugging his new album, also titled Blurred Lines, out Tuesday. Julian's mom, actress Paula Patton, is off promoting a new film, 2 Guns. "She had a few busy days, so I was like, 'Why don't you come with me, buddy?' He's my best friend."
Patton, whom Thicke met as a teenager and married in 2005, and Julian were a big source of inspiration for Thicke's new material, though not in the way you might expect. There are reflective songs on the album, such as 4 the Rest of My Life, which recalls Thicke's courtship of Patton, and Top of the World, informed by single female friends "who have accomplished amazing things in their careers, but still don't have the love they want."
But Lines' light heart lies in breezier, funkier fare such as the titular smash, modeled after Gaye's Got to Give It Up, and Thicke's follow-up single Give It 2 U, which features Kendrick Lamar. And Thicke isn't being ironic when he attributes that vibe to his experience as a family man.
"What it came down to is that at this point in my life, it's most important for me to be happy," Thicke says. "That means being with my wife and child. And when I'd play new songs for my wife at night, I'd play happy stuff and sadder, deeper stuff - and she'd always want to go back to the happy stuff. So this became a let's-have-fun-and-dance album."
Certainly, there has been a playful element to Thicke's eroticism in the past; his 2009 album Sex Therapy included a double-entendre-laden duet with Jay Z, Meiple. But Thicke insists he's had a tendency to brood that dates back to his childhood.
"The reason I started to write songs was to get rid of some of the loneliness I felt growing up in this big house with busy parents (Alan Thicke and his ex-wife, singer/actress Gloria Loring) and a big brother who had a do-not-disturb sign and skull and crossbones on his door. The piano became how I connected with the world."
Andre Harrell, who has served as an executive producer on all of Thicke's albums, feels that this sensitivity has been an asset for the singer, whose authenticity as a purveyor of romantic soul has made him that rare white artist more popular with urban audiences than on pop radio.
"If you close your eyes and listen to Robin sing, you can't tell that he's white," Harrell says. "I could always tell that Michael McDonald was white, that Justin Timberlake was white. (Thicke) used his vulnerability as a strength, to sing about the ups and downs of relationships, but people didn't know how to define him."
Working on Lines, Thicke was also influenced by newer collaborators, such as Pharrell Williams and will.i.am, both contributors to the album. "I noticed that they don't bring their issues to a song," Thicke says. "With will.i.am and Pharrell, it's all about moving it forward, having a good time, as opposed to me going, 'Sit down, let me tell you my problems.' I took out the melodrama."
Commercial prospects were a factor as well, Thicke admits. His last album, 2011'sLove After War, sold a disappointing 206,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "After releasing five albums where I'm pouring everything into my music, and then the last one doesn't sell at all, I thought, am I crazy?"
For veteran music critic Alan Light, Thicke's resilience makes his current success all the more impressive. "The guy's been in the game, a young man's game, for 15 years now. When you hit a peak after that long, it's a testament to something, some vision or bigger idea that sustains you," Light says.
Thicke quips, "Now that I've had a taste of that success, I can see how other artists are like, 'Next one's going to be even bigger!' You think about world domination."
He might consult his son, whom Thicke jokes is "pretty much my A&R (artists and repertoire) director. He's always able to pick the hits, even with my old songs." Julian is already a budding tunesmith himself: "He's written five songs. The latest one is called I Forgot to Sing My Song. That's the new hit. He's very serious about it. I'll tell him my band is coming over to rehearse, and he'll be like, 'No, my guys are coming over, Daddy. We have to work on my new song.' "
The final track on Lines, The Good Life, was included with Julian and his mother in mind. Thicke originally wrote it "about eight years ago, when I was going through my darkest period," but now views its fundamental message - that "life takes you up and down," as he sings - in a brighter light.
"Some of our individual goals still haven't been realized," Thicke says of himself and Patton. "But we have a healthy child. We're madly, crazily in love. That's where I was at, and I wanted to celebrate it. Life is pretty good, you know?"
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