In September 2015, One Direction were on the brink of collapse. The boy band, at the time one of the biggest acts in the world, were playing the first of six sold-out nights at London’s O2 Arena. But as they began a performance of “Night Changes”, the sound cut out, and all hell broke loose.
It was a mark of how disjointed the band were by this point that they apparently had no idea what to do for the agonising five minutes it took to fix the problem. Harry Styles span around in circles, Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne glowered at the hapless tech team, and Niall Horan – clutching his acoustic guitar like a lifejacket – sat on the edge of the stage and stared up at the rafters in despair. Three months later, they embarked on a hiatus that would become indefinite.
“Oh my god,” Horan says, giggling at the memory. “F***ing hell. That had never happened to us before, in the thousands of gigs we’d played.” We’re sat on a sofa in a suite at a central London hotel. His hair is artfully tousled; in his copper-coloured sweater and smart trousers, he could have strolled right off a Paul Smith runway.
I tell the 26-year-old how different he seemed three years after that disastrous gig, performing his own headline show at Brixton Academy in support of his debut album, 2017’s Flicker. He was joyful, joking around with his bandmates and playing as though it was the first time he’d truly felt free to do things on his own terms. Having spent five years as the consistently affable “nice one” of the group (which sounds only marginally better than Payne’s moniker, “Mr Boring”), Horan quickly carved out his own identity as a solo artist with top 10 singles such as the sultry “Slow Hands” and the ballad “This Town”.
“People assumed I was this nice Irish fella,” he says. “Because they didn’t know much about me.” Sure, he may not have the brooding sex appeal of Zayn Malik or Styles’ rock-and-roll charm, but Horan is, arguably, the best songwriter to emerge from One Direction. He’s also the one you can most easily imagine sharing a pint with – that “nice” label is by no means a misnomer, but it does mean his other attributes tend to get overlooked.
He’s a bit of a production geek, it turns out, and has to tear himself away from talking about his producer, Greg Kurstin. His new music is inspired by Fleetwood Mac but also The Kooks; he’s a diehard Shania Twain fan (she returns the compliment), and recently embarked on a road trip where half of the journey was soundtracked by her music. And he’s generous with his time for someone so in demand – when I wonder whether I’ve used up my allotted hour, he insists I stop worrying, then wracks his brain to think of things we could talk about when my mind temporarily goes blank.
His new album, Heartbreak Weather, charts the course of a break-up with more of a pop sensibility than the acoustic-folk leanings of his debut – although the Eagles (his favourite band) and blues references are still there. Produced by Kurstin (Foo Fighters, Beck, Liam Gallagher), the record is strongly rumoured to have been influenced by Horan’s split from singer and actor Hailee Steinfeld, whom he dated until late 2018. I’m asked before our interview not to bring Steinfeld up, but Horan is happy to talk about the broader experience their break-up, and his attendant heartbreak, had on his writing.
“Sad love songs can be very selfish, very ‘poor me’, so I was trying to write in a way that didn’t make it all as sad as I was,” he says. “I didn’t want to make it all about myself, but also to admit some flaws, like the egotistical moments.” So you have “Put a Little Love on Me”, a sweetly sad song that longs for the comfort another person can bring, but also the upbeat “Nice to Meet Ya”, about catching someone’s eye from across the room.
His other, arguably higher profile split, seems to have had just as big an influence on him. Launching a solo career after One Direction was terrifying, Horan says, due to an overwhelming paranoia that “no one gives a f*** about you outside of the band”.
It was bizarre going from arenas and stadiums – where the audience was one living, breathing mass – to seeing the whites in people’s eyes again. “You’re also being judged against the success of 1D and it’s like... that was pretty big. I think I’m doing OK now.”
Tomlinson has been the most vocal of the five of how upset he was when the hiatus – which seems more and more permanent as Styles and Horan in particular enjoy increasing success as solo artists – was announced. In a recent interview with The Independent, he likened the experience of being in the band to “a drug”, and said the break-up hit him “like a ton of bricks”.
“I think it was just a shock,” Horan, who was texting Tomlinson just before our interview, says now. With the exception of Malik, whose name remains conspicuously absent in most interviews with his ex-bandmates, it sounds as though Horan is in regular contact with everyone.
“We were so used to what we did that it had become normal,” he continues. “We were in a bubble. Then someone just went…” He makes a popping sound. “And before you know it, you’re sat at home.”
From the way Horan talks and in previous interviews with other members, it seems as though nothing was really the same after Malik left, 10 months before the rest of them disbanded. Straight after the split, Horan went travelling around southeast Asia with his two cousins, backpacking in “s**t hostels”.
“I knew it was coming, the sitting on your arse at home thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to do that, at least not straight away.”
Tomlinson, he suggests, didn’t feel ready for that. “[The lack of closure] is like the end of a bad relationship. We were asking ourselves, ‘Should we end at a good time – big tour, massive album, going out on a high… Or, should we just keep going?’ It’s when you stop, that’s when you go, ‘f***’. And I needed a few minutes to be by myself.”
Horan is unsure if the One Direction phenomenon will happen again via reality TV. “People still watch it – my mum and dad included – but it’s not a massive part of our lives anymore.”
I ask how he felt reading Payne’s comments in an interview with The Guardian earlier this year – about the impact 1D had on his mental health (that fame and loneliness “nearly killed him”) – and whether Horan was aware of what his bandmate was feeling during his time in the band.
“Everyone had their days,” he says carefully, “but mental health isn’t something you go around talking about all the time – it’d be more helpful if we did. It’s still a touchy subject for people. I didn’t know it was that bad, for Liam. I spoke to him about it on occasion but not to that extent.”
“I’m quite a happy-to-be-anywhere person,” he shrugs, when I ask what his own experience was. “Everyone used to say that I was just… going around with a big smirk on my face, trying to keep everyone happy. I’m not someone who over-worries about things.” I get the feeling this is only half-true, given he also admits he can have trouble dealing with his own emotions.
Still, Horan really does seem remarkably grounded for someone who achieved global fame at such a young age – asides from tabloid gossip about one or two high-profile relationships, he’s managed to avoid any scandal. “There’s an Irishness to me that can’t be solved,” he jokes, searching for something to attribute this to. The minute he goes home to Mullingar in County Westmeath, Ireland, it’s “back to the usual shite” – “I drink in the pub with the lads, it’s all very simple. We were brought up with nothing, we were always taking the piss out of each other,” he says. “There’s no room for being a diva. That’s been helpful over the last 10 years.”
There have been moments where being under the spotlight – there were times where he couldn’t go to the toilet without being confronted by a camera – got to him, he says. Now he can play shows without being drowned out by constant screaming from fans, and there’s more of a dialogue between them – Horan chats to them on social media and has consistently refused to be baited into criticising the 1D hysteria journalists found so baffling at the time.
“I always understood it,” he says of the attention. “It frustrated me at times when I couldn’t go out the door – the fact I have to wear a hat to the pub does my head in – but the celebrity thing balances out after a while.” He recalls driving past the Eiffel Tower in Paris while he was still with One Direction, miserable in the knowledge he couldn’t visit. He finally got to go recently, apparently without incident.
How was it, I ask? “Yeah,” he smiles. “It was nice.”
Heartbreak Weather is out now
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