Harry Styles: 'It Was Time For Me To Be Scared'

Originally published on July 14, 2017 3:23 am

Harry Styles cut his hair last year.

For die-hard fans of the wildly popular boy band One Direction, this is old news. But for those who follow along less closely: The one with the hair has significantly less of it now.

That change is just one of many for Styles, who released his eponymous debut solo album in May. (Harry Styles debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.) Styles cut his famous locks for his role in the upcoming Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk, a project he took on after One Direction announced in 2015 that it would be taking a break.

Hitting the pause button seemed inevitable for the group. One Direction had toured nearly non-stop since forming on the British singing competition The X Factor in 2010 and had released a total of five studio albums in the same period. It had also accumulated a massive contingent of devoted fans; when asked for a representative story, Styles says, "The puke, I think, is a good indication."

The puke? Styles once vomited on the side of the freeway in California, and a fan reportedly collected that vomit and tried to sell it online. ("My mom actually sent me, like, an eBay link to my own puke, which was very interesting to receive on a Tuesday morning," Styles says.)

Styles' solo work has a new, grittier sound — one he found by retreating. He says he didn't sign with a label until well into the writing process, and he went to Jamaica so he could home in on what he wanted to create, away from the input of others.

"I didn't know what my own voice was; I didn't know what might happen," Styles says. "So it was really important to me that the only voice really was mine. I felt like if I stayed around places where I knew I was going to have people tell me what they think it should be ... I knew I was just going to get distracted and frustrated."

NPR's David Greene spoke with Styles at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., a few hours before he was set to perform a private concert featuring his new music. Read excerpts of their conversation below; hear the broadcast version at the audio link.

David Greene: Is there a song where you got it, sang it, created it and said, "I'm doing this. I'm on my own. I've created something that's really me as a musician"?

Harry Styles: I think I've always written bits of songs alone, and then I usually take stuff in and try to finish it with someone. "Sign of the Times" was one of those where I just kind of wrote it. We basically ended up in a place where the album had a bunch of rock songs and a bunch of acoustic, kind of picked ballad songs. And I wrote "Sign of the Times" and just felt like there was all this middle ground that I wanted to then explore. And I think that's the one that kind of started bridging us to different places in terms of experimenting a little more.

I read that the genesis of "Sign of the Times" was the idea of a mother being told that she wasn't going to make it and what message she wanted to give to her child.

Yeah, I think we were thinking about — there's a lot of bad stuff going on in the world. And it's not the last time that we will be in a place like that. I think the way that we receive information all the time now, it's really difficult to ignore that stuff — and I think it would have been weird for me to write an album and not acknowledge that there's anything bad going on in the world. And I think we were writing it from a place of — you have five minutes to say, "It's going to be all right."

Let me ask you about your fans. When we were walking in here to get to the Roxy, there was a legion of a few dozen young women peeking around to see if they'd get a glimpse of you. It's so easy to stereotype that kind of fan base and say that it's just a bunch of young teenage girls who are Snapchatting when they spot you and not paying attention to the music. What do you make of that fan base?

The thing is, people stereotype it as their attraction to the music is something other than the music, and I think that's unfair. And honestly, I think it's writing people off. It's kind of rude. Everyone's musical taste is different, and there's no right or wrong answer. So I don't know who's the person in the world who is like — that guy has good music taste.

I wondered if, with such a loyal fan base, you ever feared that they were just going to be with you no matter what music you made — so it would almost make it less meaningful what you were doing, because they would never say anything bad about you.

I actually think that the kind of fans that we've had are the most honest.

There's no playing it cool, or overthinking it?

Yeah. Everyone meets those people where they like something and they'll never admit they'll like it. ... I'd rather someone be honest with me, and I wanted to be honest with the album.

Is it scary to be out on your own?

I've never felt this vulnerable putting out music, because I don't think this is a piece of myself I've put out there before. And, simple fact: When there are other people around you, you share the good stuff — but you also get to share the bad stuff and hide behind everyone else a little bit. So with this, yeah, it is scary. But I think it was time for me to be scared. And I'm still very much learning. And I'm having the time of my life working this out.

Is there a song you want us to play, as we go out here?

My favorite from the album is the last song, "From The Dining Table." It's just personal, and I don't feel like I've written a song like this before.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And, you know, there have been these musical acts over the years, like The Monkees, The Jackson 5, New Kids on The Block, 'NSync - all of them had one thing in common. They had individual members leave the group and try to find their own voice. And that is what is happening now with this band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL")

ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) You don't know you're beautiful. If only you saw what I could see...

GREEN: That is One Direction, the wildly popular boy band. How popular? Well, just listen to this.

You got sick on the side of the highway, the freeway, in California and threw up. And someone was so...

HARRY STYLES: Yeah.

GREEN: ...Obsessed with you, they collected your vomit and tried to sell it online...

STYLES: So I hear.

GREEN: ...Which - so you hear.

STYLES: I don't know if that's actually true. But yeah, my mom actually sent me, like, an eBay link to my own puke, which was very interesting to receive on a Tuesday morning.

GREEN: I can't believe that happened. So that is the voice of Harry Styles from One Direction. His first solo album recently debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. charts. Now, often when boy bands dissolve, former members will try to distance themselves from the adolescent pop music but not Harry Styles. He insists that at age 16, he had a lot to learn, and One Direction taught him how to be a musician. But his sound is changing. His new music is grittier than his work with One Direction. It's almost like he dug into his parents' record collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINA")

STYLES: (Singing) Feels so good. She's got a book for every situation, gets into parties without invitations.

GREEN: So Harry Styles was getting ready for a performance at the Roxy in West Hollywood, and I talked to him upstairs in his dressing room. He was wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt, which is pretty fitting because he's been compared to frontman Mick Jagger. He even played Mick Jagger on "Saturday Night Live." But when I asked him about that comparison, Styles made it clear that he is not trying to be anyone else. He's just trying to find his own voice as an artist. And he thinks he's started doing that with the first single on this new album, "Sign Of The Times."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGN OF THE TIMES")

STYLES: (Singing) Just stop your crying. It's a sign of the times. Welcome to the final show. Hope you're wearing your best clothes.

I think I've always written bits of songs alone. And then I usually take stuff in and try and finish it with someone. And "Sign Of The Times" was, like, one of those where I just kind of wrote it. We basically ended up in a place where the album had a bunch of, like, rock songs. We had a bunch of acoustic ballad songs. And I wrote "Sign Of The Times," and that's the one that kind of started bridging us to different places in terms of experimenting a little more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGN OF THE TIMES")

STYLES: (Singing) We don't talk enough. We should open up.

GREEN: I read that "Sign Of The Times," the genesis was the idea of a mother being told that she wasn't going to make it and what message she wanted to give to her child. Is that the...

STYLES: Yeah, I mean, I think we were thinking about - you know, there's a lot of bad stuff going on in the world. And I think it's not the last time that we will be in a place like that. And I think the way that we receive information all the time now, it's really difficult to ignore that stuff. And...

GREEN: Being in the news business, I sort of know what you're talking about (laughter).

STYLES: Yeah. And I think it would have been weird for me to kind of write an album and not acknowledge that there's anything bad going on in the world. And I think we were just writing it from kind of a place of - all right, you have five minutes to kind of say it's going to be all right.

GREEN: But it's - there's a sense of comfort. Like, it's going to be OK.

STYLES: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I like to think of it that way, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY STYLES SONG, "SIGN OF THE TIMES")

GREEN: Well, let me ask about your fans because I - when we were walking in here to get to the Roxy, I mean, there was legion of a few dozen young women peeking around to see if maybe they would get a glimpse of you at some point. It's so easy, I think, to stereotype that kind of fan base and say it's a bunch of young, teenage girls who are just Snapchatting when they spot you and not even paying attention, really, to the music. But what do you make of that fan base?

STYLES: I mean, I think the thing is is that people stereotype it as their attraction to the music is something other than the music. And I think that's unfair. And honestly, I think it's just writing people off. I think - I mean, it's kind of rude. Everyone's musical taste is different, and there's no right or wrong answer. So I don't - I don't really know who's the person in the world who has, like - oh, that guy has good music taste.

GREEN: Yeah because I wondered if, with such a loyal, obsessive fan base, if you ever feared that they were just going to be with you no matter what music you made. So it'd almost make it less meaningful, what you were doing, because they would never say something bad about you because they love you so much.

STYLES: I actually think that the kind of fans that we've had are the most honest. And I think that's amazing.

GREEN: There's no, like, playing it cool or...

STYLES: There's no, like...

GREEN: ...Or overthinking it, you're saying.

STYLES: There's no, like - yeah. I mean, everyone meets those people where they like something and they'll never admit they like it.

GREEN: Hipster might be a word...

STYLES: Yeah. And...

GREEN: ...That we might bring up here.

STYLES: ...You know, I think they're honest. And I think I'd rather someone be honest with me. And I think I wanted to be honest with the album. And - yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY ANGEL")

STYLES: (Singing) Broke a finger knocking on your bedroom door. I got splinters in my knuckles, crawling 'cross the floor.

GREEN: Let me finish with this. Is it scary to be out on your own?

STYLES: Yeah. I think I've never felt this vulnerable putting out music because I just don't think it's a piece of myself that I've ever really put out there before. And just simple fact - when there's other people around you, you share the good stuff, but you also get to share the bad stuff and kind of hide behind everyone else a little bit. So with this, yeah, it is scary. But I think it was time for me to kind of be scared, I guess. And I'm still very much learning. And I'm having the time of my life kind of working it out, so it's been a lot of fun.

GREEN: Harry, thanks a lot.

STYLES: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

GREEN: Is there a song you want us to make sure we play when we go out here?

STYLES: My favorite from the album is the last song, "From The Dining Table." It's just personal. And I don't feel like I'd written a song like this before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FROM THE DINING TABLE")

STYLES: (Singing) Comfortable silence is so overrated. Why won't you ever be the first one to break? Even my phone misses your call, by the way.

GREEN: Harry Styles - his debut album, which is called "Harry Styles," is out right now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.