'We were gonna end up killing each other' - Niall Horan on One Direction split
Niall Horan opens up to Neil McCormick about One Direction's split, his break-up with Hailee Steinfeld and having Don Henley on speed dial
Niall Horan strolls into the lobby of a London hotel wearing a sweatshirt advertising the Eagles' European Tour 1996. It turns out this is not just some retro affectation. The former boy band star is a bit of an old rocker at heart. "I actually saw this tour," the 26-year-old proudly explains. "It was my first show of all time, in Dublin, with my dad." Horan would have been three years old.
"Don Henley is the main man, he's my all-time songwriting hero." These days, Horan has Henley on speed dial. "It's mad. I send him my songs to get his view. He's quite a blunt man, for better or worse. But I love the honesty. There's a lot of arse-licking 'yes' men in this business. Don still has that small town Texan thing. He tells you what he thinks."
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Horan is small (5ft 7in), gregarious and friendly. His Irish accent remains strong. "There's a humble side to being Irish that is quite appealing. Of course, a humble person wouldn't say that! But I don't see myself as a superstar or anything like that."
He grew up in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. All he ever wanted to be was a musician. "I was the family show-off. I led the school choir. I was in garage bands playing Arctic Monkeys songs or playing acoustic guitar around pubs."
He was frustrated by his small-town environment. "Dublin was an hour away, but it feels years away when you've got no money and you're just walking to school in the rain, playing guitar, doing homework, going to bed to get up and do the same thing again."
He was 16 when his teacher filled out his application for The X Factor. He wound up in One Direction - the rest is history.
Between 2010 and 2016, One Direction sold more than 50 million records. "It was incredible. But we got tired. Not tired of it, just tired out. Five albums, five tours, in five years. We were all knackered. I can never really remember any major bust-ups, just brotherly family nagging, shitty arguments like that. But we were gonna end up killing each other. We all sat down one day, had a chat and it was like, we need to take a break. Step back, chill out and try something new."
Horan admits the prospect of a sabbatical made him nervous. "There was no timeline on the gap. I would have preferred if someone said five years, and it probably will end up something like that. I'm enjoying what I'm doing, but if one of the lads were to pick up the phone and say it's time, I'd do it."
Within 1D, Horan was not initially considered one of the stars. "I was a couple [of places] down the ranks in terms of the best singer." He was rarely considered for lead vocal parts. "It used to make me angry but, in hindsight, I was 17, so I was angry anyway! As I grew up and went through puberty, the voice got better, the guitar-playing got better. And when the songwriting kicked in, I started to have a bigger role."
Horan's debut album, Flicker, drew on his obsession with classic 70s singer-songwriting. It went to No1 in the US Billboard charts in 2017, the third solo album from a 1D member to achieve the feat. "There's no rivalry. Maybe cos we're all doing different types of music."
He likes Louis Tomlinson's new single, 'Kill My Mind'. "He's shaping a sound that suits him, that north of England Britpop thing." He characterises Liam Payne as "R'n'B hip hop" and Harry Styles as drawing on "the English side of 70s pop. That would be the closest to me".
He doesn't mention Zayn Malik, the first to depart the band in 2015. "There's no hard feelings. He's doing his own thing and I don't know what would happen with Zayn if the conversation came up to get the band back together."
With his superior musicianship and songwriting focus, Horan was always among the likeliest to find solo success.
"There's a piano in my living room, always a couple of guitars lying around. [Songwriting] is a hobby, not a chore. Sometimes I wake up in the night and write down lines from my dreams. I did it last night." He fishes out a leather-bound notebook and reads: "Writing all my dreams down to make a new memory of you." Then he shrugs, bashfully. "When you read it back in the morning, it could be the biggest load of crap."
With a second album in the works, Horan says the real luxury is being able to spend time recording. "I've written 60 songs for this album. I can be rational and irrational, spend three days on a chorus, write 10 crap songs to get one good one. Sometimes you bump into a hit along the way, and that's the best feeling in the world. There's no better."
The first single, 'Nice To Meet Ya', is released today. It's a bit of a departure, a playful pick-up song with a rocky groove and a touch of swagger.
The playfulness, though, covers emotion. A romance with American actress and singer Hailee Steinfeld ended last year. "It was a sad time," Horan gloomily admits. "That's where most of these songs have come out of."
He is in a much better frame of mind now and says he doesn't miss 1D mania. He made his own way to the interview, walking unmolested through the streets of Soho. "I can live a normal life. I'm a chilled-out fella, but it was frustrating being hidden away. You had a fear of going out cos you'd get stopped every five seconds."
And yet, last year, he experienced an epiphany when he made a guest appearance with Taylor Swift at Wembley Stadium. "I was like, 'Oh my God!'. There's a power trip to feeling like you've got the crowd with you and they want you to succeed. I've missed the hustle and bustle of the police escort and the madness of it all. I still feel like a 14-year-old in my bedroom. I've got my guitar and I want to be a rock star."