From One Direction to five paths of their own: the Brit boy band’s ex-members chart distinctive musical courses
For years Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Harry Styles, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson toured the world together, delighting young fans. Now each has gone solo and is trying to find their own voice in a competitive industry
A key part of Slow Hands – the top-20 solo hit by this member of the British boy band One Direction – the iffy line likens his lover’s touch not to a summer breeze or a kiss from a rose but to “sweat dripping down our dirty laundry”.
On the page it’s vaguely nauseating. Yet, as Horan delivers the words in his breathy croon, backed by a creeping funk groove, the image conjures a sensuality you can almost feel.
How’d he know it would fly?
“I was with some friends of mine and we were just kind of shouting out lyrics,” the singer says. “And when we shouted that one – I think it was me who spat it out – the rest of the people in the room didn’t go, ‘Echhh’,” he laughed. “They weren’t horrified by it.”
Any young songwriter wants to find language to set his work apart. But Horan may be more motivated than most: nearly two years after his stadium-filling quartet (fifth member Zayn Malik left in 2015) went on an indefinite hiatus in early 2016, Horan is but one of the former members who are now tending to solo careers.
Each is looking to demonstrate that life exists after a boy band; that the promise of adventurous solo work, with more grown-up themes, is worth putting off the inevitable revival of a proven cash cow. And this autumn will be busy for all of them.
Horan recently launched a world tour that’s scheduled to hit America on September 19, just weeks before the release next month of his debut solo album, Flicker. The day after Horan’s first solo performance in Los Angeles, his former bandmate Harry Styles will also play in Los Angeles, part of a tour behind the self-titled debut he released in May, while in May next year he’ll be appearing live in Hong Kong.
Liam Payne is at No 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (down from No 10 last week) with his first solo single, Strip That Down. And following recent collaborations with Steve Aoki and Bebe Rexha, Louis Tomlinson is working on an album he’s suggested will take inspiration from Oasis and Arctic Monkeys.
Then there’s Malik, the bedroom-eyed heartthrob who left One Direction in 2015 but still travels in the boy band’s heady orbit. Known these days by his first name alone, Zayn put out his critically acclaimed solo debut, Mind of Mine, in 2016 and is now putting the finishing touches on a follow-up due before the end of the year.
Asked what he makes of this competition from his former colleagues, Horan says he doesn’t see it that way. “If we were making the same kind of music, then fair enough – you could start a rivalry,” he says. “Me and Liam, we’re currently up there in the charts. But we have completely different sounds.”
That’s not untrue. Where Slow Hands nods to the music of soulful white dudes like Don Henley (whose Dirty Laundry was an avowed influence), Strip That Down is a slickly digitised R&B track featuring Quavo of the Atlanta rap trio Migos.
“You know I used to be in 1D ... People want me for one thing,” Payne sings, “I’m not changing the way that I used to be ... I just wanna have fun and get rowdy.”
For Mind of Mine, Malik took a stab at the type of sprawling electronic soul music popularised by Frank Ocean and Miguel – a sound he says reflected “a growth period in terms of me as a writer, in terms of me as a singer, in terms of me as a person”.
And Styles? He went so deep into 1960s and ‘70s rock that Stevie Nicks felt compelled to join him for several numbers on stage a few months ago.
Still, at a moment when listeners have more demands on their attention than ever before, there’s only so much time a person can give to any male pop star not named Justin Bieber.
Perhaps that’s why Malik says he “tried to focus more on quality rather than quantity” for his upcoming album. “I think on my first record I had a lot of material – I just tried to get it all out,” he says. “And a result, I ended up writing 60-odd songs when you only need about 20.”
Indeed, Mind of Mine showcased an ambitious artist reaching hard to say everything he had to say about love and music and spirituality; it even had a song performed in Urdu, the native language of Malik’s Pakistani father. Yet the album spun off only a single radio hit in Pillowtalk, a plush but trippy ode to the kind of sex that makes a couple feel like “it’s our paradise and it’s our war zone”.
This time, Malik says, he’s concentrating “on each individual song – spending more time on them and trying to make them better, rather than having loads of songs that might not be as good”.
That approach mirrors what Julian Bunetta, a songwriter and producer who collaborated extensively with One Direction, says he sought to do while working on Horan’s Flicker.
In 1D, Horan was often seen strumming an acoustic guitar; one easy way to think about him was as the band’s Ed Sheeran (who co-wrote several 1D songs, including the lovely 18). And that impression certainly deepened with Horan’s first solo single, the folky This Town.
For his album, though, Bunetta wanted to help Horan establish a distinct sound: music that clearly draws from the singer’s classic-rock favourites – the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills & Nash – while still highlighting his unique wordplay and quirky sense of humour.
“You don’t try to be like, ‘Well, if Niall was more like Ed Sheeran ...,’ or, ‘If Niall was more like Coldplay … ‘,” the producer says. “You just do what’s best for Niall.”
Horan himself says he hopes Flicker, like that raunchy lyric in Slow Hands, reveals a side of him he wasn’t quite able to show in the tightly managed environment of a world-famous boy band.
He’s eager too to get on the road and bring his solo stuff to life – just one guy with a microphone now instead of four or five. “It might sound arrogant, but at this point I feel 100 per cent comfortable up there onstage,” he says. “It seems like home.”