Pop Shop Podcast: Niall Horan on New Song 'Finally Free,' 'Disappearing' After Tour to Work on Next Album & 8 Years of One Direction

David Needleman
Niall Horan

Welcome to the new episode of the Billboard Pop Shop Podcast, your one-stop shop for all things pop on Billboard's weekly charts. In addition, you can always count on a lively discussion about the latest pop news, fun chart stats and stories, new music, and guest interviews with music stars and folks from the world of pop.

Casual pop fans and chart junkies can hear Billboard senior director of charts Keith Caulfield and Billboard deputy editor, digital, Katie Atkinson, every week on the Pop Shop Podcast, which can be streamed on Billboard.com or downloaded in iTunes. (Click here to listen to the previous Tuesday’s edition of the show on Billboard.com).

On our latest episode, our special guest is Niall Horan! Horan called in from a stop on his Flicker World Tour to chat about why it’s been “the most fun tour” he’s been a part of, how we definitely won't be getting any club bangers from him in the future, his new song “Finally Free” from the upcoming animated film Smallfoot and, of course, the eighth anniversary of One Direction -- the group that launched Horan to stardom. (Listen to the full interview, below.)

Horan’s Flicker World Tour kicked off in March and arrived in the U.S. this month. The trek -- in support of the singer-songwriter’s No. 1 Billboard 200 debut album Flicker -- concludes in September.

“The show has evolved a lot,” Horan tells Billboard. “We all play a lot tighter together as a band. And I think that happens with time -- the longer you spend on the road…the better you get. And this will stand me in good stead for when I go to record the next time because you're singing every night, you're nursing the vocal cords, and it should make for a good vocal on the next album.”

And what about that next album? Flicker -- Horan’s solo debut effort -- was released on Oct. 20, 2017 and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It has launched four hit singles on the Pop Songs airplay chart, including the No. 1 “Slow Hands.”

So is Horan writing and recording his second album while he’s been on the road? Not quite.

“Some people are like really good at that, where they can just -- on any downtime they have -- just sit down and write multiple songs. And I found that I just can't. There's so much going on and if you actually wanna tour and see the city that you're in, you got no time for that. And then on show day, there's a strict schedule that we try and stick to. I'm just really struggling to kinda get into that mind-set because if you're not going to put 100 percent into [writing], there's no point doing it.

“So I found when I went home after we toured Europe, I wrote two or three songs in a couple of days. Just sitting at the piano like I did on the last album, where I was sitting at home, guitar in hand, sitting at a piano or whatever. ... So it's not going very well on the road, but I will be kind of disappearing after the tour and taking a couple of months off and then going for it properly and just writing until I can't write anymore.”

That said, Horan was able to write and record the new track “Finally Free” for the upcoming animated film Smallfoot during a break in touring. The Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner Animation Studios movie, due out Sept. 28, boasts an all-star voice cast led by Channing Tatum. Tatum voices Migo, a yeti who discovers something he thought didn’t exist: a human, or "smallfoot."

“It was actually really cool and organic how it happened,” Horan says of his involvement with Smallfoot. As it turns out, two of Horan’s frequent collaborators and friends, Julian Bunetta and John Ryan, were executive producing the music for the movie. (Bunetta and Ryan co-wrote “Slow Hands” with Horan and also had a hand in writing a number of One Direction tracks.)

Horan says he got inspiration to write the “folky, uptempo” cut, which was released on July 6, after watching scenes from the film and powwowing with Bunetta and Ryan in their studio. “They had written the chorus and then I came in and put my touch on it,” Horan says.

Horan co-wrote the track with Bunetta, Ryan, Alexander Izquierdo and Tobias Jesso Jr., while Bunetta, Ryan and AfterHrs produced the cut.

The Pop Shop coincidentally spoke with Horan on July 23 -- the eighth anniversary of One Direction’s formation on the U.K. reality talent competition The X Factor. On Monday, Horan and two of his One Direction bandmates, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson, both celebrated the anniversary on Twitter. The next day, the quartet’s Harry Styles chimed in.

Does the anniversary make Horan reflect on where he’s come from with One Direction, or does it make him think about where the guys are all at now and what could happen with the group in the future?

“I guess it's a mix of both,” Horan says. “It all kinda came about real quick and before we knew it, [we had] a No. 1 album in America and we're selling out arenas and we were globally successful. And we had a great time while we were doing that.

“And this is kind of like a little chapter in the middle where we're doing our own thing. Again, all being successful at it, I'd like to think, and selling out tours and being out on the road and making tunes that we all want to make. Yeah, it's kind of a bit of both, and we're gonna see what happens in the future.

“It’s hard to believe it's been eight years. … Today I was in Urban Outfitters and a girl said, 'I've been a fan since I was 12,' and she was like 20. And I was like 'Oh God.' [Laughs] It even makes me feel old, and I'm only 24! It's a bit of a shock to the system when you hear stuff like that. But yeah, it's been amazing to be part of people's lives. … A lot of people you read online [say] 'One Direction was basically a part of my teenage years,' and I wouldn't have it any other way. I think that's quite a cool thing to be able to have in your résumé.”

In addition to the interview with Horan, the latest episode of the Pop Shop Podcast includes chart chat about Drake's continued dominance on the Billboard 200 and Billboard Hot 100 charts, the debut of Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” on the Hot 100, and ABBA’s boost in sales thanks to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

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