When Niall Horan decided to move from London to Los Angeles in early 2016, it’s no surprise that he chose a house in Laurel Canyon, the epicenter of ’60s folk-rock culture. Horan was the one toting a guitar in One Direction, the British boy-band juggernaut that was just then going on a hiatus, and he’s got the soul of a singer-songwriter: He’s charismatic, witty and sensitive, but also easygoing and no-nonsense. Viewed alongside his bandmates -- born rock star Harry Styles, “sensible one” Liam Payne, “funny one” Louis Tomlinson, moody R&B prince Zayn Malik -- Horan, 23, is sort of like the middle brother: the most approachably handsome, the second-most popular across social media (29 million Twitter followers; 19 million on Instagram) and the most likely to lust after a gig at the historic Los Angeles rock club The Troubadour. “Playing for, like, 500 people. What more do you want?” says Horan. “I’ve had some good moments with screaming teenagers, but I like when the room is completely quiet. It’s a different kind of respect. People are actually listening.”
It’s exactly that reverent anticipation that greeted Horan when he played the opening notes of his first single, “This Town,” at the Los Angeles Jingle Ball near the end of 2016 -- although when he strode into the spotlight, alone but for his guitar and this one little solo song, he was playing to an entire stadium (the Staples Center, to be exact). “This Town,” an acoustic coming-of-age tale that persuasively showed that the tweeny-bopper had grown up, would go on to hit No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January. “Slow Hands,” the next single off his planned 2017 solo album, is a throbbing, R&B-inflected rock tune that persuasively shows that he’s a grown-ass man, and it’s climbing the Mainstream Top 40 airplay chart at this very moment.
But one Wednesday morning at the Laurel Canyon house, Horan seems positively boyish. He’s on the phone with his mom, for one. And he practically slides into the kitchen, wearing workout pants and a Nike shirt -- a break from his typical uniform of topsiders, patterned socks, cuffed jeans and buttoned-up shirts. A nice lady who works for him brings us veggie omelets. “No pepper for you,” she chides Horan. “Acid reflux,” he explains.
Horan’s fandom is thoroughly on display here. A framed black-and-white portrait of Frank Sinatra hangs in the den. The Rolling Stones lounge in full-color bacchanalian glory above the living room couch. Across from the fridge, Paul McCartney gazes up at a picture within that picture -- Sinatra, again. Most of all, it’s the Eagles who occupy a place in Horan’s home. They get an entire wall: five photos lovingly hung outside his office.
Ask Horan for a celeb story, and he’ll tell you about the time he met those very Eagles at a gig of theirs in Toronto. He’ll break out his Joe Walsh drawl to share a bit of wisdom from his favorite guitarist: “You better enjoy the ride, because one day you’re going to be sitting on your own balls.” Then he might add, far too casually, “Don Henley and I talk every couple weeks or so. It’s mad. I call him ‘Dad.’ He calls me ‘Son.’"
In fact, says Horan, “Slow Hands,” co-written by Adele collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr., was inspired by Henley solo hits like “Boys of Summer” and “Dirty Laundry.” It’s almost as if he has retraced the evolution of two decades of California rock in his nearly 18 months outside of One Direction. Henley himself gives Horan a hearty endorsement: “Niall is a solid guy whose focus is right where it ought to be: on songwriting. He’s got the Irish charm and a healthy, self-effacing sense of humor, which is an essential survival tool in this business. I think that Niall will evolve into a resonant, thoughtful voice for his generation.”
As a member of 1D -- even the guy pegged as “the cute one” -- Horan has a major leg-up on voice-of-a-generation status. Or at least, pop-star-of-a-generation status. After five years of working in lockstep with four (three, after Malik’s exit) other dudes -- churning out an album a year, then touring to promote it while writing and recording the next one on the road -- it’s now the mundane moments, away from the stage, where Horan feels a bit naked. “Every now and then you’re like, ‘Fookin’ hell, where is everyone?’ ” he says. “You’re sitting in an airport lounge, they call you for a plane, and you don’t stand up initially because you’re waiting on everyone else, you know? ‘Oh, Louis’ll be back from the toilet in a minute.’”
When I first meet Horan -- in the studio back in November, his first month recording his solo album, which is due on Capitol this fall -- he’s his own toughest critic. “I have loads of songs, but now that I’ve heard what we’ve done, I realize the rest are shite,” he says. “Nothing I do will be as big as One Direction, but I have to try at least to get somewhere near it.” By late April, though, he tells me, “The songs are sounding really good,” and he’s itching to get out of the studio and play live (he’s currently got a few dates planned in June).
“Niall’s got the stuff,” says Don Was, the producer and president of Blue Note, who worked on some potential album cuts with Horan. “He drove himself to the studio, carried his own guitar, stepped up to the microphone and was great every take. If they do the Desert Trip festival in 50 years, he’ll be headlining.”
Perhaps a future “Oldchella” will include Horan’s bard-like pals: Ed Sheeran (who wrote for 1D), James Bay (whose drummer is now Horan’s live music director) and Shawn Mendes. Horan is clearly veering away from boy-band pop but insists he isn’t at a crossroads. “I told my managers from the start: When One Direction comes knocking, fook what I’m doing. I don’t give a shit if I sold out arenas or won Grammys. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for that.” Yet he confirms that while the members of 1D talk frequently, “we haven’t even had a conversation about how long we think the break will be.” And with the others well into their solo careers -- Styles just released his debut, Malik’s lining up his second album, and Payne and Tomlinson have both dropped singles -- it’s a good thing Horan’s getting comfortable on his own. Gearing up for the grind that’s once again about to engulf him, he says, “It’s all comin’ for me now.”
After 1D made its final appearance, at the Billboard Hollywood Party for the 2015 edition of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Horan packed a rucksack, grabbed two of his cousins (and one chill security guard) and flew to Southeast Asia. The guys rented scooters wherever they went, ate whatever was around, shared rooms for $20 a night and bought same-day flights to get to whichever place was next. Horan “literally didn’t wear a shirt for three weeks” in Thailand, but in Bali “it pissed rain.” They learned about history in Vietnam and “got very drunk” in Hanoi. In Boracay, they got stuck at a bad motel -- “lights flickering, cats drinking out the pool, spiders walking the wall, damp bedsheets, plus you’ve got the shits from the dodgy food” -- and they loved it.
“I didn’t want the schedule anymore,” says Horan. “I’ve spent so much time setting alarms on phones.” When 1D was still a going concern, he says, “all me mates were backpacking, while I wasn’t even allowed to go outside of the hotel.”
In his newfound free time, Horan revisited stuff he had heard as a kid, relearned “how effective simple music can be” and cataloged his experiences in his leather-bound book of song ideas. Born of blue-collar Irish stock in tiny Mullingar, Ireland, he was the classic townie with a dream. His mom soldered pewter ware, Mullingar’s biggest export, and his dad worked nights behind the butcher counter at the Tesco supermarket (where 1D fans knew to find him until 2016, when he was, says Horan, “made redundant”). They divorced when Horan was 5, and he and his big brother moved in with their dad. Horan did his own laundry and cooking and got himself up each day to walk the mile-and-a-half to school. (“I didn’t need all the pampering,” he says.) He was also brought up on “the good stuff” -- Crosby, Stills & Nash; Fleetwood Mac; Jackson Browne -- and adopted his brother’s guitar, a neglected Christmas gift, at 12. He did talent shows and small gigs. You can still find little Niall covering Justin Bieber’s “Baby” on YouTube.
These days, Horan’s getting hard-won wisdom direct from the source. “Bieber told me that you never really know when you’re finished” with an album, says Horan, who in addition to Was and Jesso has been working with songwriters Greg Kurstin (1D, Sia) and Jamie Scott (1D, Olly Murs), plus producers Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon) and Julian Bunetta (1D, Fifth Harmony). “He thought he was done [with Purpose] and then got 'Love Yourself' at the last minute. I thought my album was finished, and then I went on a bit of a run ’cause I was writin’ crap stuff up until then.” Although he does call “Flicker,” a pretty, strings-laden early track about the last night in a failing relationship, one of his favorites. “On the Loose,” a newer recording, reinvents Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” for the tropical-pop set.
All his self-discovery aside, Horan remains close with his bandmates. “I see Louis and [his son] little Freddie all the time. He lives around the corner from me [in Los Angeles],” he says. He picked up gifts for Payne’s month-old boy that he hasn’t been able to present yet, because their schedules haven’t aligned. He planned to see Styles when the lanky star was in town for a weeklong residency on The Late Late Show With James Corden and genuinely gushes about his April episode of Saturday Night Live: “I loved his brilliant impression of Mick Jagger” in the Family Feud sketch, he says. As for his musical performances, he adds, “I really enjoyed them. He’s smashin’ it.”
Horan even shrugs off Malik’s post-1D kvetching: “Oh, pfft. I know what Zayn’s like -- outspoken, and fair play to him.” He offers the same civility to Simon Cowell, who publicly attacked Horan’s loyalty for choosing Capitol over his Syco label. (1D formed on The X Factor.) “We’ll always have mutual respect. When we get back to the band, he’ll be at the forefront again,” says Horan. And he’s certain they’ll be back: “When it will be, I don’t know. I prefer not to do it after I’m 40. I’d prefer the next few years.”
Capitol chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, who signed 1D when he was at Columbia, says he has seen Horan grow from “a special little kid from a provincial island” to “the absolute top in terms of professionalism, thoughtfulness, work ethic and appreciating what he’s got. You’d be proud if he was your son.”
Horan did pay his mom’s mortgage and tried to buy his dad a country home, although the old man refused. Was that awkward? “No, I love it,” says Horan, grinning. “I always say there’s ignorance and there’s Irish ignorance. It’s on a different level. He’ll barely take a Christmas present off me. He doesn’t want any of it. He just wants me to come visit.” Horan’s own home in Laurel Canyon -- a five-bedroom, 4,400-square-foot house on a 9,600-square-foot lot, bought for $4 million -- is modest for a guy in his tax bracket. And while he does have a trophy wall in it, you get the feeling it’s because he doesn’t buy knickknacks -- just the occasional $20,000 guitar, like the 1961 Gibson ES-335 he toured with in December.
In other words, it is almost freaky how free Horan seems to be of the post-traumatic stress of young stardom. “Maybe it’s where I’m from,” he says. “I’m quite a simple old soul, me.”
When in London, where he first moved when he was 16, Horan hangs out with his three cousins — one lives in the apartment he keeps there — and Irish buddies who’ve made their way to the city. (He has played the Manchester Arena, a few hours away by train, “many times,” he says, and calls the May 22 bombing of the Ariana Grande concert there “horrendous and hard to comprehend. Watching a concert by your favorite artist should be a happy event.”)
In Los Angeles, he’s got his best friend since he was 4, who moved there for work, and socializes with Selena Gomez and her crew, because -- if the rumors about he and Gomez are true -- he’s the rare celebrity who stays on good terms with his famous exes. (“Selena is the perfect role model for young girls. It takes balls to go in front of the world and share your problems,” he says, referring to her public struggle with lupus.) He and Ellie Goulding, a confirmed ex, are close, too. “We always have a great laugh,” he says.
Horan good-naturedly dismisses rumors that he’s dating Gomez BFF Courtney Barry, with whom he was spotted at Disneyland in April. He’s single and thinks he has been in love twice but, he says, “it could have been lust.” “I think I got a type, anyway,” he says. “Dark hair, dark eyes. Someone I can see as a friend. At the moment, I’m enjoying being 23. I only get one go at me 20s. I’d like to give it me best go.” All the same, “I’m happy to go home alone on a Saturday night, drink and watch football.”
“I’m pretty nervous in front of other celebrities still, but he’s so calm and chill,” says Mendes, another close L.A. friend, who went over to Horan’s after last year’s American Music Awards and again to watch the Grammys. “We just started jamming out, and it didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be good in front of him.’ It was complete fun, no ego, like the reason you play music in the first place.”
Music is not Horan’s only passion. In 2015, he caddied for Irish golf champ Rory McIlroy (and fell, with the bag, in front of a TV camera). He’s geeky talking about his astronaut pal Shane Kimbrough, whom he met when 1D shot a video at Johnson Space Center in Houston and who regularly called Horan from the International Space Station when he was overhead. Horan watched sci-fi flicks like Interstellar so he could ask Kimbrough “if they got it right.”
Back on earth, there’s no place Horan can completely escape his fame, including Mullingar. There’s a small shrine to him at the Greville Arms Hotel, a local landmark that also has a section devoted to James Joyce. “My dad gave them my BRIT Award,” says Horan. “I gave it to him to keep, and he gives it to a hotel.” And he has come to expect a string of fans knocking on his folks’ doors hoping for a photo op. He was dreading this when we first met last fall, before he traded his blond boy-band coif for his natural hue: respectable brown. Then, he had every reason to assume the Directioners would follow him anywhere, even back to his roots as he makes the sort of music their parents probably loved. When we catch up in the spring, Horan is relieved to report his last trip to Ireland was fairly quiet. But looking ahead at the rest of 2017, he knows work will keep him away from all his homes: “I might as well not live anywhere -- I’m busy all year.” Enjoying the ride, as Joe Walsh would surely point out.
Watch Niall Horan talk about recording his album tracks "completely live" in "one or two takes" and gaining confidence on stage as a solo act.