With “Familiar,” his recent Latin-tinged collaboration with J Balvin, setting the stage for his debut solo album, due September 14, Liam Payne sat down with Billboard to talk about his eclectic sound, his “surprise” collaborations, and how he plans to keep One Direction fans happy with his new music.
You’re in a whole new musical space these days. What does that feel like?
Musically, it’s been a real change of pace for me. When we used to make records in One Direction, we’d already sold the tour we were making the record for. It wasn’t like the pressure was off — in fact, it was a lot more pressure, [like,] “Now we’ve got to make a whole album that’s good enough to hold a stadium together.” We were playing for 60,000 to 80,000 people, so we used to make our songs around those longer choruses for people to sing it out.
But now I’ve come out of the band, everything I’m doing is partially because of the music I like and [partially] because of the way the industry is going at the moment. You don’t know when to release, when not to release, when radio is going to respond. It’s all based around that sort of stuff. Rather than making music based on an instinct about a size of a room, I’ve had to get used to now thinking about the what beats are going to catch people and make them remember the song. When you think about a song like [new single] “Familiar,” it gets in your head. That’s the way I make music now, and that’s been the biggest change of pace for me. That was hard to get used to at the start, because I wrote half of the last three [1D] albums with Louis.
It must feel artistically freeing in a sense.
It really does. It’s been nice to work on your own time and pick your own pace. When you’re in the band, there are certain jobs you have to do and hoops you have to jump through, so that was always a little bit of a strain on all of us. You see us now, and we’re different people. You see Harry — he’s now in his Gucci suits and different colors and singing different songs. The way he stands with his microphone — it’s all coming out now! [Laughs] You see Louis doing dance music. I would’ve never have seen that coming, because he was the indie kid, and this is very different for him. And I dance now, and that was never a thing when we were in the band. It was kind of frowned upon. Comical dancing was alright, but if you took yourself too seriously, it was like, “What the hell are you doing?” So a lot’s changed, but now you’re seeing the real people who were in the band.
Are you all still in touch?
We still speak every so often. I enjoy watching their successes as much as they’re enjoying watching what I’m doing. I showed Louis a bunch of tunes, I went ’round his house, and that’s been the biggest change of the whole thing — just meeting the genuine people rather, than being a part of One Direction or whatever we were. We don’t speak as much, of course, though I got a call from Louis today.
Did it feel like time to move on and do your own thing, to maybe to exhale a bit?
I didn’t think so at the time, but yeah. And there isn’t much time to breathe now. I literally just did Mexico, and then I did Rio, so still mega-heavy on the travel. We’re just pushing ourselves as much as we can to keep the vibe going, because it’s been going really well for me, and I’ve been really excited and kind of mind-blown by the way people are streaming my songs and responding in crowds. And its quite funny, I’m the slowest of the bunch out of the box. I haven’t even gotten my album out yet.
Let’s talk about new album. We’ve heard a few singles, what can we expect?
The album is all finished. The reason we waited, and I discussed it with my label, is the way the vibe kind of works — the more songs we have, the more songs people listen to, [then] the more songs we get sent when producers call and say, “You’d sound good on this.” I’ve been lucky enough to have people like Ed Sheeran, Max Martin, and Steve Mac do my songs so far, and we got a couple of last ones in from a guy called Burns and a couple of other people that are really, really good songs — one of them is actually a single. So if we hadn’t waited, we would’ve missed out on the single, so I’m happy I waited for some producers to discover me. By waiting, we got two to three more songs and collaborations.
You’ve said there will be plenty of the sing-along rap vibes of songs like “Strip That Down,” as well as some ballads.
We have a couple ballads. I have some songs I made specifically for my One Direction fans — it’s not all rap- and hip hop-based. The only way I can really describe it is it’s very eclectic, almost like a Today’s Top Hits playlist. Think about people having a playlist and being so used to hearing so many different voices at the same time — having Quavo, Ed Sheeran, Charlie Puth, Zedd. There’s a couple others I can’t mention yet, because they’re little surprises. So almost half the album is collabs, and the other half, which is more me, [has] some more gritty songs in there that are about personal things I’ve never discussed publicly. And that’s different for me. There are some things I’ve kept for myself, and the only way I could really get it out was through the music — not to be cliché!
So are we going to learn some new things about you?
You might, but you’ve got to read between the lines, and that’s the point. I’ll never say [exactly] whatever it is. People will have to make their own mind up about it. But it’s just something I had to do for myself to get it out there. It’s out in September, and there will be another single before the album drops that is completely different than what I’ve done so far.
You have new fans and fans that have grown up with you in One Direction. With your new album, how do you see the balance of keeping all your fans?
This is the thing: You have to be very careful with your fan base. With One Direction, we’d have a song on every album that was a bridge song — a song on the album that could have been on the last album, and a song on the album that could’ve been on the next album. Whether we meant to do it and whether we all had the same song in mind is a different story, but I wanted to do the same thing. I haven’t written as much as I would’ve liked to for this album, but when we made the album “What Makes You Beautiful” is on, I didn’t write very much at all. I was learning, and I feel like I have to learn all over again, because this is a very new experience. I have to get it right. I’m very Virgo in that respect. The only way you can do it, I suppose, is to go very slowly. Everyone goes too far left at first and tries to be something they’re not, [something] they haven’t earned the right to be, and I want to make sure that when I get there, I’ve earned the right to be there. I have to make sure I make the journey. That’s more important to me than having a hit right out of the box.