The New Direction of Liam Payne
It’s raining in West London. Every weather man, woman, and app had forecast that sunshine would be on the agenda for the day. But no. It’s raining. So, we’re stuck inside instead.
Alternating between balancing on a set of dumbbells and showing off adorable videos of his son, Bear, to the cooped-up crew, Liam Payne doesn’t seem to mind all that much about the weather. He’s used to plans changing pretty quickly.
“I’ve found in my life at the moment, because of the way things have happened, that everything’s kind of fast-forwarded,” says Payne, his dark eyes lighting up like those of a prospector that’s just panned a nugget of gold, “everything has fast-forwarded.”
Payne’s lived pretty much his entire life on fast-forward. He had his first X-Factor television appearance at the age of fourteen. He embarked on his first world tour with a little band named One Direction—you might have heard of them—only four years later. The band sold more than 50 million albums worldwide, and had four albums debut at number one in the US charts. He even found the time to meet the future mother of his child somewhere in-between. As for fatherhood, that’s a life achievement the singer notched at just twenty-three.
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As Payne ambles about the studio, it’s hard not to notice that even the tattoo on his forearm bears a striking resemblance to the fast-forward button on a television remote. Or a Spotify skip button.
Having recently performed alongside Rita Ora at the Global Teacher Prize concert in Dubai, Payne looks healthy and tanned, kissed by the sun even though his visit to the region was greeted by weather not dissimilar to today’s overcast conditions. “I think the weather’s just following me around at the minute,” he says with a laugh as abrupt as the first half of a hiccup. “There’s an air of something almost Vegas-y about Dubai,” adds Payne, “everything’s a little bit of a show there.”
Payne is no stranger to bit of a show. As well as having spent the better part of a decade touring the world with One Direction (the band is currently on a definitely indefinite hiatus) Payne helped break a concert attendance record in the Middle East last year by performing in front of 110,000 people. “I didn’t eat anything at dinner beforehand because I was thinking no-one’s going to turn up,” he admits.
To make Liam Payne nervous certainly takes some doing. Back in 2009—when ambitions of winning X-Factor as a solo performer were still very much at the forefront of his mind—Payne sang in front of over 29,000 fans as part of the pre-match entertainment of a game between his local football team Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United. A pretty heady experience for a boy not yet old enough to drive a car.
Now 25, Payne knew from an early age that he could “hold a tune”. What it took him longer to realise was that others couldn’t. “I think I thought it was just a normal thing that people could get on with,” he says with a shrug. That may well have been the case when it came to his local theatre group, but when considering most of the “normal things”that people “get on with”, we’d hazard a guess that the majority don’t involve amassing over two billion streams on Spotify.
But that’s Liam Payne for you: unassuming, self-effacing, and—for the most part—a guy who seems just genuinely happy to be here. It’s easy to forget when deliberating the merits of Linkin Park’s nu-metal masterpiece ‘Meteora’ with Payne that his face was once plastered on the bedroom walls of millions of tweens the world over.
Payne’s achieved extraordinary success in the quarter of a century he’s exhausted so far. So much so that you’d expect the moment that sparked off his passion for music to be equally spectacular. A real spontaneous Kevin Bacon dancing-in-an-abandoned-warehouse sort of epiphany. The reality is that it wasn’t romantic or sexy in the slightest. It was karaoke. “I used to go out to Cornwall and see my grandad and we’d always go to this karaoke bar and we’d sing a load of different stuff,” says Payne.
What sort of “stuff” does a future pop-star sing in a karaoke bar in a small town on the west coast of the UK? Well, the same oeuvre that you or I are have probably crooned into a microphone at midnight at Lucky Voice: ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams.
While Payne isn’t ashamed to admit that he was listening to Williams pretty much 24/7 as a youngster (“No, I really was”), one of the first CDs he bought with his own money was an Eminem record. Growing up with both Robbie Williams and Marshall Mathers as his idols, he places his own sound as “somewhere in-between the two”.
A little bit Slim Shady and a little bit Rock DJ, that intersection of pop and rap is reflected in Payne’s solo career so far. His debut single, the catchy-as-the-plague earworm ‘Strip That Down’, featured Migos alum Quavo and went on to be certified platinum in both the US and the UK. The title track of his First Time EP also saw Payne join forces with rapper French Montana. Payne’s certainly not the first popstar to align themselves with a more urban sound in an attempt to appeal to an older demographic. Nor will he be the last. The transition from squeaky-clean boyband member to fullyfledged solo artist is, after all, anything but easy. To use a Take That comparison: for every one Robbie Williams, there are a hundred Mark Owens.
When it comes to One Direction, it’s still a bit too soon to tell who the Robbies and the Marks of the bunch are going to be. “When we did the band stuff it was very—not exactly scripted—but let’s just say you kind of knew your audience very well,” says Payne. “We’d usually sell a tour out before we’d even done an album. And then they [the record producers] would go: ‘Right, you’re doing stadiums’. And then you’d go: ‘Okay, so we need longer choruses—the kind of songs that people can chant in a stadium’. You had to kind of write around the tour.”
If that process sounds a bit paint-by-numbers, that’s because—by Payne’s own admission—it was. “It’s a very backwards way to do it,” he admits, “obviously people don’t really tend to write like that. But we just had no time, so it was like: ‘Quick! We need another hit and another and another!’ It was actually easier to write in that scenario because there were so many hoops you had to jump through. It wouldn’t necessarily be my choice of music now—it wasn’t something that I would listen to—but I just knew how to make it, if that makes sense?”
Going from such a canned bop formula to a world of complete creative freedom is a daunting prospect for anyone looking to make it as a solo act. But that was far from the only challenge Payne faced. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have drastically altered the music industry since the phone-to-vote days that launched One Direction. “The way that the industry kind of works now is kind of a difficult one because of the way albums are and the introduction of Spotify,” says Payne. “When I was in the band, Spotify wasn’t really a thing for us, we didn’t really care. We used to sell a lot of albums and physical copies, so it was different for us. As I got more into the solo stuff it was a kind of, like, a bit f**king confusing.”
All you need to do is look at the chains that Payne draped around his neck during the releases of a series of sophomore singles to see a man adopting a kabuki mask that didn’t quite fit. A man who was, in his words, a bit f**king confused. “‘Strip That Down’ was amazing and I was really happy with the success of it—but it didn’t necessarily paint the right picture of me and who I actually am,” he says, “I always found, to start off with, that with a lot of the chains and the clothes and the fashion, I was kind of hiding behind something. We did a billion streams for ‘Strip That Down’ but it still all gets a bit heady and at a certain point you’re like: ‘what the f**k am I doing here?’ It’s a bit like being stuck out in deep water and you’re just going ‘well, it would be really nice to get back now.’”
Payne might still be far from the shore, but he seems to be treading water at a more comfortable pace nowadays. “It took me a long to get my head around it,” he says, “and obviously at the same time I was having a baby and all that different stuff. So, there was a lot of s**t to go through at that time to get to where I am now.”
And where is Liam Payne now? Well, he’s sat in front of me looking comparatively anxiety-free: comfortable and relaxed in a plain black tee and pair of tailored HUGO trousers. “My style and my fashion sense are all quite laid back now because that’s kind of the way I am as well. I don’t feel the need to hide behind the clothes anymore. I feel I can finally be who I am and enjoy myself.”
The last few years have witnessed a real boy-to-man transition for the ex-boy band squaddie. A coming-of-age moment came when he arrived at Frank Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs to record his part of ‘For You’ with Rita Ora. A crooning, finger-snapping, rather embarrassingly-waist-coated rendition of ‘Fly Me to The Moon’ was what Payne sang to get through his first ever X-Factor audition. Walking into Old Blue Eyes’ home, for Payne, came with the realisation that he’d “made that complete full-circle journey”.
Suffice it to say there’s no turning around for Payne in that journey when it comes to the fame front; he’s well in the thickets of the tabloid jungle. Headlines about who’s “breaking silence on romance rumours” with the popstar are a daily occurrence in the British papers. So too are accompanying photographs of his face. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Payne has, after all, got a rather nice face. The latest use of which has seen it become the face of Hugo Boss’s latest HUGO menswear line.
“To be honest, they called me and it just seemed to make a lot of sense at the time. It was a direction that I knew I’d love to go down,” says Payne on how his partnership with the brand first came about. “It’s very rare that a big company like Hugo Boss comes around asking for you to be the face of it. It’s a bit of a dream come true actually.”
Previous Hugo Boss ambassadors include the likes of Chris Hemsworth, Jamie Dornan and Gerard Butler. Handsome faces. Familiar faces. Faces that are now forever immortalised in the public conscience. A fact that Payne is all-too conscious of himself. “I was looking through the different people that they’ve had on their roster over the years and they’re all people that I look up to,” says Payne, “So, I’m obviously quite excited but it’s also a bit daunting because these things,” he spreads his arms in a gesture that aptly sums up the rigmarole of press junkets and interviews, “are literally around for forever now.”
Moving from location to location and outfit to outfit, it becomes evident that dressing to hide who he is, is no longer on Payne’s agenda. As he’s grown (both figuratively and literally) in the public eye, and Payne’s now come to accept the lane he’s in. “I’ve become more in tune with things now,” he says, “as the years go by, I think you gain a different level of confidence and find out what works for you and what doesn’t, rather than constantly trying to be something that you’re not. If that makes sense?” It does.
What makes less sense is why Payne decided to go with chains in the first place “It was quite funny at the time when everyone used to get really mad about it,” he says referencing outraged headlines like: Sleepy Liam Payne leaves a London studio wearing a HUGE gold chain. “It just didn’t really matter to me.”
What matters to Payne is when those stories affect the lives of those around him. One particular article published in the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, last year that attempted to insinuate he was romantically linked with a member of his team irked Payne so much that the usually apolitical Twitterer took to social media to criticising the newspaper.
“The difference with that story was that the people that they were putting me with have families, boyfriends, girlfriends,” explains Payne, “I go home every night and know that people write horses**t about me daily. I won’t worry about it because I know it’s f**king bulls**t. But for someone who’s never had a story written about them before? If they go home and their partner’s reading the paper going like: ‘what the f**k is this?’ It’s difficult for them to be able to explain that.” Payne’s voice ratchets up a few decibels when he says this. He uses more than a few words we’re not legally allowed to print. I can tell that he cares about this. That it needles him. That it’s not something he has to say, but rather something that he needs to say. So, I let him.“I asked for this, I get paid very handsomely to be here and it’s part of my life and I get it. It’s alright. You can write what the f**k you want about me but when it comes to other people who work with me? That is not on.”
The only way for Payne to cut through that noise is by doing the thing he knows best: making music. “Everything I do is very, very public a lot of the time. I get reported on a lot for different things. I just think there’s a certain line where I have to have my say. And that there’s only one way for me
to do that—which is through my music.”
The din of noise that Payne has to compete with has increased somewhat substantially over the last two years thanks to the addition of his son, Bear. Although Payne attests that Bear is as “good as Goldilocks”, he’s aware that being a dad and a popstar aren’t easy responsibilities to balance.
“People make it out like a lightbulb comes on and suddenly you’re a dad and it’s like… no. [Being a father] is something you have to learn and I’m not afraid to say it takes more than a f**king minute to get your head around the idea of what it is.”
Payne might not have his head fully around the concept quite yet but, as we talk about his relationship with Bear, it becomes evident that Payne’s already nailed one of the most important aspects of being a dad: caring. “The not understanding is the most difficult bit,” he says with the weariness of a father well above his years, “especially when you have a toddler who doesn’t understand how to communicate and you can’t understand what they want.”
Communicating as a public figure becomes increasingly difficult when navigating the glut of information that exists online. Do a quick Google search for ‘Liam Payne’ and you’ll be greeted by countless fan sites with a never-ending litany of “facts” about the man. Facts like:
“Liam Payne prefers showers over baths”
“Liam Payne sleeps naked”
“Liam Payne has a phobia of spoons”
While Payne is quick to assure me that most of what you’ll read online is straight B.S., one fact did keep cropping up again and again. And I mean, c’mon, I couldn’t not ask him about the spoons, could I?
“Yeah, I did have a fear of spoons,” he groans with the weariness of a man who’s been pelted with countless pieces of cutlery, “but it wasn’t so much a fear as something that’s now turned into a thing because of the internet. I was forced in detention once to wash up dirty plates and spoons and I think it just put me off looking at how dirty some of these spoons came back. But people used to throw spoons at me in concerts! I should have said I had a fear of pillows—that would have been comfier.”
All things considered, a fear of spoons is a fairly harmless rumour to spread. But rumours rarely ever are. Most are vicious; spreading like wildfire and burning all of those they touch. “I’ve been dead,” says Payne abruptly. “People I love have been dead.”
The non-stop 24-hour nature of the news cycles can be overwhelming to read, let alone to be involved in via the announcement of your own death. “You have to learn fast and we [One Direction] had to grow up pretty quick in the circumstances that we were under or else you kind of f**k it a little bit,” he says. If you’ve ever seen clips of The Beatles or BTS getting mobbed on the streets, you know the kind of hysteria that can ensue when boyband members are seen out in public.
“I don’t think I struggle in the sense of what you would naturally think of when I’m walking down the street with every person stopping me,” says Payne, “I mean, it happens sometimes but it’s mainly mentally where you struggle with it. It’s the getting ready and always knowing that you might be photographed.” From elaborate airport fits to the loungewear he puts on to pick up a pint of semiskimmed milk from the shop down the road, there’s never a moment where Payne and his clothing aren’t in danger of becoming front page news.
One of the ways that Payne combats that simmering anxiety is by going for a run at 5am every morning. It’s probably why he’s been able to maintain his sanity so far. And probably why he’s in—as evidenced by his numerous topless Instagram photos—such great nick.
“I love it. I get myself outside and into the day and get past that fear of ‘what if this happens?’ or ‘what if that happens?’. Because, for a long time, I became—what’s the word?” says Payne, gesticulating wildly as if he’ll catch the phrase careening around his head like a runaway wasp, “there’s a word for this condition where you stay inside and never leave, it’s in Ocean’s Twelve…”
I saw Ocean’s Twelve last week. The word he’s looking for is agoraphobia.
“Yeah, that’s it. I developed a bit of agoraphobia. I would never leave the house. And I do sometimes suffer with it a bit in the sense that I’ll get days where I just don’t want to leave my house. Even if it’s just going to the shop. I’d be going i to order a coffee at Starbucks and I would sweat because I wouldn’t know whether I was doing the right thing or not. I would be thinking: ‘f**k, I don’t want to be here’.”
I worry for a moment whether Payne is feeling that same feeling today but decide instead to take likely misplaced solace that my innate knowledge of the Ocean’s film franchise has won him over. “I even used to have a really bad problem with going to petrol stations and paying for petrol. I can feel it now—it was like this horrible anxiety where I’d be sweating buckets in the car thinking ‘I don’t want to do this’.”
Many people suffer from moments of panic and instances where we feel crushed by the weight of the world’s expectations and Payne is all-too aware that his specific anxieties stem from a position of privilege. “Unfortunately, it does happen to everybody in this industry,” he says, “I think at a certain point you just have to get over it as quickly as you can.”
There we are once again: back to doing things quickly. Back to being on fast-forward. Back to doing countless interviews in specifically allotted time slots. Back to that constant pressure where “everything happens a little bit quicker in my world than it does in everyone else’s”.
Everything might be happening a hell of a lot quicker for Liam Payne than me, but I’m still interested to know: what’s next for the man? What does he want to achieve in the not-yet fast-forwarded future? “I’m hoping for something a lot more than what I’ve done so far, if that makes sense?” Having listened to Payne’s solo discography in preparation for this interview, it really does.
Sure, Payne’s produced a spate of bonafide bangers—songs that will have you singing along as you whip down Emirates Road—but they’re also songs that are, for the most part, still formulaic. They’re catchy, glossily well-produced, yet contain something of an air of inauthenticity about them.
And, having met Payne, I can’t help but feel they seem at odds with his unabashedly authentic self. As he tells me: “People can see right through that s**t and it’s difficult for you to then go and say ‘buy this record!’ if you don’t really believe in what’s going on.”
So, what does a man who’s (sort of) afraid of spoons actually believe in? Moreover, what does a man who eats ice cream with a fork want to be remembered as having believed in? “I’m obviously really happy with some of the stuff I’ve done. Like breaking world records with the band and all sorts of amazing stuff. But in the recent years, it’s been a bit topsy-turvy with me kind of finding my way. And I’d rather not be remembered for a lot of those things. I want to make a really amazing album that’s not, like,” and he air-quotes here, “important, but something that people really get into. Something that makes certain people feel a couple things. I think that would be the best thing for me. I just want to make people move, if that makes sense?”
In case you haven’t already noticed, that question (‘if that makes sense?”) is practically punctuation to Payne. It’s a caveat that ends many of his statements; an interrogation of his own beliefs and a moment where his PR armour reveals its chinks and offers a glimpse of the man beneath the surface. A man that is equal parts cocksure and uncertain—a man who’s very rarely both and almost never neither.
While he might be living on fast-forward—and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon—Liam Payne, for the moment at least, might just be in the midst of the most interesting time of his life. His legacy is currently being written, awaiting the day we’ll eventually look back with a clearer idea of whether he’s a Robbie Williams or a Mark Owen. As for me, I’m just hoping that the next evolution of Liam Payne’s career is a lot more Liam Payne than the last. If that makes sense?