Niall Horan’s lockdown listening: ‘Pop is definitely at its best right now’

The former One Direction star talks about his love of Thin Lizzy, Dua Lipa and 5 Seconds of Summer – and how he’s writing songs about dating in lockdown

I’m in London in my apartment, cooking – I’m making a Victoria sponge right now – and writing a lot: two songs yesterday. I had to cancel my tour, so I might as well go on the hunt for a big song. I started writing a Hey There Delilah-type one about when this is all over, called, well, When This Is All Over, and I was also writing about the idea of meeting someone without actually meeting them, and getting to know them because of this crisis. It’s an odd one: it’s actually a good way to get to know someone. Usually, say you went to a bar for a date, you’re probably drunk after five drinks and you forget everything you’ve learned about them. Now, you actually have time to ask questions. There’s no romances as of yet, but I wouldn’t mind if they started to blossom.

I come in the kitchen every morning, put on the kettle, and straight away I’m listening to acoustic music. Me and my two cousins live together, so we listen to a lot of the same stuff – Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice, Angus and Julia Stone, Chet Faker, DMAs, things like that in the morning.

A lot of pop music, you wouldn’t sit down and delve properly into it. That’s probably quite an ignorant thing to say! But when it’s melody based and dance-y, you don’t always break stuff down and see what they’re talking about. So a lot of the new pop albums I’ve properly delved into: Dua Lipa, 5 Seconds of Summer, the Weeknd. His album is insane, incredible – everything he touches he turns to gold, but he’s written his best stuff now. Dua was like: “I wanted to make people dance but write really sad lyrics.” I was in a similar spot. I wanted a few uptempo songs and to have a laugh with it, but also disguising the sad lyrics in some fun stuff. And she’s done that so much. Don’t Start Now is the perfect example.

The 5 Seconds of Summer boys smashed it this time. I’m not sure if they’d be pissed off at me for describing it like this, but their new album is like EDM punk-rock: they’ve got these drops, but they’re guitar driven. There’s a song called Best Years that has this really random, cool moment where it sounds like the Edge is playing: one of those Where the Streets Have No Name riffs.

One Direction, we were a boy band, and you’re told by the public you’ve got a sell-by date before you even start. It just depends how you deal with that. I thought we dealt with it quite well, and 5SOS, too – they’re all unbelievable musicians and they’ve developed. You learn from other artists, even subconsciously. They’re mates with [EDM duo] the Chainsmokers; they went on tour together, so they’ve started to develop sounds perhaps without realising it. And they’ve got to the age of 25, 26, and their sound has done this lovely little arc.

I’ve been doing this 30-day song challenge – name a song you like with a person’s name in the title, or a song from the year you were born. Thin Lizzy were on my list yesterday, with their song Sarah. This is a rock band in the 70s in Ireland, with a guy with a big afro, and it’s: “You came into my life and changed my world, my Sarah.” It’s storytelling, and very on the nose.

I wouldn’t say I was a major hip-hop fan, but my cousin is a big fan of Aitch. I must live under a rock, but apparently that fella has been doing unbelievable things – he played me a few tunes that are really great. I’ve also delved deeper into the artists I love anyway: Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Crosby Stills and Nash, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen. When I sit down to sing a ballad or play the guitar, I’ll always play a Bruce-type melody. If I write with a pop writer, they always say my melodies lean in a bluesy, rocky way – I have that ingrained in me. But I don’t want to be a rebel either. I know there are people out there who want to hear certain stuff from me, so I like to put my own tinge on it.

If I’d come out of One Direction and made a straight pop record I don’t think people would have been shocked at all, and it would have been the easiest thing for me to do. But I just don’t believe in it. I’m either going to put out something I love or not put out anything at all.

It’s not the easiest music industry right now – it’s tough out there. The quality of music is so high, and quality artists are more prevalent than ever, like the Weeknd, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift. You go to these award shows and you see the calibre around you and you’re like: fucking hell, I’d like to stay at this level. Pop is definitely at its best right now, and it’s good for everyone – it keeps you on your toes. I just have to hope that the next time I open my mouth and sing into a microphone it’s a good melody. That’s why I’m writing a lot now. I know the types of melodies I can write when I’m at my best – I just need to get to them. I’m going through the shit water to get to the clear water.

Niall Horan’s album, Heartbreak Weather, is out now.

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