Promoting a new album is hard work, and for Harry Styles, that work involves gamely commenting on One Direction fan-fiction theories.
"Oh, is that a thing?" he said, amused by the internet chatter linking his new song Sweet Creature to his 1D bandmate Louis Tomlinson. "Well, whatever it is that it makes one feel. But I think if you listen to the lyrics, you can work out what it’s about."
Styles' charming, British-accented modesty aside, the 23-year-old One Direction singer is poised to become one of the world's biggest pop stars with the release of his self-titled debut album (out Friday), a collection of music that Styles describes as “songs about stories, and another group of songs delving into, ‘Why did I feel like that.’”
His first single Sign of the Times was a Biblically-epic debut, drawing comparisons to David Bowie and Elton John, a logical progression from the classic-rock nostalgia heard on One Direction's final two albums. But Styles, and his similarly-aged fans, grew up in an era of music where genre distinctions have melted together, and his album spends just as much time dabbling in twangy folk and modern alt-pop than the stadium-rock of his former band.
“I was very much working out what I wanted the album to be up until picking the tracklisting, and I wanted people to go through that with me when listening to that, instead of picking a sound and writing ten of the same things,” he said.
And when he does name-drop a classic rock icon, he opts for a figure known more for classic songwriting than sheer starpower. “I listened to a lot of Harry Nilsson while making the album,” he said. “His lyrics are honest, and so good, and I think it’s because he’s never trying to sound clever.”
Making the album was "like therapy" for Styles, who explained, "It’s so much easier saying something to an instrument than it is to a person." And time and again when talking about his music, Styles returns to this Nilsson-esque theme of honesty, which he saw as less a goal on his album and more a responsibility. “I really didn’t want to be editing lyrics and pulling stuff out,” he said. “I kind of decided early on, that every time I said to myself, ‘Can I say this?’ I wanted to say yes.’”
As a result, Harry Styles is packed with flashbacks and allusions, with references to wild nights and inside jokes that seem coded for the people who inspired the tracks to hear. Styles himself has been the subject of these kinds of songs, his fans sleuthing out clues in lyrics from his former fling Taylor Swift. However, unlike Swift’s coy admissions to the press about her inspirations, Styles declines to drop any hints.
“I’ve never really felt like I’ve had to explain my personal life,” he said. “ And I love that with writing, you get to wrap it up with a song. I understand that people will dissect stuff like that, which is amazing, that people care enough about you to try and figure out what it means.”
That includes Sweet Creature, a sweetly-strummed ode to a person that Styles won't disclose. . “The fun thing is, you can write a love song that’s not always in the traditional sense — it doesn’t always have to be romantic or even about a person at all, if you don’t want,” he said.
And Harry Styles’ most nontraditional love story happens to be its best. Among the many other young songwriters to claim Harry Nilsson as an influence was Elliott Smith, whose achingly-intimate acoustic melodies are an unmistakable influence on Harry Styles’ final song From the Dining Table, which opens with this line, “Woke up alone in this hotel room, played with myself where were you / Fell back asleep, got drunk by noon, I've never felt less cool.”
"I’d say it’s the most honest I’ve been, I’ve never written and recorded a song like that,” Styles said about the track, which “came at a time when any barrier of editing myself had been stripped away. I never do anything while listening to it, it’s a song that makes me stop and listen rather than doing something and having it on in the background.”
Yet, Styles chooses his words carefully when asked whether the song, a lonely snapshot of a drunk kid in a hotel room, is a comment on fame, saying he has “no complaints” about his life. As always, he knows the rest of the world is listening.
“I feel very lucky to be able to travel and play music and work in music,” he said. “But for me, my favorite artists’ songs aren’t the ones where they’re talking about how great their life is, they're not the stories you want to hear. You want to know why they chose to be alone somewhere, I think that’s the stuff that makes you feel something. (That’s) way more interesting than them telling me they had champagne for dinner."