ESCAPE FROM THE BOY BAND
Liam Payne on life after One Direction
IT MUST HAVE BEEN well over a year ago now, when Liam Payne realised he had absolutely nothing interesting to say. The singer, known to most as ‘Liam from One Direction’ until the group’s indefinite hiatus in January 2016, had returned to the studio, settled into the idea of being a solo artist for the rest of his days, and promptly drawn a blank. He was, he says, just too darned happy to think of anything.
Everything in his life had fallen into place. He’d found love, moving in with Cheryl (formerly Cole), a fellow junior royal of the Top 40. Their first child, a son named Bear, was well on the way. He had signed a huge record deal with Capitol. He felt fitter and healthier than he had in years. And, yes, there’s no denying it: he was pretty pleased that he no longer had to be in the biggest boyband in the world.
‘I had a bit of a problem formulating what was going on in my brain into the music at first,’ he says, ‘ because I was so content with everything in my personal life. It’s easy to spill your guts out on a ballad. But I was thinking, “Oh God, I’m really happy – what am I going to write about?!”’
More than 12 months on, the answer to that question still isn’t entirely clear. Payne’s debut album, as yet untitled, won’t be released until early 2018. There have been two singles, though, with a third, the unsubtly titled Bedroom Floor, arriving next month. Of those we’ve heard, the first, Strip That Down, a R&b-inflected club hit released in May and cowritten with Ed Sheeran, marked a departure from One Direction’s stadium pop-rock. It was also chock-full of hoary by-the-way-i’m-an-adult-now signposts: there are references to nightclubs, drinking rum and coke, driving Ferraris and having girls ‘grind’ on him. And mixed in with all that were lyrics that caused a minor stir among his acolytes: ‘You
know I used to be in 1D, now I’m out, free / people want me for one thing, that’s not me’. Payne, it seems, is keen to reintroduce himself. ‘When I left the band, I felt a bit stranded,’ he says, when we meet in an enormous boardroom at his management’s offices. ‘It took time, but I know as an artist I am starting fresh now.’
He slaps the table with melodrama. ‘This is Moment One. It’s the start line.’
Liam Payne is 24 years old. He is athletically built, as anyone who has seen his shirtless Instagram posts will know, and kind of everyday handsome, in a Love Island, former-youthfootballer way. Both his arms and hands are almost entirely upholstered in tattoos, highlights of which include some thick black arrows on one forearm that look like road markings; the number ‘4’, in reference to One Direction’s 2014 album of the same name, on his ring finger; and, on his left arm, a scale depiction of Cheryl’s eye, that appears to follow you around the room as he gesticulates. ‘It’s so my missus can always keep an eye on me,’ he likes to say about that one.
He is impossibly nice. Before we meet, he plods through the office, saying hello to everybody in the building individually, and in most cases remembering something about them: that they beat him at Fifa last time he dropped by, so they must have a rematch before he leaves (‘I’ll whoop ya with West Brom!’), or they’ve surely had a haircut, haven’t they? (‘It looks really great anyway, man!’). It is the manner of somebody both impeccably raised and intensely keen for people to like him, and it appears genuine and successful.
To an extent, Payne says, the five members of One Direction – or four, after Zayn Malik left the band in 2015 – ended up playing characters over the six years they were together. Whereas the Beatles (arguably the only other group with a comparable scale and speed of world domination), grew increasingly cantankerous towards the end of the 1960s, One Direction stuck resolutely to the caricatures that fans and management assigned them right to the end. Malik was brooding and mercurial, Harry Styles was a cool, flamboyant ladies’ man, Niall Horan was charming and laid-back, and Louis Tomlinson, who has since admitted to feeling a little redundant, was fun and energetic. And Payne? Well, Payne was The Responsible One.
‘I’ve always been a bit of an older soul,’ he says, mulling over his place. ‘It’s funny: there’s a thing on the net where the fans put what they think are our mental ages. All the boys were around their real ones, but then they put me at about 37.’
Payne admits to feeling a little daunted in 2010, when Simon Cowell thrust the band together on X Factor after they’d auditioned as solo artists. Keeping up with the other personalities in the gang was exhausting, so his coping mechanism was to attempt to rein them in as best he could, and work with management in doing so. Like the popular schoolboy teachers identify as mature enough to be a trusted emissary for his recalcitrant friends, Payne carved himself a valuable niche.
‘I was put with a group of rowdy teenagers, and when I was a teenager, I had mates, but I was always with my dad. I’d go out to the pub and chat with him. So when I was stuck with these boys I was thinking, “F— me, I don’t know how to do it.”
‘ When something was going wrong, I’d get a phone call. If there was an apology needed, it was me. I was the spokesperson for the band, as it were, with the press and the label.’
Along with Tomlinson, Payne shares comfortably the most writing credits of the band on One Direction songs. Over their five albums, dozens of songwriting collaborators contributed to the group’s success, but it seems nobody worked harder than the two least-heralded members. Neither was the showiest or best singer; but they kept things ticking over.
One Direction’s hordes of fans around the world noticed the assumed roles, and nicknamed Payne ‘Daddy Directioner’. He lived up to it with them, too. In 2013, on tour in Australia, Payne tweeted a message to warn girls waiting outside the band’s hotel of snakes living in the surrounding fields. ‘It ’s just not worth it someone’s gunna get hurt [sic],’ he pleaded.
Two years later, he gave an interview lamenting the fact he and the other boys were being sent sexually explicit pictures of themselves drawn by underage admirers. While the rest of the band seemed to find that funny, Payne called it ‘the sad and sorry side of what we’ve done.’ Yeah, all right, Dad.
Becoming a real-life father has at least given the nickname some purchase. Rumours swirled at the end of 2015 that he had started dating Cheryl – formerly Fernandez-versini and Cole, née Tweedy – after her second marriage ended in divorce. By the next summer, she was pregnant with the second One Direction baby ( Tomlinson, the eldest of the bunch, had one first). The couple live in a mansion near Woking, Surrey, and aren’t married, but he considers them ‘ basically at that stage’. Bear, with whom Payne is besotted, was born in March, and named for the growling noises he was making during his first sleeps.
So far, no photographs have been released, but he instantly shows me one on his phone. Here, I can exclusively reveal that the heir Bear is just as cute as you’d expect of a baby with that name, and born of two professionally good-looking parents.
‘We’ve only shown him in glimpses,’ Payne says, explaining their decision to shield him. ‘We don’t want him to have the pressure that me and Cheryl have, as household names. We want him to enjoy himself first and then figure it out.’
Born and raised in Wolverhampton, Payne has an unexpectedly thick Midlands accent that gets thicker the longer he talks – which is a lot. His preferred conversational feature is the anecdote, resulting in a version of the phrase, ‘I remember, there was this one time…’ prefixing the majority of his utterances, which are in turn regularly punctuated with singular handclaps of self-incredulity. It can be mildly alarming, like interviewing a young, heavily-tattooed Ronnie Corbett, but I suppose it speaks to the amount of life experience he has already accrued.
Growing up, Payne’s father, Geoff, worked as a fitter, while his mother, Karen, was a nursery nurse. Money was tight and the house small, but he remembers it as a happy one. ‘My place was on the floor with the dog, there was no space on the sofa. It was great, though we didn’t have much. Dad was in debt, but they did the best they could. It makes you dream a bit, you know?’
As a child, he had two routes to possible stardom, both of which Geoff pushed hard for. One was singing, the other was long-distance running. For a time in his teens, Payne was one of the fastest 1500m runners in the country, getting up to train before school and seconds from qualifying for the London 2012 squad.
It was before that, as a 14-year-old in 2008, that he first applied for X Factor. Auditioning with Fly Me To The Moon, since it was one of the few songs he could manage while his voice was breaking, that year he got as far as the ‘judge’s houses’, before Simon Cowell told him to come back in two years and try again.
He became a mini-celebrity back home in that betweenperiod, and carried on performing around town. The adulation was short-lived, though. Once, performing a Justin Timberlake cover at an under-18s gig in Oceana Wolverhampton, somebody lobbed a coin at his face and managed to draw blood. He laughs about it now. These days – admittedly a largely cashless society – it’s only bras and knickers they fling.
‘I had become less and less famous. One time, I was in Mcdonald’s with a girlfriend and someone shouted ‘ X Factor reject!’ at me. The whole restaurant turned. It was like coming out of fame. So I knew what it was like at 15, and it helped me.’
He refers to his time spent in One Direction as ‘like uni’
Following Cowell’s advice, he returned to X Factor in 2010 and found himself shoved into One Direction with the four other boys, eventually finishing the competition in third place, but with easily the brightest future. Within weeks, he had moved out of his Wolverhampton bedroom and into a penthouse apartment in Canary Wharf. And six years later, One Direction had sold more than 20 million records, become the first band in history to have their first four albums go to number one in the US, touring the world numerous times, and earned a preposterous amount of money in the process. Payne is now estimated to be worth £40 million. He hasn’t been back to Wolverhampton in a long time, but he paid off his father’s debts years ago, and bought his parents a new house in addition to funding the renovation of their family home.
He refers to his time spent in One Direction as ‘like uni’. When they were in the thick of things, all the boys used to obey Cowell’s omertà – relentless enthusiasm at all times, please – and never discussed any negative aspects of their experience. Now safely out the other side, Payne is frank on matters of burnout and claustrophobia.
‘Cabin fever. It sent me a bit AWOL at one point, if I’m honest. I can remember when there were 10,000 people outside our hotel. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was just gig to hotel, gig to hotel. And you couldn’t sleep, because they’d still be outside,’ he says, before telling several stories of how he and Tomlinson would sneak out of hotels just to feel freedom, only to find themselves bored once they got out. ‘People were speaking to me about mental health in music the other day, and that’s a big issue. Sometimes you just need some sun, or a walk.’
Every stop on tour became the same. Earlier this year, Payne was asked which was his favourite city of those he visited with One Direction. ‘One in Italy with a big white cathedral,’ he responded.(the band performed in Milan at least five times.)
‘One of the problems was that we never stopped to celebrate what we’d done. I remember us winning loads of American Music Awards and then having to get on a plane straight away. It got to the point where success was so fluid. I don’t even know what happened to our songs, we just sang them, then sang some more. It was like a proper, hard job. Non-stop. I can concentrate a lot more now.’
The paparazzi and fan attention sounds just as draining. It
must feel weird having a Twitter following larger than the population of Australia, as he does. Moreover, footage of One Direction out and about makes A Hard Day’s
Night look tame: thousands of screaming fans all over them, police escorts everywhere they went, an unending run of selfie requests... It came to a head in New York in 2012, when Payne was walking to a restaurant with his parents and a paparazzo accidentally pushed his mother over. He was incensed.
‘I was like, “Oh, f— this. F— this s—t.” There was a swarm of them and I just wanted a burger with my parents,’ he says, unsmiling for a moment. ‘I cried my eyes out. I thought, “I can’t do this”, and really hated my life.’
He soldiered on, but it wasn’t a healthy lifestyle; none of them seems to miss it now the ‘break’ is on.
‘It’s great that people can see what we’re really like away from each other,’ Payne says. ‘It got to a point in the band where we were just playing characters, and I was tired of my character. Apart from the daddy thing, I was really loud and bubbly. There were a lot of personalities in the band to keep up with, so I had to be all, ‘Ey!’, the rowdy lad, and I don’t have to now.’
There were times when the band would celebrate hard, and in that, Payne had catching up to do: as a child, he was diagnosed with a scarred kidney, meaning he didn’t taste alcohol until he was given the allclear at 19. Tell a teenage millionaire they can now safely drink, and they’ll go for it. He admits ‘the floodgates opened’ that year.
‘I wasn’t happy. I went through a real drinking stage, and sometimes you take things too far. Everyone’s been that guy at the party where you’re the only one having fun, and there were points when that was me. I got to 13 stone, just eating crap. I got fat jibes, and it affects your head. I have nothing to hide about it…
‘As I say, it was like a musical university. We were pretty reckless, but I got it out of my system. I had my fun.’
The hiatus came at just the right time. But before he could take a breath, Payne lurched on in life, becoming involved with Cheryl almost at once. Nobody asks how they met; their introduction is on Youtube for all to see. Ten years his senior, she was an X Factor judge in 2008 when the 14-year-old Payne shuffled in, all mop-hair and waistcoat, to perform his Sinatra number. He winked at her, she called him ‘cute’, they bumped into one another over the years, and ended up working on a remix of one of her songs in 2014.
Not everybody was happy when the relationship was initially confirmed. That Cheryl was in a quasi-pastoral role when they met raised eyebrows in the usual eyebrow-raising camps, as did the couple’s decade-wide age gap. Liam doesn’t care. In fact, he can still barely get over the fact she’s his girlfriend.
‘ It ’s a ridiculous place to be in,’ he says. ‘She’s even more amazing than I thought. I was watching her do Fight For This
Love [her debut solo single, from 2009] when I was a kid, and now we’re together with a kid. I feel like I’m X Factor’s biggest winner.’
It helps having Cheryl around to ask about business matters. Like Payne, she was scouted on a TV pop contest (2002’s Popstars:
The Rivals), had massive success in a group (Girls Aloud), and then went solo with a more urban sound. She is also the unlikely possessor of the record for number-one singles by a British woman.
‘We think about the same things. She understands what my life is like. She knows what it’s like to sit on the Graham Norton couch [or] we can talk about her L’oréal work. It ’s not that we’re “a brand” as a family, but we can help each other.’
In Who We Are, one of One Direction’s seven books, pub- lished in 2014, Payne writes in his chapter that he’s ‘worried about the idea of failing outside of this band’ and declared he’d become a low-key songwriter, because ‘there would be less attention on my life’.
The opposite of that is what’s happening, I inform him. ‘Yeah, that was a point when I was scared of our success, and we didn’t want to take a step back from it,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to be a songwriter and not be famous, but happy. Then Simon and Cheryl told me this is where I am supposed to be, and I’d miss the stage. The pressure of what was coming next was scary, but they talked me down.’
The solo product he’s come up with is the sort of music he’d always wanted to make: radio-friendly R&B in the style of his heroes, Justin Timberlake, Usher and Pharrell Williams, and more informed by the rap music he listens to than the pop he’s famous for. Who knows if he can shake the ‘embarrassing dad’ brand to pull it off, but the signs point to success. Strip That Down has been streamed more than 300 million times on Spotify alone.
‘I wanted this to be for people my age. The themes are a bit older, but you have to grow up with your fans. I can’t make bubblegum pop any more,’ he says. One Direction fans needn’t despair. They might have dispersed and almost all signed elsewhere, but Payne is excited about the idea of a comeback gig in years to come. As, I’m sure, are the band’s accountants.
But that won’t be for a little while, if Payne has it his way, because – as he keeps on telling me – he is just far too happy with his lot at the moment to take a step backwards. When it reaches our time to wrap up, he’s still at it.
‘I feel great about what’s going on in my life,’ he says, giving it one last handclap and standing up. ‘I’m extremely lucky. I feel like I’m in a comatose dream. I’m like, “when did I last bump my head?” because I can’t believe this…’ Liam Payne’s next single, Bedroom Floor, is out on 20 October
‘Now we’re together with a kid. I feel like I’m X Factor’s biggest winner’
Liam Payne with girlfriend and mother of his son, Cheryl, 2016
2013 1D with Simon Cowell at a Youtube live broadcast in California
2008 Liam Payne, at 14, during the judge’s houses phase of X Factor
2015 Life is now endless selfies with crowds of fans and constant touring
2017 In New York for Good Morning
America, Payne is now making it as a solo artist
2015 ID, minus Zayn, at the American Music Awards, LA. From left: Liam, Louis, Niall and Harry
Payne with Cheryl at Sexy Fish restaurant in Mayfair in 2016… the pair first met at an X Factor audition where she was a judge, when he was 14