Liam Payne on life af­ter One Di­rec­tion

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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’

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

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

Liam Payne with girl­friend and mother of his son, Ch­eryl, 2016

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

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