Here he comes, one of the planet’s most conspicuous young men, stepping out of the London drizzle and into a dusty suburban pub. If there was an old vinyl record player in the place it would scratch quiet. Instead, the two-dozen punters turn hushed and intent, as if a unicorn has just trotted in off the street, and nobody wants to scare it off. “That’s frickin’ Harry frickin’ Styles,” whispers a young man at the bar, “in this pub.” The pop star is asked what he wants to drink and in a voice already inclined to undertones, quietly orders a cup of tea.
A former teen star who is now 25, a happier and rockier solo artist since his boyband One Direction split a few years ago, Styles has hidden himself inside a large, swamp-green parka. He’s tall, around the 6ft mark, and carries himself with a slight stoop. If Styles could only do something about his appearance from the neck up (elfin brow, wide Joker smile, a face that’s recognisable across multiple continents) you sense he could drink in pubs like this anonymously enough. As it is, cover blown, he removes the parka. A woolly jumper beneath has a picture of the planet Saturn on it. Maybe they’ve heard of Styles there, too.
We take a seat in the corner. On nearby tables, conversations start to sputter as people try to keep their own talk ticking along on autopilot while straining to hear what Styles says. I ask him about the sheer strangeness of this and other aspects of fame. Full stadiums, swooning admirers, an excess of opportunity and cash. Why isn’t Styles an absolute ordeal of a human being by now? Keith Richards, at a comparable stage, imagined himself the pirate leader of a travelling nation-state, unbound by international law. Elton John was on vast amounts of cocaine. Meanwhile, here’s Harry, known in the music industry as a bit of a freak, medically, having maintained abnormally high levels of civility in his system.
Styles tilts his head, flattered. There are others, he promises. “People who are successful, and still nice. It’s when you meet the people who are successful and aren’t nice, you think: What’s yer excuse? Cos I’ve met the other sort.”
Styles read Keith Richards’ autobiography a while back, and he recently finished Elton’s, too. (“Soooo much cocaine,” he marvels.) We talk for a bit about whether extreme dissolute behaviour and artistic greatness go hand in hand. Styles, who has just released his second solo album, Fine Line, the penultimate track of which is called Treat People With Kindness, has to hope not. “I just don’t think you need to be a dick to be a good artist. But, then, there are also a lot of good artists who are dicks. So. Hmm. Maybe I need to start scaring babies in supermarkets?”
A couple of lads hustle over to offer drinks. A photo is requested; they say they’ll wait. I’m weirdly anxious about Styles’s phone, which is slung on the table in front of him. What must be the black-market value of that thing? If fans were to get hold of it, would they want to open Styles’s music app first, to listen to tracks from the new album, or rush to see his messages and calls, to find out who Styles has been flirting with late at night? The interest in his music has always run at a ratio of about 50/50 with the interest in who he is dating.
It’s a ratio Styles tries to adjust in favour of the music by being vague about his ex-partners, real and rumoured (Taylor Swift, Kendall Jenner, Parisian model Camille Rowe), diverting to discuss his songs about failed relationships. A year ago, when Styles was floating around near this pub in north London, where he lives, and California, where he tends to record, looking for inspiration for the new album, his close friend Tom Hull told him: “Just date amazing women, or men, or whatever, who are going to fuck you up… Let it affect you and write songs about it.”
Styles, who writes in collaboration with Hull and producer Tyler Johnson, sounds as if he took the advice. The new album, Fine Line, is at its best when capturing late-hours moments, drunk calls, “wandering hands”, kitchen snogs. A golden-haired lover recurs. There are up tracks, down tracks, some with the trippy delirium of harpsichord-era Stones, others with the angsty Britpop swell of strings. While I listened, I couldn’t help scribbling down names, possible subjects. On the lyric “There’s a piece of you in how I dress” I wrote: maybe Kendall? In a song about a lover “way too bright for me”: surely Taylor.
Styles says he keeps to a general rule: write what comes and don’t think about it too much afterwards. The only time he worries about an individual lyric is if it risks putting an ex in a difficult position. “If a song’s about someone, is that fine? Or is that gonna get annoying for them, if people try to decipher it?” Has he ever got that judgment call wrong and taken a bollocking from an angry ex? Styles raises an eyebrow. “Maybe ask me in a month.”
I quiz him on something I’ve often wondered about. Why are the very famous so inclined to hook up with the very famous? From the outside it looks twice the hassle, with twice the odds of ending badly. “Don’t we all do that, though?” Styles asks. “Go into things that feel relatively doomed from the start?” I ask him why he doesn’t date normals. He seems tickled: “Um. I mean, I do. I have a private life. You just don’t know about it.”
Styles doesn’t particularly like being asked about his love life, but is amused all the same, as he is about most things. When I ask about the logistics of someone as well known as him dating someone anonymous (“Do you need to give them, like, some sort of primer?”), Styles snorts with laughter.
“Uh-h-h. Like any conversation, I guess, it’s easier if you’re honest. But I try to let it come up when it comes up. Cos that’s a weird thing to talk about, y’know? If you’ve just started seeing someone, and you’re, like: [he adopts a throaty, mission-briefing voice] So! This is what’s gonna happen!” Styles holds out his hands: no, ta. “I don’t wanna have that conversation, man. It would be fucking weird.”
And not very sexy, I say.
“Not sexy,” Styles says, “no.”
A quick aside about his accent, which is hard to capture in print. (“Nat sexy, no.”) After a workout in a hotel gym recently, Styles says he was taken aback (“taken abeck”) to be asked by a stranger whether he was speaking in a fake voice. He was appalled. But after so long crossing borders and time zones, living and working between England and the US, the accent has undergone a jazzy remix, and tends to get farthest from its Cheshire roots when he’s around strangers. Once Styles begins to get comfortable in the pub, the flatter, no-nonsense sounds of his youth return. Nowpe he says, for nope. Fook, for fuck.
“What the fook are they?” This was the response of his childhood pals, he remembers, back in the village of Holmes Chapel, when little Harry had the gumption to show up in the playground wearing Chelsea boots instead of the approved chunky trainers. Styles’s parents had separated when he was very young, but there is no origin-story trauma: he has always stayed close to both. His mother, Anne, would praise his singing voice in the car, and when Styles was 16 it was agreed he could audition for a singing contest on TV.
“The craziest part about the whole X Factor thing,” says Styles, who auditioned for the ITV reality show in 2010, “is that it’s so instant. The day before, you’ve never been on telly. Then suddenly…” Suddenly you’re a piece of national property. “You don’t think at the time, ‘Oh, maybe I should keep some of my personal stuff back for myself.’ Partly because, if you’re a 16-year-old who does that, you look like a jumped-up little shit. Can you imagine? ‘Sorry, actually, I’d rather not comment…’ You don’t know what to be protective of.”
By the winter of 2010, Styles was a fan favourite, a key member of One Direction, a five-piece that enjoyed enormous national exposure and gathered millions of fans before any music had been released. Cameras filmed every part of their rise. There wasn’t any time in the dark to practise, test things out, mentally brace. “We didn’t get to dip in a toe,” Styles says. “But, listen, I was a kid, all I knew was: I didn’t have to go to school any more. I thought it was fucking great.” He remembers having a lot of fun, and being well taken care of. He jokes: “Maybe it’s something I’ll have to deal with a bit later. When I wake up in my 40s and think: Arrrggh.”
In February 2012, One Direction were feted at the Brit Awards, hours before they were due to fly to the US for the first time. On TV that night they looked young, silly, chuffed – on the precipice of something huge, and with no clue at all. Their subsequent wonder-run (five platinum albums, four world tours) had its foundations in their ridiculous popularity in the States. Right away, Styles remembers, “We were fuelling a machine. Keeping the fire going.” He remembers it as a stimulating time; maybe overstimulating. “Coming out of it, when the band stopped, I realised that the thing I’d been missing, because it was all so fast paced, was human connection.”
I first met Styles in 2014, around the time the lack of human connection was starting to bite. One Direction were promoting their penultimate album and I’d been commissioned to write about themthe Guardian. Management felt the boys were so exhausted that my minutes in their presence had to be strictly counted. Inside a circle of cripplingly hot lights, while someone ran the stopwatch, we interacted as humanly as we could.
I remember how jaded the best singer in the group, Zayn Malik, seemed. (Malik was weeks away from quitting.) I also remember how flattered and bewildered the others were to be asked a few grownup questions – and not what Louis Tomlinson would later describe to me as “who’s-your-favourite-superhero… all that shit”. Styles was watchful and quiet that day. By total chance, a week later, we were in the same London cafe and he tapped my shoulder. He was having lunch with friends. “Will ya join us?”
It struck me as a quietly classy move. I was fascinated to see him interact with mates he’d chosen for himself. Styles was dry and funny, older than his years. After lunch we said the usual things about keeping in touch, and followed each other on Twitter. I kept an eye on his updates, about leaving One Direction, releasing an impressive, self-titled debut album in 2017, playing for 36,000 people in Madison Square Garden in New York, acting in Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-nominated war movie Dunkirk. Meanwhile, I did my best to manage the mess that had been made of my own account after Styles’s Twitter follow ignited a small explosion of teenage longing in my mentions. For at least a year I received weekly, sometimes daily, pleas from people who wanted messages conveyed to “H”. Still now, every few days, fans in America, Asia and Europe follow me to “see what H sees” in their timeline.
He has around 50 million social media followers, and with that comes the ability to ripple the internet like somebody airing a bedsheet. I’ve noticed, though, how rarely Styles directs people to support specific causes, last doing so in 2018, when he encouraged people to join a march against gun violence. Why don’t you use your influence more, I ask? “Because of dilution. Because I’d prefer, when I say something, for people to think I mean it.” He runs his fingertips across the table. “To be honest, I’m still searching for that one thing, y’know. Something I can really stand up for, and get behind, and be like: This Is My Life Fight. There’s a power to doing the one thing. You want your whole weight behind it.”
It’s one of the things that sets Styles apart, the way he puts his whole weight behind the different aspects of this strange job. If you watch footage of him as a guest host on Saturday Night Live last month, Styles plunges in, fully inhabiting the silliness of every sketch. He has good songs in his repertoire (2017’s ballad Sign Of The Times stands out), and would probably admit to some middling songs that attest to his relative inexperience as a writer. But whichever of his songs Styles performs, he goes all-in, trusting that his zest and energy will hold an audience’s attention. He approaches this interview in roughly the same spirit, not enjoying every question, fidgeting, pleading for clemency once or twice, but giving everything due consideration.
I bring up something Styles joked about earlier: the possibility of waking up in his 40s with deferred mental health problems.
“Mm,” he says.
Have you thought about therapy, I ask, to get ahead of that?
“I go,” he says. “Not every week. But whenever I feel I need it. For a really long time I didn’t try therapy, because I wanted to be the guy who could say: ‘I don’t need it.’ Now I realise I was only getting in my own way.” He shrugs. “It helps.”
Lately he’s been reading a lot (Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women stood out). He’s watched a lot of Netflix (crime thrillers and music docs). He recently cried through Slave Play on Broadway. I sense in Styles, at 25, a pent-up undergraduate hunger, maybe a desire to make up for lost time. “I’ve definitely been wanting to learn stuff, try stuff,” he says. “Things I didn’t grow up around. Things I’d always been a little bit sceptical about. Like therapy, like meditation. All I need to hear is someone saying, ‘Apparently, it’s amazing’, and I’ll try it. When I was in Los Angeles once, I heard about juice cleanses. I thought, yeah, I’ll do a juice cleanse.”
How messy were the results?
“You mean…?” Styles raises an eyebrow, recalling the poos. “They were all right. I was just hungry. And bored.”
One notable feature of Styles’s solo career has been his headlong embrace of unconventional clothing. A 2017-18 tour could have been sponsored by the Dulux colour wheel: mustard tones in Sydney, shocking pink in Dallas. In a more serious sense, some of Styles’s choices have fed into an important political discussion about gendered fashion. In May, as a co-host at the Met Gala in New York, he stepped out in a sheer blouse and a pearl earring. One evening’s work challenged a lot of stubborn preconceptions about who gets to wear what.
He says: “What women wear. What men wear. For me it’s not a question of that. If I see a nice shirt and get told, ‘But it’s for ladies.’ I think: ‘Okaaaay? Doesn’t make me want to wear it less though.’ I think the moment you feel more comfortable with yourself, it all becomes a lot easier.”
What do you mean, I ask?
Styles is leaning forward, hands folded around his cup of tea. “A part of it was having, like, a big moment of self-reflection. And self-acceptance.” He has a habit, when he’s made a definitive statement, of raising his chin and nodding a little, as if to decide whether he still agrees with himself. “I think it’s a very free, and freeing, time. I think people are asking, ‘Why not?’ a lot more. Which excites me. It’s not just clothes where lines have been blurred, it’s going across so many things. I think you can relate it to music, and how genres are blurring…”
Sexuality, too, I say.
“Yep,” says Styles. “Yep.”
There’s a popular perception, I say, that you don’t define as straight. The lyrics to your songs, the clothes you choose to wear, even the sleeve of your new record – all of these things get picked apart for clues that you’re bisexual. Has anyone ever asked you though?
“Um. I guess I haaaaave been asked? But, I dunno. Why?”
You mean, why ask the question?
“Yeah, I think I do mean that. It’s not like I’m sitting on an answer, and protecting it, and holding it back. It’s not a case of: I’m not telling you cos I don’t want to tell you. It’s not: ooh this is mine and it’s not yours.”
What is it then?
“It’s: who cares? Does that make sense? It’s just: who cares?”
I suppose my only question, then, is about the stuff that looks like clue dropping. Because if you don’t want people to care, why hint? Take the album sleeve for Fine Line. With its horizontal pink and blue stripes, a splash of magenta, the design seems to gesture at the trans and bisexual pride flags. Which is great – unless the person behind it happens to be a straight dude, sprinkling LGBTQ crumbs that lead nowhere. Does that make sense?
Styles nods. “Am I sprinkling in nuggets of sexual ambiguity to try and be more interesting? No.” As for the rest, he says, “in terms of how I wanna dress, and what the album sleeve’s gonna be, I tend to make decisions in terms of collaborators I want to work with. I want things to look a certain way. Not because it makes me look gay, or it makes me look straight, or it makes me look bisexual, but because I think it looks cool. And more than that, I dunno, I just think sexuality’s something that’s fun. Honestly? I can’t say I’ve given it any more thought than that.”
In our musty corner of the pub we’ve somehow passed a couple of hours in intense discussion. We’ll lighten up, before Styles heads home, with some chat about clever films (Marriage Story), stupider viral videos (the little boy who’s just learned the word “apparently”), that favourite-superhero stuff that, after all, has its place. He talks about the curious double time scheme of a pop star’s life – those crammed 18-hour days and then the sudden empty off-time when Styles might find himself walking miles across London to buy a book, afterwards congratulating himself: “Well, that’s an hour filled.”
Before we stand up I ask if he’s minded any of my questions.
He pushes out his lips, possibly recalling them one by one, then shakes his head. “What I would say, about the whole being-asked-about-my-sexuality thing – this is a job where you might get asked. And to complain about it, to say you hate it, and still do the job, that’s just silly. You respect that someone’s gonna ask. And you hope that they respect they might not get an answer.”
I tell him I do.
Styles has to find those lads who wanted a photo. He scoops his phone off the table and flicks his thumb around the screen. Lately, he says, when he messes around on his phone in an idle moment, it’s mostly to look at videos – clips that his friends have sent him, in which their kids sing along to music he’s made. “Never gets old,” Styles says, beaming.
A few years ago, when he emerged from the boyband, blinking, shattered, he set himself three tasks: prioritise friends, learn how to be an adult, achieve a proper balance between the big and the small. Full stadiums, provocative outfits – Styles genuinely loves these things. “But I guess I’ve realised, as well,” he says, “that the coolest things are not always the cool things. Do you know what I mean?” He grabs his parka and his phone and, a little stooped, heads for home.
• Harry Styles’s album Fine Line is out now.
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