'A big turning point': Harry Styles comes back on his own terms
The One Direction breakout star decided to stop playing it safe, and made the album he wanted
Originally published on March 4, 2020
When pop superstar Harry Styles set out to create his sophomore solo album, he found himself talking with a friend about the records he would like to make in the future, and what they would sound like. Then his friend weighed in.
"He just said, 'You have to make the album you want right now.' That was a big turning point," says the 26-year-old musician in a q interview with Tom Power. "And I ended up making the album that I wanted to make when it wasn't just about trying to make what people like."
Of course, that's a daunting task when you're one of the biggest names in the music biz. First formed in 2010, One Direction sold 50 million albums worldwide, set records for highest-grossing tours, and won nearly 200 awards — among them Brit Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, Teen Choice Awards and more.
In 2017, Styles released his debut solo single Sign of the Times, which was named the best song of the year by Rolling Stone, and later released his self-titled debut solo album and embarked on his first solo tour. The same year, he made his acting debut in Christopher Nolan's critically acclaimed blockbuster film Dunkirk.
Styles says he loved his debut solo album, but when he listens back to it, he feels like he was "bowling with the sides up a little bit" and playing it safe — which can be a recipe for disappointment.
"If you're just trying to please people, the worst thing that can happen is it doesn't go well, and you regret the fact that you didn't make what you wanted to make," he says. "The best thing that can happen is it goes really well, and part of you probably still regrets not making what you wanted to make."
Now Styles has returned with Fine Line, an album he told Rolling Stone was "all about having sex and feeling sad." But much more than that, it was an album where, for the first time, he really got to be himself.
"At the start of this album, there was part of me that felt a little bit of pressure. I wanted to make a big album and I wanted it to be successful and I wanted it to work. I think I was trying to do that for a couple weeks and I just wasn't really happy with any of the music I was making," he says.
Styles wrote a big song that people around him were excited about, but when he went to play it for a friend, he found himself cringing. "That's not how you're supposed to feel when you play music to people," he says.
That's when his friend told him to make the album he wanted to make, and he says, and when he took those barriers down, it felt "so much more free and joyous." Still, it wasn't easy.
"It was a lot more frustrating and I'd say it was more difficult overall," says Styles. "But as soon as you come out the other side of the difficult section, the frustrating section, you're like, 'It's not supposed to be easy.'"
For Styles — who has also co-hosted the Met Gala, modelled for Gucci, played dodgeball with Michelle Obama and helped induct Stevie Nicks into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — the album was also a deeply introspective exploration, and he didn't shy away from his darker emotions. In fact, he found the process curative.
"When you write sad songs, you can gain a lot from them. Sometimes it's just as simple as them being a good outlet to get something out. And it's nice sometimes to kind of wrap a feeling up in a little three and a half minute package," he says.
"It's difficult to be as honest with any person as you can be with an instrument, and just sitting and writing with a guitar or a piano. And even if it doesn't end up being a song, just saying something out loud can be nice, to get that out. So I definitely find writing incredibly therapeutic."
Styles says the album is also an exploration of that "fine line" between joy and sadness, and that he lived both extremes during the making of the record.
"The times when I was happiest were some of the happiest times of my life, and the times when I was sadder were some of the lowest times of my life. And I think that's kind of what the album's all about," he says.
"It's that kind of the fragility of motion and how fast it can change. That's why we ended up calling the album Fine Line."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Vanessa Nigro