Niall Horan has just seen his life flash in front of him. “I came in through the tunnel today and drove past the Convention Centre. Every time I drive past it, I get goosebumps. It feels like yesterday. But it’s 13 years ago.”
The former One Direction singer and Mullingar’s biggest superstar this side of Joe Dolan is thinking back to June 28th, 2010: the day The X Factor held auditions at the Convention Centre, that great glass carbuncle on Dublin’s Docklands. “It was a sliding doors moment,” he says. “I was so young, so naive.”
He went into The X Factor an affable 16-year-old from the Midlands with a plaid shirt and a face flushed with nerves. He left it a superstar in waiting. He puffs out his cheeks; it could have easily worked out differently.
Horan had gone before the judges and performed So Sick by Ne-Yo. Though raw, his charisma was obvious. He received a thumbs up from Louis Walsh and Simon Cowell. Cheryl Cole felt he wasn’t ready and advised he return the following year.
The casting vote was with guest adjudicator Katy Perry; if she said no, he was out. Echoing Cheryl, Perry said he was too young. “You have charisma: maybe you should work on it.” But, just to be kind, she waved him through anyway. The rest is pop history: further into the series, Cowell and Walsh put Horan together with four other boyish stragglers and christened them One Direction. A heartbeat later, they were the world’s biggest band.
I see Katy Perry out in LA. Every time I see her, she is very aware. She knows how much she did for me
“The chances are wild. Paddy Power wouldn’t hand out odds [on Horan getting through]. It’s crazy. I did The Late Late Show recently and was talking to Orlando Bloom [Perry’s partner]. I remember saying it to him, ‘It’s nuts’,” says Horan. “I see Katy Perry out in LA. Every time I see her, she is very aware. She knows how much she did for me. There’s always a good embrace about it. It’s cool; at the time she was the biggest pop star in the world, and she is putting her trust in me.”
Horan, who is 29, has flown home to promote his new album, The Show. The record is an upbeat collection of dreamy indie ballads. It’s full of positive vibes, reflecting where he is in his relationship with his girlfriend of three years, Amelia Woolley, a fashion buyer from Birmingham.
“Everything is great with me. That is the biggest difference writing the record. There’s no heartbreak. None of these songs are going to be particularly sad,” he says.
“Not sad” is an understatement. Singing in an expressive voice reminiscent of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker or a fizzier Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, he is positively giddy as he serenades Woolley.
“Oh, I’ll follow you ‘til there’s no tomorrow ... darling, I would give up everything,” Horan croons on You Could Start a Cult, a torch song inspired by his and Woolley’s favourite pastime: curling up on the sofa and bingeing on true crime (which often resolves around charismatic people starting cults: the message being that Horan would follow Woolley just like the people on screen follow their charming leader).
“Obviously home life is great. I’m not heartbroken. So do I still write heartbreaking ballads? What’s going on now – do I write about that? That’s what made this album different. It allowed me to branch out. It didn’t have to be about the same thing. There are other things that go on in your life and your head. Everyday emotions that other people have. So I was trying to write about a lot of that stuff.”
In the corner of the upstairs bar of the Fitzwilliam Hotel, a baseball hat pulled down low, Horan exudes what can only be described as “GAA captain” energy. It’s the same vibe you imagine radiating off, say, Paul Mescal. The vibe is of the guy at school who was always first pick on the hurling team and whom you wanted to dislike – but who turned out to be massively affable. He has a quality you probably have to be Irish to appreciate fully: he is, in the vernacular, “sound”.
But there are jitters, too. Horan is nervous about how The Show will be received. Since One Direction went on “indefinite hiatus” in January 2016, some of the group have fared better than others. The winner is Harry Styles, Slane headliner and so famous that his years in One Direction are essentially a footnote on his Wikipedia page.
Just behind, arguably, is Horan. He isn’t big enough to fill Slane. He does pack arenas, however, and has notched up hits such as No Judgement and Still. He’s also just come off of a stint as a judge on The Voice in the US alongside Blake Shelton, Kelly Clarkson and Chance the Rapper. But his last album came out in March 2020, on the eve of the pandemic, and he could not tour it. Three years later, he’s curious to see how many causal listeners, who enjoy his music but don’t obsess about it, have stuck around.
“The pandemic stalled everything. It took me a bit of time to get all the songs together. It was a little bit longer than you would like. The reaction since I came back has been amazing. I’m very lucky to have a solid fanbase. At the same time, it needs to be good. It’s so competitive out there now.”
People could relate to five working-class lads worldwide, people like to have that relatability
He doesn’t feel any competition with his former bandmates; they each have their lane, and there is rarely any crossover. This interview takes place before Harry Styles reveals to James Corden that he would potentially be up for a One Direction reunion. But the message is the same: Horan is still on good terms with the rest of the crew.
“We’re very good with each other. If we all made the same type of stuff, I don’t think you’d say that. There might be a little [rivalry]. The other day, I sent Louis [Tomlinson] the new song. We’re always very supportive of one another.”
Life after a boyband can be a lonely slog. Robbie Williams has done all right – but look at how Ronan Keating and Gary Barlow struggled in the shadow of Boyzone and Take That. But then, were One Direction ever really a boyband?
They didn’t dance or pout or do the things teen idols were supposed to. In concert, they would wander the stage, giggly and looking like they’d just fallen out of bed. Even when playing venues such as Croke Park at their absolute zenith, they had an air of five lads on a break from college.
“I think that was what was so relatable about us. And probably half the reason why the band was so big. People could relate to five working-class lads worldwide, people like to have that relatability.”
Horan was still a teenager when he achieved global fame. Celebrities will tell you it’s the worst age at which to become a household name. Your personality hasn’t entirely formed yet, and there’s still a chance all the acclaim will warp you. Horan, though, appears to have taken it in his stride.
“I don’t know anything different. It all depends what sort of upbringing you’ve had, what sort of people you have around you. It’s not very humble to say that I’m humble. I’ve tried to remain somewhat – not tried, just did it. The Irishness helps. I don’t have any other outlook on it. I’ve had a great experience with it. I’ve been doing this now for 14 years, which is nuts when you think about it. I’ve always had good people around: good friends, good family.”
Horan was born in 1993 and grew up in Mullingar. His parents divorced when he was five. He and his brother lived initially with their mother and later for a time with their father. It was from his dad that he inherited his love of classic rock.
“My family were very much into American 70s rock. My first gig was an Eagles gig at the RDS. That’s what I was listening to when I was growing up. We had a vinyl player in the livingroom. Harmonies were a big one for me. Subconsciously now I play that kind of stuff. I go to play a guitar and it’s a lot of Eagles motions. I live in that area in LA, because of that music.”
He was sporty and popular. But music was his first love.
“I played a little bit of Gaelic football. Then everyone else grew, and I didn’t. I was still small. You’d see some of the lads now and it’s like, Jesus Christ, I used to play with you? I was kicking a ball all the time, played a bit of hurling, played Gaelic football for Mullingar Shamrocks, played soccer for Mullingar Athletic. I joined the golf club when I was 12 or 13.
“It was very outdoorsy. I’ve never been a gamer. I was always going to football at the weekends with my father in England. I’d come in from school, watch Home and Away and The Simpsons on RTÉ 2. But most of the time I was outside. Very outdoorsy. My friends knew I was musical. Getting involved in charity shows. Gigs in pubs with mates. I went through a bit of an indie phase with my neighbours: we did songs by the Arctic Monkeys, The Kooks, The Fratellis. People knew around the town that I was the musical one.”
I’ve never felt in any way vulnerable or anything like that. I always felt we were very well looked after. It’s important at that age
One Direction became famous when they were barely out of school. The music industry has an unfortunate history of ripping off young pop stars. When Paul Cattermole from S Club 7 died recently at aged 46, for instance, it emerged he’d earned almost nothing from the band’s glory years. One Direction, by contrast, has done well out of their success. They made sure to receive the best advice.
“From day one we were very lucky with the people we had. Obviously our parents hadn’t a clue what was going on either. We were very lucky. Simon and The X Factor had a deal with a management company. People who came off the show would go in there and see what happens to their career. When we got there, it was run by Richard Griffiths and Harry Magee [of Modest! Management]. They had at team in place. They were great people. I’ve never felt in any way vulnerable or anything like that. I always felt we were very well looked after. It’s important at that age.”
He has flown into Dublin a few weeks after the unexpected death of Mark Sheehan of The Script. They’d met a few times. More importantly, Horan was a fan of Sheehan’s songs. He’d always looked up to The Script, one of the first Irish groups proud to be considered a pop act.
“He was such a lovely fella. Such a sad story. I can’t believe it. He was 40-something, with kids. The big takeaway is his big grin. I remember exactly where I was when I saw the video for [early Script hit] The Man Who Can’t Be Moved for the first time. I was in my best friend’s bedroom; I remember seeing the video, thinking, ‘Who’s this new American band?’ And then finding out they’re Irish and looking up to them. I played The Man Who Can’t Be Moved in a talent show. It was amazing to have an Irish band out there. I am still obsessed with their first album.”
One Direction released five LPs in five years – a punishing schedule even for ambitious young men with the world at their feet. When Zayn Malik left the group in March 2015, six months before their farewell tour, he complained that their management had stifled his creativity and said One Direction was “not music I would listen to”. Horan says the group was always involved creatively and were nobody’s puppets.
“To start, we were deers in the headlights. Oh, ‘you go to the studio, and you work’. You were figuring it all out. From album two onwards, we were involved everywhere, and we’d figured it all out. We made all the decisions. Early doors, many songs were flying around, with some of the most prominent songwriters at that time. Then as we got older, we started getting into it. Because all of us had writing in us.”
There was, he adds, a tension between the pressure to tour and their desire to develop artistically. To the end, it was something with which they wrestled.
“We were so busy on the back of the shows. It was like, you can’t stop now and go into the studio for the year. As we got older, we got mad into the writing. And became obsessed with it. The last two or three albums were brilliant. They’ll pop up every now and then in certain places. All different vibes.”
After The X Factor, the level of intrusion in their life was immense. Did it ever feel like too much? “I’ve always been quite happy-go-lucky. Whatever is in front of you, you do – you get on with it.”
But yes, there were moments it became overwhelming. “A few times, you were abroad, going from arena or stadium to hotel to plane. And recycle that every day. You couldn’t go out on the streets.”
Everything in their life was pre-planned, from morning to night. “There was no such thing as, oh, I’ll go down the road for a coffee. That wasn’t happening. There were a lot of curtains closed in hotel rooms. Finding activities to do in there, instead of being out and about. I’ve always been interested in different cultures and food – stuff you want to do when you go on tour. Not being able to do that was tough at times. We were 18,19 – we wanted to be out. We did things differently because we lived a different life.”
He feels they knocked One Direction on the head at the right time. After half a decade, they were exhausted. It was time for something new. “We were tired. We had done so much. Five albums, five years, five stadium-sized tours. It was hectic. People say you’re young. That amount of travel – you need a breather.”
I don’t know if I’m a good communicator. I know I’m good at writing something down and getting it out that way
Horan has always been comfortable with his place in the world. Many stars have spoken about the dark side of success, including his close friend Lewis Capaldi who talked about his anxiety and mental health. Horan applauds their courage. But for him, fame has never felt a burden.
“This day and age, especially for lads ... we’re getting better at talking about things. We’re not there yet. Everyone looks at Capaldi and sees the funniest man in the world. No one knows at the other side that he struggles with his mental health and his anxiety. It’s important to know both sides, that he’s not just a comedian up there.”
He doesn’t have those kinds of demons. At the same time, he finds songwriting cathartic. Even if you’re as successful as Niall Horan, there are days when you feel less than 100 per cent. When that happens, he puts his emotions down on the page.
“The biggest cliche in music is that songwriting is a therapy. I don’t know if I’m a good communicator. I know I’m good at writing something down and getting it out that way.”
It’s almost time to finish. Horan sips his water and gazes out on the lobby of the hotel. He’s thinking about his new album and his big tour coming up. But also, one is tempted to conclude, about how far he has come since that day he turned up at the Convention Centre, in that checked shirt and with that big red face. And about how different his life would have been had Katy Perry said “no”. But she said yes, and he’s been counting his lucky stars ever since.
The Show is out now