The road from boy band fame to solo stardom is notoriously bumpy, but Niall Horan made the transition look easy with 2017 debut album “Flicker.” Eschewing the pop of One Direction for earthier, singer-songwriter fare, the Irishman carved out his own artistic identity — one hit at a time. Horan, 29, then broadened his sonic horizons on “Heartbreak Weather,” but its release coincided with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and promotion suddenly ground to a halt.
With time on his hands for the first time in a decade, the pop star looked inward and started writing “The Show.” His third album, due June 9 via Capitol Records, finds Horan laying his feelings bare as he opens up about love and the rigors of adulthood. “If I made this album four years ago, I probably wouldn’t have written some of those songs,” the hitmaker muses. “The pandemic was a good time for me to reflect on everything that’s happened up until that point.”
After the sting of his stillborn sophomore project wore off, Horan returned to the studio — somewhat reluctantly. “I had just written a thousand songs, so I didn’t do anything for a lot of the early pandemic,” he remembers. Eventually, he sat down at the piano and wrote the title track of his third album. With its introspective lyrics and quirky, alt-leaning production, “The Show” would go on to set the tone of the whole project.
“I wanted to say things I hadn’t said before,” Horan says of the song, which recognizes that giddy highs and devastating lows are inevitable side-effects of being human. “Writing a song like that makes you start to think about what else you should be grateful for.” It also encouraged him to be more vulnerable and open up about his fears and anxieties on the rest of the album. “I guess it is quite contemplative,” he says, “but there’s fun stuff in there too.”
And frequently, darkness and light intersect — as it does on new single “Meltdown,” a driving pop-rock song with a radio-ready chorus that also happens to detail Horan’s struggle with anxiety. Exploring darker terrain was new to the hitmaker and he turned to New Zealand producer Joel Little for guidance. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Joel’s work,” Horan says of the Grammy winner, who has worked with superstars like Lorde and Taylor Swift.
Horan asked his A&R to send Little a demo of “The Show” and before long they were chatting on the phone. “We both agreed on what the song should sound like,” Horan says. “I just knew he was the guy.” Together, they incorporated alt-flourishes into his sound — as evidenced by the anthemic lead single “Heaven.” “There’s definitely more of an alternative approach than probably we would’ve had previously,” Horan says.
Another prime example of that is “You Could Start a Cult,” a title that went viral when the tracklist was first around. “That title was flying around,” he laughs. “I loved the idea of writing a love song with a dark, weird title.” Horan is amused by the almost-concerned response from fans. “Everyone was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ People haven’t even heard it yet and they already think that I’m starting a cult.” [Spoiler: he’s not].
As delighted as Horan is to be subverting expectations, he is cautious of straying too far from his signature sound. “I obviously make music for myself, but I never try to alienate,” the chart-topper admits. “I want the fans to enjoy it.” Ultimately, Horan views “The Show” as a new and exciting chapter of a much longer story. “This is just a nice progression,” he says. “There’s nothing in there that would scare people away.”
Having been in the spotlight since adolescence, Horan has been shouldering the weight of expectations for his entire adult life — and it never gets any easier. “It’s scary, man, but I’m not afraid of a bit of hard work,” he says. “I spend a year or more on the songs, so I want the best outcome possible.” However, Horan is also wise enough to know there’s only so much he can do. “You just have to keep your fingers crossed and hope for the fucking best.”
When asked if the commercial success of his One Direction bandmates increases the pressure of releasing solo material, Horan pauses to collect his thoughts. “I don’t think so,” he says. “Everyone releases different types of music.” In fact, Horan sounds genuinely thrilled by his former cohorts’ success. “It’s a great watch as a friend. There’s a bond there that can’t be broken and we’re always supporting each other.”
Horan’s stint in One Direction has come in handy since signing on as a coach for the latest season of “The Voice.” After all, the band was mentored by Simon Cowell on UK’s “The X Factor” — making the gig a full circle moment. “It’s very weird,” he admits. “I was like, ‘Do I want to go back into that? Isn’t that something from my past?’ But then I thought, ‘Fuck it. It’ll be a great laugh.’ It turned out to be a wise decision.
“I’ve really enjoyed picking songs, dealing with the artist, and going to rehearsals,” Horan says.
“I haven’t enjoyed making ridiculously hard decisions and having people’s future in the palm of my hand.” In times of doubt, he has turned to veteran coach Blake Shelton. “The second I met the guy I knew straight away, I was going to get on with him,” Horan says. “He’s absolutely hilarious and gives zero fucks.”
Once his commitments with “The Voice” are squared away, Horan will hit the road for a 30+ date US tour, which kicks off on May 29, 2024 in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “It’s the best part of what we do,” he says. “Getting out there every night, feeling that feeling, playing tunes that you’ve written, hearing them sung back, there’s no feeling that can replace it.” When asked how he’s going to squeeze three albums of material into a 90-minute set, Horan sounds audibly stressed.
“It’s going to be a rolling setlist,” he says. “Your average arena show is, what, 90 minutes? That allows for about 20 songs. So, I’m going to rehearse too many songs, and then pick and choose as we go.” While “The Show” will dominate the setlist, Horan promises to perform gems from his growing arsenal of lovingly crafted pop songs. “This is my public service announcement to people that like my album: please buy a ticket.”