Niall Horan: the greatest show

About to release his third full-length solo album, Niall Horan – quite probably the nicest man in pop, dontcha know – wants us all to join Team Lovers.

Words: Jessica Goodman.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.

Singer. Songwriter. Musician. Model. Manager. Mentor. Golf player. Candlemaker. At this point, it seems like there’s very little Niall Horan can’t do. 

“I could probably talk about The White House, couldn’t I?” he grins. Sitting down for a chat on an unexpectedly snowy day in north London, Niall is all smiles and excitement. “I got invited to the White House to perform on St Patrick’s Day,” he beams disbelievingly. “I don’t even know what to think or say, but that’s what I’m doing next week.”

About to release his third album as a solo artist, he’s come a long way from being the boy who’d get kicked out of geography class for singing traditional Irish songs at the back of the room. After achieving success in one of the best-selling boy bands of all time, Niall has since earned worldwide acclaim singing songs about love, lust, and heartbreak, becoming one of pop music’s most beloved comfort characters. 

Spend any time with him, and it’s immediately clear why. Singing along to a playlist of indie anthems and shouting “DORK!” at random intervals throughout our photoshoot (“greatest magazine name ever,” don’t you know?), his sincere excitement for every part of his craft and his affection for the audience he shares it with are boundless. 

“I really wanted to make it an actual era,” he explains of his decision to find new ways to tease new material with his fanbase. Rather than following the industry standard steps of kicking things off with an announcement, this time, he decided to do things a little differently. For this album, it started with a candle. Naturally. 

“The candle was an idea because I love candles,” he laughs. Well, we don’t think anyone can really argue with that. Sent as a gift to fans in different parts of the world, this cloud-decorated candle directed fans to a website where they could watch a virtual version of it burn down over several days (when it did, it was timed to coincide with the announcement of this era’s first single). From there, excitement spread like wildfire.

“I wanted to create a whole world that we all lived in for this album,” he continues. “Then the fans can be part of that world, come in and get all their little extras.” Spurring on the excitement by sharing videos of hummed half-melodies and snippets of quickly cut-off recordings on social media, excitement for Niall’s new music was at an all-time high when lead single ‘Heaven’ eventually dropped. 

“The biggest cliché in music is when an artist goes, ‘I get so nervous before I release a song…'” he admits, “but it’s so fucking true.” As a multi-platinum certified artist who’s been No. 1 around the globe, it’s a testament to how deeply he cares about his music and how deeply he cares about his fans that he still feels this way. “When the song came out, I was lying in bed just scrolling on Twitter,” he recalls. “I never do that. I think it can be a dangerous hole to fall into.” An earworm of the most euphoric kind, listening to ‘Heaven’ now, you almost wonder what it was he worried about.

“I wanted to create a whole world that we all lived in for this album”

Niall Horan

“You don’t want to over-tease,” he says of the single rollout, grinning as he adds, “though we definitely did. I definitely teased for, like, eight weeks.” (He’s not even a little bit sorry for that – later, talking about the rest of the new album, he vows, “I’m going to tease more of it”.) “It’s just really fun to watch. It keeps it interactive, too.” 

Right now, Niall is in his influencer era. Eager for new music? He’s teasing his entire record. Looking for skincare tips? He’s shared his complete routine. Pranks? Laughs? He’s got it all. From CGI filters, through trend-ready dance routine attempts, to an open verse for fans to collaborate on their own version of his latest single (“some of them were making up better verses than the original one,” he mock-complains through a grin, “the talent that’s out there is insane”), there’s something for everyone. 

“That’s what it’s about! They love that!” he enthuses of teasing new material and interacting with his fans online. “They love being involved and figuring stuff out. They think I’m like, some cryptic king.” He might give himself that title in jest, but he doesn’t actually deny that it’s true. 

Since he started teasing the release of new material back in December, excitement and speculation across his fanbase has run wild. One particularly popular fan theory that gained momentum online suggested a potential collaboration with a certain former bandmate. While Niall’s since denied there’s any truth to that rumour, the dedication that went into decoding these theories – or, more accurately, the enthusiasm that drives them – is something he thrives on.

“Yeah, it’s just fucking exciting,” he grins. “It just makes me more excited for everyone to hear the rest of the album.” Talking about this new record, one thing quickly becomes very clear: Niall Horan is a chaotic mastermind. “People will be expecting a certain type [of music],” he teases of the new album, “then when they hear it….” Trailing off, he grins. 

Teasing snippets of new material through stripped-back piano performances shared on TikTok and singing with an acoustic guitar on Instagram lives, all the clues seem to point towards a return to the songwriting form that shaped his debut album, ‘Flicker’. “They probably think that they’re just getting a full acoustic album now,” he smirks. 

Written and recorded over eighteen months, work on ‘The Show’ started out as a way of being creative through lockdowns and later took shape during a working retreat outside of LA to Joshua Tree. “Having time to sit on the last album and watch what happened, I think I realised I’m best when I’m guitar-in-hand and I just singer-songwriter it up a little bit,” Niall reflects.

So that’s what he did. Trying to find his creative flow in a world that felt like it was on pause wasn’t something that came easily. With little going on around him, and even the art he was consuming not quite lighting the match of inspiration (“I watch a lot of true crime, so that’d be a different album altogether,” he laughs. “There’s no way Tiger King is gonna influence my album, you know?”), it was the surreal nature of the moment that proved to be the first spark that fuelled the rest of the record. The seed it all grew from? Concept and title ‘The Show’.  

Forced to hole up at home when he’d planned to be out on the road touring second album ‘Heartbreak Weather’, it took a while for Niall to find that direction. “Sat around in your apartment, living in your head 24/7, you’re not out and about seeing shit,” he recalls. Instead, the songs that make up ‘The Show’ were born out of an extended period of self-reflection. “You’re thinking about life and the bigger stuff, stuff that you generally wouldn’t think about,” he continues.

Facing up against existential questions like ‘what am I doing?’ and ‘where am I in life?’ had its own influence on his music. Rather than flourishing in the details, writing songs about people, places, and things like he’s always done so well in the past, on this new record it’s emotion that sits at the forefront of the songs. “I wasn’t trying to look for specifics,” he describes. Glancing around him, he tries to pull together an example. “‘In this room with a red brick wall, she had a cardigan on…'” he sings, laughing (a breakaway pop hit if we’ve ever heard one – Ed). “It’s not like that.”

‘The Show’ is a collection of songs written emotion-first. And while writing them might’ve taken Niall back to his singer-songwriter roots, the album he’s made is wall-to-wall bangers. “It’s quite a dynamic record,” he teases. “There is a lot going on.” Starting the process by going back to basics – “basically how I wrote the first album,” he describes – the result is his most cohesive project so far. “They’re always the best albums, the ones that make so much sense from start to finish,” he reflects. “That’s why I think this is my favourite body of work I’ve done.”

Bound together by intricate through-lines and recurring themes, with enchanting interludes bridging the spaces between, ‘The Show’ is Niall at his most accomplished yet. “It was so fun. It was just a fun record,” he enthuses of piecing the album together. “You’re always trying to get the best out of the song, then dress it up as you see fit.” Building up from the basics, Niall did something he’s been renowned for ever since the days of One Direction: he took a chonce (we’re so sorry, couldn’t resist – Ed). 

“It was cool to experiment with new stuff, stuff I’d never really done before,” he describes. There’s plenty of that on ‘The Show’. Working not just with colossal harmonies, like we’ve heard on ‘Heaven’, but also with strings, synth, and saxophone, composing whistling melodies and even picking up the harmonica on a song (“there’s only four notes that I can play,” he laughs), we think we can honestly say that he’s never sounded this good. Quite the feat, given the quality of his back catalogue. 

“Fans love being involved and figuring stuff out. They think I’m like, some cryptic king”

Niall Horan

From the stadium-sized chorus of ‘Heaven’ to the acoustic-led devotion of ‘You Could Start A Cult’, these songs might be tied together in concept and in theme, but there’s no shortage of variety on show. There are songs written for the stage (‘Must Be Love’), written for the fans (‘Meltdown’), and even written just to blow your mind (‘On A Night Like Tonight’). 

“It feels like they’re from the same record,” Niall expresses of the album’s eclectic sound, laughing as he continues, “obviously, ’cause they will be on the same record.” Clarifying his meaning, he says, “this feels like it’s all from the same place.” Even in the album’s more subdued moments, these songs boast the same earworm quality as the record’s lead single, all capable of embedding themselves as the screensaver to your mind (if you’re not consciously thinking about anything else, these chorus hooks will be there). 

‘Meltdown’ is the album’s second single. A song about feeling anxious and a reassurance that’s okay, while it might not read like the most toe-tapping topic on paper, this is a song made for dancing. “It’s one of those things, isn’t it? We all have it,” Niall tells us. “We all have these panicky moments where you feel like it’s all crumbling.” While the verses race at a restless speed to echo that feeling, the song’s soaring chorus is purpose-crafted to be a message of comfort. 

“You’re constantly telling yourself, ‘I’ll be alright’,” he continues. “That’s what you keep saying to yourself to calm yourself down, ‘I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay’. Or someone says it to you – ‘you’re alright; everything’s fine’. I wanted to put that into a song.” 

Not just a way of working through his own anxious emotions, ‘Meltdown’ is a song Niall wrote with his fans in mind. “I’m writing for myself, but I know who I’m talking to,” he says. “My fans, I read their stuff online every day.” Regularly checking in with his fanbase on social media, he takes pride in knowing how they’re feeling and making music he knows will resonate with them. 

From dance-along pop hits to heart-wrenching ballads, ‘The Show’ has it all. It’s a record that’ll take you by surprise in the absolute best of ways, incorporating the best elements of his first two albums while also including songs unlike anything you’ve heard from him before. 

‘On A Night Like Tonight’ is the psych-tinged summer anthem you never knew you needed. Starting out with soft, twinkling melodies before warping into another world entirely, it’s a song made to be heard live. It all started with one line. “‘If it’s this good way down here, what’s it like in heaven?'” Niall recites. 

When he shared that lyric with co-writer John Ryan, the response wasn’t anything he expected. “He pulled this cartoon out of his wallet,” he recalls. “It had a little speech bubble saying, ‘if it’s this good way down here, what’s it like up there?'” Struck by the serendipity of the moment, they knew right there and then that this would form a part of the new record. “We were like, ‘…we are writing that fucking song, right now’,” he laughs.

As the era of ‘The Show’ takes flight, right now, Niall is most looking forward to getting out on the road and getting back to experiencing the connection he shares with his audience in person. “The fact that I can watch them dance and jump around the place at 170BMP to a song that’s about anxiety… It’s a really cool thing in my head,” he enthuses of sharing ‘Meltdown’ in particular. “I don’t know whether that’s messed up or not.”

‘The Show’ takes his sound to dynamic new heights, but through it all, one of its core ingredients – as has always been the case with his music – is its relatability. “Hope we still drink like we’re back in the pub,” he sings on ‘Never Grow Up’, “hope we still cry ’cause we’re laughing too much.” Finding poetry in the mundane and using that as a way to create something he and his audience can connect to, this is where Niall is truly in his element. 

“I always write for myself. But I don’t live an overly complicated life,” he conveys. “I’m always trying to be as relatable as possible to whoever I’m trying to sing to, you know?” When he thinks of his own favourite music, he says his favourite songs are always ones where the meaning or the message is clear. “They’re talking about themselves, but they’re talking to me too,” he describes. “That’s what you want. You want people to feel that way.” 

“I realised I’m best when I’m guitar-in-hand and I just singer-songwriter it up a little bit”

Niall Horan

“I think it’s super important to be as relatable as you can,” he adds. “At the end of the day, talking to the public, you’re talking to your fans.” Affectionately named Lovers (“it’s all love around here – no hate, just love,” he boasts), Niall’s dedication to and pride in his fanbase is something he wears on his sleeve.

“It’s actually, honestly, never ceased to amaze me over the last 13 years,” he states. “The friendships that they make through coming to gigs or being online, and the things that they get up to….” It’s been a few years now since fans have been able to attend Niall Horan shows to celebrate their love for his music in person, but that hasn’t stopped them from making sure that it’s felt. 

They frequently make him and/or his music trend on social media just because they can, send song requests to radio stations to increase his airplay, and host listening parties to boost streaming figures or even just to share in their appreciation for his music together. And that’s just some of the things that actively promote his music, not to mention the art they create, the fan accounts they run to keep each other informed and entertained, or the sense of community they foster between themselves.

Mention of fans fundraising for charity in Niall’s name leaves him lost for words in gratitude, while the streaming parties they host leave him with almost too much to say. “They get millions of streams just by doing promotion themselves,” he explains. “It’s just mind-boggling. They’re absolutely incredible.” Almost cutting himself off in his enthusiasm, he continues, “and, by the way, these are all people doing jobs and going to work and then doing this in their spare time. They feel really passionate about it.” 

“I’m so lucky to have such a strong worldwide fanbase,” he earnestly continues. “When you do a release, they’re right there beside you.” This sense of mutual appreciation has existed since the very start of his career, back when he was performing cover songs on X-Factor with One Direction, and it’s still strong today. “It just doesn’t feel like it’s ever drifted for the fans, you know?” he reflects. 

It’s something Niall is endlessly grateful for, and something he’s particularly heartfelt about in conversation. “It’s a different type of bond, isn’t it, between artist and fan?” he asks, ever-fond of the people whose continued support of him continues to make his career what it is today. “We’re very lucky in that sense, to have that.” 

Eight albums into his career (five with the band, and now three as a solo artist), his hopes for what his music might achieve remain characteristically grounded. “I just really want them to relate to it,” he answers when asked what he hopes his fans’ reaction to the new record might be. “I think they will. I think they’ll be able to attach every single song to something in their lives. Maybe they’ll find a metaphor in there that suits them.” 

Right now, his focus is on preparing for this summer when he’ll head out on the festival circuit, getting his new songs out the door and playing them live for the very first time. “I’m just glad that I can still do it,” he declares. “Just happy to be here.” 

Buzzing with enthusiasm as he talks about adding additional musicians to his touring band and finding new ways to make his live performances sound bigger and better than ever, what we’ve heard and seen so far is only the beginning. 

“I’m going to get the chance to go and play in front of all these people, and I want to see what those songs do for them,” he enthuses of what the future holds. While an album tour has yet to be announced (he promises it is coming), the excitement he has to take these songs out on the road is insatiable. “You’ve got an opportunity to make people feel stuff,” he grins. “I think that’s so important as a musician.”

This is what music has always been about for him. As he releases ‘The Show’, his hopes are simply that when his fans listen to the record, these songs make them feel. For them, he wants the whole entire experience in all of its technicolour glory. As he sings on the album’s centrepiece and title track (a song he describes as “my baby, my pride and joy”), “hold tight, get ready for the ride.”

“That’s why we all love music. It makes us fucking… It moves us,” he enthuses. “That’s what I want. That’s what I want for my fans. That’s all I want. If you haven’t listened to me before, come listen to this one. Hopefully, you’ll join Team Lovers.” ■

Taken from the May 2023 edition of Dork. Niall Horan’s album ‘The Show’ is out 9th June.